Tales of The Unexpected

Don’t you just want to slap someone who, when you are struggling with the uncomfortable fallout of a decision you’ve made, leans towards you with a judgemental face and says gravely, ‘Surely, you must have known what you were letting yourself in for?’

I was sorely tempted to take a swing at this particular smug-mug when she said this to me early one morning last week, and had it not been for the risk of shattering my left-hand (I’m a southpaw), I might well have done, particularly when the woman in front of me added with a sneer, ‘What the hell have you done?’

That woman was me, as holding my toothbrush, I peered at myself in the bathroom mirror after a sleepless night.

From the moment I landed on Planet Grief, I was determined not to become known as The Woman Whose Husband Drowned on Holiday, and I vowed that I would never become a professional widow, the sort of woman who bangs on about widowhood years after their husband’s death. I intended to blog for a year or so and then close Planet Grief and write about things that make me happy: the theatre, books, dachshunds and seventies sitcoms. My badge of widowhood wouldn’t just be put in a drawer to be taken out and worn when I felt like it, but metaphorially chucked under the wheels of a fleet of Eddie Stobart trucks powering up the M1, crushed beyond recognition.

Forwards! Forwards!

And yet here I am, more than four years later, talking to journalists about what happened on Sunday 27th February 2011, because in a couple of weeks, the book of the blog, When Bad Things Happen in Good Bikinis, is published.

The irony isn’t lost on me.

And there’s worse.

As I chronicled in my blog and expand on in the book, I am not a fan of conventional counselling. I tried this approach and it didn’t change anything. Rehashing the scenes surrounding death, unpicking every emotional nuance, didn’t give me any closure, it just ripped off the fragile scabs below which my body was trying to heal the gaping wound of watching my husband die, and we all know that the more you pick at a scab, the longer it takes to heal and the deeper the scar left behind.

The blog (along with bereavement coaching, not counselling) was my therapy. I wrote about how I was feeling at the very moment I sat battering my keyboard, each post being a snapshot of my grief at the time. And then when it was written, when the ‘publish’ button was pressed, that was that. I never re-read the posts because I never wanted to look back. Occasionally, when I did come across an old post – say if I was trying to find a link to something I’d written to send to a widow in despair – I’d catch a glimpse of my writing and wince at just how much pain I was in, how my grief dripped through the prose, even if it was wrapped in black humour.

I was never going to turn the blog into a book, but to get a little ‘woo-woo’ for a moment (and as I will write about in another post, I seem to be getting more and more woo-woo by the day), when the Universe presents you with an opportunity more than once, you have to listen, so I took the plunge to publish, something which meant endlessly reading and re-reading my widow’s wailings. It was uncomfortable and I came to some painful conclusions about my marriage which I include in the book, but it was on my terms and in my own time and involved gallons of tea and red wine. When the final proof of the manuscript was delivered, it was with a greater sigh of relief than any other book I have written.

And then, suddenly, the publication date was looming and the publicity stuff started.

I was prepared for questions about the book: Why did I start a blog? Why did I call it Planet Grief? What do I hope the book will achieve? What I wasn’t prepared for was that the questions would be more like one of the bereavement counselling sessions I despised.

Last week, I had a lengthy interview with a journalist for a national magazine. The journalist interviewing me was lovely and she was only doing her job and doing it well, but I found it painful not so much to go through the facts (‘Tell me about the night after the day your husband died,’), but my emotions behind the facts. Usually, if someone had dared to ask me the question, ‘When you saw your husband in that room at the hospital, was it like? How did you feel?’ I would have either given them a mouthful (‘How the f**k do you think it felt?’), closed down or walked away, but these were perfectly valid and professional questions under the circumstances. My attempts at giving answers which had a cut-off point (not because I was being awkward, but because my brain didn’t want to go any deeper) were met with further probing, taking me down a painful path and dredging up things I hadn’t thought about for years, and which had only previously been asked by therapists who I’d sacked for making me feel wretched.

When the interview finished I was a little drained, but fine, but that night, trying to sleep, I was rattled. I began to think that emotionally there was far more to get to grips with than perhaps I had acknowledged, that I had only put sticking plasters over the wounds of grief and that beneath them, sores were still festering. Had I used writing and humour not so much to deal with grief, but to smother it? Was I being a fraud putting the book out there when clearly there was still much work to be done on my own grief? The following morning and having had a restless night, I stood in front of the bathroom mirror and said to the baggy-eyed woman facing me, ‘Surely, you must have known what you were letting yourself in for? What the hell have you done?’ I felt ill equipped to deal with the path I had told myself the Universe had chosen for me, and I seriously considered ringing my publisher and asking if I could buy my way out of my contract, pay them damages and so on.

