'My sister died. I lived. The price I paid was 30 years of guilt': How the canoe tragedy that took a girl's life but spared her sibling brought back terrible memories
23:45 GMT, 29 August 2012
Times to remember: Helen Carroll (left) with sister Jane from a school photograph taken in the mid 1970's when Helen was six, and Jane was five
On a bright, crisp afternoon in April 1977, my younger sister Jane and I emerged from our Catholic primary school to discover no one was there to collect us.
Mum usually came, but that day she was in court, where she had recently trained to be a magistrate, and Dad was supposed to pick us up.
Unfortunately he was late and teachers back then were happy for children to leave the school premises without a chaperone. As I was nine and Jane was eight, we figured that we were more than grown-up enough to head for the bus stop and make our own way home.
We then spotted our father’s car at the bottom of the street. He was waiting for us after all.
hearts sank — but soared again when we realised Dad was engrossed in
some paperwork and hadn’t noticed us. I suggested that we hide behind
some bushes until he tired of waiting and drove away. Which he duly did.
childish prank might have gone down in family folklore as just that,
were it not for the devastating events that followed our bus ride.
got off the bus and, dressed in identical brown coats and holding hands
in the spring sunshine, waited for a car to stop before stepping on to
the zebra crossing on the dual carriageway which ran along the bottom of
Then I turned and saw a second car hurtling towards us on the inside lane and showing no sign of slowing down.
Instinctively, I leapt forward on to the central reservation and, in doing so, lost hold of Jane’s hand.
took my brain a few seconds to compute that Jane had been hit by the
car and was lying several feet from me in the middle of the road.
I ran, calling her name, then knelt beside her bloody, lifeless body. The words ‘What have I done’ looped round and round in my head.
Had I never suggested that we hide, and if we had instead climbed into Dad’s Ford Granada, at that moment we would have been at our grandparents’ house, which is where our father always took us if he did the school pick-up, eating oranges and drinking tepid long-life milk.
Instead, we were in the middle of the road, my sister was dead, and I was convinced it was my fault.
However misplaced, those terrible feelings of guilt haunted me for more than 30 years. And this week I felt a renewed stab of pain as details emerged of the horrific canoeing accident in the Scottish Highlands.
Many a tear has rightly been shed for five-year-old Gracie Mackay, the girl who drowned with a father and his two sons at the weekend.
Severe reactions to bereavement affect about 15 per cent of people, leading to depression, marital breakdown and even death
However, my thoughts turned immediately to Gracie’s big sister, Callie, who swam to safety at the Scottish loch where the terrible accident happened, along with their dad Garry.
Callie is, of course, the lucky one — the survivor who can go on to have a career, marriage, children, and all the wonderful life experiences that poor little Gracie will never know.
But oh, how I feel for Callie. For the emotional legacy of surviving an accident that kills your sister is deep and lasting pain. I pray that she will be spared the guilt and self-torture I inflicted on myself.
I hope, too, that Callie and her father can be a comfort to each other in the years to come, something that my dad and I were tragically never able to do, trapped as we were in our own separate universes of grief.
Two years ago, I wrote an article in the Mail about how I was finally learning to grieve for the loss of my sister, after more than three decades of trying to bury my feelings.
But even then, I didn’t own up to the most wretched feelings of all — those illogical feelings of guilt, that her death was my fault.
Back in Bradford in 1977, when I was taken home after the accident, shocked to the core by the brutality of suddenly being without a sibling so close that I could barely pinpoint in my mind precisely where I ended and she began, I vomited in the outside drain.
But at the same moment a sense of self-preservation kicked in. I was angry with Jane for leaving me to face the wrath, which I fully expected from our parents, alone.
So later, when interviewed by a smiling young policeman who teased me for speaking in a whisper, I lied. I told him and his colleague that we had been playing hide-and-seek and had never seen Dad’s car.
Delayed recovery: Helen Carroll, now 44 years of age, has spent the last few years coming to terms with her guilt
I didn’t dare admit what really happened, because I felt certain that if I did everyone would blame me for Jane’s death.
My ploy did not, however, stop me from forever blaming myself.
Our story made the front page of the local newspaper, and when I spotted the headline ‘Hide-and-seek sister dies’, alongside a school photograph of Jane and me, I was sick again.
There it was, my lie, in black and white for everyone who knew me to see. A lie that was to haunt me for the next three decades.
I spent years grieving alone, trapped in my own bubble of misery. But with the benefit of age, and life experience, I now realise I wasn’t the only one in the family tormented by guilt.
While Garry Mackay — Gracie and Callie’s father — managed to save his older daughter, who happened to be close to him in the water, I have no doubt he is now suffocating underneath a mix of grief and guilt at the loss of her younger sister.
And imagining what Garry is going through evokes feelings of deep sadness for my own father, who passed away suddenly the day after the 11th anniversary of my sister’s death.
He was only 57 and appeared healthy until his death from a massive heart attack. And while he enjoyed a pint and a cigarette, I believe a decade of guilt and regret put more pressure on his imposing 6ft frame than any of his bad habits. His sibling, my Uncle John, is in his late 80s and going strong.
