- By Helen
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The death of a family member or somebody close to us is different to another person’s experience, no matter how many parallels can be drawn or similarity in circumstances, mainly because there are other factors at hand, ourselves and how we react and view the world. And so I have found over the years, despite my loss of four immediate family members, that there is always something to learn or glean from another person’s experience of death and the way the person died. Juliet Darling describes her reaction to the death of her partner, Nick Waterlow, after he had been brutally killed by his son who suffered from mental illness.
When I hear people’s response to the death that says they would feel scared of or distanced from the body of a deceased loved one, it is likely to reflect that they have not experienced the loss of a loved one to date, or, that an opportunity was lost in discovering there is nothing to fear when they have lost someone. Juliet Darling describes her experience in the words that follow from Daily Life publication.
“In 2009, art curator Nick Waterlow and his daughter Chloe died in a knife attack by his eldest son, Antony, who had been suffering from schizophrenia. Nick’s partner, Juliet Darling, tells why she needed to see the crime-scene photographs.
Instinctively I felt the morgue was a place where I could find good, a place where the dead were honoured but also the living, and I decided to go back there to receive counselling.
Each time I walked through the doors, I felt no fear or trepidation, but an immediate sense of warmth and security. The waiting room with its bland pale blue walls and sparse functional interior had become, for me, a kind of home. This place of death was also a place of love.
Spending time with Nick at the morgue helped me realise that he was no longer “here”. Eventually I would learn to accept that. But still, I couldn’t come to terms with what had happened to him that night. For months I had been replaying Nick’s final few moments over and over in my mind – each night, and again each morning. I couldn’t rid myself of my ideas. I would sleep for two hours and then wake bolt upright, entangled in cold, sweat-soaked sheets. Then I would spend long hours staring into the dark.
I wasn’t quite sure how but I thought it might help me to see Nick’s crime photographs. I asked the homicide detective, who said: “I say no.” I asked my friends what they thought and they said, “Don’t go there,” or “Nick wouldn’t want that” or “He would much rather you look at a Giotto fresco.”
My GP told me, “You’re a visual person. Don’t.” A doctor who worked at a mental hospital said, “I’ve had to look at such things as part of my work and I do not advise it.” “Yes,” I said, looking at him imploringly, “but I loved him.” As I walked away through the shopping mall, I thought to myself: “That’s it. That’s what makes all the difference. I loved him.”
It was time for instinct. After a visit to the counsellor who told me that viewing the photographs couldn’t be worse than what I had already gone through, I wrote to the coroner and explained my position. He gave me permission.
Nick’s dear friend Father Steve Sinn, a Jesuit priest, offered to accompany me and he said he would hand me the photographs. He picked me up and drove me to the morgue.
The counsellor greeted us and told us how the events had unfolded that afternoon. Then we moved to a desk by the window and one at a time we were shown small colour reproductions. The counsellor also described what we were about to see, even the smallest of details, such as the fact that Nick’s plastic watchband had been slashed. It was to give us a reason, to contextualise the images and to give us a choice.
I laid my eyes on the image of Nick dead on the ground in his own pool of blood. I saw the daylight in his lustreless eyes. I saw the “what” and the “is” rather than the “how” and the “why”. I also saw how I had exaggerated my own importance. I came to see that much of my guilt and inability to forgive myself had been tied up with my own thoughts.
I had been playing, in my mind, a fictionalised event for so long that part of my consciousness had come to believe that I had actually “been there”. And if I had been there, why hadn’t I done more to help? Why was I a passive onlooker? To be able to see what had actually happened – and those images were far worse than my thoughts – made me aware that I couldn’t have stopped the killing. I had wanted to be with Nick when he died and perhaps that was why my mind tricked me.
There is a difference between viewing crime photographs of a person one loves and viewing the vivid crime photographs of anonymous victims on television or on the internet. Shock photos do not help us to see the reality in other people’s lives. They are given no background or landscape, no context. They are frightening because they are shown in isolation.
Fantasy distorts and magnifies; it is contemptuous of reality. But imagination and reason are connected. Father Sinn offered a valuable insight when he said, “Imagination is a bit like compassion. I think it liberates you from your own self. It does ask that we be able to enter into the world of another. Not to enter with rape and pillage, but to enter with love. To imagine something is to be able to appreciate what others are going through, to enter into their experience.”
Nick’s crime photographs were shown in context; I had my reasons for wanting to see them, and because it was my choice I was able to take the gentle, faithful hand of imagination and move out of myself and enter into the reality of them.
In a strange twist of irony, when I looked at the photographs, I saw the emptiness of death and I felt the fullness of love. It was evident then that our love would endure forever, beyond the corpse, beyond death. It was a transcendent experience. And for the first time in two years I felt a sense of peace – the deep peace of love.
Juliet Darling’s memoir A Double Spring: A Year of Tragedy, Grief and Love (Allen & Unwin) is out now; julietdarling.com.”