‘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.