How do you live with the death of a child?

After the death of a child, how best can bereaved parents move on with their lives?
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
"I WANT to make sure something is done so that children are properly screened in the future." Grahame Livingstone, father of 21-month-old Michael, who died of undetected heart failure on Sunday, has one way of coping with his little boy's death: he needs to make sure that it will not happen again.

Why? What happened? Could I have prevented it? Who is to blame? These are some of the questions that people ask when they are bereaved, and often they cannot rest until they find the answers.

Ten years after Julie Ward's death, a Kenyan gamekeeper has been charged with her murder. Her father, John, can finally say: "Now, at last, I can get on with my life." But why did he need this? After all, his daughter will never come back. What has been the point of spending the 10 years, a quarter of a million pounds and 80 trips to Kenya to discover her murderer?

Julie's mother explains: "I desperately want to know what happened and why. It is only when you know these answers that you can understand and accept it. This is not about punishment. It is about finding out why this happened."

Answering the question "why" is the reason that Caroline Dickinson's father will never rest until he has tracked down the murderer of his daughter, in France. "I have got to move forward," he says. "My main priority is that the murderer is found, and to ensure that safety in hostels is improved."

The parents of Stephen Lawrence have moved heaven and earth to find answers. They did not get any at the recent public inquiry but they found some relief from seeing the faces of the people they believe murdered their son, and hearing the witnesses to Stephen's death.

Knowledge is comforting since however bad it is, however gruesome, nothing can be worse that what your imagination can produce if you let it ramble. Knowledge about what happened helps to lay a person to rest. Knowledge usually brings home the fact that the death was inevitable; there was nothing anyone could have done to prevent it happening. Knowledge of what occurred is a victory over feelings of guilt - an emotion that nearly always features strongly after the death of a loved one.

Then there is anger. Parents of children who die in hospital sometimes rage against doctors, who have often given their very best service to save them. Or they rail against tiny things, such as the nurse forgetting to put sugar in their tea. They need someone on whom to focus their anger. Discovering who killed their loved ones is a way of getting revenge. Ernest Peters, whose wife Wendy died of peritonitis after her bowel was pierced during an operation, was offered pounds 195,000 in compensation. But compensation wasn't what his distress was about. "When she died, I wanted to pin someone to the wall," Mr Peters has said. "Solicitors do not think in those terms. For them, it just boils down to the settlement figure. They weren't interested in investigating the causes. Everyone needs to have a look at what is going on so that it doesn't happen again. I want someone hauled over the coals."

John and May MacGalliard got pounds 50,000 when their daughter Lorraine died from septic shock after a series of blunders by doctors who failed to realise that she had an ovarian cyst. "This was not about money," they said. "Those doctors ignored a girl in pain. We wanted to go to court to get the truth." And Margaret Connor, whose daughter Janine died during an operation to have her ears pinned back, said: "They've offered us a settlement, but we don't want it. We want our day in court. We just want answers."

Finding out what happened can often result in steps being taken to ensure that it does not happen again. In this way, the parents can feel that their child didn't die in vain - that the child's short life did achieve something, even though he or she did not live long enough to achieve anything in adulthood..

Anthony Misiolek lost his daughter in the M40 minibus crash; she died partly because there were no seat-belts fitted in the minibus. He has devoted much time to trying to tighten up the laws on seat-belts. Suzy Lamplugh's mother Diana set up a trust in her daughter's name to help protect women against predatory strangers, and Colin Parry, whose son Tim was killed in an IRA bomb blast, has since lectured on peace in Northern Ireland.

Getting to the bottom of things is also a way of continuing to look after a child, even after he or she is dead. When your child is bullied at school, you speak to the head teacher, or confront the bully in the playground. If you did nothing, you would be failing your child. Finding out who killed your son or daughter and bringing them to justice is the final, saddest, act of parenting.

Comments