Madness, Sadness & Matrimony

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if grief could be cured by popping a couple of pills or having a shot of something medicinal jabbed into one of your buttocks? Of course, it wouldn’t really be a cure, just a temporary fix. Like trying to control belly flab with power pants, pushing grief away never works, it just pops up in unexpected places and is just as uncomfortable to live with. I once met a woman who kept it all together after her young son died, only to have a nervous breakdown requiring hospitalisation when her elderly Labrador conked out years later. It doesn’t take a degree in psychology to work out what happened there, but it did take her years of therapy and strong drugs to get back on her feet.

There is no fast fix for grief, no cure, not even falling in love again, and I have been particularly stroppy during recent press interviews when it’s been suggested to me that a new relationship somehow ‘cures’ grief, that the fastest way to living a life full of rainbows and puppies instead of tears and microwaveable meals for one, is to find a new partner.

During an interview for my book, When Bad Things Happen In Good Bikinis, a print journalist, having briefly touched upon the subject of my relationship with Gorgeous Grey-Haired Widower, smiled brightly over her microphone and said, “So, you’re better now?” For a moment, I was genuinely confused by her question (although to be fair, most of her questions were confusing, because by her own admission, she had read neither the book nor the blog before our meeting), so she repeated herself. Riled, I took her to task. I explained (perhaps somewhat too forcefully) that grief isn’t an illness, that you don’t just ‘get better’ and that you certainly can’t view a new relationship as the equivalent of a strong dose of antibiotics to knock a case of venereal disease on the head. But perhaps I was being unkind to this poppet with a pocket recorder, because in the early days of widowhood, I certainly believed that those in new partnerships didn’t deserve to be called widows, and that having someone to snuggle up to on the sofa to watch Strictly on Saturday nights meant grief was done and dusted. I was convinced that if only I could find a white knight in shining armour, I’d be ‘cured’. As it turned out, my white knight didn’t turn up on a throbbing snorting stallion, but in a rather battered Ford Mondeo Estate with Micky Mouse dangling from its aerial. Nor did he cure me of grief.

I was reminded of this when last month, I opened The Sunday Times and the Culture section dropped out. It gave me quite a shock, because there, on the cover, was a picture of the man that almost five years ago, I intended to marry. I should point out that this isn’t a tale of broken promises, returned engagement rings and being stood up at the alter. No, this man was not only unaware of our impending nuptials, but we’d never met and he didn’t know I existed, all of which (including the fact that he already had a wife) was completely irrelevant to me at the time.

This man was the historian, author and TV presenter, Simon Schama, and I genuinely felt that the only way out of the hell that I was living in, was to marry him. It was a perfect plan, which, if executed, would enable my life to continue much as before, because JS was the spitting image of Simon and had often been compared to him. The similarities in their looks, their clothes, in their very manner was uncanny, right down to the same year of their birth. It wasn’t the madness of a grieving widow that saw JS and Simon as one; when JS was alive, time and time again we’d meet someone and they’d say to JS, “You remind me so much of Simon Schama!” and JS would glow that this urbane intellecutal historian should be linked with him in some way.

Nigella Lawson, no stranger to bereavement, is quoted as saying:

“There is a kind of euphoria of grief, of a degree of madness.”

Clearly, I was mad and grieving, but every time I thought about my grief ‘cure’, I was ecstatic. There was a way to be happy again, a fast track off Planet Grief, and this ticket to living again came with becoming Mrs Simon Schama. In my defence, I think that Nigella is spot on, that bereavement confers on you a kind of madness and that when you spy a chink of light, a way out of the dark, however crazy, however improbable, your mind grabs this chance and runs with it.

I’m saner now, of course.

But I’m not finished with Simon, yet.

When I saw the magazine featuring the man that was due to be my second husband, my heart jolted and I instantly turned it over. I couldn’t bear to look at it, at him. It reminded me of a time of bleak madness, of a time when I seriously thought that if I married a man I didn’t know, my grief would be expunged. It also reminded me of my husband, because the similarities between the two of them are uncanny. I shoved the magazine under a pile of papers, but I knew it was there, buried beneath takeaway menus and flyers for gutter cleaning. A few days later, I fished it out and and still face down, pushed it between more paperwork, this time by my desk. I couldn’t look at the magazine, but I couldn’t send my husband (past or imaginary) to recycling.

I dug out Culture to write this post, but in forcing myself to look at it, I was surprised that I still feel uncomfortable and slightly embarrassed remembering the madness which was so intense I gave serious – if fleeting – thought to becoming Mrs Schama. But most of all I feel sad, sad that Simon is smiling from the cover of a magazine, whilst my husband is a pile of dust in an urn in a green plastic bag in a cupboard.

That will always feel madness to me.simon


Sue Ab
Reply October 25, 2015

Dearest Helen,
You hit the nail on the head, several nails, in fact have you thought of a future career in carpentry?
As I now know a new relationship is a glorious thing but no, it isn't a cure for grief, it runs alongside it and is glorious like a bank of flowers beside a railway line, makes you happy but doesn't cover the rail tracks.
It's a complicated business but I love the way you shine a light into the dark and weird corners of it all.
Sue x