Five Years

Five years.

Five years ago today, I was a wife at breakfast and a widow by lunch – actually, by morning coffee.

Sitting here this morning in my dressing gown, typing this post, a mug of tea by my side, it seems both a lifetime ago and yet only yesterday.

I didn’t believe that I would get through that first night alone, three thousand miles from home. I didn’t believe that I would make it through that first week or that first month. Many times, I didn’t want to make it through the next hour, willing my demise and courting fate, feeling desolate when my pleas to spontaneously combust or get hit by a car came to nothing. I was amazed to arrive at the first anniversary of JS’s death, but despondent that when that milestone was out of the way, I didn’t suddenly emerge from the pit of despair with a huge smile on my face and a positive attitude. Instead, I felt weary, flat, frightened. The non-bereaved seemed to think that every milestone out of the way –  the funeral, the first Christmas, the first year – meant that I was closer to being ‘over it’, as if grief was an illness that required a treatment plan: some drugs, rest, a bit of physio and eventually I’d be cured.

Five years.

We never move on, but in our own time, at our own pace and in our own way, we move forward from that moment that our loved ones took their last breath. At times, it may not feel it, indeed, we may feel as if we are going backwards, but we’re not, I promise you. Our world may have been shattered, but life continues and drags us along with it, sometimes unwillingly. But even with new lives, new loves and new opportunities, we never truly leave those we love and have lost behind. Somehow, they come with us, weaving themselves into our ‘new normal’. They are with us through memories, or when we ask them what they would do and hear their voice in our head advising us, encouraging us, warning us. We see them in our family or, if we have no genetic links surrounding us, through their books on our bookshelves and playwrights and musicians they introduced us to. But we don’t have to see physical things. Whatever our beliefs – or even if we have no belief in an afterlife – we just know that they are still part of our lives; our lives were too tightly woven for death to completely destroy the links between us.

Last night, I posted this message (below) on the Planet Grief Facebook page, but for those who don’t use Facebook and because it seemed fitting to mark five years today since JS died, I repeat it here.

Dear Tribe,

Five years ago tonight I was eating dinner at my favourite restaurant, the Lone Star in Barbados, with my husband. It was a perfect Caribbean evening, and we felt incredibly lucky that when we arrived at the restaurant, we’d been allocated a prime waterside table. I could not have wished for a lovelier evening, eating, laughing and drinking champagne cocktails in idyllic surroundings with my husband who, after a difficult year, was back to the charming, witty and relaxed man I’d met more than two decades before. At that moment, life felt perfect.

Twelve hours later, my husband was dead, drowning in the very sea we had dined beside the night before.

Over the years, I have often debated in my mind (and with other widows and widowers) which route to Planet Grief is worse: to arrive suddenly, or to know that you are heading into the wilderness of grief. Each has its own challenges and repercussions, but recent events in my ‘new’ life has underlined my feeling that for JS to die without warning or preparation was almost certainly the ‘better’ way for me, and for him. The cruelty was that I was so far from home and help and on holiday, but I was spared months or years living in a tunnel of fear, a life punctuated by dashed hopes and destroyed dreams.

Through the blog and because of the book and the media interviews I have given to accompany it, I have been contacted by many people who see me as an expert on grief, someone who can give them the key to bypassing all those terrible emotions: the despair, the howling in pain, the panic, the depression, the terror and the sheer hopelessness of life after death. I tell them that I can’t write with any authority on death or grief, only authenticity. I can – and do – give them words of hope, but there is no shortcut through grief. Five years tomorrow since being widowed, my belief is that any shortcut taken, any quick fix to numb the pain whether that is buying an Aston Martin or remarrying quickly, never really works.

