Bereavement; power

Some tragedies touch a national chord, but it helps to be white, says Decca Aitkenhead
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When a gang of youths stabbed a member of the Lawrence family to death in an unprovoked attack on a London street, he died within minutes. It was a vicious, hate-filled attack, bleeding urban despair. It barely made the news.

Stephen Lawrence was a black schoolboy, killed by young white men shouting "nigger" while he stood at a bus stop. His family sought justice for three years; the private prosecution they brought finally collapsed last spring. The killers are free. There was no media clamour for a moral crusade, and Westminster's doors have not swung open for Stephen's grieving parents. It was all very sad, but in the end, we weren't that interested.

Today, there is much excitement about the potential for common good to come of private tragedy. Who better, we ask, than the victims of social decay, to show us the way forward? Frances Lawrence, the families of Dunblane - here are individuals uniquely qualified to tell us where we are going wrong. We imagine ourselves to be reading their unedited thoughts, in papers moved only by compassion and concern. We are comforted by the thought that, in our own small way, just by sharing in their personal grief we are helping them come to terms with loss. And the sooner we make the changes they appeal for through their tears, the sooner we can be reassured that their loved ones did not die in vain.

It is very, very difficult to depart in public from this view. Not so much the mourner at the wedding as the dry-eyed sceptic at the funeral, the dissenter invites the righteous outrage of the nation. Which should, perhaps, be reason enough itself to pause - and wonder at the wisdom of a power which lies beyond the reach of reason.

Bereavement power is not accorded to all victims. There are the deserving bereaved - such as Frances Lawrence - and the less deserving bereaved, such as Stephen Lawrence's family. Less deserving, because they are not so articulate, and their message does not so easily match the agenda of most newspapers. And because they are not so white. Bereavement power looks a whole lot less democratic when it is rationed by editors with an eye to tomorrow's circulation.

It might not be quite as cathartic as we like to think, either. The need for families to vent their rage and make sense of random tragedy is clear. What happens to them when the press gets bored and move on, like ambulance chasers, to the next hot story, is less so. And how, then, do the bereaved themselves ever move on, when their name is filed in every Fleet Street contact book, as the one to call each time their brand of tragedy hits the headlines again?

WHEN Nobantu Zani, a 15-year-old from Bradford, was found strangled on the moors last year, her school had not seen her for some 10 or 12 weeks, she was a regular face in Bradford's red light district and was suspected by the local authorities of being involved in the city's child prostitution trade. Yet the media seemed strangely unconcerned to mount a campaign about any of this; instead, local papers pointed a nasty finger at her "neglectful" mother, a poor, black widowed immigrant from Africa.

"I knew Nobantu was out of control," a grieving Mercy Zani-Merriman said. "I had begged the council to take her into care, but they said it wasn't possible, in the current economic climate. And then the papers started blaming me, before Nobantu was even buried. I just can't understand it."

The campaign by Stephen Lawrence's parents to bring his killers to justice was calmly reported in the press. We read all about the accused's racism: "I'm going to kill every nigger, black c***, Paki and coon," hissed one. But as the case collapsed, there was no swell of media anti-racist rage, no clarion call for a crusade. When friends and family had demonstrated against Stephen's murder, the Daily Mail accused "anti-racist militants" of "hijacking" this "human tragedy".

Likewise, after riots broke out in Brixton last year, sparked by the death of Wayne Douglas in a police cell, we heard a lot about the simmering fury of inner-city lawlessness but rather less about the rise of black deaths in custody. (The black newspaper, the Voice, wrote angrily about it - and was accused of stoking the flames of racial unrest.) Nor have the families of the men burnt alive in a Soho porn cinema, because the fire doors had been nailed shut, been encouraged to campaign against such dangers. They were not what might be called the deserving bereaved.

"I have no doubt," reflects Jayne Zito, whose husband Jonathon's murder by a schizophrenic prompted her public campaign against care in the community, "that the fact that Jonathon was good-looking, that we'd been married just three months, that the personalities were attractive and sympathetic, made the press interested in me." Mrs Zito is blonde, pretty, poised and articulate.

"I don't want to be too cynical, but I've met dozens of families who've been through exactly the same thing. And the press just weren't interested."

Diana Lamplugh is another attractive middle-class woman. Her daughter Suzy disappeared 10 years ago and her agenda - women's personal safety - is unproblematic. Colin Parry lost his son in the IRA Warrington bomb; Granada television subsequently gave him a chat show, commenting that the press conferences he gave "were the most horrific screen test you could have. His ease in front of the camera was there for all to see."

The tearful press conference appeal is instructive. We are told it is invaluable in helping police to track down the perpetrators; this may be true. But it certainly makes gripping viewing. Raw emotion is disturbingly compelling - and, once the media has given its sanction to a family's grief, it is keen to wring it out for all it is worth.

