0 n the day his teenage son died
Jim O'Brien remembers sitting shell-shocked on the bottom stair of his home. As the terrible news began to sink in, a close family member put her hand on his shoulder and said: "Now Jim, you have to be strong."
"It was the last thing I needed to hear at the time," he recalls. "Losing a child changes your whole perspective on life. There's an unnatural order about experiencing your child's death before your own. Seemingly important things suddenly become trivial. Nothing adequately describes the pain of child bereavement."
It has been 22 years since Mr O'Brien, a retired teacher, lost his 18-year-old son, Don, in a motorcycle accident. Time may have marched on but the void left by his death is still keenly felt. "Don was one of four sons but this didn't make things any easier," he reveals. "The years have helped me to cope but they haven't helped me to forget. The memories are always there."
He adds: "When a child dies, you have to find reasons for going on. You have to carry your reasons and the memory of the child you have lost as a support. I try to see it as a support rather than a great weight or cross to bear or something that pulls you into the abyss." Five years ago, Mr O'Brien, an Irish-born Catholic, decided it was time to reach out to other bereaved parents in the same situation. In 1998, he organised the first Children's Memorial Mass and Candle Service at St George's Cathedral, Southwark.
Princess Diana's mother Frances Shand Kydd shared her own experiences of losing both her daughter, and elder son and third child, John, who died 11 hours after birth. At the end of the service, attended by 1,000 people, Mrs Shand Kydd, who was received into the Catholic Church in 1994, said that in the "shock and grief of Diana's death, she had "cause to bless her elder son."
"His short life gave me the experience of what it was to be again in grief," she revealed. 'With John's death I knew of the agony to bury a child, and became aware that life does become gentler and kinder, though the aches stay always."
The event was repeated the following year — when the mother of the vanished estate agent, Suzy Lamplugh was the speaker — and again in 2000. This year's Mass on December 12, will be dedicated to Amanda Dowler and the
Cambridgeshire schoolgirls Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells. Mr O'Brien has invited the families of all three girls to the gathering. He ishoping that the poignancy of the occasion will attract up to 1,000
bereaved parents of all denominations and faiths. Just before Holy Communion, there will be a candlelit ceremony, where the names of 500 children inscribed into a Book of Remembrance will be read out in alphabetical order.
"People who come will be comforted by the fact that they're together," says Mr O'Brien. "They'll all know that everyone there has been visited by bereavement. There's a common affinity within the congregation that one doesn't find in a normal church service. There's a reaching out which can be felt from the moment you walk inside the door." The speaker this year will be Canon Roger Hoyle, presenter of BBC Radio 2's Sunday Half Hour, and an Anglican clergyman.
"We're looking to give the Mass an ecumenical slant," explains Mr O'Brien. "My main thrust is to reach out to as many people as possible." The Southwark event is based on a similar pre-Christmas service that started in Liverpool in 1989. This year up to 2,000 people are expected to gather at Liverpool Cathedral for a special ceremony on December 10. The annual event alternates between the city's Catholic and Anglican cathedrals.
Mr O'Brien first read about the service, organised by staff from the Alder Centre based at the Royal Liverpool Children's Hospital, in an article by the writer and broadcaster Bel Mooney. "She concluded that it was a pity that a service of this kind couldn't be held in cities across the country every year," he says. "This gave me the idea to try something similar. Bel Mooney gave me great support and read out the names of the children who had died during the first Mass four years ago."
In the UK alone, 12,000 children under the age of 19 die each year. Jane Roberts who lost her son in a tragic road accident last December is one of thousands of parents who struggle to come to terms with the trauma each year.
The Catholic mother from Chalfont St Giles, Buckinghamshire assuaged her grief by setting up a trust fund in her son's name with the monks of Ampleforth Abbey, York. She is now planning a memorial Mass in London for family, friends and supporters of Alistair Roberts Memorial Fund on January 19 on what would have been her son's 20th birthday. Mrs Roberts is hoping to raise £100,000
through the fund to give young volunteers who could not otherwise afford the trip, the chance to go to Lourdes.
Her son, a former pupil of Ampleforth College, had twice worked as a brancardier with sick and disabled people in Lourdes. He was planning a third pilgrimage to Lourdes at the time of the accident. Mrs Roberts who visited the shrine for the first time in July with the Ampleforth pilgrimage, says: "When Alistair died, I was given the grace to be able to cope. I'll always suffer because of what's happened. The pain is very real.
"I want something good to come from my son's death. Alistair's instinct would always be to help those less fortunate. He touched more people in his short life than others who have lived to 80."
Contacts: Jim O'Brien, The Children's Memorial Mass, Tel: 0208 642 5010, Jane Roberts, The Alistair Roberts Memorial Fund, Stokewood House, Deadhearn Lane, Chalfont St Giles, Bucks. HP8 4HG. See www.arml org.uk