`I know I will never recover'

It is every parent's nightmare to lose a child. Genevieve Jurgensen lost two in a car crash. How did she cope?
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The Independent Culture
The French newspaper headline is brutally informative: 50 people die on roads in France on New Year's Eve, it says. Genevieve Jurgensen, a 52-year-old journalist and author, rolls her eyes heavenwards. A poised, well dressed woman, sitting in her elegant high-ceilinged apartment in Paris, she's all too familiar with the statistics. Nineteen years ago her daughters, Mathilde and Elise, were killed on a French road. They were seven and four. They lost their lives before they'd lost more than two milk teeth.

In Britain there are 3,500 deaths on the roads annually. In France the figure is 9,000. Genevieve Jurgensen knows precisely how the families of the new year fatalities will be feeling. For them there will be, she says, with a sad shrug of her shoulders, "hell and flames".

Eleven years after her daughters died, Genevieve Jurgensen started writing a book about Mathilde and Elise and how she and her husband, Laurent, survived their deaths. Lucid, moving and beautifully written, The Disappearance was a best-seller in France and has just been published in Britain.

She smiles, and says she would prefer to talk about something else. "I love to laugh," she says, "I am, naturally, a happy person. I'd much rather talk about Shakespeare and poetry. But now I know - and perhaps it took writing this book to admit it - that whatever happens to me is related to my children's deaths. I have abandoned the idea that one day I will recover. This is now how I understand life."

On 30 April 1980 her daughters were being driven to see their paternal grandmother by Genevieve's sister-in-law and her husband, Aline and Christian. The couple's baby sat between the two sisters in the back seat. A 22-year- old Belgian, who had been drinking, overtook them and rammed into the side of the car. Aline controlled the vehicle and brought it to a halt on the hard shoulder, only to find that the collision had catapulted Mathilde and Elise out of the open window. They were already dead when Christian found them, 10 metres apart on the tarmac.

That night when the telephone rang their mother thought nothing of it. She was absent-mindedly glancing at herself in the mirror when she heard that her two children, her only children, had been killed. Softly she shut the girls' bedroom door. No one expects their children to die before they do. Least of all do parents expect to have their whole family wiped out. "My first thought was, this is beyond human strength," she says now. "This is beyond what I can face."

People said that one day she would write about it, but for 10 years she was "repulsed" by the idea. "Writing would have been a way of mastering the pain and I didn't want that. I loved them so much I didn't want the pain to fade."

But in 1991, when a friend who hadn't met her daughters asked her about them, she sensed in him a humanity to which she responded. They agreed that she should write him letters about the lives of Mathilde and Elise, the things they said, how their characters were beginning to form, the way she buttoned up their red and blue raincoats on the day she saw them for the last time. Letters, too, about their deaths, and about the "hell and flames" that came afterwards. She wrote the letters when she felt like it, in longhand and on whatever notepaper came to hand. Her friend did not reply but he treasured each one and when, two years later, he remarked that they had begun to sound more like a diary than an exploration of mourning, they decided that it was time to stop. These letters became the basis for her book.

Almost a year to the day after the tragedy - with "unspeakable luck" as she puts it - she gave birth to her third daughter, Elvire. Later another child came along, a boy. Elvire is 17 now; her brother, Gauthier, is 14. Without them it is too awful to speculate where Genevieve would be today. With them, she is remarkably articulate on life touched by death.

"The first year is the worst," she says. "You go through each of the four seasons remembering what you were doing the year before." She saw her children's faces wherever she went. She would bellow Mathilde's name just to hear the very sound of it again. She would look at teenagers in wonderment and ask herself how their mothers had been able to keep them alive.

Feverishly, she says, she read every letter of condolence. For people who were too embarrassed to approach the couple, she has only scorn. The parent of one of her daughter's classmates would stand behind her in the queue at the baker's but never spoke to her again - "It was more important for her not to look foolish than to go out to a mother who no longer had any children." It still angers her.

