If you're reading this letter...
Writing a farewell to her family in case of her death didn't come easily to Terri Judd. But she has since come to see the immense comfort these last words can bring
Half a bottle of Rioja down and things were not looking good. It was the eve of the invasion of Iraq and, as an embed with a frontline unit, I had been advised to follow the lead of generations of soldiers and write farewell letters in case of my death.
Yet, despite an hour of contemplation, I had yet to put pen to paper. It is a surreal feeling attempting to imagine what you would say if you were killed. In my case, all I could muster up were a few expletives and a sense of indignant self-pity.
In the end it was guilt that spurred me on; imagining my family and close friends and the trauma I would bring them with my demise, all because of my selfish desire to report on a conflict that few people could understand.
When I finally realised that the trick was to keep it simple and honest, the words tripped out. For some it must be the hardest letter they ever write yet I never felt ill-at-ease, perhaps because I did not have the courage to truly contemplate that these letters would see the light of day.
Instead it was rather cathartic to apologise to my younger brother for picking on him as a kid or to admit to my mother that much of her advice had proved eerily accurate. There was something refreshing about being able to tell them how much they meant to me without the usual British reserve.
But most of all it was an, undoubtedly futile, attempt from the grave to salve my conscience; to try to alleviate their pain with assurances that this was a path I had chosen; that they should celebrate, not mourn.
They were not particularly eloquent or poetic, just a brief goodbye, so it was with some shame that I watched Helena Tym open up her teenage son's final farewell.
Rifleman Cyrus Thatcher was just 19, serving with the 2nd Battalion, The Rifles, in Afghanistan, when an explosion cut his life short. Far from being a professional writer, he was a young infantryman who had not been a fan of school and was (amusingly, by his own written confession) an atrocious speller. Yet the pages of mature, thoughtful and unselfish prose he had carefully written to his parents and his two brothers put mine to shame.
"Hello its me, this is gonna be hard for you to read," it began. Watching Rob Thatcher and Helena haltingly reading out his words brought home the magnitude of what that letter meant, the incredible gift he had bestowed on them when he had patiently sat down and composed his thoughts.
The family had found the letter the day they came home from visiting him at the undertakers. Steely, his younger brother, discovered it tucked away for safe keeping.
"He came screaming down the stairs, saying: 'He wrote a letter, I found it,'" explained Ms Tym. "Steely read it and they sound so very similar. It could very well have been Cyrus reading it. I had goose bumps and was crying. The letter was so typical of him and he wrote the way he spoke. In a strange way it was comforting. We knew then that he absolutely knew how much we loved him; how much he meant to us. I was so proud of him for having written it. He was trying to give us permission to carry on, to say don't mourn me, celebrate a great life. Of course, we want to celebrate a great life but it is difficult when you are in such pain."
Each member of the family has reacted differently. Steely went on to read the letter repeatedly, every night he could not sleep, while his father and older brother Zac only once more. Ms Tym cannot reopen it.
"It is too difficult. I know what is in there, the sentiments are etched into our brains. But I can't bear to look at his writing." When The Independent reprinted Cyrus's letters, they had an incredible impact and were broadcast across the world. For his family it was the start of a very public journey and one that has led his mother to write a book, titled after his final parting words Chin Up, Head Down: A Mother's Journey of Madness and Grief. "It preserved him, in a way," she said. "At the end of the day it was all we could do for him. We couldn't do anything except keep his memory alive, in his words and by his own hand," she explained.
Lucy Aldridge, whose 18-year-old son William, was a member of the same regiment killed weeks later, never had the solace of those last words. He had assured her that he had written a letter, left with his will, but both were initially lost. When the will turned up, the letter was missing.
"I am absolutely devastated. I don't think I will ever get over it being lost. I know my son wrote one to his younger brothers and to me. It would have been the hardest thing he ever did. He put his heartfelt feelings into a letter and nobody thought it was something they needed to look after. It is something I have to live with," she said.
As a result Ms Aldridge recently gave a talk to young soldiers from the 3rd Battalion, The Yorkshire Regiment about the importance of writing down their farewells and storing them safely before they deploy. Two weeks ago, the regiment lost two more in Helmand. Lucy continues: "I can only do my bit and hope it saves another family the same heartache."
At 21, Rifleman Stewart Elliott wrote his final farewells before deploying to Helmand on a tour three years ago that would see a dozen members of his battalion killed.
"You kind of feel a responsibility to do it. I don't think everyone did it but quite a few of the blokes did. We accepted there was a good possibility that we would not come out. The bit that scares you most is the pain you are going to leave behind. You are trying to comfort them," he explains.
But it was hard to picture his own death: "It is a bit mad, you are trying to write something as if you are not there. It is hard. I tried to write a letter to be read out at my funeral. It is quite crazy picturing your funeral and everyone there reading it. It took me about 10 attempts and quite a few drafts. You keep going back to it and adding parts and scrapping parts. It took me two weeks. But there are things that are actually easier to write down than say in person. I have the sort of relationship with my dad where we don't say 'I love you'. It doesn't need to be said but I put it in the letter so he knew."
Rifleman Elliott did not tell his family, just his best friend Cyrus Thatcher, that he had left a letter.
"I think most parents are having a hard time (before their sons or daughters deploy), thinking the unthinkable. To say there is a letter waiting for you would be hard, so I kept it from my parents," he said,
Historian Sian Price, who collected farewell letters from soldiers dating from the Napoleonic Wars to Afghanistan for her book If You're Reading This… Last Letters From the Front Line, commented on the striking similarities, and equally differences, between the generations.
"The biggest constant through all the centuries, all different ranks, all different nationalities, was this message of love. It is quite an equalising force, whoever you are, in your last letter you want to tell someone 'I love you'. That has not changed at all.
"The biggest change that comes through is a change of motivation, of reason for going to war from one of fighting for King and country, for a noble cause, to one of doing a job you love but fighting for your comrades and friends."
Rifleman Elliott burned his letter when he returned from Helmand. Mine have remained in place through almost a decade of returning to Iraq and later Afghanistan.
And I will not destroy them. Life is strikingly fragile – an ordinary trip to work can end with a terrorist bomb; a holiday with a tsunami.
For mothers like Helena Tym, there can be few moments more gut-wrenching than reading your teenage child's last words. But, unlike a parent whose youngster is snatched away by a random car crash, she will always have written proof that he adored her so much that he took the time and effort to say goodbye.
'Chin Up, Head Down: A Mother's Journey of Madness and Grief' by Helena Tym (Firestep Press, £8.95) is available on Amazon or from Waterstones
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