Cynthia - Interview 02

Age at interview: 64
Brief Outline: In 2000 Cynthia's 26 year old daughter was killed when she was knocked off her bicycle and run over by a lorry. The inquest verdict was 'accidental death' and the driver was acquitted. Cynthia was devastated and now campaigns to prevent other road deaths.
Background: Cynthia was a University administrator (now retired). She is divorced and has one child, who died. Ethnic background/nationality: White British.

More about me...

In June 2000 Cynthia’s 26 year old daughter was killed when she was knocked off her bicycle and run over by a concrete mixer lorry, which was turning left across her path.

Cynthia was at work at the time and was shocked when two policemen arrived to tell her what had happened. Cynthia wanted to see her daughter and discovered that she was in the mortuary at the City of London Coroner’s Office. She went there with her boss, but was told that she could not see her daughter. No explanation was given at the time, which was upsetting. Cynthia received very little other information.
Cynthia’s life has been shattered and totally changed by the events of that day. She organised her daughter’s funeral herself. It was held at a crematorium and attended by many of her daughter’s friends. Some of her daughter’s ashes were scattered in the grounds of her college, some when a tree was planted in her memory, and the rest were scattered on the canal from a boat which she loved.
The inquest was held at the end of January 2001. Cynthia was not allowed to see the witness statements before the inquest, and even though she employed a barrister she felt that the inquest was a complete waste of time. The coroner decided that her daughter’s death had been due to an accident.
At the end of 2000 Cynthia was told that the driver of the lorry was going to be prosecuted. She attended the pre-trial hearing in January 2001. The trial took place in a magistrate’s court in April 2001. Cynthia asked the police if she should expect to see any visual evidence that she might find upsetting. Although she was told that there would not be visual evidence, she was shocked to find that there was a large video screen in court and that she was expected to look at a succession of CCTV images of her daughter cycling to her death. Cynthia believes that the conduct of the prosecution was incompetent. The driver was acquitted of the charge of careless driving, even though he admitted that he had not used two of the three mirrors on the left hand side of the vehicle. Cynthia was left feeling deeply traumatised by the whole experience.
After Cynthia’s daughter died she felt angry and devastated and at times she felt suicidal. She began to feel a bit better when she realised that she was not to blame for what had happened. Initially she had blamed herself for the “rubbish trial” thinking that she had been too naive, too trusting, and she blamed herself for everything that had gone wrong. Gradually she realised that her anger had been misplaced and she started campaigning to change the Coroners’ System, to change the Criminal Justice system, and to make sure that companies take road deaths seriously.
Three weeks after her daughter’s death Cynthia returned to work. She found it helped to have some routine in her day. She also found great support from her daughter’s friends. She found art therapy helpful and still paints and draws. Her GP suggested counselling, which she also found helpful. She says that her feelings about her daughter’s death are just as intense as ever, but that she has developed coping strategies.
Cynthia is still campaigning for safer roads in order to prevent other deaths. She works with various companies on training initiatives for their drivers and has campaigned tirelessly to try to make vehicles safer. If a death has occurred she wants magistrates to use the charge of “causing death by careless driving”, rather than just using the charge of “careless driving”, so that it is clearly recognised that a death has occurred.
Cynthia is Chair of RoadPeace, the UK charity which provides support for victims of road crashes, and which campaigns for justice, road safety and road danger reduction.
Cynthia was interviewed in September 2008.

Two policemen told Cynthia that her daughter had been killed. She was in a terrible state of...

Well I was at work, it was a Wednesday in June, I went out at lunchtime and when I came back from my lunch break  my boss came into my office and said that there were two policemen who wanted to speak to me. And I immediately thought, “What have I done wrong? Have I done something awful?” And started panicking about what I could have done, that two policemen needed to come and speak to me about it. Then they sat me down in his office, with him, and someone from the personnel department. And I thought, you know they’re going to give me the sack or something. And then they said that they wanted to tell me that my daughter had been killed by a lorry. And I couldn’t take it in. I couldn’t understand, I was in such a state of shock, I couldn’t understand what they were saying and I asked where she was, and they didn’t know where she was because they hadn’t been briefed properly, so they didn’t actually know anything about what had happened. And I, it was just such a, such a shock because I’d been talking to her the night before, on the phone. We spoke, we spoke or e-mailed or something most days. She was in a flat share with a friend, but we did communicate in someway or other most days and I’d been talking to her the night before about her hair cut, because the following, a couple of days later there was going to be a party at the firm where she worked, which was also coincidentally the first anniversary of meeting her boyfriend, and so they were going to have a celebration of their anniversary as well, and so she’d arranged to have her hair cut and we were talking about her hair and what she was going to wear and so on. And I just couldn’t reconcile that conversation the night before with what these policemen were saying about the fact that she was dead. And I couldn’t believe it, I wanted to see her, and eventually after about an hour and a half they managed to find out where she was, which was the mortuary at the City of London Coroner’s office. So my boss grabbed a taxi and took me over there. And I asked the Coroner’s officer where she was, and he said that she was in the next room. And I said, “Well can I see her?” And he said, “No you can’t.” “I just need the name of your dentist because we’ll need her dental records to identify her.” And, it’s its still unbelievable in in a way. Although I do know that that is what happened. But I was finding it very hard to take in, and I was in a state of shock for quite a long time, for several months, I was just kind of reeling from it, and I assumed that people who had a job to do in connection with it would tell me what they were doing.

