Soham: A grief so deep that it is hard to breathe

We share the pain of the bereaved, but there is so little comfort we can give

Published in The Observer August 18 2002

No death is more sad. Parents don’t expect their children to die. Imprinted in every
mother and father is the confident hope that we will go first.

Even to think about death in relation to children seems wrong. If the cause is ‘natural’, a
child’s death breaks the soul. But when children are murdered, so too is part of the
world. To kill a child is to poison the reason for living.

Today Leslie and Sharon Chapman and Nicola and Kevin Wells face feelings with which
we can only try to identify. They are in a type of hell. Not only have they been told that
their daughters Jessica and Holly are now dead, but their grief has been toyed with by
events. Not for them the instant certainty of a crash or drowning. Since 8.30pm two
weeks ago today they have had to maintain a sense of hope within an eggshell of fear.

The police, supported by psychological profilers, have offered a range of optimisms with
one conclusion. The children are frightened but alive; they have been kidnapped, not
killed. The parents have had their hope cracked by the discovery of shallow graves, then
put back together by the admission that these were just badger setts.

The police then appealed to the kidnappers: Stand tall. Look at yourself in the mirror.
Give yourselves up. This message contained for the parents just one sub-text: ‘We still
have hope.’

Mrs Chapman also addressed the supposed abductors herself: ‘Just give the girls back.
It doesn’t matter what has happened. I don’t care. Just give them back.’

And now she knows there is no hope. These two bright girls in their red shirts will never
grow up to become women.

Of necessity, all this has been played out before cameras in a display of ‘reality TV’
which compounds the bereavement. In many ways, the public support will have been a
comfort. Only a deranged soul could not have felt some sympathy for these family

There will almost certainly be a further emotional delay as the court system proceeds on
its painstaking path to a trial which may not take place this year. And the reliving of
events line by line in court is not always cathartic. For many families it can feel like a
second slaughter.

For the Chapmans and Wells, some time next year, there will come a moment of silence
for which they may feel wholly unprepared. They will find themselves alone with their
own thoughts in homes which seem obscenely empty.

Grief is a lengthy process because we have to ‘number our losses’ over more than one
cycle of seasons to realise what has actually been taken away. You may be able to
manage at Christmas – but what about the summer holiday without those buckets and
spades? Human feelings change far more slowly than facts. We need rituals to help us

And in grief we are also marked forever. Life changes from innocence to knowing
more than we could ever wish.

Most of us in Britain share some of these feelings today. But for Leslie and Sharon,
Nicola and Kevin this loss practically prevents breathing.

You fear to sleep. You can’t taste food. You think you are going mad. Does it get any
better? Yes, but it will need a lot of patience and support. Time alone doesn’t really heal.
Eventually we must talk.

I don’t know what the deaths of Holly and Jessica mean. But I do know these parents
have all my spare love, and I hope yours, for they tread the hardest path.

Phillip Hodson is a Fellow of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy

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