Woo-Woo Girl

‘He’s watching over you.’

I’ll bet you my last Twiglet that there won’t be anyone reading this blog who hasn’t heard that phrase (or a version of it) whilst they were grieving. People still say it to me now, four-and-a-half years after JS drowned. Sometimes, such as when I’m sitting outside a BBC studio wondering how Claudia Winkleman might react if I vomited with nerves all over the microphone (she’s such a pro, she wouldn’t bat a mascara-coated eyelash), it would be comforting to think that JS is hovering above Broadcasting House yelling, ‘Go Helen! Go Helen!’ as the green ‘On Air’ light illuminated. At other times, it would be unnerving.

There is a moving quote I have included in my book, where Chris J, a widower, talks about having to tell his children that their mother had died. Chris says:

‘When she died, I told our three sons that she had gone straight to heaven. I deliberately avoid the ‘she will always be looking down on you’ since that would be spooky and might make them paranoid. Life is hard enough without the cast of an angelic shadow.’


I don’t believe in a God and I don’t believe in Heaven, at least, not the sort of Heaven where our loved ones are sitting around on clouds chatting to each other about how badly England did in the Rugby. But if you do have that faith, I don’t mock you or belittle you for it, in truth, I am slightly jealous, just as I am envious of those who believe that a robin in the garden is a sign from the ‘other side’, ditto a white feather by the door. I had one startling ‘apparition’ not long after JS died, an appearance so vivid, so intense, it was as if he appeared in the doorway backlit and in glorious Technicolor. I freaked out with fear, ‘he’ disappeared, and I’ve never had so much of a whiff of a sign since. I’ve never felt JS with me or guiding me, other than when I ask myself, ‘What would he do/think/say?’ but the answer that comes back is from years of knowing what he would have said in the past, not what he is telling me now.  To have a deep conviction that there is a God or that someone is looking out for you on a higher level must be a wonderful thing, a comfort in times of deep distress.

A few years before JS died, two men racing each other on the motorway ploughed into a man driving home from work. They survived. He died. JS and I sat in the traffic waiting for the air ambulance to land, unaware that the man who died was from a neighbourhood we knew well. I have often written about how I feel that eventually accepting the death of our loved ones is the only way forward, but I have always felt that I would find accepting that my husband died because of a deliberate act of violence, or because someone thought their life was more important than his (texting in the car, dangerous driving, drink driving), impossible to accept. After this man’s death, I met someone who knew his widow and asked her how she was coping. ‘She’s doing really well,’ came the reply. ‘Her faith is sustaining her. God is supporting her.’ At the time, I felt incredulous that this woman was still trusting in a God who was apparently responsible for creating this amazing world we live in, but was incapable of saving her husband from the hands of two testosterone-fuelled idiots driving their cars at up to 140mph (according to the inquest) on a public road during the Friday rush hour. Later, after JS died, I remembered this woman and envied her for her faith, for her ability to trust in a higher-power, for the comfort it gave her.

So I say I have no faith, but there’s a but, and it’s a big BUT.  Several times in recent press interviews I have found myself using the phrase, ‘When the universe asks you…’ and I cringe when I hear myself say it because it sounds so woo-woo, and I am so not a woo-woo girl. Yet, the further away from JS’s death I walk, the more certain I am that there is so much more to this astonishing world than we know, and that it is entirely possible to be logical and practical and weigh up the facts and yet still look up at the sky and just know in your heart, in your very being, that there is something going on, some higher force or power; something. Clearly, if I claimed to know what it is, I wouldn’t be here, in Royston, tapping at my keyboard; I’d probably be under sedation in Addenbrooke’s Hospital with ‘Suffering from delusions’ written in my medical notes. So I can’t claim to know what it is, but I can tell you how it feels, to me.

The first time I became aware of this feeling was a child, perhaps eight, ten years old. I am often asked whether I longed to be a writer as a child, and I always say that I never longed to be a writer or dreamt about becoming one because I had an absolute unshakeable belief that I would be, that it was a given, that it was my destiny, that it was what I was put on this earth to do. I just knew.

The first day I met my husband as I stood by the photcopier in the one dress I owned (the grey dress that I am pictured wearing in one of the photos of me and JS the press use) as a temporary secretary, I had an overwhelming feeling not of attraction, but that this man would have an incredible impact on my life. I didn’t know in what form, but I knew it in the same way I knew as a child I would write, so much so, I went home and told my boyfriend at the time exactly what I’d felt.

Fast forward a quarter of a century. I am widowed and in the depths of despair. I’m on a Facebook bereavement page, piddling around. A photo comes up. I am surprised to see it because I know the man in the photo. His face is incredibly familiar to me. I can’t think where I know this man from, but I definitely know him. His name is a common one and so no help in excavating my memories. I keep wondering where we met, wracking my grieving brain. I look at the photo again and again – a shockingly bad snap taken at a family wedding only a few weeks after his wife died – and am certain I know him. As it turned out, we had never met, but the man was Gorgeous Grey-Haired Widower, a man who from the moment we first met, I felt as if I had known for my entire life.

