A PARENT’S job is to protect and reassure. How might we do this when a suicide bomber can enter the foyer of a concert arena and kill more than 20 people, including children and teenagers, while injuring and traumatising many, many more?
Yet we must. Murderous danger stalks amongst us, hidden, unseen, unexpected and unjustifiable. As a parent, I’ve never found it particularly easy to talk about such things.
As soon as I heard the news on Tuesday morning, I burst into tears, hardly setting a great example of stoicism to my son and daughter. However, the attack at Manchester Arena has brought home the responsibility we all hold.
It is difficult enough for adults to process. If we struggle to come to terms with the sense of loss, fear and the ongoing dread that it could happen again, anywhere, how do we help our children to cope?
The things we have seen on television and read in the newspapers, and on social media, the photographs of children killed, maimed and separated from their parents, the stories of parents and strangers trying valiantly to protect youngsters, we cannot let them pass without trying to help our own children make sense of it.
Above all, what we must not do is panic. The instinctive reaction of a mother or father is “what if?” Our first thought is it could have been my son, my daughter, caught up in the crowd. How can this not be the scenario in our heads, when the pictures of those who lost their lives could so easily be the friends of our own sons and daughters – or us?
The holiday snaps squinting into the sun. The selfies taken so self-consciously in a teenage bedroom. These could be in any family album, or on anybody’s phone. And they have become the images by which the world will remember.
For me, the abiding memory will be the mother of 15-year-old victim Olivia Campbell sobbing on television when her daughter could not be found – the sheer visceral pain that only a mother can feel.
We cannot give into this overwhelming tide of sadness, and resolve never to let our own out of our sight again. If we do so, we risk bringing up our children with no resilience against the world. And the world they live in requires this quality above all.
Only the other week my 14-year-old son Jack was in Manchester, on a theatre trip with his drama GCSE group. If another trip comes up, to another city, he will have my support to go again. It will be difficult, but if I cannot show him confidence, how will he find it in himself?
The easy bit of being a parent is holding your child close in your arms where you know they are safe. The hardest bit is letting them go out into the world where you know you cannot protect them.
However, we cannot live our lives sitting on the sofa watching the news in horror and keeping our children close by our side. Neither can we give in to prejudice and judgement. Talking to my son, and his sister, who is 11, I have been surprised at just how rational they are.
I’ve tried to let them talk and bring their own ideas into the open. Jack, who is studying history and has a Muslim friend at school, takes the widest possible view of the situation. He wants to debate and discuss. He has a desire to find answers, to talk about how extremism takes root and what can be done to tackle it.
Above all, he wants to reassure me that he is coming to terms with terror. He thinks he might even know more about it than I do. His sister keeps quiet.
I know what she is thinking. She is thinking of the time I took her to see her favourite pop group, Little Mix, at Sheffield, with a group of mums and daughters. She is thinking too of the coach trip we’re going on soon to a theatre in Blackpool to watch a dance competition. She won’t say anything now, but I know that her nights will be disturbed by troubling dreams in which she is separated from me in a crowd. There will be chaos, confusion, gunshots and soldiers.
Her dreams will be the kind of dreams I had myself after the 9/11 attacks in 2001. The kind of dreams which helped me decide to leave London two years later and return to Yorkshire to raise my family in what I hoped would be a safe environment. How innocent the world was back then.
Again, we cannot dwell. We must be practical and pragmatic. Nobody can anticipate a terrorist attack, especially one in which no warning is given. However, what we can do is to give our children clear guidance on how to act should it happen around them. Run. Hide. Tell. That’s the official advice from the National Police Chiefs Council. It sounds like some hideous version of a childhood game itself. The tragedy is that it is all too real in the world where our children are growing up.