The day death knocked at the door

War on Terrorism: As the war in Afghanistan intensifies, so, for the families of British troops, the spectre of bereavement looms. Julia Stuart meets three women who have already faced that nightmare
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The first thing you notice as you enter Rita Restorick's sitting room is a tall, glass display cabinet. Carefully positioned on the shelves is an intimate collection of momentoes of her son, Stephen, the last British soldier killed by the IRA. The Union Flag that was draped over his coffin is now carefully folded underneath his cap. Towards the back of another shelf is a glass tankard, bought to celebrate his 21st birthday. There's a plaited bracelet – the type you buy on holiday – bearing his name, which Mrs Restorick found when clearing out his bedroom. The white crocheted cross, she says, was sent to her by a woman from Bessbrook, South Armagh, the town where Stephen, 23, a lance bombardier with the Royal Horse Artillery, was shot dead by a sniper as he manned a checkpoint. The sprig of rosemary, she explains, is for remembrance.

In February 1997, a policeman and an Army official knocked at the family home. "I wondered why they hadn't rung the door bell," remembers Mrs Restorick, 53, whose elder son Mark, 31, was also at home. "They checked who I was, and the policeman said it was about Stephen. I asked whether he had been injured, and he said: 'Can you sit down, please?' I knew what was coming. I just went into shock. I just said, 'It's not true.' You think things like that don't happen to ordinary families like us.

"The next day it was in all the newspapers and I was reading Stephen's name, and it still didn't seem true. I was almost reading it and reading it to try and make it sink in."

Mrs Restorick, who lives in Underwood, Nottinghamshire, with her husband John, 56, a sheet-metal worker, says the fact that her son was a soldier didn't make her loss any easier. "You always hope that despite the dangers, it won't be him. I think also, to a certain extent, there's the stiff upper lip where the Army is concerned. They have to move on, and you're left as a family to pick up the pieces.

"It's not an exaggeration to say that, for me, it was like having my heart ripped out. There are many days when you carry on because the rest of your family need you," she says, her voice choked with tears. "But, at the same time, there's many a day when you don't want to carry on.

"For two years you just exist from day to day, and that's all you can do. It affects your every day. Even now, I wake up in the morning and I haven't got any feeling of 'another day, I'll do this, I'll do that'. I have to force myself to get up and do things. I still haven't got any enthusiasm. I do things because they have do be done," she says, wiping away her tears. "When you do start to find enjoyment in life again, you feel guilty that you can laugh again."

It is anger, she says, that keeps her going. Last year, Bernard McGinn, who was convicted of Stephen's murder in 1999, had his conviction quashed by Belfast's Court of Appeal on a technicality. She is lobbying the Ministry of Defence for some kind of official recognition that her son lost his life.

Despite her personal grief, Mrs Restorick believes that military action is necessary following the atrocities of 11 September. "I wouldn't want my loss to be used by anybody to say that we shouldn't do what needs to be done at the moment," she says.

What would she say to other British parents whose offspring become involved in conflict? "Just get on with your day-to-day life as normal, because that's what you have to do, and hope and pray that your son does come back to you."

When, in May 1982, Sara Jones opened her door to an Army colonel, she assumed he had come to take her to console a bereaved wife, a duty which, as the wife of a commanding officer, would have fallen to her. Instead, Mrs Jones was informed that her own husband, "H", was dead. "You don't appreciate the full horror of what's happened to you," says Mrs Jones, who lives near Salisbury. "You only take in as much as you can to begin with. It takes months to realise absolutely that somebody's dead. There's a little bit of you that keeps thinking that maybe they'll return."

Lt Col H Jones, 42, the commander of the 2nd Battalion of the Parachute Regiment, was shot from behind while storming a trench in the Falklands War. Posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, he was one of 255 British servicemen to die in the conflict. Mrs Jones was 41; their children, Rupert and David, were 13 and 16.

How did she break the news to her sons? "I just told them. What else can you do? You can't clothe it in nice words." At the time the boys were home on half-term, and returned to boarding school shortly afterwards, as Rupert was about to sit his Common Entrance exam, and David his O-levels. Mrs Jones now wonders whether she comforted them sufficiently. "I look back now and wonder whether I did it well enough. Now, I suppose, people would say boys should be encouraged to cry as much as they can, but probably even 20 years ago people had to have a stiff upper lip and be very British about things."

She, too, "just got on with it". "Losing a husband is earth-shattering. You sink or swim. I was quite lucky, because I had two sons, and therefore I had to keep going for my children. I have a very good family, and we've always been very close. And, at the time, the Great British public were marvellous, they were very supportive. All of that makes you feel, damn it, not for myself but for them, you're going to put your best foot forward."

The fact that her husband died in combat gave her a sliver of comfort. "You're never prepared for someone to die, but in the back of your mind there is the implication that by having somebody who is in the services, you are accepting the fact that they are in a dangerous profession. It makes it easier on the level that they were doing something that they loved doing.

"People say, isn't it marvellous to have the Victoria Cross. Of course it is, but it doesn't bring your husband back."

Despite her pain, she supported her sons' decision to join the Army. In 1995, she was awarded a CBE for her subsequent work with service charities. A magistrate, she continues to work with for the Falkland Families Association and is chairwoman of the Poppy Factory.

Mrs Jones says she has "a real fellow feeling" for the relatives of British service people involved in Afghanistan. "These are terribly anxious times for them. You're on tenterhooks and worrying yourself sick, and praying they'll come home safe. Some people probably can't sleep, and their worst fears are in the dark hours of the night."

She says she will never get over losing her husband. "Like any ghastly event it becomes part of you, you learn to live with it, but it doesn't mean that you accept it. Even though he's no longer here, he's still part of our lives."

When a colonel knocked on Elaine and Patrick McFadden's door one morning in February 1991, it had just been announced on the news that the Iraqis had surrendered in the Gulf war. However, their son Jason, 19, a driver with the Royal Corps of Transport, had been killed in an explosion at 2.30 that morning. He was one of 47 British servicemen who lost their lives during the war.

"I woke up at 2.30, the bond with my son was that close that I knew he had gone," says Mrs McFadden, 53, from Coventry. "I can't remember what the colonel said because I already knew. It just goes over your head. It just does not sink in."

Mrs McFadden has coped better than her daughter, Rebecca, 25, and husband, a 53-year-old painter and decorator. "The last couple of years, Rebecca's been really ill. It takes quite a while for it to come out sometimes. Her dad was also very ill. It took two or three years before he finally broke. He had a breakdown, and didn't know one day from the next."

She doesn't know how she has coped. "I'm really quite strong, and I had no choice. If one of you is weak, one of you has to be strong. I think I can cope because I know that I did everything I could for him, because he was my mate, he was my best friend. I dream about him a lot. Sometimes I just sit and cry, but I'm all right after that. I miss him. I think I will always."

Is it any comfort that died for his country? "We have this disagreement with people. The Kuwaiti people are lovely, but they're not our people," she says, adding that the pain would be the same however he had died. She regrets that Saddam Hussein was not killed. "I would shoot him, I would start at his feet and work my way up. I would feel no remorse." Her pain has not lessened over the years. "I'm so jealous of people who have got a son. But they'd be jealous of me if they knew my son, because he was so wonderful."

She is desperately hoping that ground troops won't be sent in to Afghanistan, but she understands that action is needed. What advice would she offer relatives of soldiers? "You've just got to be strong and pray that nothing happens. Think that you will see them again."