Guilt, however unpleasant, is a welcome diversion from the devastating powerlessness
Parents must have felt that their children would be safe at the crche in Oklahoma. Now they will be torturing themselves, says Virginia Ironside

Everyone who has lost a friend or relative in the Oklahoma bombing will feel their own sense of dreadful loss; but what loss could be worse than that suffered by the parents whose children died there, in care?

What kind of care was it that resulted in 30 children between the ages of one and seven being blown to smithereens? No doubt this particular care had been chosen with care. The parents had looked at other places of safety for their children, considered other options. But this, the crche in the nine-storey Alfred Murrah Building, seemed absolutely the best place for their child.

The first thing most of these parents will feel is guilt - for guilt, however unpleasant, is a welcome diversion from the devastating feelings of powerlessness that overcome the bereaved.

Painfully, completely irrationally, and yet inevitably, the Oklahoma parents will be thinking to themselves: "I should have known. What kind of parent am I not to have realised that the Murrah Building was a natural target for terrorist attack?" With no possible hint of what was to happen, these parents will nevertheless torture themselves for not having had psychic insights into the future.

And if any parent that morning had perhaps thought twice about whether to deliver the child to the day centre (perhaps he or she complained of a tummy ache), the fact that, despite the "warning", the child was delivered and killed, will torment them - completely unreasonably, of course - for ever.

When Anthony Misiolek lost his daughter in the M40 minibus crash last year, whom did he blame? Himself, partly. One of the reasons she died was because there were no seat-belts in the bus. Later Mr Misiolek said: "I should have delved into how my daughter was travelling, seen that it was really top-mark. But I didn't." As if anyone in their right mind "delves into" how their daughter travels. But this is how the mind of the parent, bereaved by disaster, works.

Then there will be the parents' anger. Anger at the government, at the terrorist group, at God, and, worst, at each other.

After the death of her daughter from meningitis, Kate Ward wrote that sudden quarrels and rage flashed between her husband and herself, "as the undertaker - who arranged my daughter's funeral free because he, too, had lost a daughter - told us it would. This is normal. Grief is an enraging business. It leads to misunderstanding, and splits many couples apart unless they are prepared for it."

The death of a child means the death of so much more than the death of an adult. The parents lose their role as parents of that child, they lose part of their own future - grandchildren, the promise that the child held, its future achievements. They lose faith in themselves as protectors, and in the case of the Oklahoma parents they will bear the added agony of empathising with the feelings of the child as it was killed, making their own torment a hundred times worse.

They will imagine their child screaming with pain, crushed by masonry or suffocating from smoke fumes, calling and calling for its mother and father as it died. They will feel, on the child's behalf, the sense of betrayal they imagine it felt when it died in pain, alone. Whether this is an accurate scenario or not is not the point; they will feel it, to punish themselves, as if it were true.

In order to keep the child alive in their heads, they may, like Wendy and Colin Parry, whose son Tim died at the hands of the IRA, keep a room set aside full of his memorabilia. "I want a room full of warm and happy memories of our son," says Colin Parry. "I will never let go of the tangible things. I find myself clutching his clothes to my face and I can still smell him. I feel his presence there very strongly."

What of the other children, the survivors in the family? They, too, will grieve. And they can't fail to be affected by the new place they now occupy within the family. Some parents will, at some subconscious level, resent them for surviving.

The other children may feel guilty at being the ones who lived while their brother or sister died. Their parents may become overprotective or, worse, try to make one of them take the place of the dead sibling.

Child survivors of great disasters can also be the target of hatred from the parents of other children who died. One of the survivors of the Aberfan disaster, who happened to have a hospital appointment at the time of the coal-slide, became, together with his parents, the victimof a vitriolic campaign.

True, the Oklahoma parents will have each other. They are all in this together. But, sadly, what usually happens is that they will be just as likely to use each other as emotional punchbags as comforters during their grief.

They'll have counselling, by the basinful. Being Americans, they might even get financial compensation. But to imagine that even hours of skilful counselling or millions of dollars can make anything but the tiniest dent upon that hurt would be to diminish their agony completely.

Comments