March 17th is normally for most people a day of celebration – St. Patrick’s Day. What a saint he was too, not only bringing a message of hope to the Irish, but also to the rest of the British Isles during his lifetime. March 17th, 2011, was a day that changed my life for all the wrong reasons, as this was the day I lost my 12-year-old daughter, Charlotte.
The day started out like any other, Charlotte going to school, coming home, doing her homework, and gobbling her food down before rushing out to her dance school. Charlotte was probably flustered and tired as she was managing a lot for a 12-year-old. She had been privileged to be performing in the West End show “Billy Elliot” three nights a week. On top of this, she still attended her local dance school 9 hours a week as well as secondary school. But Charlotte wouldn’t have had it any other way. Her life was like a hurricane, and she lived it to the full.
She was running late for her dance session so Karen gave her a lift in the car and let her out. As she crossed the road, she was hit by a bus and killed.
Six months later, Karen and I were sitting down with the police officers who were explaining the crash investigation team’s report of Charlotte’s fatal collision. I will spare you the explicit details of the report, but for me personally, I wanted to know every detail of what happened on that fateful night. I wanted answers for the last six months of torment, not really knowing how or why Charlotte was killed. I thought at least I could have the scientific reason from this investigative report. But my torment was not to be laid to rest, only exasperated.
The coroner’s conclusion was “accidental death.” The scientific conclusion was Charlotte’s death had been left to random chance. Facing my world of pain with no rhyme or reason left me feeling empty. The world looked dark, full of despair and hopelessness.
This was a tipping point in my private world. Was I going to be able to stand or fall? The blunt force of trauma had knocked me down. I wasn’t sure if I would be able to get back up again. My gut reaction was to fight, facing the overwhelming power of my grief was going to be the hardest thing I’d ever done in my life.
Why was this happening to me? I had learnt that not even 1% of the population in my country experiences the death of a child. Nine out of 10 marriages do not survive this kind of loss. Psychologists say that there is no greater grief than the loss of a child. Losing Charlotte upset the natural order of life; no parent is meant to bury their own child. I feel like I’m living an alternate life that was not meant to be. Life moves on too quickly for everyone around me, and I feel I’m being left behind.
I will attempt in a few words to explain what has helped me to manage and cope with my grief over the last four years. Karen and I recently celebrated 25 years of marriage. We have always talked and shared everything together. We have left no stone unturned. Even though our grief would want to make us shut down and stop communicating in every way, we have continued to be open, to talk and care for each other.
I will never fully understand why we lost Charlotte apart from the harsh truth: you cannot argue with a moving bus. My faith in God has been tested to the max. I’m not trying to offend anybody here and I know there are many good arguments for and against having any kind of faith in a loving God. Pain and suffering can often be a tipping point. But what it all comes down to in the end, for me, is whether I choose to face my world of pain with God or without Him. I choose faith in God.
During the first week of losing Charlotte, I decided to start up a charity in her memory to build a legacy for her. A charity that offers scholarships to other young performers who cannot afford or manage the privileged education in the performing arts. The Charlotte Leatherbarrow Foundation is in its fourth year now and growing. I have written a book and now for the first time I’m a published author. Writing has been a therapeutic experience and also has helped bring hope to others who are in pain.
Coping with my grief has been like facing a force that just wants to hurt me. Normally when someone wants to hurt me or my family, I will instinctively want to hurt them back. This is where my faith makes sense. Instead of bringing more pain and brokenness out of something that is already painful, I choose to turn it around and bring life out of death, to bring good out of bad, to turn my tragedy into hope.
My life has not always been about reaching the end result, but more about sharing the process of my journey. As a young man, I learnt about the power of forgiveness; if I let go of the past, if I left it behind, I could become the kind of man I really wanted to be. With losing Charlotte, I’m still learning that if I really want to move on with my life, I must learn the painful process of letting her go, and to leave her behind.