Belfast Telegraph

Gail Walker: How tragic death of Lorraine Burrows has shown us the absolute fragility of life

The sad and sudden loss of Lorraine Burrows on her way to work has resonated deeply for many, says Gail Walker

It can take the most dramatic, sometimes the most dreadful, circumstances to expose the unexpected truth of our lives and those of our companions. The tragedy of Lorraine Burrows showed not just how fragile life is, how arbitrary sudden death can be, but also how so many of us respond so generously to the human call of other's suffering.

The 48-year-old recruitment consultant was knocked down and killed in Belfast at 8am during last Tuesday's rush hour. Wellwood Street is one of those forgotten byways off Great Victoria Street, caught in the no-man's-land leading to Sandy Row. It should be a quiet location, for that reason, the bulk of the traffic pounding down those other thoroughfares.

She was going to work. A day just like another to be filled with the stuff of all our days - work, office gossip, the mid-morning break, the run-up to Christmas.

All over the city, everywhere in our country, regardless of location or job or politics or age, we are all heading off somewhere, to do something, usually with others, and all of us are subject to exactly the same ordinary twist of fate which, sadly, struck Lorraine down that morning.

By Wednesday morning, 24 hours later, thousands were reading her story and thinking - we all thought - "Yes, that's me".

Her tragic story resonates deeply. If you have avoided fatal or damaging disease and dodged the accidents reckless youth can be prey to, you do expect that by the time middle age is looming, you are entitled to anticipate something of a steady procession from then on. We start counting our years and think how many we might have ahead, all things being equal. We have survived.

Lorraine Burrows could have begun to think of a life without the early morning commute. Her husband Jonny and she could have imagined something like a trouble-free future, facing in to it together, with friends and family.

Everything, in other words, the rest of us might imagine every day also. That doesn't make the ambition any less significant. Quite the reverse, in fact. Every dream of peace and happiness is coloured and nuanced with very deep and personal moods and experience, filled with very specific detail. We all know the lure of that hope because we share it, even if the form it might take is so very different for each of us.

We know the lure even more intimately when it is snatched away from us ourselves, or when we see it taken away from others. Illness, loss, financial ruin, abandonment - these eventualities occur daily and can often be the result of simple misfortune, a wrong turning, poor advice, genetic susceptibility. These things happen, as we say, and we can be thankful that, this time, it wasn't us in fate's cross-hairs.

But it is equally true that we are able to recognise the human cost in the pain of others.

When the peace of Wellwood Street was so dramatically disrupted a week ago today, people emerged from nearby houses and apartments to help, to give aid and succour. To do what they could, be it great or small.

"I heard a thump but didn't think much about it," one man said. "When I got round the corner I saw the lorry had pulled over and the driver was getting out. There was another witness and I saw a shape on the ground. At that stage I wasn't quite sure what had happened; it was only when I walked over I saw it was a person there."

He called the emergency services. Others were also doing so. A woman began to give CPR, under instruction down the phone. Then another person took over that task. "It was very tough," another man added.

Some of those present will have been of no practical assistance but felt they had to be there - if only to show that Lorraine was not alone and that what was happening was not a private grief, or of some minor or strictly private consequence.

It's an opportunity again to appreciate what you might call the more formalised structures of our collective caring - the air ambulance which came to Lorraine's aid, the on-the-ground paramedics who strove to keep her alive.

And while all of this was happening, Lorraine Burrows's loved ones were somewhere else, going about their business, as if nothing was amiss, utterly unaware that their lives too had already been changed forever.

Frequently, it is only in death that we can appreciate how remarkable so-called ordinary persons can be. Then, it is not only how it suddenly becomes apparent how much they - we - are loved; but also how much other people - people who do not know us at all - are prepared to become engaged in the deepest crisis we face, either as injured and dying people or as bereft survivors.

Lorraine's workplace, Keenan Health Care, closed and a statement expressed the sense of loss: "It is with the greatest of sadness that we have to inform you that our colleague and good friend Lorraine Burrows passed away suddenly this morning. We are all numb with shock. She will be sorely missed at Keenan. Rest In Peace, Lorraine."

As is so often the case nowadays, friends took to social media. One said: "Such sad news. Lorraine was always so lovely, bubbly and always looked out for you. She will be missed so much."

Another says: "Such a shock! Lorraine was such a lovely woman, she was always so nice and friendly and if you had any problems she would have tried her hardest to fix it she will be sorely missed."

Again, these are simple, common endearments, often heard and expressed, but they burn most intensely after a sudden death and bring to the bereaved, not comfort as such, but that other quality, that other invaluable asset, what people try to convey through offering their help in helpless and even hopeless situations. Solidarity.

Lorraine Burrows's death, completely unnecessary, untimely, premature, tragic and sudden, of course demonstrates the frailty of even the most self-confident, bright and vibrant of us. It shows, yet again, that no amount of love and care can stop the inevitability of accident once it is underway. It shows how unfair and desperate and sorrowful and hollow the experience of life can be.

But it also shows, as her husband Jonny has been remarkably able to express, that there are good people, that there is compassion, that there are selfless actions and a desire to stand beside those who are in most need.

It's not reaching for some kind of vain solace to recognise that Lorraine Burrows's death has brought all the better qualities we share as a community to the fore.

Hers was an unwanted and unwarranted public death. The public response to it, immediately, unhesitatingly, generously and courageously, has reminded us all, in this serious Christmas season, of our better selves.

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