For families left behind, the pain goes on: After a child's life is taken, the parents' grief is compounded by extra horrors, such as terrible imaginings and struggles with officialdom. Angela Neustatter reports

'On the worst days I get panic attacks when it really hits me that I will never see Paul again. Then I want to go to the cemetery, dig him up and cradle him in my arms.' The emotion is close to the surface, cracking the voice just a little, as Julie Pearson talks of her daily struggle, waking up and going to sleep thinking of Paul, and with the memories of him, chatting, driving her mad on occasions, making her laugh, giving her a goodnight kiss, always there.

It was 18 months ago that seven- year-old Paul was dragged into a hen hut, sexually assaulted and strangled, and his mother talks now of how she and her husband have got through the past year and a half attempting to make sense of lives desecrated by the murder, struggling each day to believe in a future for themselves and their other children.

The sense of rage and impotence at being part of a society that can no longer protect its defenceless young is felt by just about every parent in the country in the wake of James Bulger's death, but ultimately the only people who can offer true understanding, and perhaps some guidance on how to endure the weeks and months ahead, are those who have suffered in the same way. As a spokeswoman for the support organisation Parents of Murdered Children puts it: 'Losing a child in any circumstances is dreadful, but losing your child at the hands of somebody who has chosen to take its life is terrible in a particular way which I do not believe anyone who has not been through this, however compassionate, can truly appreciate.'

The news of James's death and a sense of what his parents must be going through brings the recollections to Mrs Pearson: 'In the first days after we heard we were stunned, scarcely able to take in what had happened, that it could be true, and I am sure that is how James's parents will be feeling now and I can feel their suffering. Those days when life had no sense at all, giving statements, talking to people, somehow trying to cope with the daily needs of my other children, but feeling that everything had gone, that nothing could ever be right again.

'I was very pleased to see that the Bulgers have a female police officer because we had - have - one who was quite simply salvation. She gave us professional expertise, which we needed, but also amazing care and compassion as a woman. She seemed really to be interested in hearing me talk about Paul and she has stayed in contact ever since.

'We have also had great comfort from the community. I don't know what I would have done without the support of the neighbours who listened, gave time, helped us with getting the funeral organised, and just showed how much they cared. It seems clear that the Bulgers' community is doing the same and I do hope they feel able to take that love.

'But we also had to go out and make the effort with people who knew us less well. I don't know whether it is embarrassment or what, but some people avoid you or look away when they see you. I found at Paul's school, when I took the other children, I had to go up to parents and say: 'It's all right, you can talk to me.' They were usually wonderful.

'We also had about 200 letters and cards of support and I found that a comfort, the feeling that the world cared about Paul.

'Because James's mother was with him when he was taken it is natural the focus is on her, but that is how it tends to be anyway. But fathers suffer equally. Paul's dad has gone on recriminating himself, as head of the family, because he feels somehow he should have been able to make things right.

'We grieve differently, and this may be true for the Bulgers. It seems that mothers often want to talk a lot, and I found it helpful and comforting to talk and talk about Paul with close friends who were prepared to let me do that, whereas my husband just wanted to try to block out the pain. With a tragedy of this scale, where you are full of every emotion from raging fury to deepest despair, it may not be possible to comfort or be comforted by your partner, even though they are the person you love most, and it is important to accept that in due course it will be possible to get closer and talk about your feelings.

'The thing that makes me angriest is that we have never learnt what happened in Paul's last hours. It is like the missing parts of a jigsaw puzzle. The murderer chose to say nothing in court so we have had to imagine, and that is terrible. I believe the imaginings are worse than even the worst truth can be and I believe murderers should be forced to tell these things. They owe that to us parents at least, and it seems the law has more concern for their rights than for ours.

'I hope the police will do everything they can to get James's parents those parts of the puzzle. People think you want to be protected but you really want to be as close to the lost child as possible and you want to try to feel that last time with him or her.'

Lesley Moreland and her husband Vic's 23-year-old daughter Ruth was stabbed to death by a young man who got into her flat, and they, too, have suffered from his refusal to talk, to fill in those vital details. The murder of James has reawakened Lesley's memories with a particular poignancy, as she has a two-year-old grandson.

She says: 'The police were shocked when I said I wanted to see the body because Ruth was in such a bad way, but it is very important, however traumatic, as a way of saying goodbye, and I hope the police will make it simple for the Bulgers if they want to see James. Even if they just see a hand and can kiss it goodbye, it enables them to recognise that he really is gone and it is vital to do this.

'One of the hardest things is waiting for the post-mortem to be done and not knowing when there may be a funeral, because the defence, if someone is being charged, can ask for an independent post- mortem. I had to battle to see the post- mortem report before it went to court, but I couldn't bear the idea of hearing it there for the first time.'

Mrs Moreland recalls the sense of bewilderment she felt when the police told her who they had arrested. She says: 'I kept thinking, 'But I don't know anything about him,' and that torments me still - not knowing what kind of person he is or anything about him.

'The weeks immediately after are so very hard. I remember being in Sainsbury's and a bottle shattered as I put it on the moving belt at the cashier's till. It seemed so prophetic, I just stood there shaking and crying.

'I hope nobody will be insensitive enough to say to James's parents, 'Never mind,' as someone did to me, or suggest that having another child would make it better. I remember someone saying to me that my grandchild must have made up for Ruth. But no matter how much you love another child, it can never make up for the lost one.

'I talk about Ruth a lot and look at her photos a great deal. It's very hard imagining what their future might have been like and the anger and pain can rise up then, but I try hard to concentrate on keeping alive a picture of the child I loved and all her wonderful enthusiasm and the joy she brought people. It seems James was a very loved little boy so I hope his parents will feel able to do this too, if it is a comfort to them.'

The Victim Support group has counsellors trained in helping those who have endured a murder in the family. Last year 500 families out of 716 bereaved through murder sought its help. The group is also concerned that the official procedures should be made as painless as possible.

Last year researchers at Liverpool University interviewed 80 people on the impact of a murder on the family. They found that the way the person died preoccupied all the families and that three- quarters of them felt that they had not been given clear information. The same number said that when vague descriptions were given, they believed their imaginings were worse than knowing the true facts, however bad.

A number of families learnt of the death through the media, which was particularly harrowing. Only one person reported a positive experience with the press. People wanted a choice as to whether they or some other relative identified the body. About a quarter of families found it very hard that the place of murder was sealed off and they were not allowed to visit.

People deal with their anguish in different ways, but Mrs Pearson believes the Bulgers should accept all the counselling they are offered. 'You feel so depressed and broken there may seem no point, but it was a great help to our family. I also found joining a group of parents who had also had a child murdered was helpful. In the end they are the only people who can truly understand the particular type of pain.

'At times the struggle seems endless and it would be foolish to say it will all be over soon, because it will never be over. But it does become more possible to put the pain in one place and bring out the good and happy memories of your lost child.'

Mrs Moreland adds her own words of hope: 'There will probably always be days when it all seems unbearable, but I am now able to get some pleasure out of life and I do believe the healing process is, slowly, taking place.'

For the first time since the murder, the Pearsons are looking forward to something. They are going on a trip to Florida. Mrs Pearson says: 'We get enthusiastic with the children and that is a step forward, an important one, but then I suddenly get caught thinking how much Paul would have liked to see Mickey Mouse.'

Victim Support: 071-735 9166;

Parents of Murdered Children: 0708 640400.

(Photograph omitted)

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