Justine Picardie: The loss of a child transcends politics

Click to follow
The Independent Online

It is a golden September afternoon as I write this; the sort of Indian summer's day that feels like a blessing. My children are playing football in the park with their friends: ordinary children, yet each one of them extraordinary in the eyes of their parents; loved as wide as the high blue sky, precious beyond words.

It is a golden September afternoon as I write this; the sort of Indian summer's day that feels like a blessing. My children are playing football in the park with their friends: ordinary children, yet each one of them extraordinary in the eyes of their parents; loved as wide as the high blue sky, precious beyond words.

On the other side of the world in southern Russia - and yet not so far away, closer than before, in our homes through satellite pictures - there are other mothers whose children started a new term this week, as mine did; but for them the new beginning has been turned into a terrible dead end.

How do we find the language to talk about what has happened in the school in Beslan? Its bleakness and savagery seem incomprehensible, unspeakable. So I do not want to hear the political context or explanations for the acts of those who did this; it seems as hopeless an activity as trying to find a mathematical equation to explain the mystery of life.

And this is in spite of the fact that I have spent the last seven years, since my sister's death in another Indian summer, trying to make sense of what at first seemed senseless. I know it is part of what makes us human, the search for meaning, for some sort of message or pattern in a chaotic universe: but how do you ever make sense of the death of a child? It seems to prove nothing but wanton cruelty; an unkind God who does not answer prayers, if there is a God who watches over us. As for the notion that time will heal everything: an untimely death can seem like yesterday, however long ago it happened; indeed, can make a nonsense of the very idea of linear time, on the days when despair feels circular, grief an inescapable maze.

I have moved on, of course, since the death of my sister (though she has come with me); but I am not sure where I would be if I had suffered the loss of a child. Since I wrote a book, If the Spirit Moves You, which is about grief, among other things, I have received hundreds of letters from other people, some of them mourning their children, and it is their stories that remain most clearly in my mind. One of the letters came from a man whose wife had died young of breast cancer, like my sister, leaving a small child behind. He had gone on living, and loving his daughter, he told me; but then she had been among those killed in the massacre at Dunblane.

How, I wondered, did he find the will to continue? He carried on working, in the medical profession, I believe, and I think of him often; of the courage and dignity that shone through his letter to me. I am loath to draw lessons from him, or others like him - it feels too close to the glibness of finding silver linings in the blackest of clouds - but what he did teach me is this. The threads that bind together are love; that nothing else is more important; that love survives death, because we do not stop loving those we have lost.

On an Easter Sunday after my sister had died, when Jesus had risen again, yet the distance between the living and the dead seemed as impassable - as impossible - as ever, I found myself with my husband and children in Chichester Cathedral.

We were there as tourists rather than worshippers, slipping in before evensong, but even so, we lit candles in one of the chapels: for my sister and my husband's sister, who had just died in an accident, and others, too; friends and relatives, so many ghosts that we brought with us, yet so few amid the throng of spirits that surround the living, and always will.

I wanted to be comforted by religion that day, but the peace I found came from a copy of a Philip Larkin poem, "The Arundel Tomb", next to the grave from which the poem takes its name. Two stone figures lie there together, a medieval earl and countess, holding hands. Larkin offers no easy consolation, no false hope, but his final line is as enduring as the tomb: "What will survive of us is love."

Justine Picardie's novel 'Wish I May' is published this week by Picador, price £6.99. Her fee for this article has been donated to Unicef

Comments