Geneviève was born in Paris, and always emphasised that she was a Parisienne, notwithstanding her blatantly Breton surname. She met her husband, Guy, at a wedding. One of the girls in her office was getting married, so the colleagues put together to buy the bride a bouquet and Geneviève was delegated to deliver it at the reception. As soon as she entered the room, this pretty little blonde caught Guy’s eye. He was a cousin of the bride, feeling bored among his family members, and – as he later told the story – “suddenly the room lit up”.
Immediately he asked his cousin, the bride, who she was and begged that she be invited to stay at the reception. Of course, Geneviève noticed the smart young man in naval officer’s uniform, but as he was surrounded by a gaggle of pretty young women (“like the rooster in a henhouse” she later recalled), she dismissed him as a charming heart-breaker. Everyone knows that sailors have a wife in every port!
However, several dances later, when she had discovered that his harem consisted entirely of cousins and he really was serious and single, she dropped her guard, agreed to a date, and the rest is 60 years of history, with children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
For about thirty of those years, Guy was at sea. On his retirement in his early fifties, he swore never to set foot on deck again, and to make up for his many absences by never ever leaving his wife alone. I have rarely known such a devoted couple. I first met them in 1991 when we bought our little house in Brittany, as they were one of the few people who lived there all the year round. We became firm friends, and my first outing on arrival there was always to take them some Swiss chocolates, share a glass of wine or a cup of coffee, and exchange our latest news.
Over the last few years, especially while I was looking after my mother, I wasn’t able to make my regular visits to Brittany and so I didn’t see my friends for a long time. In October of last year, I was able to catch up at last and was sorry to hear that Geneviève’s health had deteriorated badly. When I arrived in August this year, I learnt that Geneviève had been in hospital for some time, and Guy was spending his days at her bedside, so I was unable to have any contact with them. Our entire cul-de-sac was following her progress anxiously, and with very heavy hearts. On 4 September, the day before we left for Switzerland, we heard the sad news that Geneviève had died.
Neighbourhood grapevines, even when they spread over several countries, tend to be most efficient when the news is bad. Some of our neighbours in Brittany live in Germany, others in England, and we are in Switzerland, but e-mail gives us instant contact so the devastating news travelled fast. Ten days after losing his only reason for living, Guy took his own life. Whatever we think or feel about that decision, he ended his agony on his own terms. All the same, I can’t imagine the pain their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren are going through. I hope that they can gain some comfort and solace from their memories and the knowledge that Guy and Geneviève’s long relationship was so happy and fulfilling for them.
An old superstition claims that deaths occur in threes. I’m not superstitious, but on 10 September came the dreadful news that the 18-year-old daughter of some friends here in Switzerland had died in an accident. I have known this young lady all her life: a beautiful, cheerful, lively girl, a loving big sister to her three younger siblings and the joy of her parents’ heart. She was on the verge of her adult life, looking forward to a happy, exciting future, when the tractor she was driving overturned on her, killing her outright.
How do you cope with that as a parent? It is a grief beyond words, beyond the sobs and howls of deepest pain and sorrow, beyond any expression. Time may quieten the crying and weeping, but the wound of such an amputation remains raw. I can think of no anguish greater than losing your child, and have written about it before. This is a deeply Christian family, now facing a profound test of their faith. They are also surrounded by a very solid network of family and friends, several hundred of whom attended the funeral. This is no time for platitudes. I have no answers, but I pray that they will all stand the test and by the grace of God come through, together and individually, even stronger.
Three deaths. And three different aspects of grief for those left behind. We can’t measure or compare them. An elderly lady who had a good long life is released from her suffering. A broken-hearted man who can’t face a lonely old age without the love of his life takes his fate into his own hands. A happy teenager with her life ahead of her is torn violently away from her family and friends without warning.
Queen Elizabeth reminded us that grief is the price we pay for love. She was quoting from this:
“The pain of grief is just as much part of life as the joy of love: it is perhaps the price we pay for love, the cost of commitment. To ignore this fact, or to pretend that it is not so, is to put on emotional blinkers which leave us unprepared for the losses that will inevitably occur in our own lives and unprepared to help others cope with losses in theirs.”
Dr Colin Murray Parkes (Bereavement: Studies of Grief in Adult Life)