As Sir Bob Geldof grieves for his eldest daughter, Nigel Burnham knows exactly how it feels to lose a child. He looks back at the 10 years since the bottom fell out of his world.
There’s a florist’s in York I must have driven past going on 20 years without ever realising it was a florist’s. A gloomy little building with no bouquets in buckets outside, it’s not the kind of place I’d normally stop to buy flowers.
But one day in 2004 it became more important to me than the Holy Grail because it was there, having telephoned around most of the florist’s in York, that I finally found the sprig of dried lavender we were looking for to put in our baby daughter’s white cherry wood coffin.
Amelia Bridget Burnham was born in Scarborough in the spring of 2003, a shock of jet black hair the first surprise of a very special child who would never cease to amaze us. Amelia, whom we also called Mimi, would turn heads, ignite smiles, and melt hearts, wherever she went.
In our garden she would stare up from her buggy at the birds, the butterflies and the bees, and the sunlight filtering through the fruit trees, wide-eyed and open mouthed in amazement. In the nearby Rudolf Steiner Camphill village of Botton - where her two big sisters went to school - she was always the centre of attention.
Of course, I never realised at the time that we could possibly lose her. Like most parents I believed that people died more or less in order of seniority. I never realised that absolutely anyone is just a heartbeat away from having their world turned upside down.
And so it was that Mimi, until then a very strong and healthy girl of nine months, fell ill out of the blue, and, after 16 days in the paediatric intensive care unit of Leeds General Infirmary, died in our arms of pneumonia. Losing a child is infinitely worse than anyone who has not experienced it can imagine. Watching my wife Liz sing to Mimi as her life faded from our grasp I knew that I not only wanted to go with her (because I couldn’t bear to think of her on her own) but that part of me actually had left with her.
Visiting her for the last time in a Kirkbymoorside funeral parlour, unable to leave the room because I knew it meant I would never see her beautiful face again, I realised we were still only at the beginning of our journey into a completely unpredictable abyss - and in desperate need of any help we could get.
I was at least grateful that I had never believed that death was the end. I felt lucky to have some faith as we said goodbye to her at the crematorium in the Yorkshire Wolds as I whispered to her through her coffin: “Be with us here until we can be with you.” But of course, I asked why God had ‘allowed’ such an amazing child to die. I wondered whether I had prayed hard enough in the hospital chapel where we had begged God to let Mimi live.
Mimi died just before Easter 2004, and we sought comfort from every potential source. We were visited by our parish priest Father Alexander McCabe Father McCabe and Father Bonaventure Knollys, another Benedictine monk of nearby Ampleforth Abbey. But we also prayed and lit candles in York Minster, the largest Gothic Cathedral in northern Europe, where Mimi had once looked up at the stained glass windows.
I still call myself a Catholic and attend mass, albeit irregularly, but my faith has taken a battering over the years and I have looked elsewhere for help. I also go to Quaker meetings - where I find the silence and the kindness of the Friends soothing and therapeutic - and have long been interested in Buddhism. We sought comfort from a friend who is a senior Tibetan Buddhist based in England, who told us: “According to Buddhism, after a person dies their mind continues and takes another rebirth. Because of the strong connection and love between you and Mimi, by sending out loving thoughts and prayers you can always positively influence her mind and her life, and in that way always be with her.”
Meanwhile Liz sought help at a York meeting of Compassionate Friends, a UK-wide charitable organisation of bereaved parents, siblings and grandparents dedicated to the support and care of the bereaved.
Ten years on, I realise how losing Mimi has been a defining moment in my life which has changed me in many different ways fundamentally and forever.
It took at least two years before I no longer woke up to the horror of having to reload all the detail of my grief - and three or four years before I began to think it might just be possible to be happy again. One day. Only in the last couple of years have I been able to think about framing more photographs of Mimi which had remained in drawers since she died because I couldn’t bear the pain of looking at them.
After all this time I remain as close to Mimi as I was when she was alive. Whenever I think of her I imagine she is saying hello, and I always tell her I love her.
I realise I have lived two separate lives. My first life was when we had all our children and everything was well. My second life began the day Mimi died and we slowly realised as the months and years went by that you could never ‘get over’ or ‘come to terms with’ the death of a child. These are just clichés. In reality, all you can do is to try to find a way to live with your grief.
Liz and I have also realised that, if you can survive child bereavement without going off the rails it could be true that ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.’ Indeed, I’ve often wondered whether bereaved parents have something to offer the that no-one else can. Perhaps it’s a depth of understanding that makes them more acutely aware of the exact value - as well as the fragility - of human life.
Since 2004 I have shuddered every time I have heard about the tragic death of a child, or of a soldier, or any of the hundreds of thousands of men, women and children who’ve been killed in Iraq, Afghanistan, Ivory Coast and Syria. People dying tragically are no longer statistics to me, as they once were. I can no longer simply wince at a newspaper story and turn the page. I don’t have to try to empathise with the families of those who have died before their time. It is automatic.
My personal experience of bereavement has convinced me that in these most challenging of times, one faith is not enough. British television’s coolest scientist Professor Brian Cox has been brilliant at explaining how every atom in our bodies was originally made in outer space. Professor Cox is an atheist but says he doesn’t believe that the latest theories of astrophysics are incompatible with the existence of God. I am sure they aren’t.
Death doesn’t seem as scary as it used to be. I’m neither a brilliant scientist nor a razor-sharp theologian - just an ordinary guy trying to make sense of it all. It’s obvious to me that God is everywhere. If there’s a heaven, it would be great to get there. But if this is all there is, it will do just fine. What an incredible place to be with Mimi in eternity.
Nigel Burnham is freelance journalist based in North Yorkshire.