Jeremy read this at Emma’s memorial event on 30th September 2013.
I knew Emma for all of her all-too-short life – my dear sister and brother-in-law’s daughter, Ros’s god-daughter, my fellow mental health professional, and, I like to think, my friend. As everyone who encountered her knew, Emma was blessed with a miraculous amalgam of brains and beauty (those amazing eyes; that mischievous mysterious smile!). But more than both, she had a life-enhancing, creative spirit which lightened all that surrounded her. Her presence guaranteed laughter, fun and novelty. I remember an occasion when she came to stay with us when her cousins Josh and Rosy were there too; she devised a consequences writing game we played from morning til night, with seemingly endless outbursts of uncontrollable giggles.
But beyond this exceptional capacity for fun there was a mercurial intelligence which informed not just her RSA blogs but her intensely readable Doctoral thesis which was passed on the spot with no alterations – an outcome rare indeed in the academic world. Ironically, the essence of her study was that to de-stigmatise mental illness in adolescents it was necessary to touch on their personal experience, rather than rely on simplistic analogies with physical illness. This research drew on all of Emma’s strengths – her analytic and literary skills of course, but also her capacity to empathise with, and reach out to young people, and to engage them through humour, cajoling when necessary, and her uncanny ability to penetrate to the heart of the matter in simple yet profound ways.
I say ‘ironically’, because of the nature of her death. When someone dies by their own hand, those that love and know the person are inescapably suffused with feelings of horror, guilt, vicarious agony — sometimes anger and incomprehension. Inevitably one asks oneself ‘why didn’t I ring her?’, ‘why couldn’t she see, however much she was suffering, that ‘this too will pass’?’ “if only the psychiatric services had realized just how ill she was’ and so on. But I believe Emma died from an illness, no less real than leukaemia, multiple sclerosis or cancer. If we seek a ‘reason’ for her death, we need look no further than mental illness and bipolar disorder. She may have felt that there was no way out from her mental pain, that her circumstances were intolerable and unalterable, or – oh so wrongly — that those who loved and still love her would be better off without having to worry about her. But those thoughts and those circumstances were utterly beyond her control and must be seen as the end-result of inexorable illness. Emma rests in the company of fellow bipolar sufferers who like herself, died before their time – Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Anne Sexton. But she is also a compatriot of those other great women — Kathleen Mansfield, Jaqueline Dupree, Rosalyn Franklin, Kathleen Ferrier, her Haworth neighbour Charlotte Bronte – who were cut down in their prime by illness.
Two years ago Emma’s cousin Flora asked her at Richard and Errolyn’s 60th birthday party what was her favourite poem. She said it was ‘Pearl’, a long mediaeval poem by an anonymous author about a young woman who dies. I want to end with a few lines from it.
PEARL all-pleasing, prince’s treasure,
too chastely set in gold so pure !
From out the Orient, I aver,
ne’er proved I pearl its precious peer…
so sweetly small, so wondrous smooth ;
where’er I judged of joyous gems,
I placed my Pearl apart, supreme,
I lost it in a garden alas !
Through grass to ground ’twas gone from me.
I pine, by Severing Love despoil’d
of Pearl mine own, without a spot.
From spot where such rich treasure wastes
fragrant spice must needs spring forth ;
blossoms white and blue and red
shine there full sheer against the sun.
Flower and fruit shall know no flaw
where it down drave to earth’s dark mould ;
for from dead grain each blade must grow,
no wheat were else brought ever home.…
so seemly a seed can never fail ;
ne’er fragrant spice shall cease to spring
from that precious Pearl without a spot.
Emma was a priceless pearl – we have lost her, but must trust that something rare and strange will grow from her loss. Of course there is grit at the heart of a pearl – grit in both senses, since Emma’s illness, her unbearable suffering was grit indeed; but also the grit that Emma showed. However misguided – and in my view it is always a manifestation of a disturbed mind caught in a delusional world — great courage is undoubtedly required to take one’s life, and Emma had bravely lived through the shadow of death many times.
Mediating in my atheistic way on the cleansing power of fire to purge pain and misery and despair, I had a vision of Emma, relieved at last of the burden of her suffering , as an angel, hovering over us patiently, lovingly — until our turn comes. So, like Horatio, let us sing her to her rest, with flights of angels.