The Sunday Magazine·THE SUNDAY EDITION

Husband of murdered British MP Jo Cox on grief, resilience and carrying on her fight

A year after British MP Jo Cox was murdered by a far-right extremist, her husband Brendan Cox speaks candidly about his grief, and how to fight the hatred that took his wife from him.
Widower of murdered Labour MP Jo Cox, Brendan Cox, speaks at an event to celebrate Jo Cox's life in Trafalgar Square, central London, on June 22, 2016, on what would have been Jo's 42nd birthday. (JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP/Getty Images)

British MP Jo Cox was a rising star in the Labour Party, known for her warmth, her dedication and her ardent support for refugees and newcomers to the U.K. 

On June 16, 2016, a week before the Brexit vote, she was shot and stabbed to death by a Nazi sympathizer. 

A framed photograph of Jo Cox and her husband Brendan standing outside 10 Downing Street is placed alongside floral tributes as people pay their respects near to the scene of her murder. (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

Survivors of trauma sometimes talk about the way an act of violence can divide a life in two: the world before, and the world after. Jo Cox's death was a deeply personal tragedy for those who knew and loved her. It was also a tragedy with profound political implications, and after her murder, many Britons may have felt that they, too, were living in a changed world. 

But it is Jo Cox's own words, from her maiden speech to parliament, that have served as a response and a rallying cry each time a new act of extremist violence shakes the country: "We are far more united and have far more in common than that which divides us."

Since Jo Cox's death, her husband Brendan Cox has made it his mission to make sure those words are not forgotten. He helped establish the Jo Cox Foundation to carry on her work, and last month, he published a book called Jo Cox: More in Common

Brendan Cox spoke to Sunday Edition guest host Nahlah Ayed from London. 

This partial transcript has been edited and condensed. To hear the interview, click 'listen' above. 

Of all the ways you could have lived your first year without Jo, you've chosen arguably one of the hardest. You've put yourself on the front lines of the conversation about extremism, even though it would be understandable if you wanted to distance yourself entirely from politics and public life. Why is it so important for you to speak publicly about all this?

I think it's chiefly because those values were the values that Jo lived for, and ultimately the values that she died for as well. And I wanted to be part of making sure that the attempts, no matter where they come from, to subvert those values of tolerance, of building open and welcoming communities, that those [attempts] fail.

So it felt like a logical thing to do in terms of honouring Jo, but also felt like a very natural thing to do in terms of the things that always drove us. Jo and I met together working at Oxfam, an international development charity, where really we were bound together by the values and the things that we wanted to to fight for.

I just wonder, though, what cost this speaking out comes with for you.

I mean, it comes with lots of aggravation. It comes with Twitter trolls and those sorts of things, but I don't really care about that. And I know that Jo would be very proud of the things that not just me, but the rest of our family and friends, have been doing to keep fighting for the things that she believed in. That that makes me feel good.

I think the thing I struggle with most is when you have those terror attacks, the ones we've had in the last period, both far right and Islamist inspired. We had the Westminster attack, and then we had the London Bridge attack, then the Manchester attack, and then the one up in Finsbury Park on the Muslim worshippers. I think each time one of those happens, I feel it on a much deeper level than I would have done in the past. Obviously in the past I have felt sympathy and concern, but it's very hard to really understand what that feels like. And now, knowing what it feels like to get that phone call, knowing what it feels like to have those hours of waiting when you don't know what's happening, that just means it hits even harder.

Members of the public look at tributes left for the people who died in the terror attack at the Manchester Arena. (Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

My first reaction, after the first attack after Jo was killed, which was the Westminster attack, was just how can I help? How can I help in terms of those individuals? And then secondly, how can I help in terms of building a response to these sorts of events which provides as much comfort to those who are going through it as you can?

The last thing that people want when they're in the circumstance is for other people to take their grief and to twist it and to use it to drive hatred against others. In the last few months, I've met dozens and dozens of victims and families of victims, and none of them has wanted their personal grief and their personal loss to be exploited in the way that some people try to.

What advice do you have for those people who lose a loved one in this very public, very horrific way?

A lot of the thinking and a lot of the advice that I would feel more confident in offering is about how you deal with it when you have children. I spoke to some of the most qualified people in the world to make sure I was making the right judgments about what to say, and how to say it, and how to treat the kids in the in the days and weeks following [Jo's death].

