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I Was There: Ten Tips For Approaching The Inquest Into A Loved One's Death

But what happens in the majority of Britain's inquests - those dealing with more ordinary tragedies that never make the national headlines? People who die in accidents, house fires or in unclear circumstances.

A coroner's investigation is underway after the death of nurse Amin Abdullah, who set himself on fire outside Kensington Palace in February 2016. Knowing that his partner has already been through the terrible loss last year, the inquest, in the full glare of the media, must be a very difficult experience too.

But what happens in the majority of Britain's inquests - those dealing with more ordinary tragedies that never make the national headlines? People who die in accidents, house fires or in unclear circumstances. What do families in these less prominent cases need to know about facing the inquest into a loved one's death?

Here are 10 tips from someone who's been there:

  1. Why an inquest? Inquests are held when people die violent or 'unnatural' deaths, when the cause of death isn't known or when someone dies while in prison, police custody or some other form of state detention (including being kept in hospital under a section of the Mental Health Act). This doesn't necessarily mean foul play - not that it stops your mind from going to that dark place late at night.
  2. The coroner is doing an investigation into the death, and is interested in the background of what happened and how. Most inquests are nowhere near the high-profile events of national disasters or miscarriages of justice. In my case, it was the death of my twin sister a couple of weeks before our 28th birthday. Jenny had died when her clothes caught fire when she was cooking her evening meal.
  3. You will be asked to make a statement to the coroner's officer. He or she will want to know how your relative had lived their life. In my sister's case, it was to understand her life with cerebral palsy, how her disability had affected her, and how it may have contributed to the way she died. Take your time with this, as pressured as you may feel inside. Remember that not getting every detail across is by no means letting your loved one down.
  4. You'll have lots of questions of your own - about the death as much as about the inquest proceedings. Your meeting with the coroner's officer is a good chance to ask. I found the coroner's officer to be calm, courteous and professional - I wish I'd been less inhibited about asking questions. Another good resource is this guide produced by the UK Ministry of Justice.
  5. You'll get to see several reports - statements from police, post mortem reports in arcane medical language. You're entitled to copies of all of these without charge (or for a small administrative fee if you ask for them after the inquest is completed). Perhaps too shocked to notice at the time, I realised only years later that I hadn't seen the fire investigator's report. I was given this on request, with the more upsetting photographs removed.
  6. Be prepared to read all sorts of personal meanings into otherwise dry statements of fact. For a long time, I interpreted a comment on my sister being 'well nourished' to be a euphemism for overweight. You'll be surprised at the level of detail. The percentage of smoke in the lungs, the relative state of health or disease of internal organs, and even their weight. Some of these facts can become interesting in a strangely academic way, as you bolster yourself against their emotional impact.

    Similarly, be prepared to read things about your loved one you'd never known, or to see them in a strange new light. You may learn about private habits, or of medical conditions you - or even your loved one - didn't know about. In my case, I had the strange sense that my twin's cerebral palsy was on trial - or rather the way we, as a family, had dealt with her disability.

  7. The inquest will be held in a coroner's court. This is a public building, complete with institutional quirks. With all the doors of the loos next to the courtroom locked, I remember finding myself in a strange vandal-proof toilet in a secluded part of the building. Again, don't be afraid to ask.
  8. Prepare for the expert testimony. This is your chance to put questions to the professionals, who are busy people and could well be excused from the proceedings when their testimony ends. Speak to family members beforehand about what you'd like to ask, as the experts may well not be around to answer questions later on.
  9. The inquest proceedings will be intense, with upsetting evidence and memories flooding in. It was awful to see my sister's neighbour struggling to describe the experience of finding her body. Just because it's a solemn affair however, doesn't mean there won't be a touch of the surreal. In my case, while trying to put one of my sister's facilitators at ease, the coroner made an unfortunate slip: 'I hear you got on like a house on fire'.
  10. Don't be surprised to see a young hack from a local newspaper scribbling down notes as the case unfolds. Your personal loss may not be headline news, but it could still make the front page of a local paper - best to steady yourself for this too.
  11. At the end of the inquest, the coroner will give a verdict. This could include a number of explanations for the death, such as suicide, death by misadventure, unlawful killing. Sometimes the coroner will prefer to give a narrative verdict, condensing the cause and circumstances of death into a short account. Don't expect this to put to bed every 'Why?' and 'If only'. It may take many years to get over what happened, and expecting instant closure is unrealistic. But hopefully the inquest will help. Coroners are keenly aware of their social responsibility, as well as the impact of the process on families of the deceased. You may go away moved by the impact of your loss on other people, and with a new insight on how society binds us together.