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Paul Vallely: Grief is a journey without a destination

22 October 2021

Paul Vallely finds words that speak to the pain of David Amess’s family


Members of Sir David Amess’s family view flowers and tributes outside Belfairs Methodist Church, Leigh-on-Sea, in Essex, on Monday

Members of Sir David Amess’s family view flowers and tributes outside Belfairs Methodist Church, Leigh-on-Sea, in Essex, on Monday

WHEN the news came through of the killing of Sir David Amess, I was reading an illuminating new book by Bishop James Jones, Justice for Christ’s Sake (SPCK). A line jumped out from it immediately. It contrasted starkly with all the news about the detail of the stabbing, the fears for the safety of Sir David’s fellow MPs, and the immediate speculation about the part that Islamist fundamentalism may have played in the horrific incident. The Bishop wrote plainly: “Grief is a journey without a destination.”

Bishop Jones was writing about the families at the heart of the Hillsborough tragedy, in which 97 Liverpool football fans were crushed to death. The independent panel that he chaired overturned the notion that the fans were somehow to blame for their own death. Instead, it pointed the finger at police officers who had falsified evidence to distract from police culpability — and at an ambulance service that could have saved 41 of the 97 lives, had it acted promptly.

The Hillsborough panel, unusually for an official inquiry, had begun with the personal pain of the bereaved. But the Bishop’s words spoke eloquently of the pain that the family of the murdered MP must also be suffering.

A misconception addressed in the book is that the relatives of the dead seek “closure”. He writes: “I began to feel that closure was something that was sought by others who felt discomfited by the relentless, incessant demands for the truth to be told . . . and for those responsible to be held accountable. The notion of closure seemed a useful fiction imagined by those who wish the families would go away.”

What the bereaved require is not closure, but justice — which first requires the truth to be established. The bereaved of Hillsborough had been let down in that by police, press, politicians, and by the legal system.

The first task, therefore, was to listen to the rage. “Anger is the soul’s proper protest at evil,” he writes elsewhere. “The moral order has been violated when innocence has been destroyed.” Once you know that your children have been unlawfully killed, you want to know who is responsible. The Hillsborough bereaved wanted not revenge, but accountability.

Such thoughts will not map entirely on to the grieving of the Amess family, who say that their hearts are shattered, but who have called on people to “set aside hatred” and show love. Self-righteous conviction can be countered, they suggest, only by kindness.

Justice means providing for others, through humanity, what we provide for our family through affection, the Bishop writes, quoting the Divine Institutes by Lactantius. Jesus was a victim of injustice, but he never sought justice for himself; his focus is always on justice for others. The tributes to Sir David suggest a similar balance.

For his family, too, grief be will a journey without destination. As Bishop Jones writes, “There are many milestones along the way, when you stop and think what might have been, and what should have been. But as you travel through grief, you’re not looking for a signpost that reads The End. There’s no finish to the cherishing of someone you love.” Grief, as the Queen once observed, is the price we pay for love.

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