2 December 2015 was the day that my fourteen-year-old daughter tells me her childhood ended. She became an adult when her classmate died, and she and her peer group, were thrust suddenly and unwillingly, into a world that teenagers should never normally inhabit. A world of funerals, of grief and of loss. A world in which discussion of memorials replaced exam worries, where hugs and tears replaced teenage spats and where the kids were the ones who were the bereaved.
Her classmate, Dylan Samuels, was 15 and wasn't meant to die so young. Of course he wasn't - kids are not meant to die. But in this case, although Dylan suffered with cystic fibrosis, no one expected him to succumb at such a tender age - least of all his classmates at a school in Manchester. Why should they have? Dylan had been a fit and active boy who was even signed up with Manchester United's youth team when he was younger. Apart from having to take tablets with his school lunches, no one but his close friends knew much about his condition at all until two years ago when his health began to deteriorate. Even then, with a lung transplant in the offing at Great Ormond Street Children's Hospital, he faced a brighter future and his friends were looking forward to kicking a ball again with him at school.
Sadly that was not to be and a major stroke following his transplant left him fighting for his life. He fought for nine weeks and his classmates assumed, with childish optimism and innocence, that he would win the fight and soon be back in the classroom with a few scars but the same big smile. When he died, there was shock, bewilderment and anger. How could such a vibrant young man be no more? What did he do to deserve that? Why couldn't the doctors save him? What kind of world do we live in that such a thing could happen?
The kids struggled with these questions and many more. They also grappled with more pressing concerns; how to grieve for the boy who will never grow up with them. We all rely on schemas, or 'protypical behaviours' that guide us in our daily lives; these are the behavioural patterns that tell us how to behave in various scenarios. When something totally unexpected happens, something rare and unprecedented, there is no scheme we can apply about how to behave, no previous experience to draw on. Without clear guidance, we look to others as a clue to guide our own actions. When a child dies, there is bewilderment, not only with the loss, but in how to behave in this unprecedented situation. The kids look to their parents and teachers for guidance, but they too are encountering a novel event whilst coping with their own distress.
There are concentric circles of grief too when a child dies, and within them, different patterns of response. Those closest to the tragedy, such as close friends, have clearer expectations as to how to behave, in terms of outpouring of grief, funeral attendance etc. The next circle, classmates and acquaintances, may also be clear about how their grief is expected to be manifested. But then things get blurred; how should those kids, from different school years, who hardly knew the deceased, act? How entitled are they to their grief when they barely knew him? And what of those who didn't know the child at all - are they too entitled to grieve?
All the kids in Dylan's school were entitled to mourn him - even those who never knew him. They were grieving over a life cut short, a potential that was never fully achieved. They were heart-broken for his brave family and the new life they must carve for themselves. They were grieving for a boy who would be forever young.
When a classmate dies, life for those who are left, goes on. Exams still need to be taken, school concerts performed, festivals celebrated. But for the peers of the deceased, things will never be quite the same. They will have grown up a little, as my daughter perceptively noted. They will have shown strength and courage that they never knew they had. They will have comforted and helped each other through the depths of despair that teenagers should never normally experience. They will be forever bonded by their grief, united by a common thread and joined by unique bond.
They will never forget Dylan. Dylan will have a place in their hearts and minds as they undertake each rite of passage in life's journey. They will remember him when they see his empty desk and locker and when they sit their GCSEs and their A Levels. When they celebrate their triumphs and successes they will remember the boy who should have shared them. When they go to University or college, get jobs and perhaps start their own families, they will remember the boy who won't be doing the same. And, if they have their own children, when those kids reach the age of 14 and 15, no doubt they will tell them about Dylan.
But their memories of Dylan will also help them develop into caring, thoughtful, responsible people. Kids who have suffered such a loss, develop resilience, strength of character, and community-mindedness as they move from the egocentrism of normal teen-hood into the broader perspective of life that they have gained. Many will invest their energies into developing Dylan's legacy, of raising funds for cystic fibrosis or other good causes and of generally helping others. These kids who mourn now will be outstanding adults of tomorrow who will do amazing things not just because their classmate died, but because he lived.
You can donate to a Foundation set up in Dylan's name to raise funds for Cystic Fibrosis; There's Something About Dylan