Brendan Cox, the widower of MP Jo Cox, and their two children Cuillin, 5 and Lejla, 3 prepare to join a floating commemoration at Hermitage Moorings on the River Thames, where the family lived on a houseboat on June 22, 2016 in London, United Kingdom. (Jack Taylor/Getty Images)

The main advice there is about honesty and openness. It's about not dressing up what has happened or not telling them half-truths, but being as open as you can, so they don't have a subsequent series of realisations and don't feel deceived or misled. It's about involving them, whether that's in the funeral, whether that's in planning memorials, whether that's talking to them about what's happened so they feel part of it.

One of the hardest decisions I had to take in the weeks following Jo's murder was whether to take the kids to see Jo's body. And all of my instincts were that I didn't want to do that, as a person. I didn't want to do it as a dad. And all of the expert advice was that for a kid, who find it very difficult to understand really what death is, it's very important [and] can be very powerful for them. So for that reason I did take them, and actually that was one of the best things I did for the kids, in terms of advancing their understanding of what happened and giving them not some peace, but at least some understanding.

On the day of the funeral, you mentioned your son, who's 6, said "I knew that people loved Mummy but I didn't know this many people loved her." How much did that mirror your own thinking, in that moment?

I think the kids noticed the public reaction a little bit more than I did, because I was, one, just in shock, and then two, entirely focused in that first period on the kids and how they were reacting. Every cough and every tear and every thought and every dream that they were having I was analyzing and reanalyzing.

They picked up on it much more, and played a lot of it back to me. There were these huge events right around the country and indeed in lots of different places around the world … you had the funeral where literally, the streets were lined by thousands upon thousands of people. Then more recently, we marked the anniversary with what we call the Great Get Together — a very simple idea of asking people to get together with their community, share food and celebrate the things that we have in common, in reference to Jo's maiden speech. Millions of people took part in that.

Members of the public symbolically tie ribbons onto a piece of netting during a 'Great Get Together' community service and picnic in memory of murdered Member of Parliament Jo Cox, marking the first anniversary since her killing, in the grounds of All Saints Church in Batley, northern England on June 18, 2017. (OLI SCARFF/AFP/Getty Images)

One of the things I think that we all feel when we lose somebody that we love is that the world continues and didn't really notice — you know that poem, "stop all the clocks"  (W. H. Auden's "Funeral Blues")— and it's that sense of the world continuing. I think with Jo, the fact that it was so public and so many people responded gave them a sense, actually, that she was special and the world acknowledged their loss. And I think that did give them some comfort.

You mentioned the very public nature of her death, and I wonder how that influenced not just the children, but your own grieving process. What it's like to see her image publicly, especially as this anniversary approached.

I'm not sure that made a huge difference, because I think about Jo and what happened, not just every day, but every five minutes. There's a few minutes where I won't in a day, or if I'm engaged in a task like chain-sawing or something, then sometimes I'll be able to clear my head. But for the vast majority of the time I'm thinking of her all the time.

Hearing her voice coming up on the radio or TV sometimes is a bit of a surprise, but I don't think it either advances or sets back the grieving process. I mean, it's strange. Even just in your introduction, hearing her voice … every time I hear her voice, it makes me emotional. But then I'm emotional quite a lot of the time anyway.

One of the memories you made after she died was a song that your son wrote the day after she was killed. Can you tell me about that song, and what it meant to you?

Yes, this was not the night that it happened, because I didn't tell them until the following morning [after] I got advice. It was that night, and Cuillin and Lejla couldn't sleep. Understandably. And we're both crying, just crying, crying, crying. And he said to her, I made up a song … which he then sang to me and to Lejla. And that actually got Lejla to sleep. [It] was about Jo, and and the fact that she was dead, but we would carry her in our hearts and minds.

And so for me, it was a sort of realization of how mature even little kids can be. It was just a beautiful, very painful but very beautiful homage to Jo and the things that she meant to him.

I just wonder how often you or the children talk about or think about the man who killed Jo, Thomas Mair.

Very rarely. I don't think about him practically at all. Sometimes it will come up, or somebody will raise it. I was actually driving home from Wales last week, a long journey, and the kids were sleeping in the back of the car, and I realized I couldn't remember the person's name, and that was was a lovely moment because I have no interest in him now.