Not only do widows and widowers write to me, but also those who know that their loved ones have only a short time left to live. ‘How can I prepare for grief?’ they ask. ‘What can I do?’ I feel appallingly impotent in my response, because whilst I believe you can prepare for death, I don’t believe that you can prepare for grief. Even those who have lived with the Grim Reaper hovering over their lives for years have told me that when the end came, even if there was some relief that their loved ones suffering was over and that their own lives on hold for so long could start again, they were surprised at how grief-stricken they were. ‘I thought I had done most of my grieving whilst he was ill, but I was so wrong,’ one widow told me after her husband died after a long battle against cancer. Only weeks before she had told me that she wanted her husband to die, because as much as she loved him, she knew that there was to be no happy ending, no miracle cure, and that nursing him at home with the endless round of soiled sheets, confusion and falls he was was suffering was driving her to despair.

So tonight, reflecting on the past, I want to send special love and hugs to those of you who lived with the knowledge that your time with your loved one was coming to an end, men and women who still had to get up to go to work or take the children to school or wrap the Christmas presents and organise birthday parties and live life whilst death was knocking on the door.

With love,

Helen xxxx


Reply February 27, 2016

Beautifully written as always Helen. Thank you from someone who lived in the shadow of my partner's terminal illness. The shock following his death was unbearable and so hugely unexpected. That said there were moments of great joy during those last three weeks while our life and expectations grew smaller by the minute I know they were a testament of our love and resolve. I live in awe of my late husband's bravery and grim determination to deal with all that was thrown at him. Sending love to you on this anniversary date, the significance of which can only be understood by those who have shared similar journeys x

Reply February 28, 2016

You were my first widow blog and I sobbed my way binge reading your posts, and tears are always cathartic - so, thank you and God bless!

I have since come across other widow blogs. Like people, there are some that are an instant attraction. Amazing that 24 letters in the alphabet can provide a written language that has a distinctive "voice" and are genuine (some "voices" I found, like people, false - didn't pursue them). Only other widows can understand the grief and mood swings, but I suppose thats true of any tragedy.

I am very grateful for blogs like yours that span several years. I can track my way across them and not feel alone.

Reply February 29, 2016

You chronicle the journey so many of us have been on with such eloquence, honesty ,clarity and always with some humour. I thank you for it from the bottom of my heart. Your book and blog have been integral elements in the journey to move forward - for some of the reasons cited by Elizabeth.
How many of us out there today are reflecting on this "extra" day are remembering that on the last one, in 2012 ,we were blissfully unaware of what was to come .....
Thank you for shining a hopeful , wise and unfailing beam of light into the darkest corners that grief inhabits Sending love to you Helen as you enter your sixth year x

Sandra Smith
Reply March 20, 2016

I've just finished your book When Bad Things Happen in Good Bikinis. It was so good to read that the feelings I had didn't mean I'd lost the plot. I felt pain and I laughed at parts.
Thank you for your sharing and also for your natural way of talking through the pages.

Jean |
Reply March 30, 2016

Well said, Helen, well said.

Virginia meek
Reply April 17, 2016

I know I haven't suffered a bereavement like you have but my ex boyfriend is now with someone else and I am so so cut up its pure agony it's just like he has died to me suffering so so much!!!!Help help!!!!!

Rosalind Buchanan
Reply April 19, 2016

I read your book, last week. I do not cry. I did not cry for three months after my husband died. I was suffering from cancer, having had the most DRASTIC Chem and Radio therapy. Could not drive, which in the Home Counties, caused problems. No children to help no brothers or sisters. Nothing and he died in hospital on Christmas EVE. That was 3 years ago....I had cancer again last year. So, this year I am trying, with some difficulty to stat again.

You have gone missing.

I do hoe that you are safe and well, and will return to your new partner and his sons, very soon.

One paper said that you moved in with Ian 7 months after your husbands death! Logically, with 1sr anniversary,1 1st Chistmas etc.,this does not add up.....

    Rosalind Buchanan
    Reply April 19, 2016

    Comment already done

molly Jenson
Reply April 20, 2016

I know losing a sibling is not the same as losing a partner, but it is still a loved one nonetheless, I was very close to my brother and although it has been almost 7 years since his unexpected and tragic passing, the grief I feel still feels as raw as yesterday and most days I just want to be with him. I don't believe that time is a great healer because it pains me to think that I might forget what he sounded like or what he looked like and I never want to forget that.

