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Virginia Ironside: As the youngest child he had special bond with mother


The death of a child is probably the worst death of all. But the death of a parent comes close on its heels – despite knowing, from the very day that one understands about death, that it is most likely a parent will die before you do.

It seems that Alexander McQueen, at 40, was simply not prepared for the impact his mother's death would have on him. He apparently took his own life on Thursday, nine days after Joyce McQueen died, and one day before her funeral.

He had suffered a succession of losses in recent years: first his great friend and fashion mentor Isabella Blow killed herself with weedkiller; then his Aunt Dolly, a stalwart attendee of his catwalk shows, died. He had also ended a long-term relationship.

Until a parent has died, you are, whatever age you've reached, still in some sense a child. There is always someone ahead of you, shielding you from death, someone in the front line, as it were. Once one of those front-liners has gone, then it becomes much clearer that your own turn for going over the top is getting closer – and this can be incredibly frightening for someone who hasn't managed to think it through beforehand.

McQueen and his mother, had a special relationship. He was the youngest of six children and the youngest child often does – their mother will have got over all the initial stresses and strains of bringing up the other children, and feel much more confident and relaxed with the final one.

The fact that he didn't have children of his own might have had some bearing on his grief. However devastated most people are about the death of a parent, those with children often feel they can't give in to grief too much for the sake of the kids. There is also no point in considering suicide because they have so much to live for – their children are absolutely dependent on them. And perhaps, too, people with children have a better idea of the cycle as each generation comes along, with each one shoving the other along a bit till one falls off the edge. Perhaps, also, the experience of birth makes the experience of death feel, oddly, more natural.

The death of a parent can affect people in such different ways, which is why bereavement results in particularly contradictory emotions. Misery and grief are the obvious primary emotions, but all deaths are different, and all reactions to them unique. Obviously, if a parent has been ill for a long time, if they want to die themselves, or if their personality has changed so much that they are no longer recognisable, their death may even be cause for celebration. There may even be excitement, prompted by the prospect of a new parentless life – a "free at last!" feeling – even if the person you're free from is someone you love. In the case of ghastly parents there may even be feelings of delight. But it's rare that the death of a parent leaves us feeling absolutely nothing, unless the blankness is simply a blotting-out of feelings that are too conflicting to cope with.

None of this appeared to be the case with McQueen, who still liked to go round to his mother's and have tea and biscuits. She must have been a secure pillar of his life, someone who loved him just for being Lee (his birth name) and not for being one of the world's premier fashion designers.

When one parent dies and another lives on, an adult child can often find it easier to cope – they still have one parent to continue the role. Indeed, it's often surprising to outsiders when someone appears to be fairly unmoved when, say, a much-loved father dies, but is then left feeling utterly bereft when their loathed mother dies, some time later. It's as if they'd managed to put all their feelings of grief on hold until the death of the remaining parent released a deluge of unhappiness.

Alexander's father, Ron, a taxi driver, lives on. But it's clear – and you can see this just by looking at the photographs of them together – that Alexander and his mother had a special bond.

His great dread, he said in a conversation with his mother six years ago, was not that his fashion shows would get a bad press or that he might fail in business. When Joyce asked him, "What is your most terrifying fear?", he replied: "Dying before you."

What a great loss to us that his incredible talent was not enough to keep him going when everything else seemed to fall away.