A devout Catholic, Dad sought solace in religion, attending mass every day, but he found little.
my knowledge, outside of the confessional box at least, he never spoke
about his regret at arriving late to collect us, or driving away before
he knew we were safe, but I sensed how acutely he felt it.
I could see it in his pale, rheumy blue eyes, which mirrored my own.
was also evident in the keening noise Dad made when he wept. Like the
time my grandmother asked if I would like my orange peeled or cut and he
broke down sobbing.
‘It used to be one peeled, one cut,’ he wept. I’d always enjoyed my oranges peeled, while Jane liked hers sliced.
I would have done anything to take away the hurt I felt I had inflicted on Dad and the rest of my family.
few weeks after the accident we took a family trip to the French holy
city of Lourdes. My father believed it would bring comfort, but my
mother hated every moment — others there were searching for cures for
disability or illness whereas for us, she said, all hope was gone.
through a crack in my parents’ hotel room door one day I saw my father
perched at the edge of their bed, head in hands and wearing nothing but a
vest and underpants, his body heaving with each wretched sob.
Reminder: Helen spoke of her agony after the bank holiday canoe tragedy this weekend when Callie (left) and Gracie Mackay died
broken man, he stayed in that room for much of the rest of the trip
being comforted by priests. I felt wholly responsible for his breakdown,
though I confided in no one.
back, through adult eyes, it’s logical that my father would have
believed the blame for my sister’s death should have been laid squarely
on his shoulders.
becoming a mother myself has it dawned on me that my parents also had
to deal with the knowledge that I, aged nine, was sole witness to a
horror few adults could have borne. But in those days no one spoke
about therapy, at least not among the circles my family moved in.
have a vague recollection of Dad driving me to Leeds to be assessed by a
psychiatrist, who advised the courts to award me financial compensation
for the trauma. Following investment, it amounted to 700 on my 18th
Neither I, nor anyone else in our family, was ever offered counselling. Three-and-a-half decades later, I hope the Mackays and the Beatons, the other family involved in this week’s tragedy, get the professional support they need to help them recover from their losses.
My mother was prescribed tranquillisers and anti-depressants, which enabled her to carry on functioning for her five surviving children, then aged from nine to 21.
But up until her dying day three years ago, aged 82, it was too painful for Mum to speak about Jane.
And sadly Dad and I were never any comfort to one another. We both learned to hide our sadness. I felt I had no entitlement to grieve publicly when it was all my fault and I now realise he probably felt the same.
A huge emotional gulf developed between us as we each wallowed in our misery. I feared that Dad knew, somehow, that I had suggested Jane and I hide in the bushes and that he blamed me for her death. I imagined, and accepted, that consequently his hatred of me ran so deep that he wished it was I who had died and Jane who survived.
So I would avoid conversations with him, terrified he might one day confront me over it.
I realise now that he more likely
believed that I, and the rest of the family, blamed him for failing to
get to school on time for pick-up.
Sadly I’ll never know exactly how he
felt as I had only just turned 20 when he died. I was still a long way
off making sense of the accident and its terrible aftermath.
The regret I felt following the
accident lodged deep in my subconscious and held me in a vice-like grip
of anxiety that meant I would bitterly attack myself after every
perceived misdemeanour — from letting down a friend to failing to meet a
But now 44 and a freelance writer
living in North London with my husband, an academic, and our children
Daniel, ten, Isobel, eight, and Christian, four, I have spent the past
few years exploring and coming to terms with my feelings of loss and
guilt over my sister’s death.
It was something I only felt able to
do after the death of my mother. While she was alive I kept up a
convincing charade of being unaffected by Jane’s death, never crying in
front of my family, for fear of adding to my mother’s grief.
But thanks to a therapy called Resolution Magic, I have removed the intense pain and anxiety from my memories of that time.
Tragic: Helen and sister Jane headed for the bus stop (file picture) when they decided that they were adult enough to may their own way home
It’s a unique system, devised by
psychotherapist Olivia Roberts, that is mainly about replacing
recollections of terrible events with happy, magical memories.
Incredibly, while your conscious mind
never forgets what really happened, I’ve learnt it is possible to
prevent painful memories from causing misery and anxiety in the present
Although my rational, conscious mind
may have always known it, it has taken a long time for the
nine-year-old girl who inhabits my subconscious to accept I was not
responsible for my sister’s death.
I can now recall the fun Jane and I
had digging on the beach on holiday in Filey and playing hopscotch and
skipping games on our path. For too long these happy memories were
eclipsed by the tragedy.
A whole series of events contributed
to us being on that crossing, and the only person who could be truly
justified in feeling guilty is the woman driving the car — without a
licence — which killed Jane.
She was later fined in court — a
pathetically inadequate sentence — but, if she’s still alive, her own
subconscious no doubt continues to dole out far harsher punishments.
I don’t know what happened in the
run-up to Gracie Mackay’s death in those lethal waters last weekend, but
I sincerely hope that her sister and father do not torture themselves
with misplaced guilt.
There is no burden harder to bear than the irrational feeling you are to blame for the death of someone you love.