A story to break the heart of any parent


What a sad and horrible week it has been. Poor Gaia Pope, I feel so sorry for her family and friends. We all do.

The police have yet to announce the cause of death of the golden and clearly enchanting young woman but their statements indicate that there was no foul play and that nobody else was involved. That’s some comfort, but still Gaia’s is a tragic story that breaks the heart of any parent.

I cannot imagine the pain that her family must be suffering but the agony must be crippling for them. I remember when my own child, when he was a toddler, once toddled off from his pushchair at a crowded village fete. As the panic grew in me and his mother and I searched everywhere for 15 minutes my terror was so great that just thinking about it now, more than twenty years later, makes me feel like I want to throw up as I recall that overwhelming dread.

Many parents have experienced that and it is the worst feeling of all, everything that goes through your head at such times compounds to make you want to drop to your knees and just sob, there is no fear like it.

Life goes on, they say, time heals. But I doubt that. I doubt that any parent who loses a child, whether it be through illness or an accident or a tragedy like Gaia’s, is ever “healed”. I can’t imagine that I would be, if I was in their sad shoes, and I thank God that I am not.

But one of Gaia’s cousins has said that lessons must be learned and she is quite right, they must; nobody else should go through what Gaia’s family has endured and will continue to endure for many years yet.

One of these lessons, it seems to me, might be that Dorset Police learns how to say sorry. In that I do not address the Pope family but the three people from Swanage who were arrested on suspicion of murder.

Those people must have gone through hell. Granted, not a hell quite like the hell of all hells which the Pope family are suffering, but a nightmare nonetheless.

So I was surprised that when Dorset Police issued a press statement saying “three people arrested in connection with the disappearance of Gaia Pope have this morning been released from police investigation without any further action”, that there appeared to be no apology issued with it.

Instead, Detective Superintendent Paul Kessell, of Dorset Police’s Major Crime Investigation Team, said: “Following the results of the post-mortem examination and other ongoing investigative enquiries, we have concluded that no one else was involved in Gaia’s death.

“As such we have today, Monday 20 November, released from our investigation two men aged 19 and 49 and a 71-year-old woman, all from Swanage, who had been arrested and were assisting with our enquiries.

“I appreciate our enquiries would have caused these individuals stress and anxiety, however we have an obligation in any missing person investigation to explore every possible line of enquiry.

“The public would expect Dorset Police to fully investigate the sudden disappearance of a teenage girl. Our aim was not only to find Gaia but to find out what happened to her.”

Well, yes, we would expect the police to “fully investigate” all aspects of the tragedy, but some of us would also expect that the words “I appreciate our enquiries would have caused these individuals stress and anxiety” might have been better phrased as “I apologise that our enquiries have caused these individuals stress and anxiety”.

It’s perhaps a minor point and I do not want to be critical of the police as theirs is a difficult job which few of us could do, and at a time when the officers involved in the Gaia case must have suffered stress and anxiety themselves it is unfair to expect even senior policemen to be experts in PR. But it is a lesson to be looked at nonetheless.

But a greater lesson must be that we need to look far more searchingly at the condition that Gaia reportedly suffered from, PTSD, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

I used to believe that PTSD was something that soldiers got, a horrible affliction that was a side effect from the horrors of battle. But now I read that PTSD is widespread; not only is it common among the emergency services, but also it afflicts children as young as six.

I shudder to think of what awful events are those that could induce trauma in a six-year-old child, but they happen.

Apparently they happened in Gaia’s sad case, that she was so overwhelmed by fear, confusion and helplessness that she is no longer with us.

Compared with depression and anxiety attacks, PTSD appears to be a relatively new form of mental illness. But it is such an illness and we need to be investigating much more keenly what is its cause and, more importantly, its cure.

Successive governments have promised to invest in more research and treatment for those many of us who suffer a bout of mental ill health, but with the shocking truth that one in four of us is condemned to suffer some sort of mental illness at some point in our lives, evidently not anything like enough is being promised or done.

We need to know much, much more about PTSD, we need to be taught how to spot it and how to cope with it. And the Government must provide far more funding to enable that.

It was announced this week that the police and the authorities are considering teaching in schools lessons in how to react in the event of a terrorist attack. There is some wisdom in that, such attacks are dreadful and lives could perhaps be saved if children are taught what to do if they are ever caught up in one.

But given that the chances of experiencing a terror attack are far less likely than the affliction of mental illness that 25 per cent of us will experience, perhaps it might be a more-wise investment to teach our children more about such illness, because that too could save lives.

This article first appeared in the Independent. To get the latest articles when they appear, buy the print edition every Sunday or subscribe to our online edition HERE.