Best friends Jessica Chapman (left) and Holly Wells (right), age ten
Sometimes, it rolls in, as a gradual mist that makes for sad, reflective days; sometimes, it descends as a thick fog, a blanket of pain and confusion. We accept that these feelings will be with us for the rest of our lives.-Kevin Wells
These are the words from Kevin Wells' beautifully-written memoir, Goodbye, Dearest Holly-a book written about and in memory of his beloved ten-year-old daughter, who had her life cruelly taken in August 2002, along with that of her best friend of the same age. Their names are familiar -Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, the two little girls who, walking innocently through their town of Soham after a family barbecue, were murdered by someone they knew and trusted. We all know his name too, but it deserves not to be mentioned, not to be granted the attention that should always be focused on the beautiful little girls whose lives were taken from them.
I was five years old when Holly and Jessica disappeared, six years old when their murderer was found guilty and imprisoned for life. I remember the way the days stretched out, the searches that covered the news headlines. I remember the day it became clear that the story would not have a happy ending. It was one of the few times I ever saw my mother cry. And I remember the scenes of mourning, the flowers, the prayers. Even in our own community, miles away, candles were lit for two little girls few of us had ever met but everyone had prayed and hoped for.
It was to be years later, as a teenager who had by that time experienced grief myself-though certainly not on such a horrific or shocking scale-that I would read Kevin Wells' book, based on his diary of his daughter's disappearance; a book that details his frantic search for his daughter and her friend, the trial process to see Holly and Jessica's killer brought to justice, and the aftermath of both the Wells and Chapman families living the rest of their lives without Holly and Jessica. Kevin and his wife Nicola would spend the rest of their lives grieving their clever, artistic little daughter and her tomboyish, lively best friend.
Kevin and Nicola Wells at a press conference in 2003
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In his book, Kevin Wells speaks about an important charity-a nonprofit organization of whom he is now a patron, and whose message is one that deserves to be heard. Grief Encounter is an organization that seeks to help and support the families of bereaved children. One of the key themes in Kevin's book is his and Nicola's worry for their son Oliver, who was just twelve when his little sister was murdered. Grief Encounter, he says, helped him and Nicola greatly-not just with navigating and supporting their son through his grief but dealing with their own.
Thirteen years later, Kevin has recently returned from one of many activities he and Nicola have undertaken to raise money and awareness for Grief Encounter-perhaps one of the most ambitious and high-profile yet. Kevin, along with several other men and women who have both supported and been supported by Grief Encounter, have undertaken a hike along the Great Wall of China, in order to fundraise for the charity and in memory of the people they lost-the people they still grieve for. He managed to raise almost £7,000. One of the key messages of this extraordinary charity is that it is acceptable-and in fact, normal-to grieve for someone for the rest of your life. Even if time cannot heal but "anaesthetize" to borrow Kevin's phrase, it is acceptable to have days when the grief is still very much there and when loss can seem insurmountable.
Holly Wells in her last ever school photograph
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The importance of Kevin's work with Grief Encounter and of talking more openly about grief cannot be overstated. Recently, MPs Antoinette Sandbach and Will Quince have made the courageous decisions to talk openly and emotionally about the experiences they have had with grieving the tragic loss of their babies. Antoinette Sandbach also detailed the awful experience she too had, of having to tell her then six-year-old what had happened to their baby brother. They are right, as are Kevin and Nicola Wells, to point out that we need to talk more about bereavement and focus more on the support available to people.
Before I was born, my grandparents endured a similar loss-the loss of their eldest son, my uncle and my father's brother. He was only twenty-three when he was murdered, and even now, thirty four years later, the effects of that loss are still felt. My grandfather, in the wake of the loss of his son, began working with the group SAMM (Support After Murder and Manslaughter), and contributed to changes in police procedure for dealing with bereaved families who have been victims of crime. He channelled a lot of his grief into helping other families struggling with a similar terrible loss and ultimately was awarded an MBE for his work for bereaved families.
I used to feel guilty for the fact I missed my uncle. A part of me felt that I didn't have the right to miss him because I'd never known him. It took a while to realise that it was a different type of grieving, because I was grieving for the times I would have had with him, the family experiences I would have had with him. It took a while to realise that it was OK to feel like this and to wish that I had known him through the stories my father told me about him.
There were sometimes news articles about my uncle's death and it felt strange to hear his name in these reports. It was surreal to think of all the stories I knew about him growing up with my dad and his siblings and to associate them with the name in the news. It was strange to think that to everyone reading those reports he was someone who had been murdered, and that they didn't know all these other details about who he had been, the details that had nothing to do with how he had died.
It was another area that resonated when I was reading Kevin Wells' book. The tiny, everyday details released about Holly and Jessica throughout the search and in the aftermath of their deaths meant that they weren't just names on the news-the case felt more visceral, more immediate, from the little facts released by their parents. Small things like Jessica's mother's affectionate description of her daughter as a "dobber-in"-someone who'd always come home and admit when she'd been in trouble for talking in class-a story of Holly overcoming her shyness to sing her favourite Robbie Williams song at a karaoke , Jessica's England football team poster on her bedroom wall-stuck out and made these little girls feel close, as though we ourselves had known them. One description that really hit home was an interview with Kevin and Nicola in which Kevin described Holly taking a dictionary to bed when he read her Harry Potter, so she could look up the longer words.
The last photo ever taken of Holly Wells (left) and Jessica Chapman (right), on the day of their deaths
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When Kevin described the anger he felt, even years later, not just at the man who'd taken Holly and Jessica's lives, but at the cruelty of never seeing his daughter and her friend grow up, it was almost reassuring to know that it was acceptable to feel like that-that it was OK for me at the age of eighteen, to still feel angry at the injustice of never getting to know my uncle.
Kevin and Nicola Wells' decision to speak so openly about their grief and the loss they still feel for their little daughter many years on from her murder, as well as Antoinette Sandbach and Will Quince's decision to take the step of discussing the impact of their tragic loss of their little babies, is something that must have taken extraordinary courage, and is something that they should all be commended for. Their bravery and the support that the charity Grief Encounter offers to people who have lost someone is something that many must derive a great deal of comfort from. The grief that the Sandbachs and the Quinces feel for their babies, the grief that the Chapmans and the Wells' share for Holly and Jessica will never vanish, just as the grief I and my family feel for the people we miss won't. But over time, as Kevin details so movingly, it will become easier, and it will be possible to be happy again-without ever forgetting.
When I think of the people we grieve for, I'm always reminded of a quote from John Green's novel, Looking For Alaska, that seems to sum up my feelings on the subject: "Thomas Edison's last words were "It's very beautiful over there." I don't know where there is, but I believe it's somewhere, and I hope it's beautiful."
The official website for Grief Encounter can be found here.
If you wish to purchase Kevin Wells' book, Goodbye, Dearest Holly, you can do so here.