OK, so none of these things are proof that the universe (here I go again) has a plan for us, and I’m not saying that they are. But I will tell you something else, something I told a few people years before it happened.

All my life I have had an unshakeable feeling, a premonition if you like, that at some point I would witness something terrible, something life-changing. I am prone to anxiety and melancholy, but this was not the sort of daily anticipatory anxiety which would end with the phrase, ‘I told you I was worried that they would run out of free-range turkeys if we didn’t order one in advance!’ This was a feeling of destiny, of inevitability, not anxiety. JS knew about it and said I was daft, as did a few other friends I’d told over the years. As the chaos surrounding my husband’s death on the beach unfolded, I stood there and thought to myself, ‘This is it. This is what I’ve been expecting all my life.’ I knew it. I just knew. For the tiniest unmeasurable amount of time I felt calm because I knew this was part of my destiny. And then I freaked out. I remember my bereavement coach, Shelley, asking me if I still had this feeling that something terrible would happen and I told her that no, the feeling had gone; having lived with it for forty-odd years, it was noticeable that it had vanished.

I may not have a traditional faith, but I do have a feeling that there is life – of sorts – after death. It’s the same feeling I had about writing as a child, when I first met JS, when I first saw GGHW and when I stood on that beach in Barbados. Don’t ask me to prove it or quantify it or explain it. I can’t. I just know.


Denise H
Reply October 5, 2015

My Dear Helen I am the girl who went to Sunday school loves to belt out Jerusalem, but I have no faith now. Where was God when Paul needed help where was God when I needed help. Like you I think it's wonderful if faith helps you on this journey. But it's my son my sister my friends and myself who have guided me. Yes I see things in black and white it's how I cope. Xxxxx

    Planet Grief
    Reply October 7, 2015

    It's an odd one Denise, because I don't believe in a God. Have you seen Stephen Fry's conversation with Gay Byrne? If not you can see it here:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2-d4otHE-YI It's short but powerful and I am completely in-line with his position. This is more a feeling that there is a bigger picture and we are part of it. I hesitate to say the universe has a plan for us, because in that case, quite frankly, I'm pretty unhappy with the universe for some of the plans it has made for me (and you), but still, I feel that there is something more. xx

Elizabeth Riley
Reply October 5, 2015

Wow Helen - what an awesome blog post! I KNOW what you are saying/feeling about just KNOWING. So much of what you have written here strongly resonates with me. Different circumstances of widowhood and completely different life experiences between us but never the less, I too have had that 'feeling'. I have no traditional faith either. But I have always had superly strong feelings - instincts if you like - that a situation will turn out really good, or really really bad. In my 8 years with my husband, I had an overwhelming background feeling that our life together would be cut tragically short. I believed that he was 'sent to me' (woo-woo) but kept having the phrase come to me that 'he was the weakest in the litter'. What an odd phrase! Yet it returned to me so many times with no tangible evidence that he should be struck with cancer at 37 years old. When it happened, I had stark juxtapositional thoughts... that veered between 'oh my (god) this can't be happening' to 'I knew it - I just knew it' . Plenty of other experiences have reflected that 'knowing' but none with such life changing effect. Of course I wish that the universe had laid a better plan for us (woo-woo) BUT given where I am now, this further leads me to totally trust my 'knowing', understand that I cannot change it and to roll with life as it unfolds. Perhaps this is the source of my resilience? To embrace this and not worry about what cannot be changed gives me strange comfort. Thanks for another super blogpost and good luck with the book xxx

    Planet Grief
    Reply October 7, 2015

    Elizabeth, thank you, and for the comments on my book. Instinct? Intuition? It is strange, isn't it? If you have it you can't quantify it, you just know. Like you, I have had plenty of other 'knowing' experiences. You are so right when you say that you cannot change it and to roll with life as it unfolds, which of course doesn't mean sitting back and letting things happen. I really do believe that there will be an 'Ah ha!' moment (when we can't tell those still living about it) when it all makes sense. xxx

Reply October 5, 2015

Slightly weird reading my words again. But, even after all these years, the sentiments are still true and have passed the test of time. I didn't rehearse those words but I had made preparations for the inevitable sad event. Who to call - my parents, District nurse, funeral director, priest (he wanted to be informed), cancel (overnight) hospice at home nurse, Pharmacist, etc.. I needed to have those protocols/practicalities clear in my head but apparently had no script for telling the children. I also can't recall preparing a speech when I had to tell the children that their mother was going to die. A different level of difficulty.
I will add that she took comfort from her religious faith whereas I was privately thinking how could such a bad thing happen to such a good person.
One life ended and another life began.

