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Last Updated: Friday, 19 December 2003, 10:17 GMT
How do families get over child murder?
By Megan Lane
BBC News Online Magazine

When a child dies a sudden and violent death, the family has to deal with shock, guilt and anger as well as grief. How do they come to terms with such a death?

Candles lit in memory of Holly and Jessica
Several hours after Ian Huntley was found guilty of murdering Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, the girls' parents filed into a press conference to say a few words about the outcome of the trial.

While relieved that his daughter's killer had been brought to justice, Kevin Wells said there was "certainly no sense of euphoria. We have had doubts for 16 months - not until that verdict was announced have we had a cessation of our fears".

For the friends and families of Holly and Jessica, Huntley's conviction marks an important stage in the grieving process. The uncertainty they felt related not only to whether he would be found guilty, but also to what happened to the 10-year-olds in their final moments.

Mary Jones, a bereavement volunteer with Young Cruse, has worked with a couple of families who have had a child murdered. "Yes, it is painful to hear just what happened to their daughters," Ms Jones says. "But going to the trial helps make sense of something where there had been no sense. It helps families accept the reality of the death."

Once the trial is over, many feel that it must be time for a new start, for the pain to ease. But it is just when the grieving may start again, says Ms Jones.

"Families do tend to get down. There may be jubilation at the sentencing, but there is still anger and guilt. This is also the time that the support shown throughout their ordeal starts to fritter away as a conclusion has been reached."

Regenerate family life

Among the important steps to be taken is for the family to start a-fresh, to make up for the gap left when the child died.

And it is often this time of year when that absence is most keenly felt. Some go away on holiday, as the Wells say they plan to do now the trial is over. Others change the way they celebrate events such as Christmas. If the child had done a certain thing, they either do something new entirely or enlist another family member to do it instead.

"Families may feel the need to change their circumstances. Some relocate, some get involved in political activism, which helps them and also helps others," says Ms Jones.

Some decide that they no longer want to be together. The parents of Sarah Payne split three years after her death; the parents of James Bulger have parted and started new families.

"Relationships can get a real battering: sometimes they become stronger, but sometimes they break down. People grieve in different ways and they can't always understand this," Ms Jones says.

The role of a bereavement counsellor is to get to know the family and to find out what is worrying them the most.

"Obviously the most important thing is to get their child back, but that's not possible. So we focus on how to cope with the pain, perhaps, or how to break the news to relatives.

"But grief counselling is not all doom and gloom. We do have fun, which is important as people think they cannot laugh or smile after such a tragedy. It is especially important if there is another sibling, as life has to continue."

James Bulger
The 1993 killing of two-year-old James shocked the nation, not least because his killers - Robert Thompson and Jon Venables - were children themselves.

In 2001, James' mother Denise Fergus (formerly Bulger) led protests against the release of the pair. She set up the campaign group Justice for James, which encouraged supporters to lobby the home secretary to keep her sons killers in jail for the 15 years set at their conviction.

But Thompson and Venables were released, and they now live under new identities.

Eight-year-old Sarah was murdered by Roy Whiting, a convicted sex offender, in July 2000. He is now serving a life sentence.

Her parents, Sara and Michael, have led the campaign for Sarah's Law, which would force authorities to tell residents of known paedophiles living nearby.

And Mrs Payne has backed calls for life imprisonment to mean just that. "We continue to fight the justice system because it's all very well to say these things but putting them into action - that's what we need to do," she has said.

Milly, 13, went missing on her way home from school in March 2002. Her remains were found six months later. No one has been charged with her killing.

Her parents, Bob and Sally, have set up the charity Milly's Fund to offer teens safety advice. They also support Surrey Police's Child Rescue Alert system, which uses local media to raise the alarm if a child is abducted.

Mrs Dowler has said that this helps the grieving process: "We have got another daughter, Gemma. It helps her as well. We could fall into a black hole and never resurface... there is nothing we can do to change it and perhaps we can make a difference this way."

Damilola Taylor
The 10-year-old bled to death after being stabbed with a piece of broken glass three years ago. Two brothers charged with his killing were acquitted last year - the case remains open.

On the first anniversary of his death, his parents Richard and Gloria set up the Damilola Taylor Trust, a charity to help children in inner cities reach their full potential.

As Damilola wanted to train to be a doctor, the trust also offers grants to disadvantaged pupils who wish to study medicine, and funds schemes to help young people in Africa suffering from conditions such as epilepsy.

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