A death in the family is difficult, but the death of a child often feels too much for a family to bear. When it comes as it did to my most recent family, totally out of the blue and shockingly unexpected, it is a terrible ordeal, and then they have the funeral to deal with.
Leo was 23, a music producer and father of a 4 year old son. He loved to surf and was a very popular fixture on the Welsh music scene. In truth, he did have a troubled childhood and carried with him the emotional scars. Perhaps that was a contributory factor to his hedonistic lifestyle – although perhaps no more than any of his friends, who mix their music with the easily purchased legal highs that the internet offers.
Mother’s Day saw Leo spend the day with family. The last day he would be together with them all. Flowers for Mum and hugs and cuddles with his nieces and nephews before he left home to visit a friend for a Sunday DJ session. A night out that would signal the abrupt end to his young life. Convulsions followed and a friend who perhaps could have done more but in panic did nothing instead. An A&E department that was already stretched by a bank holiday weekend of sunburns and gardening accidents, and further hampered by having no clue as to what the lad had ingested, accepted defeat. Legal highs often arrive in unmarked plastic bags. If something does go wrong this makes it almost impossible for a doctor to diagnose what is causing an adverse reaction. Tragically, Leo never woke up.
I was in the park with the kids and the dog when I got the call the following day. Leo’s Mum couldn’t cope with the initial meeting, so I met with his sister instead. A young mother herself, she was all but consumed with the grief for such a senseless loss of life. Her gorgeous brother – and only son of 4 children.
Over 200 young people in the chapel awaited Leo’s coffin. As Leo was brought in, the well of tears spilled over and the pain was deafening. Friends read poems, tributes read, and we listened to music he loved. It was all very touching and deeply moving.
I kept thinking of my own girls, their youthful innocence and carefree approach to life. My teenager is beginning to display natural and necessary tendencies to brush me aside, to need to do things her way, and as the ceremony progresses I find myself fighting my own tears. Can I keep her safe long enough to instill a real sense of the fragility of life, and to care enough about her own, to think before she buys something odd over the internet, or is persuaded to join iin on a peer activity ? Have I done enough ?
The true sadness of this story is best seen in context, and the reason for telling this particular story. In the last 3 years I have taken 6 ceremonies for young men between the ages of 17 and 25, who all died as a result of a legal high misadventure.
The internet has given our youngsters a great deal, it’s a wonderful research tool, and a fantastic opportunity to connect with the rest of the world; an opportunity a pre-internet generation can only have dreamed of.
Yet, there is a real caution here – we need to keep talking to our children, and to our communities, and remain as constant and consistent as possible with our love and guidance. Denial is futile, as is holding constrictive boundaries that don’t allow our young adults to grow and make their own choices in life. The internet is not a benign tool, rather it is like the rest of the world; flawed, sometimes dangerous and a place where we should proceed with caution.
I have tried hard to end this article on a positive note, but in truth it’s difficult to find a positive spin – Leo may not be the last young person whose funeral ceremony I preside over. However, by shining a light on these challenging yet important issues, I hope the lives of beautiful young men like Leo will not have been in vain. This does not alter the pain of bereavement for those close to him, but he does leave us with a very strong message.