Madeleine died in December 2000 when I was 38. She was 2 and had been suffering from flu-like symptoms for several days. Jane, my wife, had taken her to the doctors a few times, only to be told she was being a neurotic mother. Madeleine hadn’t been feeling well all day and was very quiet. She developed breathing difficulties when I popped out to buy a Christmas tree.
The doctor suggested the local cottage hospital, from where she was rushed to the district hospital. At each stage a doctor had listened to her heart – the district hospital used a heart monitor – and she was given drugs for presumed asthma. She quietened down and went to sleep in the children’s ward with Jane lying next to her. I slept on the floor beside them. In the night Madeleine sat up, pulled off the sticky heart monitor patches, and died.
Jane was frantic as they tried to revive Madeleine for nearly an hour. I attempted to reassure her but could see through a small window in the door of our side room what was going on as more and more staff tried to bring our daughter back to life. I pleaded with God that this wasn’t real – it felt like a dream – I was going to wake up and find everything was still normal.
Eventually a consultant emerged. He held up his hands shrugging his shoulders. “She’s dead then?” I asked. He nodded, unable to break the news. Our parish priest, Monsignor Morgan, arrived and we went to see Madeleine. Her usually beautiful red curls looked bedraggled. She had a frown frozen on her forehead and a breathing tube in her mouth. We said our prayers and went home alone in silence. I knew I had to look after Jane now, and to start telling people the news.
Our parents, in their different ways, gave us the strength we needed to cope. My father is a military man and never better than in an emergency. They rushed down from the Scottish Highlands and spent Christmas sharing our grief, making sure we ate, reminding us what we were supposed to be doing. Most of all they helped immensely by listening, never discussing their own loss of their grandchild. Now they are less inclined to talk of Madeleine – stirring up past memories is not their way. Jane’s more elderly parents live in Canada. They were distraught, her father repeatedly wishing it had been him. Jane’s mother thoughtfully arrived around Madeleine’s birthday, supporting Jane packing Madeleine’s treasures into a trunk; greatly helping them both.
Madeleine’s half-brother, William (then 12), lived with his mother. His loss was awful. He seldom speaks of his little sister but doesn’t need to tell us how much he misses her. When with us it seemed we simply reminded him of what he had lost. He was unhappy talking to his mother and got the love and support he needed from his closest school friends.
Jane was holding Madeleine in her arms as she died and for Jane, being there was better than hearing what had happened. The excruciating moment when the consultant shrugged his silent explanation unleashed howls of pain at the loss of her daughter. There are no words to describe Jane’s grief. It was many months before my usually happy wife could manage even a smile.
The lead up to the funeral was a dreadful limbo. Madeleine died just before Christmas; her funeral was just before New Year. We rounded up our extended family whilst waiting
for the post mortem. In the days between her death and her funeral the sun never shone. It felt appropriate. We live in a small tightly-knit village who rallied round. Christmas that year was suspended for the whole community. The choir spent it rehearsing for the funeral. Although Catholics, we live very close to the local Anglican church and knew the Vicar well. He allowed Madeleine’s funeral and burial to be at his Church. I dealt with the things you have to do – funeral directors, orders of service, trying to feel useful. My parents were quietly keeping an eye on things.
The funeral was a transition out of the awful un-Christmas that year. It had snowed and on a frosty, cloudless day the sun shone brightly – for the first time since Madeleine had died. Hundreds of friends, family and colleagues came. Madeleine was too young for it to be the celebration of a life well lived. It was a profoundly sad occasion, punctuated by the sobs of the congregation. Monsignor Morgan led the service with the Vicar at his side. The music was dignified and formal and I felt this was the first day of getting to grips with Madeleine being gone. I focused on helping Jane and William. Someone remarked it seemed like a film as we processed in silence to the grave-side, crunching through crisp snow. It was all too real to me. She had finally gone.
Immediately after came the support of friends and letters from people I hardly knew, often sharing previously unknown loss. Later was the emptiness. The thought of getting on with life without my beloved daughter was sometimes overwhelming. A household who loved music didn’t listen to music for months. It was a long time after before I allowed myself to laugh.
The conclusive post mortem of dilated cardiomyopathy meant there wasn’t an inquest. She had had no chance of survival. The failure of numerous doctors to identify her illness did not contribute to her death. The pathologist, Dr Gould, was a brilliant, compassionate man; the single most important person in helping me deal with my loss. He explained Madeleine’s condition, and the possible family implications.
The main impact Madeline’s death has had on me is to realise how fragile life is. Live it while you can! I have worked as a bereavement supporter for CRY and am now Chairman of the Board. Initially, Madeleine’s death had a profound impact on our family and friends but I worked hard at making sure people knew it was OK to talk to us. Now I don’t really notice any difference except when close friends comment on an anniversary.
It is impossible to say whether our loss has changed our relationship. Jane and I treasure our son Freddie (now 8), think life is for living, and share a deep-down pain that cannot be explained to anyone who has not suffered the same loss. I’m not sure whether that makes us any better or worse or our relationship weaker or stronger.
Until Freddie was born I felt we were objects of pity but now I mention Madeleine to keep her memory alive. Jane is better at talking about Madeleine – she’s not British. Freddie, who never knew Madeleine, likes occasionally to look in her “treasure” trunk and ask questions about his older sister.
At only two Madeleine was wise well beyond her years. She was a beautiful red-haired child with an impish sense of fun and an unquenchable curiosity. Her zest for life remains an example to those lucky enough to know her.