On Tuesday 7 July 1998 at 4:20am a policeman knocked on our door.
While we’d been sleeping James had been dead for two hours and ten minutes. How was it possible for us not to have known about it? Not to be aware of the crash, the bridge and the flames that all but consumed him?
The suddenness of James’ death shook us to the core. We waited together in the early dawn, after the police had left, to tell our two youngest the news; we hugged their pain and hushed their anguished cries, then tried to understand their need to go to school as normal. We made secret calls to their teachers to ‘prepare the ground’ before their arrival. And then we waited in limbo until 9 o’clock when the Coroner’s office opened. We felt frustrated at not being able to ‘fix it’ – things were simply beyond our control.
We had an ‘autopilot’ discussion with the coroner. It was brutally frank. We were told that it would be better not to see James ‘due the condition of the remains’. We called our dentist to arrange dental identification. It seemed so clinical. This was our boy we were discussing. And we couldn’t hug him, even to say goodbye, ever again.
We drove to Brighton University to tell our now eldest and were met by her tutor. Emma saw us and knew something awful hadhappened, but never expected us to tell her what we did. There were more heartbroken cries, because we all so loved this 19-year-old ‘leader of our pack’.
And then we two were alone again.
We called friends and family. Work said, “Take all the time you need.” There was so much to do, but where did we ought to start? We’d never done this before.
People ask us what we want; but we don’t know … Breathing is challenging enough
Visitors and family came, some from a long way. It’s strange that we seemed to be comforting them. We didn’t understand why that was until much later. We drank endless cups of tea, as people brought things to the doorstep.
The undertaker collected the body – we still wish we had gone to bring him ‘home’. A friend drove me to see the crash site. We took some things from the car – there wasn’t much that was salvageable. We still can’t throw his wrecked camera away. We take flowers there, and have done every year since. We blow kisses to the bridge every time we pass by.
At the funeral, James’ coffin was sealed. We had no chance to look one last time, to touch, to talk, to look into his lovely eyes. We could only see polished wood and the kids’ bewildered looks. Why?
Newspapers contacted us. People phoned – they meant well but … They ask us what we want; but we don’t know … Breathing is challenging enough.
It was hard selecting the memorial service content with the children. We phoned his close friends – it felt important to offer them the chance to have their say too. There were crowds of family and friends, from school and university, at the memorial service on his birthday.
We held a cremation earlier in the week, with just us five and a dear friend of James’, with her heartbroken father. They weren’t invited, but we couldn’t turn them away. There were flowers on the coffin before the final touch goodbye. Then the curtains closed. But still, we wonder, “Was it him?”
Following the deluge of emotions that came to the fore once all the ‘formalities’ were over, we were in a very bad place. Someone recommended that we contact Care for the Family, who gently encouraged us to attend ‘A Bereaved Parents Support Weekend’ which was being held in Swanwick.
This was a turning point in our journey. Meeting other bereaved parents just like us, at an event run by bereaved parents themselves, helped us see that we were not alone. The leaders were just seven years further ‘down the track’ and were living proof that we could, with their help, get through this dark valley by sharing our experience and listening to others.
Being able to talk on a one-to-one basis, both at the weekend and later over the phone, enabled us to see a way forward and eventually create a ‘new normal’ for our lives. We are still in touch with some of those parents we first met at that weekend and subsequent day events.