Kate Gross died early on Christmas Day, aged 36, leaving behind her husband, Billy, her parents, her five-year-old twin boys and a large number of grieving friends, of whom I am one. Her last two years were spent fighting a cancer that she knew would take her from everyone she loved and from everyone who loved her.
Praising the quality of her all-too-short life is easy. Making sense of the injustice of her death is harder. No one conquers death. But you can achieve a certain triumph over it. This Kate did, and how she did it is a lesson for those of us who knew her well and those of you who never knew her at all.
Kate came into my life in Downing Street when, at the extraordinarily young age of 26, she became my principal civil-servant adviser for prime minister’s questions. It was an important position. I remember meeting her, preparing for our first question time, thinking how young she was, wanting to put her at ease and saying how she needn’t worry about being nervous.
She replied that, on the contrary, I needn’t worry. “I’ll do my job, and, provided that you do yours, we’ll do just fine,” she said with supreme self-assurance. Later, when I got to know her better, I asked whether she really felt so at ease.
“Of course not,” she scoffed, “but the last thing you needed was some petrified youngster exhibiting their signs of stress while you’re experiencing yours.”
That was typical of Kate. She would not like to be thought of as superhuman or a saint. She had the same feelings, anxieties and crises of confidence as the rest of us. But she had the self-awareness to recognise them and the determination to overcome them.
She didn’t always know she was going to die young. But she lived as if she might. In other words, there was not much wastage in Kate’s life. When she left Downing Street, she came to work with me in setting up the Africa Governance Initiative, a foundation that works with African presidents and prime ministers to promote effective government.
When it began under her leadership, it was just a handful of people and a very limited budget. She built it, nurtured it and allowed it to become the organisation of large scale and impact that it is today.
When it began under her leadership, it was just a handful of people and a very limited budget. She built it, nurtured it and allowed it to become the organisation of large scale and impact that it is today.”
Even when she became sick she still took huge interest and pride in it, especially in these past months, when the teams already working in the ebola-stricken countries of Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea refused to leave and insisted on staying to help the governments combat the disease.
It was on a trip back from America, where she and I had been fundraising for the foundation, that she suddenly took ill. She had terrible stomach pains, made it to A&E and within hours had emergency surgery for colon cancer. Unfortunately, the cancer had spread to the liver. After another operation and the removal of the cancer, it seemed for a short time she might survive. But it wasn’t to be. Last year it came back and from then on she was sure to die soon.
Once she knew her fate, Kate made the briefest possible stop at the place of self-pity and decided to move into a different gear to a new and more creative destination. I had no idea that she was such a brilliant writer. She began to blog, about her impending death, naturally, but the blogs turned into a set of beautiful insights about life.
Then she conceived of writing the book that will be published shortly. Late Fragments is a gem — a wonderful, uplifting reflection on how to die and how to live. It is sad because of the context in which it is written; but there is nothing tragic about its message, which is a happy one, full of life’s possibilities, not its limitations.
Along with this, she managed to achieve the deepest of love with her family. She knew the summer of 2014 spent in France was going to be her last. So she made it special and joyful.
What is the lesson of such a life? It is a lesson that we know as a matter of theory, or when we’re in an exceptional moment of spiritual awakening. But it takes a real life as a real example to make us understand that the theory can be made practice; and that it is our choice as to whether it is so.
The lesson is that it is not the longevity of your life but the intensity of it that counts; that what you give lasts longer than what you take; and that if you contribute, even to the smallest degree, to the betterment of humankind, then you will not be a memory but a living and moving spirit that even after death can change the world around you.
Such a spirit is Kate.