An estimated billion people watched Michael Jackson's funeral on TV last week, and I'd guess that for every single one of them the most poignant moment came when his 11-year-old daughter, Paris, spoke. Weighed down by grief, she managed only a couple of sentences before collapsing in tears. Jackson, she said, was "the best father you could ever imagine". She loved him, so much.
Ever since, the web has been buzzing with "should they or shouldn't they have let her do that?" threads. Paris, most people seem to think, was very brave – but it was all too much for her. A little girl shouldn't have to share her grief in public. Her family should have shielded her, kept her away from that microphone.
But I wonder: are these critics really thinking of Paris, or are they thinking of themselves? Because the truth is that it's almost too terrible to witness the kind of devastating grief a child suffers when a parent or sibling dies. We don't want to see a child like Paris convulsed with a sadness she should never have to bear, or the tears of a child whose soldier father has been killed in Afghanistan: we don't want, as adults, to see a level of suffering we can't remove. Our instinctive need, after all, is to remove difficulties from the lives of our young. When they fall over, we pick them up. When they cry, we wipe away their tears. What we want to tell them is that it's all going to be OK. But this is death: there's no shielding, no solution. It's not going to be OK, ever, and that's almost as tough on the adult as it is on the child.
When I was 10, my three-year-old sister died in a road accident. It was so devastating that 36 years on I can still feel the shock of that day. My parents, bowed down by their own grief and no longer able to protect Clare, my dead sister, tried instead to protect us, their three surviving children, from our grief.
Clare was buried a week later, but my sister and brother and I weren't there – we were on a trip to the zoo with our cousins. I remember getting back and realising there had been some sort of gathering at our house: and then I realised it must have been Clare's funeral, and I hadn't even been allowed to say goodbye.
For kids, death is confusing as well as sad. Adults who try to shield children from its rock-hard realities are doing what they think is best, but in fact it's the worst possible thing they could do. For a long time, I didn't believe Clare was dead: after all, I had no evidence. She'd been there one moment and gone the next: I'd seen no body, no coffin. We weren't even taken to visit her grave. It was only five years ago, when I went to look for it, that I finally got round to doing my mourning, three decades on.
If I'd been allowed, I'd have done what Paris did and paid tribute to my sister at her funeral. Hard as it is to do, a tribute is a goodbye: it's taking part in the ritual that surrounds death, the ritual we all have to participate in if we're going to move on. And if Paris's words at the microphone live on in a billion hearts, the most important thing is that they'll live on in her heart, too. That tribute may well have been her first step towards acceptance of her father's loss. We'd all like to have shielded her from the hurt, but no one could do that: not shielding her was the next best thing, however hard it was to watch.Reuse content