At first Cynthia felt suicidal and angry. She blamed herself for everything that had gone wrong,...

Anyway, I was suicidal, really suicidal. I was in a terrible state of shock and incomprehension. And couldn’t make sense of anything, and I really was in a desperate state for a long time. And two things were kind of turning points. I just felt that I was no longer the same person. I didn’t know why I was different because my brain was like a robot, I couldn’t think of anything. But I just knew that I wasn’t the same person anymore but didn’t know what I was, and it was like being a tiny child again. I didn’t know how to make sense of the world anymore. And then a friend, a very old friend said, “Well you used to like art, so I’m going to take you to an art gallery, and see if you still like art.” So without knowing what we were going to do, she took me down to the Royal Academy and the exhibition at the time was of Botticelli’s drawings for Dante’s Divine Comedy, and I didn’t know anything about that either, but I walked to the top floor where it was and at the entrance to the exhibition there was a quote from the poem, “The Divine Comedy” which said, “Midway along the journey of our life I woke to find myself in a dark wood.” And I thought, “So I’m not the first person to feel like this. I’ll go and watch this exhibition.” And I went back I think five more times, I went six times altogether to the same exhibition and again I didn’t know why. I knew that I was thinking about something but at the back of my head so I didn’t know what I was thinking about, but I knew I must be thinking about something so I just went with it and carried on looking.
And then one day I went out with a colleague from work, for a walk, and bumped into the lorry driver’s barrister, who I remembered from the court, and that was like an electric shock, it really was. I went home and I started crying, and I didn’t stop crying for three days, but at the end of those three days my mind was clear. It was like, you hear these stories about people suddenly remembering something, and it was like that, and at the end of those three days of crying I knew, I knew that my suicidal feelings were actually because I was very, very angry, and initially I turned that anger in on myself, and I’d blamed myself for the rubbish trial thinking that I’d been too naive, too trusting, and I blamed myself for everything that went wrong. But then gradually I started to realise it wasn’t me that was responsible for that, but also I realised that I was so angry at what had happened I wanted to change what had happened. I was not willing to just put up with all that rubbish, and I realised that through meeting other people and so on and talking to other people that a lot of other people had gone through similar experiences and that we could only change things if we were all together, fighting the same corner. 

Cynthia’s daughter’s friends had a tree planted in the college grounds. After her ashes were...

Do you mind me asking what happened to her ashes? Are they there? Or did you take them somewhere?
No, we got, we got the ashes and most of them were scattered on the canal. In her last year at college my daughter was in digs with a couple who had a canal boat, and she often used to go on the canal boat with them. She loved being on the canal boat. So some of the ashes were scattered in the grounds of the college when her friends planted the tree there, the rest were scattered from the canal boat. We took a special journey, and they, the people that, this couple that she was in digs with, they had a special plaque made to stick onto the canal boat and they gave me a copy of that, which I’ve still got. 

Cynthia has no religious beliefs herself but recognises that other people may get comfort from...

Did you have or have you got any sort of spiritual belief or religious belief that’s helped you or not?
Not at all. No. No. No I haven’t and I think that I, it’s something that I didn’t particularly think about before. But now I just get angry which is probably unfair. I shouldn’t, I shouldn’t get angry with religion but I just think you know if, if there is a God, why did he kill my daughter? And I can’t help thinking that.
But I’m, I’m not, I’m not anti-religion, if people do get comfort from it that’s fine. And I do have two friends who are clergymen, who’ve stayed good friends, but I now have no belief, no I don’t.

Cynthia’s anger and her determination to fight for justice for her daughter, and on behalf of...