Reply April 20, 2016

Read your blog for first time today. Hope you are okay. Grief is a terrible thing. My husband died 11 years ago tomorrow. I was 42, he was 41. Time moves on but Springtime, daffodils, lambs in the fields etc will be forever poignant. X

margaret swenson.
Reply April 21, 2016

I have only just discovered this lady on reading of her missing. I hadn't known of her at all. I read further that she was widowed and that she did a blog called planet grief. I also read her piece on her husbands 5th anniversary back in February 27th (which was day before my birthday). I had hours ago, put a memorium on face book for my son's 6th anniversary. Who passed away aged 40 of lung cancer within 3 months of diagnosis April 21st 2010. I haven't slept yet and always the same night before the anniversary. For some reason went on to website for something to distract me and stop me thinking of my son's last dying moments 6 years ago and saw this lady missing and discovered her blogs. I hope she is found like I have found her (so to speak) on eve of my son's 6th anniversary . Even although it for widow and widowers her blogs her message felt aimed at myself . Please god may she be found safe and well. The Caribbean maybe?. Be safe and well dear one. You are needed by so many, especially your family and friends. From someone you helped get me through to the wee small hours. I pray that you be found. MS.

Reply May 2, 2016

The extract from your book published in the Daily Mail last year was given to me. I am a reader of the daily mail but hadnt bought a newspaper since losing my husband, Barry in the May. The extract both made me cry (wail!!) and laugh (lol) resulting in my purchasing 'Bad Things Happen in Good Bikinis'.... The book has and is still being passed on to friends. I have lived many of your situations, buying one scotch egg, drinking a bottle of red with a canister of twiglets.....I am back in the month of May and re-living the build up to the 'anniversary date' of the first year of my loss. I have wanted to write to you many times over the last 11 months, but a mere 'thank you' would have been insufficient and just finding words in return, I am not a writer!!
Having read recently that you are missing, I dont believe that you actually are..... I just sincerely hope you are well and having your 'me' time at a place you want to be for a while...

Mrs Gillian Munden
Reply May 13, 2016

We need you Helen, I can't write ,your words bring such hope and comfort.

Please where ever you are keeping writing keep healing others.

Reply May 31, 2016

There is a greater grief than bereavement I believe. The grief caused by the disappearance of a loved one along with the fear of the fate that has befallen them, the manner of their death or continued suffering; the not knowing...

sara simms
Reply June 22, 2016

How well you describe grief, but to me, I feel tgere is no end to this. Those who consider one should be "over it by now " have never experienced this horror and terror.

Reply July 11, 2016

One such a sad day, I feel honoured to have known Helen and to have been comforted by her words.
May she rest in peace and rise in glory

Jennifer Russell
Reply July 11, 2016

I am so shocked and horrified at today's news about Helen. I had read her anniversary blog with NO idea that only 7 days later I would lose my fantastic 19-year-old son, suddenly and shockingly. I read more from Helen in the months after my son's death as I'd remembered how horrified she still seemed - exactly how I felt.
What are people's thinking of this terrible news? Poor, poor Helen. xxx

bill stanley
Reply July 15, 2016

I'm sorry I found this only because of your death. I could barely see through the tears. I truly think we could have been friends. My wife passed without warning; we went to bed together; I woke up alone. God Bless!

Lisa marie raybone
Reply July 20, 2016

Another sleepless night as i search through my News App you are there. I find out more about you and tears fill my eyes so heavy as i find you felt all those feels of sorrow just as i did April 1st to my husbands sudden death. I cant believe how much we felt the same yet how different our situations. Which then makes me realise i still loved him xx sleep well Helen with JS Thank you for sharing your understanding of grief id never felt it before and was very scared xxx