Grasping at memories

I saw Lyra McKee described as a “tiny lesbian Tintin” by a mutual friend, and my gosh that feels like the most accurate description. She would be in stitches at that, I think. I have been trying to grasp at memories all day; to laugh instead of cry, but it’s hard when your friendship is primarily conducted through messages, over miles and seas. I don’t have any pictures of us together. I don’t remember exactly what we laughed about, but laugh we did.

Lyra was the first person I saw on my own after I lost my job at the Mirror. When I was shaking and in shock and barely able to string words together, she was with me, and she, strangely, helped me get on my feet again. She was so convinced that I was good enough to carry on and stay in journalism, when I had genuinely lost all hope. I needed that.

“Soph,” she messaged me one day, “I have an idea for something that I want your help with.” I was so excited to work on a story with her, but we never got the chance to do anything. She respected my work, and me, but I never really understood what I did to deserve it when she was so brilliant herself.

She was the first person to tell me my ex was treating me badly and that I deserved better. She told me repeatedly to leave (and like a fool I stayed until the bitter end). She was supportive of everything I did or wanted to do — our last messages were about her trying to get my book proposal in front of her literary agent and to a publisher.

To have Lyra on your side was to feel like you really could do anything. She was wiser than her years and wiser than she looked, and I think the thing that I was always in awe of was that she had time and kindness for everybody. She would often talk to people sleeping rough and ask them how she could help, and help them — if she could.

She was a huge LGBT+ advocate who spoke of a difficult childhood where she felt condemned (by the church) for being gay. She pushed for equal marriage in Northern Ireland. She seemed (to me) to talk a lot of sense, on the biggest platforms she could, when others didn’t bother.

She had a girlfriend she absolutely loved and a family she would do anything for. She had just turned 29 and celebrated her first year with her girlfriend, and she seemed so incredibly, ridiculously happy.

In her TED talk in Stormont she spoke about needing to have difficult conversations with people you disagree with, instead of just arguing or being inflammatory. She came back from the US with an understanding that the world needs more compassion than derision and dismissal. She felt passionately, more than anyone I know, that Northern Ireland had a bright future and that things would get better. So it feels like a punch in the gut that she died at the hands of terrorists.

I don’t know what happens next. I don’t know how to grieve for a “distance friend”. I don’t know how to feel better about not telling her how much I admired her when I had the chance. I don’t know whether this is the start, or the end, of something in Northern Ireland. And that scares me.

I can’t speak to her girlfriend, or her family, to say how sorry I am. I can’t tell them that she touched my life even in the smallest way. That she changed my thinking, and made me want to be a better person.

I am devastated that she is gone, personally and professionally. More devastated than I thought I would be. And although reading the tributes to her has made the loss feel more profound, it has also been really helpful. To see that she was so loved by so many people is lovely. She was a genuine force for good, a wonderful ray of light in a shitty world, and I am really glad that other people get the tiniest glimpse into how amazing she was.