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Still lives: In Memory of Joseph Patrick Mullin

Photographer Stephanie de Leng visits the home of a mother brimming with eternal anguish, loss and love on an especially meaningful day

Published on January 23rd 2009.


Still lives: In Memory of Joseph Patrick Mullin

WHAT do you say to a grief stricken woman who has lost her only son? It was January 13 and we were sitting in the front room of her pristine house in Childwall, drinking tea, and today was his birthday. Pauline had put the fire on.

If he had been alive, Joe would have been 25. But he had been dead for three years, and his mother was still distraught with unspeakable emotional pain. Especially so on this day. I asked Pauline if she would talk about her boy, and talk she did, unable to come terms with what had happened. While listening, I set up my camera.

Not long after, this lovely, dignified lady started to cry, just lightly, and I sat down next to her. I have never seen such raw grief up close and it entered me forcibly. I was at a loss.

With Pauline’s permission, I began to photograph her and, in so doing, captured the gamut of emotions a mother experiences through sudden death. She cried, and frowned, expressed anger, remorse, guilt and, yes, when she recalled the mannerisms of her beloved only baby, Joe, she smiled and, sometimes, almost laughed.

I stayed almost three hours and wept too. We hugged. Every ounce of my being felt for Pauline. There were no solutions or remedies I could offer, just a shoulder, and a stranger to be able to be open with. It did us both good.

On October 29, 2005, Joe was a passenger in a car that spun out of control in Wavertree. Such was the force of the collision that he was flung from the car and killed instantly. The driver survived. Joe was meant to be in another car, but it was one of those twists of fate that sent him to the back seat of this car. Life, and death, always seems that way.

His end was abrupt, and his suffering short, but the same cannot be said for Pauline who lives with that night, and the subsequent painful court case, every second of her life. For her, there

is no respite as the tableau of everyday existence only serves to remind her of what and whom she has lost.

How do you cope when a child dies? It is a question that I ask myself often, a fear that I hold deep inside myself, like most mothers. I cannot imagine surviving the loss of a child, let alone the loss of my ONLY child. But survive Pauline does, for she knows she must, though that does not ease her pain.

By working with specialist organisations to create awareness of the consequences of death caused by road crashes, Pauline has sought to create something positive out of tragedy. Joe’s family and friends have raised money for a number of charities and a choristers' award has been set up at the Metropolitan Cathedral where Joe himself had been a chorister. This very afternoon there was to be a presentation at The Walton Centre in Joe’s memory. But Pauline was hurting so much I could feel the strength of it in the very atoms of the room, and so I did the only thing I know to do, that could help. I recorded her breadth of emotions.

I hope this image of Pauline, unplanned, raw and real, as intended, shows how terrible bereavement is - that it does not just happen in war, but here, in our safe, modern world.

Every day, mothers (and fathers) like her are being bereaved unexpectedly. Some stories make the news, others, like the murder of Rhys Jones, spark off the public’s consciousness, and yet more get a brief mention, then trickle away quickly from the public eye, leaving the bereft family adrift in a world that for them has changed forever. The best they can do is to allow their suffering to make them better, more caring people because sudden death is negative. It is destructive. The future has to balance this sorrow. It has to heal and mend to create something whole. But this whole will never be the same again. Never. Again.

Look at Joe’s mum and imagine.

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8 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

talacrebeachlighthouseJanuary 22nd 2009.

Very moving.

AnonymousJanuary 22nd 2009.

It's such a sad story. How do we all deal with grief? This photograph says so much, many of us would not not have the nerve to do this for fear of being too intrusive - the resulting image is raw, yet really makes us think about the position she is in. It relates to us all.

EditorialJanuary 22nd 2009.

To sorry.but.com: We wish to point out that Mrs Mullin was not paid for agreeing to appear as a subject in this picture, and we also wish to point out that the photographer was not paid a fee by Liverpool Confidential for its use.

NormanJanuary 22nd 2009.

Wow! what a sad and moving tear jerking story. I could really imagine Mrs Mullin's feelings, my heart goes out to her. Stephanie de Leng the photographer ( is she dutch?) did an awesome job capturing Mrs Mullin's expressions and she can write too....

Leaping SalmonJanuary 22nd 2009.

A very moving article. Its terrible how a precious life can disappear in an instant for no reason. Fate is heartless, cruel and indescriminate.

Sharon's mateJanuary 22nd 2009.

This brings back many memories of when one of my best schoolfriends died in more or less the same circumstances 20-odd years ago. I was 18 and had never really experienced death before, certainly not sudden death, and I was lucky till then, though I didn't know it. There was no funny business, no drugs, no stolen car, no joy riders, just an Audrey Hepburn lookalike girl who got into a car with her new 18 year old boyfriend in Jersey, He had trouble negotiating brakes and she paid the instant price. There is not a week when I have not thought about her, and I think of how I grew up that day. He later commited suicide as a result. Depressing, maybe, but the grasp of life is so utterly fleeting and fragile, yet let it slip from the grip of those humans who count on it and the devastating consequences can go on forever. Take solace Mrs Mullin. You are never alone.

sorry.but.comJanuary 22nd 2009.

Sorry but true grief isnt tailored for public consumption.We live in a twisted world where everyone is a wannabe celeb trading crocodile tears and personal trauma for hard cash.nope. you dont ease suffering by inflating your bank balance. it is all vaguely immoral and disrespectful to me.

AnonymousJanuary 22nd 2009.

Very moving. Made me almost cry myself. The loss of a child is something I could not comprehend until I had my own and then realised the reasons for my own mother's (almost neurotic) protectiveness. Mrs Mullin is very brave and I hope she can continue to find strength and take all the good and beautiful things about her lost son on board every day

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