Katie and William were not our children — but their tragic deaths are about us
Just another Monday. Even in this increasingly dysfunctional world, we still have them. We go about our business. I’d been meeting a colleague over coffee in Edinburgh’s George Street. A cheery enough hour spent. That thing we call catching up.
I couldn’t help being reminded, while the caffeine was good, the coffee bar had been a newsagent’s shop once. A place where I’d bought 16 paracetamol to top up the 32 I’d already taken as I drifted around the city aimlessly one Sunday 15 years earlier. So as I bade farewell and stepped lightly away I had cause for a moment of reflection – and hope. That was then. This was now. I was here.
And then my phone pinged. A missed call I’d not heard. Just a routine call from another colleague. But then a text too. Perhaps not? They were from my colleague, Linda. My head was still half in the encounter I’d just had, half in the rest of the day to come. My call back was answered quickly. No pleasantries.
‘Katie’s dead, Chris.’
I stepped out of myself. Then, Linda’s voice again. ‘She died this morning.’ My mind somersaulted. Katie was 21. I knew she had been in prison. I knew this was Linda’s darkest fear — that she wouldn’t survive the ordeal.
And I knew, immediately, though Linda didn’t say it, that Katie must have taken her own life. Even in the space between words, there could be no other explanation. I work in words. But I had none now. ‘Linda, I’m so, so sorry.’ I said. ‘I wanted you to know, Chris’ she replied. And then, she had to go.
My tracks had been halted. Now I gathered my thoughts and picked up my pace. What was I doing? Ah, yes. And then a flashback to the moment before the call.
I am here. But — Katie is not.
Linda is now running a campaign. Behind its story — of institutions, accountabilities, and inquiries — is a human story. Of incalculable loss. A mother has lost her daughter — a father too, and a brother his sister. But because Katie’s death was needless and avoidable, it is also a story of unfathomable layers.
‘This is more than grief’ Linda said to me a few days later.
She must now live, daily, with the agony of that avoidability. As a mother, whatever the campaign suggests, she will ask questions of herself, first. Not the questions of a concerned bystander or onlooker. But of a woman who brought a daughter into the world — never thinking that her life would end first, let alone like this. Over and over again, picking through what happened — the thing that might have altered the present she now inhabits. And the future, bereaved.
For many of us who play in the policy sphere, making a comfortable living out of it, these moments are usually of other lives. Like that of William Lindsay, in Dani Garavelli’s harrowing piece in The Scotsman. I have seen something of those lives as a social researcher. I spent the summer of 2005 interviewing children and young people in the Hearings system. Children and young people who might have gone on to be William.
But there, at that moment, on that street, this horror was about my friend’s daughter’s life. And her death. It wasn’t a policy clause, or a research finding or a recommendation. It was a tragedy I had to attend to as a human being — not with the emotional armour of a researcher’s tape recorder or a chief executive’s name badge or the privilege of a seat at the table of an expert advisory group. I couldn’t ‘other’ it.
Because, remarkably, Linda — with her husband Stuart — found herself in a place they could never have imagined, othering is over for them. For the moment, she throws herself into the campaign. With extraordinary aplomb. As someone else attending its recent press conference said to me later.
‘Such composure and fluency. After what she’s gone through it’s remarkable. Her daughter would be proud of her. I’m sure she is, in fact.’
But how will Linda live, in the everyday sense? After every encounter, I’ve had with her since that moment, I’ve come away with that question reverberating. And another, she asked me one sunny day in Kelvingrove Park a month or so after it happened. How does she find joy again? It seems impossible. Yet she does. Not the sort of joy she ever dreamt would be hers. But a kind of joy nonetheless. Just two days ago she tweeted.
‘I have spent the morning with Margaret, the mum of Michael. Michael was Katie’s victim, who is doing so well. We talked and laughed and strengthened our growing friendship. What a testament to forgiveness and kindness. It would have meant the world to Katie Allan.’
This is Linda’s life now. She has spent much of it so far in public service — with, and for, people with learning disabilities — a more passionate and dedicated public servant you couldn’t hope to meet. But even she would admit that she used to walk away from policies and practices back into the relative comfort — for all its trial and tribulations — of her own life.
No more. Not from this story. This is hers. And in the most tangential and minuscule way, it’s in my life, too. Yet I still could — if I let myself — read about William’s life and ‘other’ it because his mother was not my friend. Nor ever likely to be. But, whatever becomes of her campaign, Linda can’t do that ever again. And so neither should I.
Shamefully, some of the chatter around the commentary on Katie and William’s deaths has sought to turn on the families. In Linda and Stuart’s case, snide accusations about their middle-classness. In the case of William’s mother, the charge that she, while grieving, is seeking to profit from her son’s tragic demise.
But at its core, her experience is no different from Linda’s. When William first poked his head into the world 16 years before he died, this is not what she wanted. Because her own life has been blighted by misfortune, the circumstances of his death were, perhaps, more knowable for her than they might have been for Linda, of Katie’s. But her grief isn’t diminished by that. If anything, the reverse is true.
None of us should read these stories and think for a moment that they are only about other lives or other people’s responsibilities. There but for the grace of God, go we. Most of us are fortunate enough not to be in the system. And there are those in positions of power who will be called to account when things go wrong for people who are. People who must listen, and learn and take action. Rather them than me. Power comes at a price. It isn’t the innumerable price Linda has paid, nor William’s mother. But it’s unenviable even so.
And meanwhile, we can wipe our tears and shake our heads and get on with the day. Just as we can ‘other’ the lives lost, we can ‘other’ the responsibility for them too. But it is surely impossible to come away from these stories without realising they are — in fact — about us. In a democratic society which trumpets social justice, such human calamity cannot only be about those left behind in the private sphere — or those who have to deal with the consequences in the public realm.
If we want to stop reading these stories, we must know, they are about us.