On Friday 1 August 2003 our 11-year-old son died on a mountainside in the French Alps. All around, other tourists were enjoying the beautiful summer day, walking amid the majesty of the mountains, unaware that our lives were being turned upside-down, never to be fully right again.
Ben was walking in front of us with his older brother, Jon, when he slipped, knocked himself out and then fell over a concealed cliff. He didn’t die instantly but gained consciousness for about 15 minutes during which time Dave and I were able to climb down to him. We left our other two children, Jon and Becky, at the top with a kind English couple whom we have never been able to thank. We talked and prayed with Ben while waiting for the helicopter, but he died shortly after the medics arrived. We were taken by helicopter with our other children to the rescue centre, leaving Ben on the mountain.
We spent much of the next two days in Chamonix police station giving statements and talking to the British Consulate, but most of the time just waiting around. Fortunately, the police accepted very quickly that it was a pure accident and issued the death certificate that would allow us to bring Ben’s body home, although we were told that would take several days. We decided to go home as soon as we could because we needed the support network of our church and family and the children needed somewhere familiar and safe. We returned to the campsite where we were staying and packed everything up (including Ben’s clothes and toys) in a complete daze.
Holidays are one of the difficult things we have had to learn to manage. They are meant to be times of relaxation and refreshment, but this was so much harder to achieve after our traumatic experience. Planning for and actually going away are always tinged with the thought that something could go wrong. I still breathe a sigh of relief when we get home safely afterwards, although Dave no longer feels like this. Although I thought I was hiding my worry, my eldest son tells me how hard it was seeing me struggling and on edge during holidays.
We now have a six-and-a-half-year gap between our other children – Ben was the middle child. We have needed to find things they could enjoy together on holiday otherwise Jon would have stopped wanting to come with us. They found it hard that there were things they could no longer do. Jon says, “The pain was always him not being there. Competing against a much younger sister in swimming, football and cards is not quite the same as competing against a slightly younger brother.”
One tricky question we had to face was whether to change how we did our family holidays or to keep them the same. Should you completely change things because it is too painful to do what you would usually do? Or, for the sake of the other children, do you keep the pattern the same, knowing that familiarity is good for them?
Soon after Ben died a friend warned us not to change the things we traditionally did together as a family because the other children would not only lose their sibling but also those familiar traditions and normal celebrations. It was very good advice that helps keep the stability of the family and we have tried to take it on board. With regard to the type of holidays we took, however, it was necessary to make changes at first because Ben was just too much at the centre of them – on the beach, sharing a tent with his brother, playing games. Talking to the children now, though, I’ve learnt that they would actually have preferred to go back to our usual pattern sooner and, in retrospect, maybe we should have done so.
Holidays – like everything else when you lose a child – will never be the same again. We do enjoy them again now, though for a while they were something I felt we had to do, rather than something I enjoyed.
Holidays are still special family times, when we talk more about previous holidays and about Ben. Nowadays, we can remember with happiness and laugh about how he would have enjoyed our holidays and what he would have done, knowing he is safe in God’s hands – the same hands which continue to support us day by day.