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Sarah Sands: Nothing eases a mother's grief – least of all, more death

Sunday 08 May 2011 00:00 BST

The laying of a wreath by President Obama at Ground Zero, New York, last week, after American marines had despatched the diabolical visionary behind the 11 September bombings, was described by commentators as "seeking closure". After an apocalyptic act of violence, and a decade-long pursuit of the perpetrator, here was a moment of silent reflection. Let the victims of unquiet deaths, finally rest in peace.

In London, "closure" was a word applied to a lengthy, bureaucratic inquiry that concluded that the deaths of 52 commuters were not preventable. The fact of the bombings was certain, but who was killed by them was a matter of chance.

Julie Nicholson, whose 24-year-old daughter, Jenny, died in the Edgware Road explosion, explained that she felt that her daughter could now be returned to her. She had been part of a public event, but now the relationship was personal again. "It is finished," she said. Jenny was restored her to rightful and proper place.

The term "closure" is used now so widely and loosely that it can cover catastrophic terrorist events and the Duchess of York's self-esteem issues. For therapists, it describes the conclusion to a traumatic event. You can seek closure, or have it thrust upon you by public relations advisers or former spouses. After closure, you "move on". It also has a narrower definition. Cognitive closure is defined as a "desire for definite knowledge on some issue".

If the bereaved ask "Why?", it is a rhetorical cry of agony. There is no reason for, or justice in, Jenny Nicholson's fate being entwined with that of Mohammed Sidique Khan. Relatives and friends torment themselves: what if she had slept in, turned in one direction rather than another, caught the next train?

But you may ask "How?" Everyone wants accurate facts, not denials, not myths. Even if it is the villain who has died, clarity is vital. The shooting of Osama bin Laden was devalued by the conflicting accounts of the circumstances. The other reason his death lacked a philosophical finality was the invisibility of the body. There were sound reasons for dumping him at sea and refusing to publish a photograph, but it leaves a sense of incompleteness.

Death requires a ritual and it starts with the body. Julie Nicholson describes in her book A Song for Jenny, the pain of delayed access to her dead daughter. "I must see for myself and touch for myself." Finally, she kisses the fingers of her daughter's hands, the nails short from music practice.

The armed forces, so familiar with death, understand the solemnity of funeral rites. At a recent funeral at Sandhurst, of a soldier killed in Afghanistan, the ceremonial display honoured his human dignity, affecting even his tearful, bewildered children. The lack of knowledge and absence of a body torture Kate and Gerry McCann four years after the disappearance of their daughter Madeleine. Hope can be a cruel thing.

But let us not pretend that knowledge or revenge can produce peace of mind. Humblingly, Julie Nicholson said that while she was "not sorry" that bin Laden was dead, she shared some of the Archbishop of Canterbury's concerns about the manner of it. She had seen enough violence. What is it like to lose a child? To Julie Nicholson, it is the Pietà, the suffering of a mother whose heart is pierced. Unnatural bereavement has no final chapter. It is a life time of endurance.

Sarah Sands is deputy editor of the 'London Evening Standard'

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