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Private grief behind the public mourning

TES contributor John MacBeath lost his niece Mhairi in the Dunblane massacre.

I am grateful to The TES for offering me the opportunity to express my own thoughts and feelings about what has come to be known as "Dunblane".

It has been a week of public words and images, filling the private space which should have been for family and friends. It is as if the private mourning has had to be put in reserve so that confusion and anger could be first laid to rest.

The deep and genuine public sharing is both a source of support and an intensification of sorrow. Names, pictures and private events became public property, not always with forethought for that small group of people to whom the tragedy belongs. Some of the press have put humane interest first, willing to lose a story to protect a vulnerable parent. Others have exhausted the repertoire of devious tactics and dissembled concern to gain an entry to bereaved families and their neighbours.

There has been gratitude for the sensitivity and support of police, assigned to work with and intercede on behalf of individual families. A lot has clearly been learned and put into practice since Lockerbie. But there is lingering anger among bereaved parents who were made to wait five interminable hours for information about their child. Whatever the explanation or justification, the memory of those waiting hours insistently intrudes for parents, believing that their needs were being put last, knowing that there were people on the outside who knew the truth long before they did.

The public arena has compounded the difficulties for families struggling to come to terms with their own very intimate loss or to share it in privacy with other families. The class photograph, if we can bear to look at it, is a reminder of a communal bereavement which is an integral component of the personal one.

Our immediate and personal grief is for Mhairi MacBeath, a bright and beautiful five-year-old who was both a child and a growing-up companion for her mother and three-month-old sister. The memorial service for her father, Murray, was to have taken place that Wednesday afternoon at Stirling University. It is a unique and tragic set of circumstances.

But that is equally true for each of the other 16 families who are left behind. Perhaps that unique quality of the family experience is something that we, in a system of education, need to be reminded of from time to time.

Professor MacBeath is director of the Quality in Education Centre, Jordanhill Campus, Strathclyde University. Mhairi's father, Dr Murray MacBeath, lectured in religious studies at Stirling University

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