Sarah Sands: Grief is the price we pay for love. Every mother dreads that cost

This Mothering Sunday we can identify with the Redgraves and Richardsons
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The Independent Online

It is something when the death of an actress, primarily known for her stage performances in Ibsen, Chekhov and a musical derived from a novel by Christopher Isherwood, can knock Jade Goody off the front pages of The Sun and the Daily Mirror.

The universal resonance of the Natasha Richardson story lies particularly in the dramatic timeline and unbelievable circumstances. Here is a beautiful woman larking about on a ski slope. Within hours she has lost consciousness and surgeons are fighting hopelessly to save her life. There are shades of Princess Diana's last journey in this: the hard-to-believe fact of her death, the endless what ifs.

Like Diana, Natasha Richardson was the mother of two boys, the younger the same age as Prince Harry when he heard of the fatal car crash. As with Diana, Natasha was part of a famous dynasty and there was a kind of protocol in the decision to fly her brain-dead body back to New York, so that she could lie in state in a hospital bed while family members came to pay their final respects. There was something of a royal sense of obligation within Liam Neeson and Vanessa Redgrave, raw and swollen in grief, moving among the acting fraternity of Broadway, where lights in all the theatres dimmed at eight o'clock last Thursday night.

The protagonists in this drama were photographed in bright city lights. They had the jagged look of those stunned by the unreality of their situation. Neeson in layers of T-shirts and jerseys which he might have been wearing since he was called away from a film set with the news that his wife had suffered a skiing accident.

Vanessa Redgrave, almost sleepwalking with grief from the hospital, a scarf that she had been wearing round her head now draped round her neck, a bundle of wool in her hands, perhaps a cardigan she had brought with her from home to keep warm. As if she cared about that now.

The saddest sartorial descriptive detail was that Natasha's elder son, Micheal, aged 13, had been spotted still wearing his Mont Tremblant skiing sweatshirt. He had been with his mother the whole time.

Thank God, there were no photographs of the boys until their mother's wake. Even the most determined of paparazzi would have laid down their cameras in the face of motherless sons. Unlike Princes William and Harry, Micheal and Daniel were allowed privately to confront, as William put it, "never being able to say the word 'Mummy' again".

Natasha's death was cinematic. The location of a sunny Canadian ski slope was wide-screen glamorous; the narrative had a terrible momentum, the dramatic irony of Natasha pronouncing herself fine, the medical race against time, the private jet, the spontaneous tribute from Broadway.

The bereaved were not prepared for this catastrophe in life but they were well rehearsed in the art of death. Liam Neeson had played a widowed father in Love Actually. Vanessa Redgrave had played Joan Didion, who watched her daughter die. The artistic choreography of the final gathering in the hospital – did Vanessa really sing "Edelweiss" to her daughter, as reported? – does not make it any less sincere. Actors understand beauty of expression, and they owed it to Natasha to do the scene well.

The family may be remarkable, but the tragedy did not feel removed from common experience. The power of the story was that it involved the death not just of an actress but of a mother. The thousands of posted internet comments were gut responses to the cruelty of this. On Mothering Sunday, one is struck by the sadness of two boys "never able to say the word mummy again" and of a bereaved mother, Vanessa Redgrave, singing a lullaby to her dying daughter in the clinical silence of a hospital room.

Natasha Richardson was not a high-maintenance screen actress. She was flesh and blood, which I think is another reason that her death has been so affecting. Actors paid tribute to her sweetness of nature as well as her acting talent. Judi Dench talked of her luminous quality.

I got to know her briefly when she acted alongside my former husband in a Ken Russell film, Gothic, in 1986. Natasha distanced herself from the wilder extremes of behaviour on set, with a Jane Austenesque sense of humorous propriety. Soon afterwards, my husband and I separated. Ordinarily new acquaintances of a squabbling couple would keep their distance. But Natasha took me out for jolly lunches and was full of practical concern about my domestic arrangements and the welfare of my small son. She was, as they say in London rather than New York, a brick.

She once remarked ruefully in an interview that in her early life she was "a caretaker for other people". While she was a teenager, her mother was in her most fervent phase of campaigning for lost political causes and Natasha developed an anxious sense of responsibility towards her parents. She valued domestic order and on one visit to my home, expressed concern to see the nanny behaving furtively. I laughed it off, but she was quite right: the nanny turned out to be a wrong 'un. Natasha was wistful herself about wanting a conventional family life and tried to be a perfect wife to Robert Fox, although her heart swept her elsewhere in the end. She was a good girl, but she was also a Redgrave and passions went deep.

We talked of mapping out our lives and our careers. How could one have thought then, talking to that intelligent, warm-hearted, honey-coloured girl, that her life would be over just as the plans and promises came good.

Newspapers have talked of the curse of the Redgraves. (Popbitch was amusingly puzzled by the Daily Mail's assertion that the curse followed the announcement by Tony Richardson, Natasha's father, that he was bisexual.)

I cannot see a curse, only eventful lives of an unusual family. Natasha is said to have moved to New York to escape the burden of being a Redgrave, but I think she would have gone there anyway. It is a city which suits quick-witted, outward-looking European women.

One of the most examined aspects of the story is the account from the ski resort, including the fateful decision to turn away the ambulance. I can see it: Natasha not wanting to make a fuss, being slightly embarrassed, looking forward to the end of her lesson when she could see her sons again. Would Madonna have brushed off the incident so easily?

Vanessa Redgrave told an interviewer days before the accident that Natasha didn't much like skiing and she could not understand why she was there. I bet it was for her sons. She wanted them to have a good time. It was purest maternal instinct.

It is somehow more moving that Natasha was not a champion skier. She was not on death-defying slopes. There were others that day who were skiing fast and without helmets. But Natasha was a laughing, self-conscious mother on the beginner slopes. Her fall could have been an amusing photograph on Facebook. Her sons might have rolled their eyes and mouthed at her "Muuuum". She died at her most motherly.

Prince William singled out Mother's Day as the occasion marked for him by a feeling of "emptiness". He mourns his mother as Natasha's sons will grieve for her. To them, she will always be the best mother in the world.

The final accessibility of Natasha's story is that everyone has thought again about their own families. Even the Daily Mirror lapsed into philosophical reflection about the fragility of life. In remembering Natasha Richardson, this Mothering Sunday, we are also praying for ourselves. As Joan Rivers puts it: "Anyone who doesn't get up in the morning and say, 'How lucky I am' is an idiot."