Robbed of their roles as mother and father, the Jurgensens discovered that they now needed to be parented. "We relied on friends, who would say, `You're coming with us to the theatre tonight'. Or, `No, you can't go home alone'." One of the worst aspects was the feeling that people put them on a pedestal. "We were like statues, honoured for our bravery. Yet we felt so alone. We needed people to be themselves and yet they could not be."

Faced with such devastation many relationships would have collapsed, but the marriage has remained strong. Laurent and Genevieve met in their early twenties - "It was love at first sight" - and it was the desperate desire to return to the happiness they had known with their young family that sustained them in the early Eighties. "Both of us were conscious that we would have preferred it if one of us had died rather than the girls... But we had been very happy, and happy people are better equipped to start again. We were desperate to have children and find the same happiness again. Making love when you want another child is close to instinct. We would turn to each other frantically, clinging to one another."

Genevieve needs people to know what she is feeling, whether she is happy or sad. Laurent, an architect, is more private (though pleased that his daughters were being remembered by his wife's book he was acutely apprehensive about the exposure). But they instinctively agreed about the way to mourn - "without restraint" as she puts it - and this bond sustained them. "Although you have to remember that your sorrow is not the only one. You live with someone who is sad too."

She is still lost for words to describe her feelings about the man who drove the car that caused the accident. He was fined, but allowed to keep his licence. In 1983 Genevieve set up a pressure group with another mother who had lost her daughter in a traffic accident. Drink-driving and speeding are part of the culture on the roads in France but the campaign has been instrumental in reducing fatalities from 13,000 a year to the current figures. She took part in every debate about "la violence routiere" (road violence) - a phrase that the charity invented, and which has become part of the French language. In 1992 she had a private meeting with President Mitterrand to instigate a points system on French driving licences. The nation's truck-drivers went on strike in protest, but a law was finally passed. The group also won a campaign to lower the allowable levels of alcohol in blood.

Nearly 20 years on, Genevieve worries about the effect of the deaths on her two living children. Looking back on Elvire's early life she believes that although she saved her sanity, it was too soon to have another child. "For months I was in another world still." It wasn't until Gauthier came along that she began to recover.

If Mathilde, the eldest, had lived she'd be 26 now. Sometimes her mother imagines what her life would have been like. She'd have met a man she loved by now, she thinks, just as Genevieve did. Perhaps she'd be getting married. She watches her friends preparing for their daughters' weddings and wonders what it would have been like for her. "I think Elvire feels a pressure to accomplish the good things in life for three girls - herself and her two sisters. I apologise. But I this is the mother she has. She can't change it."

Gauthier started reading his mother's book but put it down after three pages. "He said it was just too sad." Elvire has read it, and set up a young person's version of Genevieve's pressure group. Is she proud? "Proud, but annoyed too," she says. "We've given enough. I would like to move on."

And indeed, every time a new day dawns their lives do move on. But it's difficult. Four years ago they moved across the Seine to their apartment near the Eiffel Tower. It was a wrench. "Every tree, every corner, every person who knew me knew my children too. Now I have no reminders." Thirteen months ago Genevieve's mother died, and with her another link with the past.

She expects that in about five years' time Gauthier will leave home and then she and Laurent will be alone again. "I worry that it is then that my older children will come back into my memory," she says. "I still miss them, but I am no longer sure what I miss. It was all so long ago and they were so young.

"I feel as though someone is faintly crying inside me. In a way my life is waiting for the day when I can meet them again. When I die I can take my place beside them.

"I do have a happy life, however gross it seems to say it. But if I went back to being 15 again and someone said, this is the deal: You will have two children; you will lose them; you will have a happy life afterwards - I'd have said `No thank you. Keep it all'."

`The Disappearance' (Flamingo, pounds 12.99). Genevieve Jurgensen will speak at the French Institute, 17 Queensberry Place, London SW7, 19 Jan at 6.30pm. Free

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