By Catherine O’Brien

For many years Catherine Lucas was haunted by her involvement in her mother’s death. Here she recalls her painful journey through grief and guilt and explains how she has finally found peace.

Many of us might say, looking back, that our lives swiveled on a moment. Few of us, however, can identify that moment with such devastating certainty as Catherine Lucas. The second in which her world shattered came one summer’s day when she was 17. A learner driver, she was behind the wheel of her mother’s car, heading home from school, when feeling hot, she took her eye off the road to tug at the sweater draped over her shoulders. Suddenly, her mother was seizing the steering wheel and screeching. There was an ear-splitting smash as the car plunged into the ditch, then chilling silence. ‘I knew immediately that she was dead,’ Catherine says. ‘If she had been alive she would have been screaming and her silence was more awful than her screams could ever have been.’

The force of the crash threw them both to the floor, with Catherine pinned under her mother’s corpse. She crouched there for what seemed like eternity, ‘feeling the soft heavy dripping of blood from her body on to mine. I knew what had happened, but I simply couldn’t take it in – I had killed my mother.’

The spot where the accident happened is less than five miles from Catherine’s home on the Isle of Wight. She frequently has to pass it as she heads to the supermarket in Newport. That she can now do so without being convulsed by flashbacks is, she says, due to the exhaustive emotional journey she has made.

At 40, Catherine is about to publish her autobiography – an astonishing testament to the human ability to overcome the most terrible tragedies. Writing Carry Me Home took her eight years and the process has been an important part of her recovery. ‘It forced me to look at all the things I had been running away from for so long. I would write until tears were pouring down my face, and when I could bear it no more, I would just stop and feel. Sometimes I would lie on the floor and howl because it was so painful. So much grief, shock and horror was locked in my body. But I have learnt this is how we heal, not by pushing the pain away, but by actually feeling it.’

The youngest of three children, Catherine had, on the surface, an idyllic upbringing. Home was a rambling house surrounded by fields. Her father ran an oyster farm, her mother, nicknamed Tate, was an apple-pie baking housewife. But the marriage was turbulent and no one in the family articulated their emotions. Her mother, who was 56 when she died, called Catherine an oddball. ‘I always had this feeling of a mismatch between who I was on the inside and what was expected on the outside. Like the ugly duckling, I felt as if I was in the wrong nest somehow.’

Still, by the time of the accident in 1982, she had worked through much of her teenage angst. Her father and brother were away on business, her sister had left home and one of her last thoughts before the crash was how wonderful it was going to be for her and Tate to spend some time alone. Their relationship had shifted and deepened and ‘I felt as if I was just getting to know her.’

For years the recurring image in Catherine’s mind was the sag in the long, white, zip-up plastic bag as the paramedics carried her mother’s body away. ‘Is she dead?’ she asked repeatedly. But it wasn’t until she was in hospital that someone finally gave her the answer she already knew.

Catherine’s only physical injuries were minor cuts. In two days, she was home. She recalls walking into the kitchen, which was just the same, except ‘my mother was not there.’ None of her family blamed her for what had happened, but nor did anyone know what to say. ‘No one knew how to talk about it. I followed their example. I honestly believed that I didn’t have any right to grieve because of the terrible thing I had done.’

It was decided that distraction would be the best medicine. Within ten days of her mother’s death she was enrolled on a cookery course in London. She describes the experience of watching a demonstration of how to make quiche lorraine and discovering she could function on auto-pilot.

Catherine knew it was irrational to feel resentful when her father married after two years, but she couldn’t help herself. Outwardly, she too, was moving on – going to university, embarking on her first relationship. But she often contemplated suicide. ‘It was tempting – the idea of letting it all go – getting rid of the pain.’ Only her intuition held out hope – a spiritual sense that ‘life does not have to be like this.’

She had always wanted a career in television and, at 22, she secured a job as an assistant for an independent production company. In a milieu of ‘intensely driven, strung-out workaholics, all juggling with one near disaster after another,’ she felt perfectly at home.

Eight years after her mother’s death, watching a documentary about fatal accidents provided her first breakthrough. One of the interviewees was a nurse who, while driving home from work, hit a child who ran out in from between parked cars. The child died immediately and the nurse said she would never be able to forgive herself – not even her deep faith in God could comfort her. Despite her anguish, Catherine felt no sympathy for her. ‘In fact I felt angry. It was so clearly not her fault that it seemed ridiculous for her to torture herself. I couldn’t understand the gap in her logic. If God was responsible for everything, surely that included the giving and taking of life.’ Only over the ensuing days did Catherine realise that the same applied to her – that she was not responsible for her mother’s death. ‘I had not meant to kill her, even if the accident was my fault, the outcome of it was not.’

The draining away of her guilt was liberating, but she quickly discovered a tumult of other complex emotions lay beneath it. She went on holiday to America and was invited to a healing workshop. The sceptical side of her cringed but, once there among strangers, she found herself confronting her deepest fear – that her mother was angry and wouldn’t love her anymore.

After years of regarding therapy as weak, Catherine immersed herself in self-help. Aged 30, she left her career and moved to America, leaving her boyfriend of two years, Tom. ‘People thought I was mad,’ she recalls. ‘But I needed to know who I was and where I was going before deciding who I was going there with.’

Much of Carry Me Home is about Catherine’s spiritual journey, which is a big part of the ‘natural state of happiness’ she has achieved. She is about to finish training as an Interfaith Minister and Spiritual Counsellor and is contemplating writing a second book. But she believes more in destiny than in making plans. Could the accident have been part of her destiny? It has, she acknowledges, defined her life. ‘But there is a gift in everything. Tough, difficult things happen, but if you are willing to use them as an opportunity to grow, you will transcend them. I no longer feel the pain. It really has healed.’

Extract from Catherine’s autobiography:
Barely a day went by that I didn’t think of Tate. I was reminded of her every time someone said the word ‘mother.’ Every time I saw a woman out shopping with her children. Every time I turned on the TV to a film or family drama. It had been seven years. I tried to picture her getting older. ‘Do you wonder what she would be like now?’ I asked my sister.
‘Yes, of course. But its better this way,’ she said consolingly. ‘Really, she would have hated to get old.’
It didn’t feel better to me. ‘I killed my mother,’ I would remind myself harshly. ‘Of course I feel guilty. What else do I expect?’
I was still haunted by memories of the accident. I might be eating breakfast or in the middle of a film shoot when suddenly an image would burst into my mind: letting go of the steering wheel, the sound of smashing steel, the weight of her body pressing down on mine. It was like living in my own personal earthquake zone. While my world rocked, the rest of life went on as normal. Ben and Frances (my flatmates) would go on eating toast. The camera crew would turn to me and ask, ‘Ok, what next?’ Ever competent and capable I would brush the memories aside.