October 23 2014 Latest news:
Monday, August 18, 2014
Paul Simon’s young daughter was killed in a tragic accident earlier this summer.
Here, he explains how the community of Hadleigh helped him and his family survive the first two months of grief.
I suppose this article is really a love letter; one written to the entire Suffolk town where we live.
I’ve been based in Hadleigh for 15 years and my wife for a few less than that. During that time my views on and knowledge of the place have shifted and deepened from a rather romantic one (everything was wonderful in comparison to where I was living previously) to one that was more realistic and sometimes quite critical.
All that changed in June. Our youngest child, three-and-a-half-year-old Rosa, a beloved sister to Millie and Thomas, was killed in a tragic accident with a car as she scootered on the pavement just outside our driveway in a quiet cul-de-sac.
The response of the people of Hadleigh to this terrible news and our intense grief showed values which I believe reflect the real sense of community spirit and cohesion arguably evident in all our Suffolk market towns.
In a moment I’ll come on to why I believe these market towns and Hadleigh in particular offer an inspirational blueprint as model communities with a common purpose, but firstly I’d like to demonstrate just how special Hadleigh’s response was to our loss.
The most obvious was the torrent of sympathy cards through our letterbox and the messages of support posted up on social media.
There was also the river of visitors who poured into our house offering love, compassion and no-nonsense practical support. Unlike poor Job in the Old Testament, whose friends offloaded their own rather unsympathetic explanations as to his sufferings, our visitors made it clear that they were there for us firstly and lastly.
It also says something special that the same level and type of support was received by the driver of the car, showing that this community was interested only in helping all affected by the tragedy, with no sides being taken and no bitterness felt.
What was especially reassuring for us was not just the numbers of comforters, but their different backgrounds. We are a Christian family (and so know that Rosa was immediately immortal and at one with God) and were heartened by the support of worshippers from all of Hadleigh’s churches. In addition, dear friends from other faiths – Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and Pagans – came round offering us their love and solidarity and we so much appreciated that.
We wanted Rosa’s funeral to be something out of the ordinary so as to reflect both our deep sadness at her death but also to demonstrate what a privilege it was for us to have known her.
To have pulled together all the necessary elements would have defeated us on our own, but we were lifted up by the practical knowledge and wisdom of so many others. Our faith family in the United Reformed Church pulled together by arranging the building, cleaning and opening up the mostly unused upper tier of seats, decorating the window sills and dais with purple and pink flowers (Rosa’s favourite colours) and hanging up the large photos of our daughter that had been kindly printed by a friend.
The order of service was another team effort combining our knowledge of what Rosa liked with the guidance of both local leading churchmen and our wonderful and kind funeral directors to produce a stunning tribute to our girl.
The funeral itself was an incredibly emotional time. It was the collective expression of sympathy from the town that made it bearable. Not only was the church full, but as the cortege drove towards it, we could see little groups of people, wearing pink and purple standing in respect or letting off brightly coloured balloons as we passed by.
But that was merely the prelude to what happened as the cortege left the church and proceeded up the High Street to the town’s cemetery. We knew that some people might wish to join us by making their own way on foot to Rosa’s resting place.
What we weren’t expecting was the hundreds of mourners who followed directly behind the cortege on both the pavement and on the road. In many locations such an impromptu imposition would have others getting impatient as their daily routine was stalled.
Not in Hadleigh.
We were aware as to how respectful everyone was. Other drivers pulled over with some turning off their engines entirely. We noticed that some shops had decked their windows in pink and purple. And then, we realised with a growing sense of deep emotion that pedestrians were stopping and looking and some were bowing their heads. Tradespeople came out of their shops in respect.
And all this for a little girl!
I believe that what we experienced reflects a number of things about the healthiness of the community in Hadleigh in particular, but also the county’s other market towns.
Hadleigh has grown considerably in the last few decades, but it has not become too big to have lost a shared sense of what is important or a common focus around which we can express our humanity.
But equally, the town is a balanced community with a range of different housing types resulting in a mixed community. Unlike, alas, some of Suffolk’s villages which have become ghettoes of the rich or some inner-city areas which have been blighted by both out-of-work and in-work poverty, Hadleigh is a place for all.
Furthermore, in spite of the withdrawal of some local government facilities, and the threatened closure of yet others, the people of Hadleigh are joiners and doers. What I would call ‘foundation’ communities of voluntary organisations are very well adapted to helping others over a long period of time. The number of such groups that have started to raise money for the Rosa Simon Music Fund to buy instruments for local schools, playgroups and churches shows the vitality of this sector in the town.
The final component that makes Hadleigh special is its growing diversity which adds to the community’s existing strengths.
If you’ve never lost a beloved close relative or friend, you’re just going to have to trust me when I say there is something infinitely comforting about being prayed for by adherents of most of the major religious traditions. And we were sustained in the weeks after our daughter’s death by others cooking for us; everything from shepherd’s pie through to hot Bengali curries and wonderful Jewish chicken soup.
So, thank you Hadleigh. We love you and we can’t see how we could have survived this well without you.