To champion a cause is to contrive a steady supply of new stories: "Tragic widow battles on"; "Grieving parents fight for justice". Not every campaign is media-led, and Frances Lawrence is clearly a self-possessed individual. But the part the papers often play, co-opting vulnerable mourners into their sensationalist agenda, is anything but disinterested.

"HAD I gone down the conventional route - if Tim had been killed in a car crash - and grieved silently, turning in on myself, I think I would have gone insane." Thus Colin Parry confirms our belief that public grieving and campaigning "makes some sense of what happened to our lives". It is, we are reassured, at least an affirmative catharsis.

Other comments Mr Parry has made are more troubling. When the media spotlight moved on, he says he felt "lost". Taking part in a Panorama programme, then publishing a book, he felt "shored up again". But after the promotional tour was over, "it was like post-holiday blues".

"After the bomb, life as a personnel manager didn't fulfil me. I didn't get enough buzz out of just doing the job." He missed, he said, the "surge of adrenalin" which media exposure brought. His chat show series now over, he said he "would be lying if I didn't say I'd like them to offer me something else". People in Warrington have accused him of cashing in on his son's death.

The trouble is, we want heroes - but aren't so keen on them when they get too good at it. It is their very ordinariness that touches us, but if - as, inevitably, they will - they start to look a bit too media-savvy for our liking, sympathy soon sours.

Gordon Wilson's appeal for peace after his daughter died in the Enniskillen bombing was profoundly affecting; when he joined the Irish Senate in Dublin, fellow Protestants soon started taking pot shots at his halo. His futile meeting with the IRA was described, at best, as forlorn, at worst, foolhardy.

"I drove home that evening and cried, because I truly felt I'd let so many people down," he later said. "Some called me naive, and said I was made a fool of. And maybe they were right." Mr Wilson continued to work for peace, making the weekly journeys to Dublin. He died of a heart attack last year. "Without a doubt, his work killed him," his widow said. "We all told him, but it was as if he thought it best to burn out."

The bereaved may draw strength, in the immediate aftermath, from public recognition. In the long run, the benefits are clearly questionable.

"Supposing you want to stop being defined as the parent of a murdered child, but there you are, stuck in that public role," warns Liz Friedrich, a counsellor who has worked with bereavement. "Immediately after a disaster, you are on some kind of high. You can take on enormous projects. But at some point, you have to fall off. Guilt over the disloyalty of letting go is hard enough, without being trapped, publicly, in that project."

Jayne Zito withdrew last summer from the Zito Trust, which she set up. "It was a difficult decision, but to be honest, it was a relief to walk out that door." She hopes the media will respect her decision. We can be fairly certain that, should Diane Blood, battling to bear her late husband's baby, ever meet another man and want to have his child, the press will not be far behind.

FRANCES Lawrence's first concern at this time, one imagines, is to grieve for her husband. She clearly feels that her moral crusade, driven on by a political stampede, is an important piece of that process. That is her right. Whether it is right for the country is another question.

"As the father of Emma, who was killed at Dunblane, I am well qualified to comment on the benefits of a total ban on all handguns," one parent said in a letter to a newspaper last week. Disinterested, where politicians are self-serving, yet informed by experience in a manner no MP can be, these victims rightly lay claim to a unique perspective. That does not necessarily make them uniquely qualified, however, to comment.

An LSD user, at the height of hallucination, often believes himself to be privy to uncommon clarity; we know it is not so. So why do we suspend judgement when we are faced with grief?

"Grief, like love, is a kind of madness," Liz Friedrich says. "The intensity transforms the world for you. It often distorts and deceives. The bereaved have very, very intense feelings but they do not have special insights into the world outside.

"We respond to people who are grief-stricken with a feeling of inadequacy, guilt maybe, so we pay attention and give them this power. We feel helpless, and that's why we give them such credence."

And how far are we prepared to take this? When relatives of murder victims, at the height of their anguish, rage that the murderer should be strung up and shot, we sympathise, and say we understand. We have not yet taken this as the final word on the wisdom of the death penalty.

Yet when Diane Blood took her case to the High Court last week, the judge hinted that the law might now be reconsidered. These are profoundly complex principles of life and death to be swayed by the personal, albeit remarkable and moving, circumstances of one case.

Frances Lawrence's appeal may indeed, as John Major claimed, have "touched a chord" with the nation. But when the Queen's Speech itself looked hastily rewritten, to echo a widow's sentiment as edited by newspapers, this is not so much bereavement power as bereavement tyranny. And nobody dares to dissent.

The thoughts of raging families, blind with grief, manipulated by the media - this is shaky ground indeed on which to build a new Jerusalem. The bereaved may seem to us the best-placed people to judge what must be done. They are quite possibly the worst.