I went downstairs to my desk and opened a message from someone telling me how much my writing had helped not only them, but their family who were struggling to understand the rollercoaster of bereavement, and it reminded me, ‘This is why I have to put myself out there.’

The blog was never started to help others, in fact, it was never intended to become public. It was begun in an attempt to shift paralysing writer’s block, something I never believed in until JS’s death shut down my ability to express my emotions and tell stories in print. The fact that the blog helped so many was a wonderful side-effect, and I hope that the book will bring comfort to a wider audience. But there’s another reason I have to put myself out into the arena and risk getting my butt whipped by disgruntled Daily Mail readers, those with an axe to grind and even my own gremlins which sit in my head and judge me.

The manner of JS’s death meant that it wasn’t possible to give another person life by donating his organs, something I know he would have liked. So whilst his death couldn’t give another person life, I hope that the book will help someone who is grieving to live. It’s not as valuable as giving someone a kidney, but in some small way, I feel that JS’s death can make a contribution to the lives of others.

There are many interviews lined up over the next few weeks.

I say, bring ‘em on.


Reply September 21, 2015

As ever, your posts make me want to say so much in response and each time I try to comment I end up writing a long meandering waffling stream of words that don't really have a point, other than that I felt the need to write it. Then I eventually run out of unstructured steam, re read my words, delete them and end up saying something lame like 'big hugs, thank you, I know what you mean'.

So big hugs, thank you.
Make like a cork, and go where it takes you. Xx

Planet Grief
Reply September 21, 2015

Big hugs and thank you are just perfect. And to you. xxx

Reply September 25, 2015

Helen, I came across your blog a few months after my partner died in Dec 2012. Things you said resonated with me so much and I really 'enjoyed' (if that's the right word) every post as it gave me hope that I wasn't going mad with things I was feeling and doing (I still have a wry smile when I see some of the really daft things I bought in those early days!) I'm looking forward to reading your book. Thank you for doing it X

    Planet Grief
    Reply September 29, 2015

    Thank you for taking the time to comment Fiona. Enjoyed is certainly the right word. A journalist said to me the other day how funny she found parts of the book. I told her that bereavement could provide some comedic moments, not at the time they are happening, but when we look back on them or write about them. You mention buying things - I was forever buying things in an attempt to save money - books on saving money, grow your own veg, an electric blanket so I didn't have to put the heating on. I spent a fortune rather than save money!

    Thank you again. xxx

Reply October 4, 2015

Hi Helen. I have just read the article in the Guardian and just feel a sense of relief to have found someone who would really understand. I lost my husband, also John, to cancer last year when I was 53. I too watched him die, but over several months. I don't know any other widows and although family and friends have been brilliant, they cannot understand the loneliness ...

    Planet Grief
    Reply October 7, 2015

    Helen: Thank you for commenting on the blog. I am so pleased that you mentioned that the article in The Guardian had helped you. It's been difficult putting myself out there, going over old ground, and it was something I resisted for a while, but it's my way of 'hugging' those in pain. The loneliness of loss is deep within us and cannot be erased even in a room full of people, in fact, as I am sure you have found, a room full of people can intensify those feelings.

    There will always be a part of you that feels lonely, but don't despair when you read this. I used to be terrified when other widows would say, 'You never get over it. You just learn to live with it,' and so on, thinking that it meant I was always going to be this lonely, this lost, this raw. I now understand what they meant. It won't be like this always, I promise you. There will always be a nugget of sadness that he's not here to reminisce with or to talk about family and friends and the changes in their life, but the difference is that it will be a tiny part of a fuller life, that it won't be your entire life as I suspect it is now. It's so hard Helen, it's a process and there is no short cut, but you will get there, believe me. xxx

Reply November 23, 2015

Hope it's OK to comment on an old post. I have just finished the book and am now reading my way through the blog. My partner was killed suddenly in July. It helps so much to know that I am not going crazy, that others have felt the way I do now and have gone forward with their lives, and that it won't always be like this. And you have given me some laughs too. Thank you.