A child goes missing and is later found dead. It is a shocking and horrible situation.
Hundreds of people turned out to search for him or her. Directed by police, they form lines, creeping forwards, scouring the ground for clues. They look through bins and sheds and lock-ups, anywhere the body of a youngster could be hidden.
But time passes, and as time passes it is a grim fact that a missing child is more likely to be found dead than alive.
This time it was Mikaeel Kular. His body was found miles from his home, buried in woodland. His mother has been charged with his murder.
As has happened in other similarly terrible circumstances, there was a memorial service. There were flowers and soft toys left near the spot where his little body was discovered.
There has been an outpouring of grief among members of the community.
But hang on a minute. Let’s stop there. That phrase “an outpouring of grief” is used a lot these days. And, the truth is, it is used glibly, unthinkingly, lazily and it cheapens what grief really is.
Grief is something felt by those who have lost someone they truly loved. It is felt by those who feel bereft without that person, who yearn to see them again, who feel they would give anything, literally anything, to be able to speak to and touch and smell the person they have lost.
Grief makes people ill, it renders them incapable. It is, it is now believed, actually possible to die of a broken heart. And to be grieving is, at that moment, to be broken. And while the intensity has to fade, and the bereaved person has to find a way to go on living, grief never goes away. At best, it occupies a smaller place
So grief is not what the people living in an area where a child has been found dead feel, and to say they do is wrong.
They may feel fear on behalf of their own children, they may feel shock and revulsion at what has happened, they may feel desperately sorry and full of sympathy. Or, let’s tell the harsh truth, they may not feel anything at all. But they will not be a community in grief.
If they have helped in a search that might be because they desperately wanted to help, or it might be because they want to feel involved in something exciting. Or it might be because they are guilty of the crime and trying to cover their tracks. That has happened too.
And to attend a memorial service or to leave flowers is not a sign of grief, it’s just what people do these days to show sympathy and acknowledge a dreadful event.
Our time as a reserved people, private and undemonstrative in the face of death has passed. Our stiff upper lip has long wobbled. The tipping point came almost two decades ago when Princess Diana died. Then, there was the nation’s first “outpouring of grief”. Its scale was bewildering, almost as shocking as her violent death in a car crash at the ridiculously young age of 36.
Because we had never experienced the like before, we expected that public emotion to continue, for Diana to become a saint in memory at the very least.
No such thing happened. The public “outpouring of grief” was as fragile and temporary as a morning mist. It turns out, those people who filled London didn’t love Diana. How could they, they didn’t know her? They wanted to be part of history, to join a momentous day.
When the worst happens and a child dies, there are people who care. But only the ones who loved them are grieving.