February 23, 2008

"I cried every night for six months'

Countess Mountbatten was in the family boat when it was blown up by the IRA one summer August morning, killing two adults, two young boys and leaving three fighting for their lives. 

My own memory," says Patricia, Countess Mountbatten of Burma, "is of a vision of a ball exploding upwards and then of 'coming to' in the sea and wondering if I would be able to reach the surface before I passed out.

I have very vague memories, now and again, of floating among the wood and debris, being pulled into a small rubber dinghy before totally losing consciousness for days." In her lucid intervals, unable to open her eyes, or speak, or even weep, she began to realise that a monstrous swathe had been cut through her family.

Her father, her mother-in-law, her 15 year-old son Nicky dead.  Nicky's twin brother Time was left terribly injured and blind in one eye. 

"As anyone whose child dies will know only too well, this news utterly devastated me," she says. "In fact I was so overwhelmed by grief for Nicky, who was just on the threshold of his life, that I began to feel guilty that I was not able to grieve for my father, whom I really adored, in the same way.

For almost the past 30 years, Lady Mountbatten has been turning her personal loss into a force for good - not just mending her own shattered family but using her experience to help other bereaved parents, through her support of two charities, the Child Bereavement Charity and Compassionate Friends.
Lady Mountbatten once confided that, before the bomb, she "would have said that the death of any of my children would have killed me as well, taken away completely my own wish to live".

Through sheer force of personality, that didn't happen. In her endorsement of the Child Bereavement Trust's new book, Farewell, My Child, she refers to "the seemingly endless black tunnel" through which those left behind have to pass to reach "the light that truly does appear at the end, and which we eventually found ourselves".

Though 84 and now widowed, she is in no way to be pitied. The robust family spirit, a tensile weave of humour and stoicism, runs through her conversation, her lively dress sense and her manner.

Her features are still beautiful. Pinned to her ruffled fuchsia blouse is a brilliant yellow butterfly. Her purple and pink chequered tights make me feel dowdy. Survivor is too feeble a word for her.

"She has that half-full attitude to life," says Jenni Thomas, founder of the Child Bereavement Charity, which trains and supports doctors and nurses in bereavement counselling. "We find her an inspiration. You come away feeling better for meeting her. She'll quietly listen to someone in trouble and then put her wisdom to it."

Hats off to a  remarkable woman.

Posted by Jill Fallon at February 23, 2008 8:54 PM | Permalink