Widower of murdered Labour MP Jo Cox Brendan Cox reacts as he delivers a statement outside the Old Bailey criminal court in London on November 23, 2016, following the conviction of Jo's killer Thomas Mair. Mair was sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of release for murdering Jo Cox a week before the European Union referendum in a "politically motivated" attack. (NIKLAS HALLE'N/AFP/Getty Images)

You know he'll be in jail for the rest of his life, and he was somebody that was consumed by hatred. I feel some pity for him. He lived this life of being a loner, obsessed with Nazi regalia, and just weird. So, yeah. I have no real interest in that.

And the kids have sort of asked, why somebody would do this. They never asked his name or anything about him, but they asked why he would do it. I explained that as best as I could, but you know, there's no real explanation why somebody would do that sort of thing.

A general view across the West Yorkshire town of Batley, in the constituency of murdered MP Jo Cox. (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

Right at the beginning, I knew that there was nothing I could do about what happened. The most important thing was keeping living the lives that we did before, for the kids, for Jo's legacy. To make sure that the kids felt happy and loved, that they still felt joy and energy and excitement in the world. An obsession on what had happened would make that very hard to do.

When I think about Jo, I laugh as much as I cry about her. There's an incredible number of deep and quite profound beautiful memories that we have, and that dominates.

I don't mention the name in the book and I don't talk about him in the book at all, really, because one of the other reasons that people do this sort of thing is for notoriety and I have no desire to feed that notoriety.

But more importantly, it just feels very natural to focus on Jo and the way she lived, rather than how she died.

What the relationship do you see between hate laced rhetoric and hate driven acts?

Whenever there is a Islamist inspired terror attack, the media rightly asks, who is peddling this hatred? Whether that is some renegade mosque or preachers we need to crack down on, or whether that's on the Internet. And then when a crime like the one was committed against Jo and the one in Finsbury Park just the other day, when they're committed there isn't that same searching, about who is it that inspires and drives that hatred.

Britain's Prince Charles, Prince of Wales (R) and Imam Mohammed Mahmoud (L) visit floral tributes left close to the scene of the Finsbury Mosque attack in the Finsbury Park area of north London on June 21, 2017, following a vehicle attack on worshippers leaving the Finsbury Park Mosque in north London. (JOHN NGUYEN/AFP/Getty Images)

I think the worrying thing is that there's still way too much mainstream media that doesn't actively incite violence, but it creates an environment in which violence feels like the logical solution. If you tell people that they are losing their culture, and being beaten down, and that their country is going to disappear, and their wives are going to be raped, and whatever else, then you create an environment of hatred in which people are more likely to commit acts of hate. Whether that is speech or whether that is violence or whether it's murder.

And I think we need to be consistent in addressing hatred, no matter where it comes from. I don't care whether it comes from the hard left of politics, the hard right, from Islamists. There should be no place for hatred in our politics. And I think that it is still too present in too much of our media discourse.

And yet, despite the fact that there have been allegations that there is a lot of hateful rhetoric around the Brexit debate, you were careful not to blame Brexit voters or their de facto leader Nigel Farage, the former UKIP party leader [for Jo's death]. Why were you careful to make that distinction?

The first distinction is very easy. The vast, vast, vast majority of Brexit voters were absolutely appalled and repulsed by what happened to Jo. I just don't feel that they have any culpability at all for obvious reasons.

Where it's more complicated is those people who create an atmosphere of hatred. I always want to be clear that the responsibility for what happened was the responsibility of the person who did it. And that is also true in the case of Islamist attacks. People make these judgments, and as long as they're of sound mind, you hold them responsible for it.

But also on top of that, even if you personally don't endorse violence yourself, if you create a hate-driven, anxious public narrative, you are more likely to tip people over the edge and so I think those people hold some responsibility for that creating that atmosphere.

You've been quite vocal on your Twitter account, taking on politicians like Nigel Farage in terms of the kinds language they use in political discourse. Do you feel you that you're making a difference by taking some of these politicians on?

I think that the politics that's out there at the moment, with this emphasis on division and how we're all supposed to hate each other because of Brexit or whatever else, I don't think tallies with people's lived experience. I think that is a media narrative and to an extent a political narrative. But for most people, how they voted on Brexit is frankly 1 percent of their brain space, is not the thing that defines them.

I don't think for a second think I'm changing anybody's mind, but I think what I've tried to do is to give voice to those people who don't want to be defined by acts of hate or to be defined by how they voted in an election referendum. But I actually want to focus on some of those things that unite the country.

