Four Birthdays, Three Years, One Blog.

In a moment, I’d like you to do a little exercise for me.

Don’t panic!

I don’t mean the sort of exercise that involves jumping around in camel-toe revealing thrush-inducing Lycra, more of a cerebral exercise, but not the type that used to make me break out in to a cold sweat at school with the words: Two trains on parallel tracks are travelling towards each other. If one train

Those were the sort of questions I couldn’t  answer for obsessing over what sort of trains they were (Was it a trick question? Was one a new train and the other a steam loco?), or worrying about getting the answer wrong, failing the exam, and ending up in the local fuse factory, soldering the ends onto fuses whilst wearing a hairnet, lonely because my friends had swanned off to university to become big cheeses in industry with expense accounts and Audi Quattros.

But I digress. 

No, what I would like you to do is to imagine a guest list for a party you might have given before The Grim Reaper gatecrashed your life, a time when you were part of a couple.

Now, imagine the guest list for a party you might (if you weren’t exhausted/grief stricken/broke) throw today.

And then compare the two lists.

I recently came across a guest list for a birthday party I threw for JS some years before he died. It was a significant birthday, but the Birthday Boy was in no mood to celebrate. He grumbled about getting older, moaned that he didn’t want a party, and other than choosing the wine showed absolutely no interest in the planning whatsoever, claiming that his role was simply to turn up.

You may be thinking at this point: What sort of wife holds a party for her husband when he clearly didn’t want one?

I’ll tell you what sort of wife: one who wasn’t going to let her husband get away with being a party-pooper ever again.

Ten years earlier, JS had taken the same anti-celebratory stance, proclaiming that he would ignore any birthday that ended with a zero, and shunning my suggestion that we should do something significant, such as throw a party.

The day dawned, a card and a gift were given, and everything was low-key just as Sir had ordered. Except that men can be more complicated than I’d realised, and JS was irked that I had taken him at his word.

“But you said you didn’t want a party!” I bleated, confused.

“I didn’t mean it!” he retorted, and flounced out to go for a drink with his friends, whilst I sat in front of the TV with an M&S microwaveable curry feeling wretched.

At various points over the next ten years, the fact that I had done nothing for his birthday was occasionally raised in an accusatory manner, so for this one, JS was having a party, and he was damn well going to enjoy it.

And he did.

It was a joyous event with a band and a magician and a room filled with balloons and friends and family; a lunch at The Oval, home of Surrey County Cricket Club, because although as a member of the MCC JS tended to go to Lords, his introduction to cricket was as a young boy when his father took him to The Oval.

JS gave a speech. He said something like, “My wife said that I should hold a party now because I might not live long enough to see my next big birthday…”

Oh, how we laughed. But in persuading JS to have a party I had said exactly that: over the years we had lost so many people dear to us – some very young – and I was acutely conscious of making the most of the life we had whilst we could live it. Carpe diem and all that. Of course I am now even more aware of the fragility of life, but unfortunately most of the time I am too stressed, anxious, tired and overwhelmed to seize anything other than the sherry bottle and a packet of Frazzles, let alone the day.

For some time after the bereaved have crash landed on Planet Grief, we are certain that whatever we are feeling is unique to our situation. On bereavement sites I see posts from recent widows and widowers asking the same sort of bewildered questions I used to ask: Is it normal not to be able to sleep? Has anyone else had constant heart palpitations? Will I ever be happy again? With the experience of over three years of widowhood I can answer with some certainty: Yes, yes and eventually, at your own pace, yes, even if a deep seam of sadness remains.

One other question which regularly crops up is, “Has anyone else lost friends?”

The subject of friends has featured many times in my blog. I have admitted that I have not been good at keeping in touch with those that have reached out to me. Now that the fog of selfishness that is part of the bereavement process is finally clearing, I am ashamed of my behaviour. A dear friend wrote to me recently in the depths of his own bereavement (he lost a child) and said that he and his partner had tried to reach out to me many times, but I had shut them out. They had been very hurt, but now he understood. But some ‘friends’ have behaved badly and have let me down. They were happy to drink our champagne and let us pick up the tab for swanky lunches and dinners in the good times, but vanished the moment the going got tough or I was no longer useful to them. They ought to feel deep shame, but I suspect they are too busy being a parasite elsewhere to even think about me or JS.

I thought I had put the subject of friends to bed.

And then I found the list.

And just like I asked you to do, I compared the old list with a hypothetical new one.

This time round I wouldn’t need to hire a huge room at The Oval, I could have the party in a four-man tent on the lawn with a couple of picnic tables. But what really got me wasn’t how many people had fallen by the wayside, but wondering if JS walked into my garden party just how many people he would recognise? Just like his beloved Arsenal, since he died, Team HB has changed. There are the core people of course: friends and family who have remained strong in the hurricane of my grief, but there are children that have been born since he died, children who had only just been born and now are little people with strong personalities, new friends and those that I now consider part of my cherished extended family. And if JS queried why certain people were missing I’d tell him, “They weren’t friends. They were parasites.” Sadly, one of the steadfast ones, someone who brought me protein shakes when I couldn’t eat, who did all he could to help me having lost his wife when he was young, would not be at my imaginary party. He died last month.

It’s three years since I first started this blog. I remember giving myself a start date of JS’s birthday. I felt physically sick sitting at the computer, terrified of what emotions my writing might unleash. The moment I began to write I felt the first stirrings of my old self, only tiny chinks of dark humour, but enough to make me realise that I would survive this terrible event, even though there were many dreadful days and calls to the Samaritans to come.

