Joanna Moorhead: I was a grieving child, but I had no chance to say so

Related Topics

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Cameron faces the press as he arrives in Brussels for the EU leaders summit on Thursday reuters  

On the Tusk of a dilemma: Cameron's latest EU renegotiation foe

Andrew Grice
John Profumo and his wife Valerie Robson in 1959  

Stephen Ward’s trial was disgraceful. There can be no justification for it

Geoffrey Robertson QC
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas