I know people who have a lost a child. I know people who have sat next to a hospital bed and faced the real possibility that their child may die before their eyes.
In those moments, do they bargain with every god they can bring to mind, wonder how they might give their life in exchange, contemplate the precipice of despair and prepare to jump?
I have no idea what it’s actually like. And if I’m honest, I haven’t asked. I don’t want to know. I don’t even want to imagine.
It’s as though those people have passed beyond the veil themselves and returned somewhat changed. This cannot be undone. This cannot be imagined. It’s a members-only club with no lines outside.
Losing a child seems to me to be a very private experience. Of course, we, the lucky unbereaved, can express sympathy. The death, or serious illness, of a child is the shocking news that must be acknowledged. How many times in the last 24 hours how we heard the words “heartbroken” and “prayers” and “thoughts are with” and “stand together”?
We use these mantras of condolence to protect ourselves. Because I don’t think most people, even those who don’t have children of their own, want to contemplate the raw reality of the situation. Who wants to find the words that truly capture the horror of losing a child in such circumstances? It is easier to focus on solidarity than to attempt to understand how it feels to have your child ripped to shreds a few yards away from you.
We say to ourselves, “if I lost my child, I couldn’t go on”. But the people who experience these traumatic events do go on. I don’t want to know how they do it, but it is perhaps one of the most heroic acts that we witness in this world.
The events in Manchester are a tragedy. But it’s not the big picture or the bold headlines that I’m thinking about. It’s the little pictures. The school photos in wallets. The favourite baby photo that captures their personality so perfectly. It’s always the individual loss that strikes me as most tragic, not the scale of the incident.
I remember reading accounts of the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004, and have been haunted by the story of a mother who couldn’t keep hold of her toddler in the force of the water. For some parents there are moments when they couldn’t hold on, or swim far enough, or chose the wrong direction to run, or didn’t have the medical knowledge to keep their child alive, or the power to get their child away from danger. I never want to know how that feels.
From 9/11, what has stayed with me over the years, is the voicemails left by people in the Towers for their loved ones, who didn’t pick up that last call. It feels like the event belongs to the world, and now history. But it’s those moments of very personal tragedy that endure for me. What was a big news day for everyone else, an enduring ripple in world politics, is really 2,996 stories of personal loss.
Today I heard a lot of numbers.
But there is no greater tragedy than that one child, to that one parent. Wherever or however it happens.
Today I didn’t think about religion, or politics, or terrorism.
My son came home early from school with a temperature and took himself to bed. I made him some dinner and we watched TV, and laughed at a Trump video. He was happy because I bought him a chocolate bar to make him feel better. We talked about the impact of going to university on future earnings. He gave me the cuddle he always gives me before he goes to bed, and I held his head and kissed his cheek and told him I love him, just like always. And right now, I know he’s in bed.
And I grateful for all the things that I don’t know.