    Planet Grief
    Reply October 7, 2015

    Chris J: I am sure reading your words again must be strange, but I am very grateful that you gave me your blessing to use them in the book. I am sure they will help others. When I started reviewing the old blog posts for the book it was painful to see my words and took me back to a time I'd rather not dwell on, ironic since at the moment I am spending all day talking or writing about that time. It's uncomfortable.

    My bereavement coach gave me a mantra to put in a frame and keep by me. Sometimes I wanted to hurl it at the wall, other times it gave me comfort. It's near me now. It says: 'I am safe. I trust the process of life to be good to me.' I have no answer for those who point out suffering, despair, loss, but still, to get all woo-woo (again) for a moment, I do feel that life - the universe - is doing its best to support me. I feel like that now, at just gone 8am. By 9am I might feel very differently. Life can change in an instant. x

Reply October 5, 2015

I feel grateful to have such a strong belief that he is close by, an invisible thread still binds us, I have had many experiences since he died and I just know that he is there guiding me. Too many things have happened since he died that could not just be coincidence, there are many things that we don't know about in this world X

    Planet Grief
    Reply October 7, 2015

    Barb: Thank you. I don't feel JS around me at all and yet there are things that have happened where I feel that he has 'engineered' them to take place, steered me in a particular direction and I've found myself looking up at the sky and saying, 'Thank you,' to him. As you say, the world is thick with mysteries. x

Julia @ Rainbeaubelle
Reply October 5, 2015

I can relate to some of what you are saying having lost my husband in the summer. I find it incredible that you had this feeling about him having a major impact on your life, you were certainly right! I am always looking for signs and sometimes I think I see them, other times I'm not so sure, but my views on what happens after death have certainly changed. I just can't see that there is nothing else, the universe is too amazing. Much love x

    Planet Grief
    Reply October 7, 2015

    Julia: I'm so sorry to read about the recent death of your husband. I hope that you are getting support - practical and emotional. Regular readers of this blog will know that over the last four-plus years I've oscillated between belief and non-belief. I don't have signs, I just have a feeling. Funnily enough, before JS died I believed strongly in a traditional afterlife, one that could be accessed by mediums (not charlatans); it was something we disagreed on. Now, I don't, but I can't shake this feeling that there is more out 'there' than we can ever know. I no longer feel that you have to be either a sensible and logical non-believer OR a woo-woo girl who reads tea-leaves, and there is no middle ground. Hugs to you Julia. xxx

Reply October 7, 2015

Thanks for the great post. My wife passed away just over a year ago now. Over that time there's been countless awkward conversations. More often than not they're awkward because it's hard for others to know what to say. Every now and then the silence gets filled with rot like... "Well I guess it's part of the plan". This concept frustrates and annoys me more than any other. I guess they mean God's plan. I actually guess they don't mean anything by it at all, it's just word and sound filler. But the idea that taking away my wife's life was written into some plan for the greater good is one of the few things that tends to make me angry.

    Planet Grief
    Reply October 7, 2015

    Trent, thank you for commenting, though clearly I wish you had no need to comment...

    I genuinely think that people don't know what to say and so they sometimes come out with breathtakingly idiotic things. Like the person who told me that she knew how I felt crying all the time because she cried all the time after her pet rabbit died, or the woman who hugged me on the beach as my husband was being given CPR and told me that God knew what was best for me. Hmmm. Still, my own view is that I would rather people said something - however crass - than cross the street to avoid me. The other daft one is, 'God only takes the good ones.' I can't even begin to give you my reaction to that one or the blog would turn blue.

    I hope you are being kind to yourself and that others are supporting you as best they can.


Reply October 9, 2015

So many times you strike a chord with me Helen. From the very beginning of my religious education at a very young age I've never quite grasped the imaginary friend called God . I'm always slightly afraid to tell people I don't believe and fear I would offend those who have prayed for me and prayed for John during his illness. Fat lot of use that did!!! Sorry, but that felt so good to say! I wish I could openly say to well meaning friends that I firmly believe my John is 6ft under and definitely not watching down on me along with my mother, my best friend, various guinea pigs and a spider that I buried after feeling guilty for drowning it. I'm rambling - it's the wine, but thank you!

Reply February 3, 2016

Very interesting reading. Like me, a lot of people sound confused by it all, how ever their loved ones are 'taken'.
I lost my partner last April after 6 wonderful years together, No warning, no sign of illness, just gone. He was only 48.
All the things we had planned to do ripped apart.
I hoped that I would go soon too so we could be together again, thought of him waiting somewhere for me to join him, didn't want to feel anything for anyone else as it would be like cheating on him.
So imagine how I'm feeling now that I have so suddenly fallen for another man. I don't want to tell anyone incase I get judged or hurt other people's feelings so keeping it quite for now until I know where it's going. For now it's good to know I can feel again, even if it is tainted with guilt. Confusing at the same time as it is very exciting. X