So what about life now, how have things changed and how do you see the future?
Well it’s not so much that life has changed, but I have changed completely. I find myself because of my anger at the way my daughters’ death was treated, and my determination to fight her corner, I mean I’m still her mother even though she’s dead I’m still her mother, and I was not willing to let her death and her life be treated in a casual way and a almost dismissive way that I encountered in the legal procedures. And my anger at that and determination to fight her corner and fight on behalf of other people too in the same position, has changed me completely. So it’s not just life on the surface that has changed, I have changed. I’m no longer the person that I was, and I think that’s why I went through that very difficult time after the trial of feeling that I wasn’t the same person but didn’t know what I’d become. And almost kind of starting again as a small child looking differently at the world and trying to make sense of it, and I have changed, but at the same time, I do need to think about myself and look after myself as well, because I’m even more vulnerable than I was. So sometimes a lot stronger, but sometimes a lot more vulnerable, and I just need to be careful of that, careful of both of those things.
Because I have done an awful lot of media work, not just about my case, but you know helping other families to put their cases and talking about the problems in general that we face, and that that’s not the whole of me, I am not [laugh] what I appear, there’s a very fragile person there as well. 

Cynthia wants professionals talking with bereaved people to use appropriate language.

Have you got a message for professionals? Either the police or coroners or…?
The first message would be to deal with reality. Don’t use language which is inappropriate or pretends that something awful hasn’t happened really. “Just a momentary lapse in concentration”, you know, “sad accident.” No, if criminal behaviour is involved, call it a crime. If it’s a crash or a collision or a death, use the language of reality. Deal with the family honestly and openly, and if you’re having problems in knowing how to speak to them, ask them, give them a chance to tell you how they want to be spoken to. And don’t, don’t avoid them. Don’t hide away.
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After the inquest Cynthia understood why she had not been allowed to see her daughter's body. She...

You said that you weren’t allowed to see your daughter’s body. Was that the right decision? Do you think?
Probably in retrospect it was. The first indication that I had of what had actually happened was one of the witnesses in the inquest, so this is a whole seven months later, one of the witnesses in the inquest said that he wasn’t sure what had happened to my daughter, whether it was just an injury or she had been killed or whatever and he said, “And then I looked under the lorry and when I saw that her face had gone, I realised she must be dead.”
And that’s the first I knew.
But presumably her head was so badly injured that was why they’d not let me see her, and I think that was probably right, but at the same time I would’ve liked an explanation.
And given the opportunity just to hold her hand or something.
Yeah. Yes.
Just something.

Since her daughter died Cynthia wants to have nothing to do with Christmas. On the anniversary of...

So, as you can imagine Christmas that year waiting for information and the first Christmas without my daughter, was sheer hell, and I have nothing at all to do with Christmas now. I completely ignore it, I don’t want to know about it, and friends have been very supportive and they send me Christmas cards saying, “Happy Shortest Day”, so that there’s no mention of Christmas in the Christmas card.
Which is nice of them. So then the inquest was at the end of January that year. And it was appalling, it was appalling.
And anniversaries, you say Christmas is terrible, you don’t want to…
I never have anything to do with Christmas, no I don’t want it.
What about, I know other anniversaries like her birthday must be difficult as well?
Yes it is, but that’s when I go to see the tree at the college, and that’s doing really well, it’s a silver birch tree and it’s really big now and I occasionally see rabbits there as well which is important because we did have pet rabbits and so, it feels like her sort of place, and so now when it’s her birthday I go to the tree, yes. And I always do something to connect with her on the anniversary of her death. Sometimes I go to the tree, or sometimes there might be something else that I can go to, for example, one of the RoadPeace supporters is a professional musician who occasionally organises concerts for us, fundraising concerts for us, and this year, entirely coincidentally, nothing to do with me, he didn’t even know the date of my daughters death, but this year the concert was on the anniversary of her death, so that was what I did this year, go to the concert.
Mm, how nice.
And think about her, yes. 

Cynthia’s daughter was killed on the road. She said that bereaved relatives may have to ask...

Have you got any message for those who are bereaved?
And that is to be equipped to fight your corner. Because you can’t assume that everybody who has a job in relation with your bereavement is going to do their job well with your interests at the centre of their job, sometimes that doesn’t happen. And you may have to ask questions, demand information, ask for information on procedures and ask for your rights in that situation, so be equipped to do that, don’t, don’t be shocked or frightened by it, just look for the information, ask for the advice, get what you need to know and fight your corner. Sadly you may have to.
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