Our daughter Linda was killed nearly five years ago in Kunar Province in eastern Afghanistan. She had fallen in love with the country after spending three years working with the U.N. and had decided to return because she cared about alleviating suffering in the world and wanted to make a personal contribution to reducing poverty.
She was working on a development project in 2010 when she was kidnapped by militants and spirited away into remote mountains. An intensive search followed, but she died during a failed nighttime rescue operation by U.S. Navy Seals. A U.S. soldier threw a grenade after all the kidnappers were dead or dying, and the only person who was killed by the grenade was Linda.
Our lives were turned upside down, but we don’t blame the soldier who threw the grenade. He was in an exposed position, in the dark, and two armed Afghans had just been shot after popping up in quick succession from a gully in front of him. He made an error in judgment. Grenades should be the last weapon to choose in a rescue. But how can I possibly blame someone in that situation from my comfortable chair in rural Scotland?
We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that war involves trained killers trying hard to kill each other while staying alive themselves. These are not surgical operations, despite what they tell us: War is mayhem in a fog, and inevitably innocents get hurt.
Linda realized that there were risks in what she did. We were less worried the second time she returned to work in Afghanistan but remained concerned for her safety. Recently I came across one of my emails to her in which I said that I was pleased she had made this move because she seemed very happy and fulfilled in her new job. She always said that expats had chosen to go there; Afghans couldn’t leave.
Both of my parents had died in the two years before Linda’s death. When they died, it was like the past dying, sad but inevitable. The death of your child is different. Your future dies, and it’s hard to take. It was unexpected, brutal, raw. Nothing could soothe the pain for long. The days weren’t too bad because there were things for us to do, but nights were hellish—spent often awake, sobbing for hours. It’s difficult to think about even after five years. Time heals all, though, and it’s easier now.
We were both inspired by something that Isabel Allende wrote: The big things in life aren’t things that are planned; they come out of the blue. What matters isn’t what happens to you; it’s what you do with the cards you’re dealt. That is what defines you as a person.
Blaming and complaining could have had an even more destructive effect on our lives. We were determined to create something positive from our tragedy and started the Linda Norgrove Foundation to continue the work that Linda started: helping women and children affected by the war in Afghanistan. The foundation, run by volunteers, has funded more than 50 small projects in four years and has sent more than $1 million to Afghanistan.
We’ve suffered great trauma and loss, but we’re both stronger people—we have a closer relationship because we’ve needed to rely on each other. We received fantastic support from our tight-knit rural Scottish community, and we both now have increased sympathy for those who are suffering. We found inner strength that we didn’t know we had because we’d never needed it before.
Six months after Linda died, we met an inspiring guy who had broken his neck in a surfing accident. Thirty years later, in a wheelchair, requiring constant assistance, he said that his accident was the best thing that had happened to him. I was a little shocked that anyone would say this and didn’t really believe him. He is now managing a very successful charity making wheelchairs designed and locally made throughout the developing world.
If someone had told us that Linda’s death was the best thing that had happened to us just after she died, we would probably have attacked them. We would so much more prefer to have our daughter alive now. But after five years, we understand a bit more what that guy was getting at.
Before Linda’s death, we knew that there were things in our lives that could be improved, but we just didn’t get around to changing. The reality was that the trauma of her death forced change upon us, but the choice about how we changed was ours alone. Looking back now, it’s clear that we made the right choice by avoiding the blame and compensation route. Now we would probably be richer but more bitter people.
No one was more miserable than we were after Linda died, but we now know that by taking the opportunity to help others, this tragedy has allowed us to become happier and more fulfilled.