Belfast Telegraph

Why images of children mourning Mikaeel left me so uneasy

By Lindy McDowell

A helium balloon has been tied to the street railings. "Little Prince", it reads. There are countless soft toys piled upon the flowers left in tribute. Teddy bears large and small. Winnie the Pooh. Mickey Mouse. A felt aeroplane.

Some of the children who laid them were filmed arriving, sombre-faced, to place the toys at the makeshift shrine. The oldest looks around 12 years old. One of the youngest is almost dwarfed by his own teddy bear.

In the papers there are pictures of other children who've also come along to pay tribute. One little boy – six, maybe, or seven? – holds a poster he's painted.

"GBNF", it says. "Gone but not forgotten." "You'll be sadly missed, wee man." "You were taken to (sic) soon."

There's another poster amid the flowers along very similar lines. "GBNF. You'll be in the community's heart always."

A message on an Etch-a-Sketch reads, "Sleep tight, Mikaeel" – although that one appears to be by a more adult hand.

You would need to have a heart of stone not to be moved by some of the scenes as children in the streets where he lived, have paid tribute following the death of four-year-old Mikaeel Kular.

But there is something that makes me a bit uncomfortable watching them too. Watching disconsolate, clearly upset children pose for the photographers, becoming the prime focus of the media coverage.

Does it really do these young mourners any favours that they feature so prominently in such very public outpourings of grief?

Might they have been better shielded from the spotlight?

The practice of erecting makeshift shrines after deaths that have particularly moved and distressed people is nothing new. It dates back to well before the death of Diana, although that display of public grief became almost a template for what was to follow.

I don't feel that any of this is actually such a bad thing. Coming from our tradition of waking the dead when people find solace in coming together to grieve and to remember and to comfort one another, I can absolutely see the worth in it. After deaths that have been especially shocking it is a release, a way of allowing people to signal their hurt, their bewilderment, to feel they are doing something when there is really nothing anyone can do.

And it goes without saying that the death of any child will always have a distressing impact upon people, especially those who lived in the same area. Upon other local children in particular.

How do you ever explain to a small child that most frightening of concepts – that someone so young, the same age as themselves, someone they may have known, has died – and won't ever ever return?

The schools play an important role. Encouraging children to talk and to express their feelings through art is often part of their approach. (Those very similar posters amid the flowers in Scotland suggest they could well be the result of just such an exercise in a local school.) And I'm not saying that taking the children along to leave their toys and tributes is a bad thing in itself.

It's just that you have to wonder how it may add to the angst and confusion of such very young children that they themselves seem to have become so central to the public mourning and the inevitable media coverage (which would be with the permission of the parents.) You can absolutely see why the photographers would home in on a wide-eyed little girl, her solemn face lit by the candle cupped in her hands. Or a group of wee ones parading to the shrine with their teddies and their tears.

But touched as I am too, by all of this, I just wonder who is best served by it.

I honestly don't think it is the children.

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