Our War: a mother who watched her son die on television speaks out

"He'll always be 19, he will always be my boy"

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No mother expects to bury her first-born. No mother expects to bear witness to that child’s death. Helen Gray has done both, and seven years on the pain remains overwhelming and raw. There is no anguish like that felt by a bereaved mother. Helen’s son Christopher was killed by a Taliban bullet in April 2007 while serving in Afghanistan. 

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Aged 19, he’d been there just three weeks. The day she was informed of his death was the same day she received his first letter home. Time, in her case, has not been a healer. “There are certain times when you feel like you are dying inside – you feel like you don’t want to be here. I have felt so low that Chris is the only person I’ve wanted to see. He was my first-born and I miss him that much. I don’t feel, now, that I would do anything silly, I wouldn’t. But you do get really low and you sit and have a really good cry. It’s like this wave comes over you and it hits your head and literally travels all the way down and there is nothing you can do about it.

I just sit and sob, but then I can hear his voice telling me off, telling me to stop and pull myself together. It’s then you remember you have three other children.” Forty-nine-year-old Helen breaks down and cries frequently. But they’re not tears of self-pity, or defeat, just unresolved grief. She has, as she says, three other children still at home to look after with husband Paul, and a job as catering manager at the local high school to hold down.

What is relevant, though, is the insight she has into her son’s death. His final moments were captured on the helmet camera of his platoon sergeant and subsequently used, with the family’s consent, in the Bafta Award-winning BBC3 documentary Our War in 2011. She has, in effect, watched her son die. Even for the uninvolved it’s a tough watch; colleagues struggling with the stretcher carrying him off the battle field, unsure whether he’s dead or alive, screaming desperately at each other. Initially they sense hope, but when they return to camp later that day they’re informed he didn’t make it.

Those scenes are featured again this week as, with the British exit from Afghanistan complete, TV cameras revisit some of those soldiers and stories. The historian and journalist Max Hastings had suggested that the inclusion of the footage showing Chris’s death bordered on the exploitative. Will Helen be watching? “I’ve never watched all of it. I can’t. Paul has seen it all and just tells me, ‘You don’t have to watch it, he’s gone now.’ “But I will sit and watch a bit of it with Paul, and if I need to stop it I’ll stop it and if I need to cry, I’ll cry. But I’ll try to keep my defences up.

The film – and its updated interviews– will remind Helen just how valued a comrade her son was. Not that she needs much reminding. Seven years on, members of his former platoon return frequently to her home in Ratby, Leicestershire, particularly on the anniversary of his death. “When we lost Chris I needed to see those boys. I needed to talk to them and find out what happened that day. I needed to thank them because I could see how hard they tried to save him.

I know how much it hurt them and hurts them now because they were really good friends.“We have a big get together on the anniversary of his death,” says Helen. “But when you say goodbye to them it is sopainful watching them
go. Paul once asked if I thought it would be better not to see them for a while. But I need to, because they’re my last link with Chris. I say to my daughter Katie, ‘Do you think the lads will always remember him?’ That is the one thing
I dread – that he will be forgotten.” 

Preserving Chris’s memory is crucial to Helen, and central to her agreement for the footage to be shown. She still wears around her neck the ID tag that was removed from his body as he was flown back to Camp Bastion. “I always wear it. I will never, ever take it off.” Is she clinging on to him a bit too hard? “I carried him for nine months, I brought him up, so I will always have him. He will always be mine. The tag is the last thing he wore and it will be the last thing I wear. I know he’s not here any more, but he will always be a part of our lives. He will always be just 19. He never had a girlfriend and he’ll never belong to another woman so he will always be my boy.”

Her words are powerful and heartfelt and it’s hard not to console her. Her pain remains so intense. “Only the people who have gone through it truly understand what that pain is like. Someone said to my daughter, ‘It is time
your mum moved on.’”

Her voice, so patient and tolerant, changes. “Don’t you dare tell me or my family that I should be moving on. You have all your children– we don’t have all of ours. It’s just the cruellest thing anyone can say.”A place of great comfort for Helen is the village churchyard, where her son’s ashes are interred in a family plot. For a long time she visited every day, but now it’s just weekends. “It is very important to me. I know some people do different things with the ashes but I needed somewhere to go where I could sit and talk to him. I always end up telling him off for not coming back. Some people must see me sitting there talking to him and wagging my finger and giving him a lecture and must think I’m cracking up.” The tears give way to a hearty laugh.

The poppies that have covered the plot will, around now, be replaced by symbols of Christmas. The family will plant and decorate a small tree and there will be a few lights to help illuminate the memory of the son and brother the family holds so dear. “As soon as it starts to get light on Christmas morning I will go down there on my own – it’s just a little bit of quiet time with him. But then I come back and try tomake it a nice Christmas for the others. It’s not fair on them to suffer because I’m suffering.” But suffer they do. Her youngest son, 15-year-old Nathan, idolised his big brother. Helen tells a heartbreaking story from the previous day that highlights just how deep the pain of loss travels.

Nathan was playing football yesterday,and he stood in the goalmouth and just took his gloves off and threw them on the ground. I went over to him and he said, ‘I can’t do it any more, Mum,’and he just cried on the pitch. I said, ‘Come on, we’ve got a match to win here.’ But his heart just wasn’t in it.”

Helen is not convinced her son died for any greater good, but neither does she think it was a wasted life. “I would never, ever think Christopher lost his life in vain. That would go against everything he believed in. Christopher knew he had a job to do. He joined the Army because he wanted to serve his country, but he also knew that he could be killed doing something he loved. “One of the last things he said to me was: ‘We’ve got a job to do, Mum. Better on their
doorstep than ours.’”

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Our War: Goodbye Afghanistan is on Tuesday (9th December), BBC3 at 9.00pm