Unthinkable, unbearable…

Holly Wells, Jessica Chapman, Sarah Payne, Milly Dowler, James
Bulger, Damilola Taylor, these names will forever remain in the
public consciousness. Although we didn’t know them, few will forget
the horror of their deaths. It is hard to imagine how parents ever
come to terms with the murder of their child, so how do they

It may be a cliche, but is true nevertheless, that no parent
expects to bury their child. The death of any child is a
devastating event, but research suggests that it is even harder to
cope with the unexpectedness of losing a child through a sudden,
traumatic event – murder, suicide, road accident or disaster.

This type of death rips away the assumptions that everyone’s lives
are based on, says Gordon Riches, a lecturer in sociology at the
University of Derby. “Most people believe the world is reasonably
just, you reap what you sow.

“The arbitrariness of it [murder of your child] is so compelling.
You thought it happened to other people and the fact that it’s
happened to you is so overwhelming. It’s not just about the loss of
your child, it’s the loss of naivety about how the world

The notion of closure or coming back to a sense of normality does
not exist. Parents learn to live with a totally different life,
adds Riches.

Kevin Wells – Holly’s father – has recently published his book
Goodbye, Dearest Holly which he says helped him get rid of “hatred,
anxiety and unfairness”.

In it he says: “We have had to deal with our sense of loss as well
as bitter feelings of unfairness and injustice. The system often
did not help.”

Relationships can crumble as each parent tries to come to terms
with what has happened, especially if they grieve differently or
separately, and particularly if blame is involved. Kevin Wells was
told – somewhat unhelpfully – by the police that 98 per cent of
couples separate after they have lost a child. The statistic is
often quoted, although no one seems to know its origination and
many dispute it – especially as the issue is clouded by the UK’s
high divorce rate.

Couples can be severely tested when they grieve in different ways.
One may throw themselves back into normality, while the other is
too devastated to do anything. This was Rose Dixon’s experience,
national training and development officer at Support After Murder
and Manslaughter (Samm) after her daughter Avril died suddenly,
aged 22, through medical negligence.

“Avril died on a Friday afternoon, the post mortem was on the
Monday and my husband went to work that day. This is where a lot of
breakdowns happen. My interpretation was he’s a heartless beast and
he didn’t love her as much as I did. Within two months he was ‘back
to normal’, out with his cycling club on Sundays and I was at home
distraught wanting to talk.”

Dixon realised this was her husband’s way of coping and it didn’t
mean his world hadn’t been turned upside down too. Thirteen years
after Avril’s death they are still together.

But the murder of your child brings a different perspective to
grief. Research by Riches(1) suggests that in cases of child
murders, parental grief is secondary to justice. “Murder must be
one of the few causes of death…where the private and diverse
reactions of bereaved family members are the subject of such
official scrutiny.”

Most murders are committed by someone who knows the victim and
quite often it is someone within the family. Consequently, parents
are often initially treated like suspects and interviewed
separately, sometimes immediately after being informed of their
child’s murder.
Riches says: “It’s understandable why police do this so as not to
contaminate evidence. But police aren’t trained. Relatives should
have a right to as much information that’s available – if not
immediately, then after court proceedings are completed.”

Parents also have to hear their child being referred to as “the
body”. They may be able to see them, but they cannot touch them.
The defence team can request as many post mortems as thought
necessary to demonstrate a client’s innocence and there is no time
limit to how long the coroner holds the body, which can vary from
two weeks to over a year.

During this time the family cannot make any funeral arrangements.
According to Riches, this delay denies parents an important ritual
which may help mark the shift from initial shock to accepting the
reality of death. Media intrusion means they can’t control the
“story” of their child’s death, their privacy is hijacked and the
chance of having some form of normal routine is reduced.

Families of murdered children have so much more to deal with than
those coping with “ordinary” bereavement, says Dixon. “They can’t
really begin grieving properly until after the trial and that
usually comes to court at about the time of the first anniversary
of their child’s death.”

And they are generally left to cope with little professional
support. “Murder is still quite rare,” says Dixon. “Most people
don’t know somebody who has been murdered, so when it happens you
think it’s only happened to you.”

