By Alison Chiesa

A familiar scene was unfolding one balmy summer day in 1982: Sheelagh Lucas was giving her teenage daughter a driving lesson. Still in school uniform, Catherine, 17, was winding through the back streets of Newport, a small town near her home on the Isle of Wight. It was a route she had taken many times. But today the journey would be different – today she would cause the accident that killed her mother.

“My sweater was draped over my shoulders and I started to get too hot. I thought it would be easy to pull it off, so I reached up with my right hand. It didn’t come easily and I tugged at it,” recalls Catherine, now 40.

This caused the car to swerve towards a hedge. Her mother grabbed the wheel in a bid to straighten the vehicle, but over-steered and they hurtled towards a ditch. “I was so frightened that I let go of the wheel, relieved she had taken control. As we went into the ditch I remember thinking: thank God for that, we are going to be alright,” says Catherine. “It seemed so innocent and simple. A twist this way, a turn that. We were driving so slowly, no more than 30 miles an hour, that I honestly felt a huge sense of relief.”

As the crash came, Catherine’s pet dogs leapt from the shattered widows and she found herself crouched on the floor, drenched in petrol, with her mother’ body pressed on top of her. “My eyes were stinging and burning and I couldn’t open them. ‘Mummy! Mummy! I cried. But she didn’t answer. The silence was devastating. I knew immediately that she was dead,” says Catherine. She also realized her mother’s blood – “thicker than tears” – was dripping into her eyes.

After what seemed “an eternity” she heard a voice outside the car tell her she would “be fine.” “But how could I possibly be fine?” she says. “I had just killed my mother. She was lying on top of me, the taste of her blood in my mouth. What kind of nightmare world had I entered where this was fine?”

It is often said one must “learn to live with” – rather than ever be expected to recover from – such a horrific experience. The years may dim its pain, but the scars remain.
But nearly a quarter of a century on, Catherine has written a book as testimony to the ability to recover entirely from tragic events. “I think we can heal 100% from terrible experiences. It isn’t easy, it is incredibly bloody painful and you have to be willing to feel the pain,” she says.

For Catherine, her journey to healing is one of the “greatest gifts” bequeathed to her by the pain of dealing with her mother’s death and her “turbulent and tempestuous” early family life.

“Nothing had prepared me to think about my true nature or my potential as a human being. Yet without realising it, I had embarked upon the path of self-realisation simply because I wanted to be happy and free, and it turns out that longing is enough to carry us home, back to the source – to the invisible presence that is God,” says Catherine. She qualifies this: “I don’t mean the God of the Bible. I mean the ineffable realm of spirit, which is the source of all life.”

Raised in a family where atheism was the norm and emotional expression discouraged, it was decided Catherine needed a “distraction” after the accident. And so, she was duly enrolled on a six-week cordon bleu cookery course in London. While there, she found that even if life as she knew it had ended, not all life had. “Realising this gave me courage,” she says.

But on returning home an “appaling emptiness” remained. She still yearned for her mother, Sheelagh, who she called “Tate” (a nickname taken from an Australian song, Potato-peeler Sheila). Yet she also “lived in terror” of her reappearance. “For years I dreaded going to bed because I felt sure it was only a matter of time before she came back and accused me of killing her,” says Catherine.

There were brief reprieves from the guilt, despair and suicidal thoughts – a “miracle” summer trip to the Oregon mountains, going to university, falling in love – but the sore festered. During her final year as a student in London, Catherine had a breakdown, where she cried for weeks.

“But even in the midst of it all there were moments when I could hear my soul calling to me from far away, as if lay on the other side of the darkness that enveloped me. ‘Hold on,’ it said. ‘Trust what is happening. You will be OK,’” she recalls. “But it was years before it occurred to me that I’d had an emotional breakdown and many more still before I could see that it was part of a bigger process of healing and becoming whole.”

After graduating, Catherine went on to become a successful television producer, but was still riddled by guilt and flashbacks. However, watching a documentary about accidental deaths was a pivotal moment in her journey to “wholeness.” She saw that one woman’s irrational guilt over an incident – where a child ran out in front of her car and died – mirrored her experience. “We were both blaming ourselves for something beyond our control,” says Catherine. “I realised I was not responsible for Tate’s death. I had not meant to kill her and even if the accident was my fault, the outcome of it was not. In that tiny, stony gap between cause and effect, forgiveness took root and flowered.”

The burden of guilt “melted away” to be replaced by feelings of euphoria. “I wanted to dance, sing, leap, fly, dive, soar. I felt all the delight of a prisoner sentenced to death who is suddenly found innocent,” she says. Much of the pain in her life still needed healing, but with the guilt of her mother’s death gone, she slowly began – with the help of psychotherapy – to deal with her upbringing and her feelings of being unloved. “The truth sank in: my family had loved me all along,” she now says.

Love is the most valuable gift of life, according to Catherine, who now believes that the “boundless energy” referred to as God is, in fact, “love and only love.”

Now, Catherine has found happiness. “I am proof that it is possible to heal,” she says. “Mine is a story about learning to turn the lead of tragedy into the gold of transformation. Above all, it is about awakening spiritually and learning to celebrate and rejoice in the light and spirit in all things.”