It’s too exhausting to cry any more
Jennifer Wilkin Shaw had tidied the house and cooked her daughter’s favourite meal when the doorbell rang. It was a policeman and a policewoman. “Everything I’ve read tells you that means someone has died,” says Wilkin Shaw. “I said, ‘Please tell me it’s not Charlotte’.” The police asked if they could come in. Wilkin Shaw’s legs gave way and she fell to the floor.
Charlotte, 14, was not dead. But something about the way they said it suggested Charlotte might not live much longer. Wilkin Shaw instinctively called for her husband, Jonathan. But he had died seven years before. Now she was about to lose her only child.
Driving in the police car from her north Devon home to Plymouth, Wilkin Shaw vomited five times. At the hospital, Charlotte’s body seemed lifeless. Wilkin Shaw asked what chance there was that she might survive. Less than 1%, she was told.
She talked to Charlotte, massaged her feet and didn’t leave her side for 10 hours. But Charlotte died at 5am, of heart failure and hypothermia. “Very stupidly, I looked into one of her eyes and she had gone. I regret that because I keep remembering it,” says Wilkin Shaw, speaking after last week’s inquest verdict on her daughter’s death on a training exercise on Dartmoor for the annual Ten Tors trek.
We talk in the kitchen of her tiny thatched cottage, where she’s been playing violin — something she took up after Charlotte died in March 2007.
She was among a party of 10 from the private Edgehill college, now known as Kingsley school, in Bideford, left unsupervised by teachers for several hours in dismal weather. Trying to help a cold and exhausted friend across a brook that was swollen and deep after nine hours of rain, Charlotte fell in, with a heavy backpack, and was swept 150 yards downstream.
Since moving to Devon 20 years ago, Wilkin Shaw had never really got to know Dartmoor. She didn’t imagine the trip could be bad. After all, Charlotte was a medalwinning gymnast. “She was someone who could do a triple-axle somersault. How could a walk hurt her? If I had known she was going to be left unsupervised on a day with such foul weather, with such limited training, I wouldn’t have let her go.”
Last December the inquest was halted to consider whether criminal charges should be brought, but the Crown Prosecution Service decided there was insufficient evidence to pursue a charge of manslaughter. Last week, the jury returned a narrative verdict, which assigned no blame, though the coroner suggested several safety improvements.
It is hard enough to lose an only child. Wilkin Shaw had already known terrible loss, seven years before, when Charlotte’s father killed himself. Jennifer had met Jonathan Shaw, a carpenter, at a restaurant she was running in London, where she grew up. He asked her out. She said no, but he persisted. He had a passing resemblance to Pierce Brosnan, she says, and was witty and kind.
They decided to move to Devon, 20 years ago, and start a family. They opened a pizza restaurant in Barnstaple, and when Charlotte was five, Jonathan — who had been adopted — said he was so happy with his life that he wanted to make it complete by finding his biological mother. But his mother didn’t want to be found — she’d had an affair while she was married with a teenage daughter, and somehow contrived to hide the pregnancy, leaving baby Jonathan on the doorstep of a care home.
Feeling rejected, he became depressed, and one evening during the Easter holidays he went out to the garage at the end of their garden and hanged himself. Charlotte was asleep upstairs and Wilkin Shaw was waiting for the start of a film that Jonny had said he wanted to watch. When the film began, she went to fetch him in and was astonished, on taking his arm, to find his body swinging away from her. “I said, ‘Oh, no, Jonny, no’, over and over.”
The horrific details pour out, but then she interrupts herself to say: “I would cry at this point. But it’s bloody exhausting. I cry all the time.”
The next morning she had to tell Charlotte, then seven years old.
“I was very tempted to lie because I didn’t know what impact it would have — the horror of it. “I took her into our room and said that something had happened. She said, ‘Has someone died?’ I said, yes. She said, ‘Is it Florrie?’ That was an old woman who lived down the road. I said no. She said, ‘Oh, no, it’s not Grandma, is it?’” Wilkin Shaw’s parents had moved to Devon to be nearby.
“I said, ‘In the garage . . .’ She said, ‘Oh, no, is it Daddy?’ And then she said, ‘Did he do it to himself?’ I have no idea how she surmised that. My father said I had to be completely truthful or she wouldn’t deal with it. So I told her. And every time she was behind a closed door I became terrified she might try to do it herself.”
Throughout a long and painful conversation, Wilkin Shaw seems astonishingly strong — even, bizarrely, quite radiant. But every so often there’s a reminder of her constant inner distress, such as when she laughs brightly at things that aren’t funny at all. She does it now.
Mercifully, Charlotte grew up well adjusted. “She shone inwardly,” says Wilkin Shaw. “She was extraordinarily compassionate and would always take care of the weakest person, as well as striving to fulfil her own potential, which is quite a difficult combination. She was everything I could want in a daughter.”
After Charlotte died, Wilkin Shaw sobbed that she wanted to die too. She was admitted to hospital herself, on suicide watch. But she decided fairly quickly that she couldn’t kill herself because it might prompt others to do the same. “I thought, I have to be a good example. I could be useful. If you survive such appalling sorrow and loss that you can’t imagine how you will live with it, there must be something good about you. You must have something to teach.” She desperately wants to help others in a similar situation, but isn’t yet clear how.
“I owe it to others who do not have my resources, like education, to get through.”
People are sometimes afraid to get close to her. Others offer unwelcome comments. “‘Are you still in the same house? Is that wise?’ People think they can judge me. They want me to be doing it wrong so they can prescribe the answer. But it’s all wrong! It’s all bad, and unfixable. You can’t fix the death of a child. You can just live with it.”
She has had counselling but still suffers severe post-traumatic stress. Doctors have said she won’t work again, certainly not without expensive treatment, but she has no money. In June, her lawyers filed a High Court claim for negligence against the school and a teacher who led the overnight expedition.
That said, Wilkin Shaw seems remarkably compassionate towards them. “Nobody wanted this to happen. Everybody is suffering. I think they did wrong, but I still feel compassion — it’s like seeing an enemy soldier who is dying.”
It is this balanced view, she says, that keeps her alive. “I can’t afford to feel rage. I live alone with terrible feelings of loss and sorrow.”
1256 words. First published 7 November 2010. © Times Newspapers Ltd.