Julie Nicholson, a vicar in Bristol lost her 24-year-old elder daughter Jenny in the 2005 London bombings. The story of that loss hit our screens earlier this month in Song for Jenny, a drama based on Nicholson’s book of the same name with which the BBC marked the 10th anniversary of 7/7.
|Emily Watson as Julie Nicholson in 'A song for Jenny'|
Both book and drama are intensely moving, charting a courageous, determined woman’s journey through the alien landscape of grief, the journey of all parents in mourning. We glimpse Julie’s visceral pain at the loss of her daughter; her sense of having failed Jenny by not protecting her; her need to know every detail of Jenny’s last moments. She stands on the platform at Edgware Road underground station, staring down the tunnel to the point where, 10 seconds from the station, Jenny died. It is forever a sacred place.
The story is a study of one particular Christian under immense pressure. I admire Julie Nicholson’s candid honesty. She is honest about her faith, her sense of God as mystery, her relentless questioning. She describes herself as ‘a woolly liberal with a catholic heart,’ adding ‘I [do] not have an evangelical mind.’
‘Surround this child with Your love, protect her from evil,’ they’d prayed at Jenny’s christening. Where was this supposedly protecting God in the Edgware Road tunnel? Of this Julie is certain: Jenny’s death was not ‘fate’ or ‘destiny’ but the consequences of a bomber’s evil delusions.
Julie is honest about her instinct in the days following Jenny’s death to step aside from the role of vicar, and from any sense of obligation to think or act in a certain way as a Christian so that she can simply be a grieving mother, mourning a lost child.
She’s honest about her inability to forgive, uncertain whether it is a mother’s place to forgive a daughter’s killing. She told an interviewer ‘I will leave potential forgiveness for whatever is after this life. I will leave that in God’s hands.’ In the meantime, she resolves not to hate Mohammed Siddique Khan, and in that resolve, finds a certain release.
Julie admits that at times her mourning was so intense that she excluded her other children, Lizzie and Tom, and her then husband Greg.
And Julie is honest, finally, in her later decision to resign from the ministry. She feels too emotional, too raw to lead the Eucharist and conduct funerals, weddings, baptisms. And she would find it difficult to say the words of ‘peace and reconciliation’ with complete integrity.
I so admire this woman’s openness and lack of pretence. Her story is a powerful reminder that it’s OK for us Christians to be real, whatever our feelings or lack of feelings. OK to mourn, to rage, to question, to struggle with forgiveness.
The book also demonstrates how other Christians can help or hinder us as we travel through mourning. There’s the young clergyman in the stiflingly hot hospital, clutching a sandwich. Though unsure what to say babbles inconsequentially rather than keeping silent. Another vicar in the same place busies himself providing cold drinks. ‘That’s my kind of chaplain,’ says Julie.
There was the man who said of Jenny ‘Jesus will be looking after her?’ ‘Well, why wasn’t he looking after her there, in the tunnel?’ Julie raged inwardly.
Other Christians simply stood with the family in their pain. Their former vicar whispered down the phone ‘Dear Jenny, dear Jenny.’ An elderly priest at St Paul’s listened and empathised, promising to pray for Jenny and the Nicholsons every day for the rest of his life.
Jenny drew comfort from music and poetry, and from Job in the Bible who ‘seems to get to the heart of suffering and despair.’ I’m impressed by her book’s portrayal of the love for one another of the members of her extended family. She’s encouraged by a quote from Kevin Crossley-Holland which she and Jenny had enjoyed: ‘I want everyone to know we all need each other and each one of us makes a difference.’
This is where God is most visible in this story, sustaining not in theology and statements of faith, but in whispers, in the love of family and the love of strangers.
At one point Julie says ‘I think there is no such thing as normality. It’s just a mask behind which people conceal their sorrow.’ At another she quotes Etty Hillesum, who found God amid the horror of Auschwitz: ‘Despite everything life is full of beauty and meaning.’
Both statements are true, I believe. God is not just ‘out there’, but sits with us like that priest at St Paul’s, breathing life into us. And so we do not utterly despair, but come to glimpse the beauty which beckons us forward in hope, though through tears.
(Christian Viewpoint column from the Highland News dated 15th July 2015)