As the parents of the victims of Lucy Letby delivered their statements in court on Monday I was struck by their ability to articulate the uniquely painful grief of a parent who has outlived their child.
Grief is unavoidable in life, maybe starting with a distant relative, the death of a family pet. I don’t really remember a life without the sense of someone missing: my much-loved grandfather died suddenly when I was five leaving a family searching for ways to make sense of the space he left behind. I distinctly remember trying to make sense of the death of a childhood friend in my teens.
Leukaemia had robbed him of his future and in a church full of people I had known all my life I couldn’t comprehend the loss of his. Yet there is nothing that makes less sense than the death of your child.
My daughter, Ottilie, was stillborn in 2019. There is no pain like it. There is nothing that can prepare you for the mental and physical manifestation of the crushing grief for their life, the life you thought you would have together, for the person that you were before.
While you understand the concept of widow or orphan... there is no word for when you outlive your child
The mother of Child D describes living “beside my own shadow” since the death of her baby — these are words I have never found to describe it, yet they say it all.
One part of what makes the afterlife of child loss so difficult is the lack of identity we have as we take the painful yet inevitable steps forward. While you understand the concept of widow or orphan these are the words developed for a grief that, no matter how sad, is the right way round. When you outlive your child there is no such noun, our language simply hasn’t evolved to identify the unthinkable.
The admin of death is acutely painful in a world without your child. Postmortems, funerals, epitaphs and eulogies — what can you possibly say to honour a life not lived? I think often of the tiny sleepsuit that Ottilie was dressed in for her funeral, the very first thing I had allowed myself to buy far into my long-awaited IVF pregnancy. I have an identical one stored away should I ever want to remind myself of the feel of it in my hands. To hear the account from the mother of Child E that her baby is buried in a gown chosen by Letby unleashed a guttural cry and a feeling of sickness that I haven’t been able to entirely shake.
Impact statements detail difficulty breathing, hiding their eyes to conceal the pain, exhaustion, the inability to function, fear in parenting subsequent children, and although my situation is profoundly different the effects have been the same. The one thing I was thankful for in the harrowing aftermath of my daughter’s death was that I had no one to blame. Of course, that didn’t stop me blaming myself and the endless what-ifs born from the lack of clarity that a cause would have provided, but I never had to look anyone in the eye knowing that it was them. The parents in the Letby trial spent 10 months watching the perpetrator of their pain, by all accounts nonchalantly observing proceedings, with little response. As their own what-ifs have swirled and disrupted their minds they have had a focal point for their anger that I am not sure I could have handled.
I listened with great interest to the varying opinions of experts as it became apparent that Letby would not appear in court to hear her sentencing. Is this a good or bad thing?
It seems for some who have lived through similar experiences, it’s bad. Convicted killers must be forced to “look their victims in the eye”, but of course this is not possible. They could be carried kicking and screaming into court, shackled to the dock, restrained and detained in the presence of those ready to deliver impact statements, but they cannot be forced to look, to listen or to care.
If, as you deliver the details of your darkest days, you don’t see the response you imagine from across the court would that only add to your pain?
I don’t know the answer here, but I do know that the final act of power should not lie in the hands of the convicted. That makes no sense at all.
Katie Ingram is the Evening Standard’s trade, marketing and insight director