Last Saturday, it was JS’s birthday, the fourth birthday without him.

I had lunch in a restaurant with some of JS’s family and then went back to a house in Hertfordshire to release a balloon, a tradition I started on his ‘first’ birthday and which I wrote about in that inaugural blog post in June 2011: Up Up & Away. JS loved this house and his family living in it and saw it as a sanctuary from the strains of his life, a constantballoons reassuring presence through good times and bad. I first went there and met his family in February 1990. The moment I walked in I felt like JS did, enveloped by kindness, warmth and family life. I loved going there: some of the happiest moments in my life have involved sitting in the garden eating egg sandwiches as children and dogs rushed around. I still love going there, but there is a dreadful yawning gap when I’m at the house and JS isn’t, and I expect there always will be.

Two other family members lost too soon shared their birthday with JS, so we stood in the garden and released three balloons off in to the sky, one for each loved one. As the balloons raced upwards, I vowed to make sure that the children who will never physically know their grandfather know all about JS and what sort of a man he was.  A man who enjoyed the good things in life, but for whom the greatest pleasure of all was spending time with his family.



Anne Mosedale
Reply June 18, 2014

Very true words Helen. I can't even begin to count how many 'friends' I have lost since Tony passed away. I no longer hear from any of our friends that we knew when we were a couple. I have tried my best to maintain contact with them, and have had promise after promise of I'll pop round to see you, I'll phone you, Lets arrange to meet up together. Nothing ever came of this. Now, I don't expect anything from anyone and then I'm not disappointed. I know Tony would be shocked by how these friends have behaved because above all he would have wanted me and the children to be ok. I now see this as their loss, and that they weren't real friends. I have felt bitter, angry and simply disappointed by their actions but as time goes on I no longer care.

Reply June 18, 2014

Oh Helen, your writing still makes me cry! Big hugs xxx

Anne Mosedale
Reply June 18, 2014

Another great blog Helen. I have lost all my friends who we had when we were a couple. I have tried to maintain contact, had so many "I'll pop round to see you", or "I'll call you" or "lets meet up", dates have been arranged and then friends have cancelled last minute. I don't expect anything from anyone now so I'm not disappointed. I often wonder what Tony would make of this, he to was a great family man and above all would have wanted me and the children to be ok. I've not only had to try to make a new life, I've had to make new friends as well.

Reply June 18, 2014

Helen I am only 7 months and 10 days into this awful existence , I cannot call it a life, your words are already ringing true, my dinner party would not need a big table. Thank goodness for my dear family and my few dear friends. Your blog touched my heart. Lin xx

Reply June 18, 2014

H past friends, best friends have disappeared as soon as they can, grief is only really felt by the loved ones. Ànd for the non blood line our grief is the loneliest.
Not the hardest but the loneliest. I have got on with my life but the guilt is always there
11 years on! Wishing you the best thinking of K and J

Reply June 19, 2014

Always know, I will even travel to Royston to see you xx

Reply June 25, 2014

Hugs. Xxx

Shelley J Whitehead
Reply June 25, 2014

What a touching blog Helen Darling. You capture it all so beautifully - with your lovely Helen humour and authenticity.
And soon another big birthday!
So proud of you and blessed to know you
Shelley xx

Reply August 13, 2014

Totally unrelated search of my emails (bike parts!) prompted endangered visitation and button press.
I did not crash-land on Planet Grief; it was a slow graceful descent over many months. It is also true there was some massive turbulence and very dark moments on the way (and afterwards). The slight bump at the end of the unwanted journey was actually a relief. During the trip, many passengers had got off and others lost contact as we went into one-way tunnels. I did not notice since I was too busy steering and juggling other essential roles leading to the inevitable termination. Arriving at Planet Grief there were many others but whilst everyone had got there by different means there was the same bewilderment, disappointment and profound sadness. No-one wanted to be there. Like all travellers, we could compare notes and share experiences to provide some comfort and mutual support.
Some kept looking back, others into an unknown (hypothetical) distance. Try and do both at the same time – you just get dizzy. Both these directions painful in their own ways. It may be better to sit tight and – slowly - look around. There is an absence – a gap – but one doesn’t have to keep walking into it and banging your head causing aches. Ironically, by avoiding the gap, you don’t ignore or forget it but you move around it whilst wandering in the shadowlands.

Sally Ellis
Reply December 30, 2014

You are a wonderful writer and an inspiration to me. I lost my Mum and Dad almost exactly 5 years ago (I was 17) and like you I was deserted by people who I thought were close family friends.

To slightly paraphrase you - "They ought to feel deep shame, but I suspect they are too busy being a parasite elsewhere to even think about Mum and Dad or me."

Julia Cho
Reply January 27, 2015

Hi Helen, I just saw your comment from June on Dear Audrey. I've just started a new I have to say this post really resonates right now. My list is dramatically different. It took over four years, but some of my "closest" friends are people I haven't now had a conversation with in years...even though they were there for me in the very beginning. It is disappointing. Dynamics changed- and it's been hard to figure out a proper new one...I have decided I need to make new friends at this point, and will try to do that. I am letting go of friendships that really don't exist anymore, as sad as it is. Life evolves, and we must evolve with it. I also loved your analogy to soccer- and how team Helen has changed. I've often thought that when I hear about sports- how my husband's soccer teams- he loved Tottehaum sp? have changed since he died... love to you.

Reply February 1, 2015

Hi Helen,

Miss your blogging, hope life is being kind to you, thinking of you. Love Helen xxx

Dana W
Reply February 17, 2015

I hope you are still ok, I do check in from time to time.......