Photo by Katalin Karolyi
In July 2013 Anne-Marie Cockburn’s 15-year-old daughter, Martha Fernback, spent the afternoon in an Oxford park with friends when she took a half gram of pure crystallised MDMA (ecstasy) which killed her. A 17-year-old man was given an 18-month supervision order for supplying Class A drugs.
It was like any other day, Martha had left the house early and we were texting each other about plans for the summer holiday. Then I got this phone call from a stranger saying “your daughter is gravely ill; they’re trying to save her life.” I knew exactly what the word ‘gravely’ meant but the immediate shock stopping me from accepting what I’d heard.
However, in the hospital two nurses took me into the ‘crash room’, where 10 people surrounded Martha. Her face was grey and at that point I knew she was dead. When a doctor knelt in front of me and said he was so sorry but she hadn’t had a pulse for 45 minutes I started shouting “I’m not a mum anymore.” I was hyperventilating and the nurses were holding me. I needed to get out of the room, so I went outside and just lay down in a car parking space and looked at the sky. Everything was vibrant and despite the agony, I also felt this huge love. It was a visceral reaction; my overriding feeling was “I still have a future. I have a life.” From the moment Martha died something filled me with deep, profound respect for my own life. I’d lost everything but I was still alive and felt the need to pay tribute to that.
Some family members soon arrived and I heard their voices from behind the curtain. Eventually we had to leave Martha’s body behind in the hospital as it was now part of a police investigation. That was it. I came back home, went into the bathroom and threw Martha’s toothbrush in the bin. About 4 days later we found out a 17 year old boy had been arrested.
Within six hours I’d got my laptop out and started writing. It was like the universe was channelling this force through me. I was writing to stay alive. It was like oxygen to me. When you lose everything that has meaning to you, you’re stripped bare and all you’ve got left is what you’re born with – intuition and determined self-belief.
My life still contains a very big focus on Martha but I’ve become the sort of person who makes the most of whatever I’ve got left. The alternative is to stay in bed. I’ve met other parents whose children have died who’ve told me that the second year is worse than the first, or that their life ended along with their child. I empathise with them completely, but while I’m alive, I choose to live, rather than feel this way.
My bereavement is something I check in with regularly but if I focus on it constantly the pain becomes too great. At the beginning some people thought I was in denial but this is my way of dealing with the worst thing that can happen to a mother.
I haven’t felt angry as I’ve converted my anger into positive action. Allowing anger to fester would be the final nail in the coffin for me. I have looked for positive and healthy ways to cope because if I don’t find ways to be happy in my new life I will not survive. I have never focussed much on the offender because I don’t need retribution. What he did was very unfortunate but he didn’t do it deliberately. At the final hearing I said that I didn’t want him to go to prison, although some of my family disagree with me.
I hope he does something good with his life, something he can be proud of.
I have exchanged letters with him through the Community Liaison team. After 2-3 letters I felt there was a real shift in the dialogue. I could see he’d taken responsibility for what he’d done and that it was weighing heavily on his young shoulders. You don’t need a face-to-face meeting to find some peace within yourself. I was touched by some of the things he said and through reading his words I could hear his voice. Through the dialogue it was as though we were sharing how the loss of Martha has profoundly affected both our lives.
Forgiveness didn’t feature because it wasn’t needed. I felt at peace with my loss. Martha’s death will never make sense so there’s no point in trying to dissect it. I feel like I’m wearing an invisible life-jacket, swimming around, trying to find steady land where one day I will sow seeds again.
Martha’s death has taught me how to live. She was my focus when alive but in her absence I want to ensure the world doesn’t lose another child in this way. Therefore, having a conversation about Martha in a prison, or a school, or speaking to policy makers about educating young people about drugs is the way I choose to respond to her death. By telling my story and showing my vulnerability, perhaps in some way it may help people deal with their own pain. It also helps me to feel like an active mother again and that is truly remarkable.