The family way

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A single mother whose only daughter died six months ago talks to Lisa Salmon about publishing the harrowing diary of her bereavement

Losing your only child is an agony most parents can't even bear to contemplate.

But, last July, Anne-Marie Cockburn was forced to.

On a sunny Saturday morning, beside an Oxford lake, her only child, 15-year-old Martha, suffered a cardiac arrest, after it's believed she took what she thought was ecstasy.

Cockburn's hopes and dreams inevitably died too. And yet, instead of letting the shock of such a devastating loss destroy her, Cockburn coped by writing about her grief, putting pen to paper within hours of Martha's death.

And now, six months on, before she has even been able to get a death certificate for her daughter or register her death, that harrowing memoir of how it feels to lose the child you've built your world around has been published.

Cockburn's raw grief is laid bare on every page of the book, called 5,742 Days to mark the short time Martha was alive. And reading it is probably the closest a parent could come to understanding what it feels like to lose a child without, God forbid, actually having to go through it themselves.

"I was writing within a few hours," recalls Cockburn in her soft Scottish accent.

"I think it was just the way I reacted to the shock - I was manically trying to piece my world back together and trying to make some sense of what was going on.

"This book is a way of saying goodbye to my only child, the only child I'll ever have.

"It's my journey through the early days of my grief and finding my way. It was a lifeline for me - it helped me get out of bed in the morning."

Before Martha died, Cockburn, 43, ran writing therapy workshops for stress, anxiety and depression, so it's not hard to see why she turned to writing as a way of coping.

There have, of course, been floods of tears, despair and disbelief since Martha's death, but also laughter as Cockburn remembers the "beautiful life" that her daughter lived.

But, although Cockburn's strength and stoicism does run a thread of hope through the tragedy, laughter is not what this gut-wrenchingly candid memoir is all about.

The agony of her experience is clear right from the opening page, as Cockburn describes what she witnessed at the hospital that first awful day.

"My 15-year-old daughter died yesterday," she writes bluntly.

"I watched them try to save her. They pumped her chest and drilled something into her shin, but I knew she was already dead on arrival at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford. They elevated her arms, but I don't know why, her eyes were half open and she was way beyond the clouds and stars already."

It's a waking nightmare that must have been especially hard for Cockburn to deal with, as not only was Martha her only child, but she had no partner to turn to for support.

However, she insists that needing to cope alone has made her stronger.

"I'm a single parent and I'm used to having to get on with it myself," she declares.

"It was just Martha and myself, I was Mum and Dad.

"Now, in the middle of the night, I don't have another shoulder to cry on, it's just me. So I found this inner strength and thought I just had to get on with it."

She even came up with a word to describe her situation - smothered, which stands for single mother of expired daughter.

"I'm not a widow, I'm not a divorcee, so I decided I was smothered," she explains.

"Single parents have to be very strong - they've got a lot to contend with, and that strength in my parenting has enabled me to find the strength again in my bereavement.

"In the depths of despair, an incredibly acute sense of survival kicks in, and that's certainly what happened with me."

Her book charts most of the days leading up to what would have been Martha's 16th birthday on October 30 2013, when Cockburn and around 30 family and friends gathered to release water lanterns at 6.41am, the exact time of Martha's birth, at the lake where she collapsed.

There is an ongoing police investigation into what happened to Martha, and the inquest into her death has not yet been concluded. But Cockburn has already written 11,000 words of her next book, in which she hopes to tie up the loose ends.

This second book may well be written in a different tone to the first, because of course it is still early days, but Cockburn says that six months after Martha's death, the pain is a little gentler.

"In the early days there's so much shock - everything you've expected has disappeared," she says.

"You have to fight and grapple a lot, and some days are gentler than others.

"I now accept the grief as part of my life, because I have no choice."

She could perhaps choose to be bitter or angry about what happened to Martha, but there's certainly no sense of such emotions in the book, although Cockburn admits there's been the odd day when she's felt "a little bit angry."

She says: "It'd be such a shame if I became bitter and twisted, because it doesn't change the end result, does it? It doesn't bring her back, so I choose to be optimistic.

"You cry your way through the hard days, and you have your moments where it tears you to pieces, but you have other moments where you feel you're okay.

"I know I've got a long way to go, but I'm determined to keep seeing life with a positive perspective."

That positive perspective has helped Cockburn start a charitable trust, called What Martha Did Next, run by the Oxfordshire Community Foundation, to help Cockburn raise awareness of what happened to Martha through talks in schools, and the book. The trust will benefit from 10% of the sales from the book.

Cockburn firmly believes that this charity, and her book, can get through to teenagers in ways that nagging them won't.

"If parents are worried about their own children, then my book will bring things home to them," she says.

"I can tell them this is what happened to me, but I'm quite rare, so I don't think parents need to be worried about yet another thing."

Instead of worrying, she advises, parents should simply to talk to their children honestly.

"Admit what you did when you were younger, because it helps them understand they're not the only ones who make stupid decisions."

Finally, the 'smothered' mum says she hopes people are touched by her book, and adds: "I hope it helps people, because it's certainly helped me."

:: 5,742 Days by Anne-Marie Cockburn is published by Infinite Ideas, £8.99. Available now.

:: To donate to What Martha Did Next, visit www.justgiving.com/WhatMarthadidnext

Ask the expert

Q: "My husband and I have recently separated, and he constantly bad-mouths me to the kids, which makes me want to say similar things about him, but I know that's no good for the kids. What should I do?"

A: Paula Hall, a relationship therapist who works with Relate, says: "You're right that it's not good for the kids if you start bad-mouthing your ex in retaliation, so try not to give in to the temptation - however great it might be.

"If you start being negative about him then it's likely to prolong his behaviour towards you, which is the last thing you want.

"Ideally you would try and talk to your ex calmly and focus on how his comments might be making the children feel, but separation is often messy and painful so that's not always possible.

"If there's no way that having a conversation would work then the next best thing would be to try and limit the damage to your kids. Talk to them and explain that when adults break up it can be very painful, and this can cause people to be unkind to one another.

"Have this conversation when you have plenty of time to answer any questions they may have, and let them know you're always there to talk to if they're worried about things.

"If you have a friend or relative who's on good terms with both you and your ex, perhaps they may be willing to talk to him about your concerns."

:: Relate has launched a new campaign, Being Parents Apart, to help separated parents and their children. For more information or advice, visit www.relate.org.uk/separation, or call 0300 100 1234.

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