Brendan Cox (L), husband of murdered MP Jo Cox and Kim Leadbeater, sister of Jo Cox and founder of the MoreInCommon movement (R) attend a Great Get Together event in on June 17, 2017 in Heckmondwike, England. More than 100,000 events were expected to take place across the country from June 16 to 18 to mark the first anniversary of the murder of Jo Cox. (Anthony Devlin/Getty Images)

As I mentioned, this Great Get Together we did around the anniversary … the scale and the size of the public response to that for me was indicative that there is this yearning in all of our societies to focus on those things that unites us.

We spend so much time focusing on those areas where we disagree with each other. I think the far right look for those opportunities to talk about how we're all different or we can't live together, but actually, liberals I think sometimes make this mistake. We talk too much about difference and diversity and how that's great, and we don't talk enough about how - this is the insight in Jo's maiden speech - the miraculous thing is not how different we are. It's despite all that difference, how much we've got in common. And that, we have to get much better at talking about and telling stories about.

You've said you want to break down the polarity, so people don't feel it has to be a choice between liberal open borders and internment camps. What do you imagine that looks like, and what role should politicians be playing in delivering that message?

I think Canada is a great example of this. People want a national identity. I think we all want that. We want that to be, generally, a compassionate, kind, outward-looking country. But in order to do that, we have to have a sense that there is some security. That's about physical security, economic security, but it's also about border security.

I think what Canada has been able to do is to project a sense of order and fairness and process that I think a lot of European countries have struggled with. That's partly just geographic. It's much easier for Canada because your border is a very long way from most other countries.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau greets Syrian refugees at Pearson airport in Toronto. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

But actually, those images of Trudeau going to the airport to welcome refugees from Syria, them having gone through an exhaustive process, giving them a welcome pack ... The community sponsorship model that you guys have, and it's such a success over there, where actually communities engage and support refugees … I think all of those things are ways that give people confidence in the system.

I think what we have a lot in Europe at the moment is this sense of chaos and lack of control and lack of fairness and people jumping the system. And then there's also real impact on communities where a high number of migrants come in, and we can't we can't pretend that that doesn't that doesn't exist.

Jo talked about this a lot when she was in politics, that there are huge upsides to migration but there are also consequences, there's also downsides, and there's spending pressures… So I think, again, one of the mistakes that we make on the liberal side of politics too often is to pretend that there aren't tradeoffs. There are. There are huge downsides, as well as huge upsides, to large scale migration. So it's about taking those seriously, which Jo did, and not writing people off as racist, unless they are racist.

Tributes left for murdered Member of Parliament Jo Cox to mark the first anniversary of her death, are seen near to the location where she was killed in Birstall, northern England, on June 18, 2017. (OLI SCARFF/AFP/Getty Images)

People want to live in closer communities, and people feel that that has been lost, because of everything from the collapse of pubs to the collapse of churches. People don't mix and get together in the way that they used to. And then you put migration over on top of that, and people feel that their communities are atomizing. So I think one of the things we're going to focus on moving forward is how do we rebuild that sense of community where people of different get together is very easy to hate somebody in the abstract. It's very hard to hate people when you know them.

Going back to Jo's maiden speech, which became famous since her death - "we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than that which divides us." I just wonder, lastly, how you've been able to maintain faith in that idea, despite not just what happened to you, but also what's happened since.

Because it's true, I think. And it's not just a belief that we're reiterating, it's an experience of actually having gone through something as awful as this, and the level of compassion and kindness from right across the spectrum [we've received].

Flowers and messages left in remembrance of slain Labour MP Jo Cox (photo) are pictured in Parliament Square in central London on June 19, 2016. (BEN STANSALL/AFP/Getty Images)

Then it's also that more macro picture, that our societies do hold together and when you give people opportunities to get together with their neighbors and celebrate the things we have in common, people jump at them. I think that's something British about ... we all want to live in closer communities, but we all have this slight social awkwardness. We need an excuse to knock on the neighbor's door and get people round and have a street party or whatever.

I just think we need to get better at doing that, not just at moments of great national strife, like in response to a terror attack - but actually, it needs to become part of how we live in our modern communities.

Brendan Cox's comments have been edited and condensed. To hear the interview, click 'listen' above. 


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