The pain was crushing when Vicky Unwin, like musician Nick Cave, lost a child to drugs. But pouring energy into campaigning has helped to heal her.
Last week’s photographs of the devastated Nick Cave and Susie Bick at the inquest for their son Arthur, who fell to his death from a Sussex cliff after taking LSD, revive harrowing memories. Just 4½ years ago we, too, had to sit and listen in horror as our 21-year-old daughter Louise’s final hours were relived for the coroner.
Nick and Susie had to leave the room as the extent of the 15-year-old’s injuries were read out; we sat there in a fog of disbelief and sedation, as unknown details about our daughter’s life were revealed. And the press is always there, ready to snap your pain for others to gawp at.
There are many similarities between the two young lives: both were much loved by their friends, funny, vivacious and a “joy to be around”. And there are horrible parallels in their deaths.
Both died from drug-related accidents, LSD in Arthur’s case and ketamine in Louise’s. Both thought they were being careful — Arthur had researched LSD online and Louise, we learnt at the inquest, had weighed out the doses. As the coroner said at Arthur’s inquest: “The long and short of it is that the drug was taken. It was taken by lads who were inquiring and experimenting, which kids do all the time.”
And this is the nub — most young people experiment with drugs and are not aware of how dangerous this can be.
In Louise’s case, she took ketamine with her friends very occasionally, and that evening she was celebrating submitting her application to Chelsea College of Arts. Some friends came round to share her achievement and one brought ketamine. They were all more regular users than Louise. They all took the same amount. After one friend had gone to bed and the others had left, Louise, being tiny and unused to the drug, was still high and decided to have a bath to help her sleep. A few hours later her friend awoke to find she had fallen asleep in the bath and drowned.
Nick Cave and Susie Bick: fatal tragedy
When your child dies, your world shatters. For a mother, in particular, it is like losing a limb, for the baby you carried and nursed is ripped away from you. No other grief comes near it — and I have lost both my parents as well as dear friends. The first few weeks go by in a haze of love and support from family and friends, both ours and Louise’s, and then the grim reality of life after Louise sets in. There were times when I felt I could not go on and just wanted to curl up and die: suicidal thoughts lurked in the recesses of my mind, but of course there was my husband and our son, who were also in torment, and such thoughts are self-indulgent.
Despite the fog that surrounded me, early on I took a decision that I was not going to immerse myself in self-pity and grief. I remained so angry about Louise’s senseless death that I decided to campaign about the dangers of ketamine and became a trustee of the Angelus Foundation to raise awareness of the dangers of club drugs and legal highs. We lobby government, write in the press, share ideas with Amy Winehouse’s father, Mitch, sit on TV sofas, give interviews, visit schools, make films and even launched a national advertising campaign. Now legal highs and club drugs are top of the agenda and new laws are being passed.
All that kept me busy for a year or so and it felt good: I was doing something to try to stop other horrible accidents happening to children who simply did not know how lethal club drugs, some of which may be legal, can be. But I also became unable to keep repeating our sad story, to hold back the tears and hide how devastated I felt.
Day-to-day life does not get easier either. “How many children do you have?” is a question I am frequently asked when meeting people. If I am feeling bloody-minded, which I quite often am, I say, “Two, but our daughter died”, and watch the reaction.
Best of all are Louise’s friends, with whom I am in constant touch. But being caught unawares when photos of her pop up on Facebook, smiling and gorgeous, posted by her friends remembering the good times, can reduce me to howls of anguish. I would not change that, though: it shows how she remains in their hearts as much as in ours.
They are able to talk and laugh about Louise and all her eccentricities — for she was one of a kind: witty and talented, with hair colours to suit the seasons or her mood; zany clothes as befit an art student; a singer, a photographer, a DJ and everyone’s best friend. She helped people with anorexia, a neighbour with cancer, and made a monthly contribution to Help the Aged in memory of her granny. She was the kind of girl who “lit up a room” and made you feel you were the only person in it worth talking to. Everybody loved her.
Just when we thought life could not get worse, we had a double whammy to deal with. First my husband, Ross, was diagnosed with prostate cancer, which was easily treated and has an excellent prognosis; then two years ago came my potentially life-threatening soft-tissue sarcoma, now also operated on, and we wait and see. Again, I stared into the abyss when doctors thought they had detected secondaries in the liver. I realised I really did not want to die and, despite it all, I have everything to live for.
It was at that stage I decided to crack on with the book that had been languishing since Louise’s death, Love and War in the WRNS, my mother’s war-time letters, and to get involved in a new charity, United World Schools. We “teach the unreached”, building schools in the poorest areas of Asia: in Cambodia, Burma and Nepal. Ross and I sponsored a school in Cambodia — we knew Louise would have just loved this charity — and I am visiting it next week for the first time.
The pain never goes away; nor does time heal as people tritely say. The grief morphs into something else, and you become a different person, a nicer one I hope, ready to forgive slights from the past — because none of these things really matters any more. In my case channelling energies into positive actions — helping others, writing — acts as therapy and is healing.
It will, I am sure, take Nick Cave and Susie Bick a long time and their own journey to learn to live with their grief. Arthur, like Louise, was one of those rare children: Tim Arnold, the Soho Hobo, summed it up in the song he wrote in her memory, “Some of us burn too bright to stay for long enough to find our way.” I hope they find peace.
Love and War in the WRNS: Letters Home 1940-46 is published by the History Press, priced £20.
This article was originally printed in the UK Sunday Times on 15th November, 2015 – the fee for this article has been donated to United World Schools