Apart from Samm, which runs a helpline staffed by volunteers, and
has support groups, there is little out there. There are
bereavement counsellors and voluntary organisations, but families
where a child has been murdered are clear that their needs are
Dixon trains police family liaison officers who go in after a
murder to support the family, acting as a liaison point between
investigation and family, the Crown Prosecution Service, probation
service and social services on working with bereaved families and
helping them understand those differences.

Quality training for officers is vital if families are to be helped
to adjust successfully and this will depend on whether they have
been able to grieve properly, says Riches.

As Kevin Wells says: “Although this grieving journey is going to be
a lifetime one, we owe it to Holly’s memory to make it as smooth as
possible and that means focusing on something that we do have some
control over – the rest of our lives.”

(1) G Riches, P Dawson, “Spoiled memories: problems of grief
resolution in families bereaved through murder”, Mortality, Vol 3,
No 2, 1998

“I felt I didn’t have the right to be alive if he was

To this day Patsy Cullinan doesn’t know exactly what happened the
night her son Brian was murdered on his way home from a friend’s
birthday party in October 1993. She knows he was punched in the
head and a fractured skull caused a cerebral contusion which killed
him, but she doesn’t know the hows or whys. 

After being told by one of Brian’s friends that he had been
injured, a neighbour took Patsy to the scene, which had been taped
off by police. With no explanation, police drove her at speed to
the hospital. Here she was told he was in a bad way, and as an
Irish Catholic she requested a priest to perform the Last Rites.
She wasn’t told why this was refused, but found out later it was
because the ritual carried a risk of contaminating evidence. 

Finally Patsy was told that Brian had suffered a head injury, that
they had tried to resuscitate him but failed. In a daze she was
taken to the chapel of rest where a police officer stationed at the
door told her she couldn’t touch Brian’s body. Again there was no

“He had the resuscitation piece in his mouth so I had this weird
feeling that he was on life support,” recalls Patsy. At this point,
no one had actually said her son was dead. 

Guilt was the first thing to hit her the next morning: “I felt that
I didn’t have the right to be alive if he was dead.”

Unable to cope with the finality of death, Patsy pretended to
herself that Brian was on holiday. It wasn’t until later that day
that police officers, with a family liaison officer who stayed with
her, broke the news that Brian had argued with three men and one
had been charged with murder. “When I heard that I became

Her priority was to get Brian’s body back for burial but she was
distressed at the thought that he hadn’t received the Last Rites –
there is an Irish superstition that murdered people’s souls are
lost for eternity. “This bothered me more than anything,” says

After coping with two post mortems, the funeral had to be cancelled
two days beforehand; the accused had changed his defence team – and
as is his right – wanted another post mortem. “I was so
disheartened I wanted to crawl somewhere and die.”

A week later the funeral went ahead, but Patsy didn’t want to go.
“I had got used to going to the mortuary. I could see him and talk
to him. The funeral would be the final letting go.”

After the funeral, Patsy’s focus switched to the trial and to the
accused being found guilty and punished. She was distressed to find
that the charge had been reduced from murder to

After the first day in court the defence team told her that if she
sat at the front of the public gallery it could be construed as
intimidating behaviour and if she showed emotions they could ask
for a retrial.

“I felt as if every basic human right had been stripped from me.”
Then vital forensic evidence was ruled inadmissible because of a
police mistake and the verdict came back not guilty. “The shock was
dreadful, I lost all faith in the criminal justice system. I felt
betrayed. The day after the trial felt worse than when Brian

Patsy became suicidal. Her GP prescribed anti-depressants and
referred her to a psychiatric day care unit where she had
counselling and they gave her the number of Support After Murder
and Manslaughter (Samm). It was these three things that got her
through. At Samm she was finally able to talk to other people who
had been through the same experience. She became a Samm volunteer
and is now its national co-ordinator. 

Aside from Samm, Patsy acknowledges that she was lucky with the
professional support she received and is angry that it is not more
readily available to others in the same position unless you can
afford to pay. “You have to go on an NHS waiting list and don’t get
any priority. I feel there’s a lack of understanding of the impact
of bereavement through murder and manslaughter.”

Although the rawness and pain has eased slowly, Patsy is still
haunted by thoughts of how her quiet son must have felt when it
happened. “To die that way, alone and at the hands of others, I
will never be able to live with that.”

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