Deborah Orr: Why do we feel such sorrow?

'In a real way the expressions of grief for Jennifer Jane are expressions of grief for all the lost babies in the land'
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The Independent Online

The biggest surprise about the Prime Minister's visit to Afghanistan this week was that the BBC's item reporting on it did not lead the ten o'clock news bulletin.

Instead, of course, the main item was the death of Jennifer Jane Brown, after a lifetime of only 10 days. And accordingly, the main quote featured, from Tony Blair in Afghanistan, could have been made from anywhere at all. For a short time, international shuttle diplomacy was cast aside and Mr Blair spoke instead about the loss of this tiny baby girl. Simple, eloquent, sincere and empathetic, the words he chose were the right ones.

"I feel so desperately sorry for Gordon and Sarah. I know how much Gordon was looking forward to being a father. I know how proud they both were of Jennifer Jane and I know what wonderful parents they would have been to her.

"I am afraid there is very little that anyone can say of comfort at such a time, with such a tragedy. But I hope it is of some comfort to them that I know everyone in our country will be thinking of them at this time and keeping them in their prayers."

I'll second all of that, but with a particular regard for the final sentence. I hope too that the huge attention being focused on the Browns is a comfort to them. Because it is terrible to think that it might be otherwise. It is almost too painful to imagine that the degree of coverage being trained on this grieving couple might be detrimental, that the public picking over of a private, intimate bereavement might add further strain.

Perhaps there is nothing to worry about. After all, what other recipient of a major emotional outpouring from the media and the public has announced that the letters and gifts, the words and thoughts, were of no consequence at all, or even at times distressing in themselves? Those in receipt of such attentions always say that they helped.

Except that in circumstances such as these ones – awful circumstances, the ferocious pain of which I'm grateful to say I have not experienced myself – the facts don't necessarily bear this out. People in the Browns' situation do not always behave as though widespread sympathy is what they want or need. In fact, it's a broadly upheld convention, for example, to keep pregnancy secret until it has reached a stage where things are not so likely to go wrong. Is this presumption – that total privacy is best – misguided?

Maybe those attitudes are just a hangover from the bad old days when emotions were something always to be held in check. Except that people I've known who have suffered comparable tragedies to that of the Browns tend to retreat even further into the private world of their most intimate family life for a time, unable to face even close friends in their grief.

Sometimes, they cannot face the feeling that they must talk through all the events again, with someone who has not been similarly involved, even though there is nothing else that they want to talk about either. Sometimes they do not feel comfortable with the kid-glove treatment they receive from everyone, even though they are not yet ready to resume normal relations.

What would it be like to feel like this, yet still have a picture of yourself at your lowest ever ebb, on most newspapers' front pages? What would it be like to feel like this, yet still have professional pundits of the psyche, who have never met you, advising the world on how you should be feeling, what you should be doing to cope?

Further, what must it be like to read that many people actually feel a little cheated by your personal tragedy. Well-intentioned as it may be, newspapers commenting on how lovely it was to see Gordon Brown transformed by fatherhood, and what a shame it would be if this were not to be seen again, can be seen as pretty grisly in its solipsism and presumption.

One broadsheet commented: "Sorrow ... deepens the character and opens the heart." This may be true in some cases but as consolation goes, it sucks. Some people never recover from their sorrow and not because they have a character defect. So it's a little early to be looking on the bright side.

Perhaps all this doesn't matter. After all, if you're in such a situation and can't bear the media coverage of your private nightmare, you simply avoid it. No one seriously expects the Browns to be poring over newspapers at this time, mulling over the advice the fourth estate has to give them.

Yet several papers yesterday carried words of encouragement from people who had gone through a similar bereavement and found that time did heal their wounds. These columns speak directly to Gordon and Sarah Brown, inviting all members of the public to listen in, regardless of whether this is a monologue or a conversation. Which leads one to ask: who is all this wisdom directed at?

It is ostensibly for the Browns, and maybe it is helpful to them. But it is not just for them. In part, it is for everyone who has suffered a similar loss, or even everyone who had dreaded such a thing. It has become common currency for all sorts of health problems and emotional problems to be dealt with in the context of reference to a public figure. In a real way, the expressions of grief for Jennifer Jane are expressions of grief for all lost babies and all bereaved parents in the land, maybe in the world.

Sometimes though, I wonder if these grand-scale expressions of grief at the loss of individuals – whether they be for George Harrison or Jennifer Jane or Diana, Princess of Wales – are not also indicators of the loss of something else: simple perspective. After all, you'd hardly think it from the acres of coverage from every angle possible (including this one). But actually, surely, it goes without saying that humans weep for the death of one of their number, especially a tiny baby, so much wanted, so much loved.

So why is the weeping done in such a high-profile manner, with people falling over themselves to declare that they understand, that they feel, that they're in touch, that they – though they cannot presume to imagining what the grief feels like – can presume at least to imagining that it is unbearable. Why do so many people take so many opportunities to make grief an all-embracing national event? It is as if it is not enough to be sad, but also to be seen to be sad.

There is so much in the world to grieve about, that it seems almost tokenistic that so much sadness should be focused on just one tragedy.

What did Hamid Karzai, interim leader of Afghanistan, make of it all on Monday? Mr Blair is a key figure in a coalition which carried on bombing his country – and, however regretfully, killing its citizens – even after the government that had given succour to terrorists had been unseated. Did it seem right and fitting to him that the people who made such decisions should grieve for one death so intently?

Is it right and fitting? Or is it just that the sorrows of the expanding, globalising world are on such a huge canvas that it is no longer possible fully to identify with them? Gordon and Sarah Brown's tragedy is a human one, on a human scale, with a perspective that it is much more possible to grasp. God knows it is right to sympathise with their bleak loss. But can it be that there is more grief being expressed here than is being acknowledged?

Quite a few of Gordon Brown's political concerns, and policy initiatives, make it clear that he feels compassion for the children who die needlessly around the world every day and believes that their fates can and should be changed. That is one of the many good reasons why the death of his own first-born daughter seems so cruel.

But maybe it's a good reason why the best way of honouring the death of Jennifer might be to give donations to children's charities, at home and abroad, and to give the grieving parents some privacy.