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A sweet 16th turned bitter with grief

  • 25 July 2018


How do you wish happy birthday to a girl who is no longer here? A sweet 16th turned bitter with grief?

Today my niece would have turned 16. It would have been a milestone birthday, the teetering point between childhood and maturity. It would have been the next logical step on her journey — so brisk, so hasty is time these days — to an adulthood upon which her siblings and cousins were already alighting.

The youngest in a close-knit gang of ten children produced by my siblings and me, she was going to be the last to join them there; they would have waited for her, would have pulled her up into this new phase of life alongside them and helped her to navigate its often daunting paths.

But there was something more formidable facing her already, something none of us was aware of. So haunting and unbearable and obliterating was it, it would prompt her to end her life just three months and one day after her 15th birthday.

How do you help someone navigate a path that is utterly pointless to them, when the only thing you can see is a track lit by the sun? 

I can easily imagine my niece at 16. She would be a subtly transformed version of the 15-year-old she was when last we sang happy birthday to her. This time last year she was a teenager possessed of a rare innocence (no make-up, no pouts) coupled with a deep intellect (she excelled at school and was teaching herself Russian) and unusual pursuits (fencing was her forte; she'd become a champion and would be regularly interviewed on the local television news).

Today, on her 16th, she would still possess the softness in which she had always been swaddled, but her adult self — physically, cerebrally — would be emerging more urgently now from within the folds of childhood. Her posture would be perfect still, her hair flowing down her ramrod back. Her hugs, I've no doubt, would be as warm and enveloping, and she would trill as ever with mellifluous laughter. Her kisses, as my sister — her eternally brokenhearted mother — elucidated in the days after she left us, would continue to alight on our faces like butterflies.


"But this is my niece's sweet 16th, and though it will never be sweet, and she will never turn 16, I quarantine it as a time to halo this precious