“In a perfect Friendship this Appreciative love is, I think, often so great and so firmly based that each member of the circle feels, in his secret heart, humbled before the rest. Sometimes he wonders what he is doing there among his betters. He is lucky beyond desert to be in such company.”
I found out that Helen died this morning, and tragically, mindbendingly—at the hands of her fiance, while sipping my PG Tips and eating two McVitie’s digestives. Being British, she loved these too. The tea and digestives were a part of the break I was taking from the grueling work of attempting to write a synopsis for the proposal of a memoir about the loss of my husband. Both the British tea and the difficult work suddenly made me think of her. “Maybe I’ll write Helen.” We hadn’t corresponded for maybe a year, but she, being a well-known and highly successful children’s author herself, also finishing up her own memoir of her sudden widowhood when we last spoke, had encouraged me so greatly that I often went back to her for writing support. I wondered if her own book had come out yet and googled her in hopes of seeing the book cover and the rave reviews I expected. Instead—shocking news headlines about her disappearance and eventually, finding. I broke down. I cried in my kitchen beside my daughter’s lone swimming fish for this woman I have never met, but loved very much.
A very unique and ineffable bond is established among young widows online. While I have lived my life in the suburbs for the past six years, making small talk with other suburban moms about our children and their various activities, another, underground part of my life has often supported me in varying degrees—a community of women that don’t necessarily know each other—many of whom I’ve never had the honor to meet. They’ve watched my daughter grow up the past six years online via photos and stories. They check on us and wish me a happy birthday. Some of us text on difficult days or to celebrate the milestones of our children. Helen was one of those women. Exactly a year after my husband died, she discovered my blog. A little later, she wrote me this email:
I hesitated to write to you before now – the day I found your blog was the one year anniversary of your husband’s death. I stumbled across it because I was, again, late night Googling the words ‘husband’ and ‘drowned’. My husband drowned on the 27th February, 2011 whilst we were on holiday in Barbados.
Your writing is heartbreakingly beautiful. I write a blog, but my style is very different. We do what we have to do to get through the days. Life is bleak and the future bleaker.
I suppose I just wanted to let you know that when you sit down at the computer to write, at least one person out there appreciates it, even if reading your posts sometimes twists the knife of grief lodged in my own body.
Best wishes (how inadequate that sounds). HB
I received many, many emails on my original blog because an excerpt had been published in the NY Times thanks to a friend. I tried to respond to each person with a word of encouragement and usually signed those early emails, “Hope, Julia.” For most of them, that was the end of the correspondence, but some stayed. Helen was one of them. Not only were we both widowed, but our husbands both died by drowning which is more unusual—and so those of us in “the underground” found each other rather quickly despite distance or different life circumstances—Helen lived in London, was a bit older than me, and had no children.
My response to Helen’s first email:
I was so glad to get your email. (goes without saying by now- i wish we didn’t know each other for this reason). I am so very sorry for your incredible loss. And from what I read on your blog- you actually saw it happen. I was in another country- which also sucks. All of this does, no?
I read through some of your blog and really like the spirit you write with- for such a horrible ode- you write with great spirit and even humor.
Yes- we do what we have to. Tonight is a particularly bad wave in terms of the grief for me. I just miss him so much. The pain is indescribable no?
I will bookmark your blog.
Thanks for taking the time to write me- it does help for some reason- having an audience for one’s grief. Knowing others even catch a glimpse of this pain- though I know you have much more than that.
I’m so sorry Helen.
Let us keep in touch. I write regularly with a few other young widows and find it nourishes me.
I’m here for you if you need a listening ear.
And so began a lasting friendship. “How bizarre our lives have become that we should be in different countries and yet find each other by the common thread of the way our husbands died,” she wrote in a later email. Yes, how bizarre. And now, today, with the news of her own tragic death, the universe again has bent into a strange, unrecognizable shape—Planet Grief, she aptly called it—the title of her blog which can be found here. On the blog, one can see how beloved she was by so many women, all devastated and angered by this horrendous act, all compelled to write so many lovely tributes, most of them having never met her. Many of them grievers who found her because of their own loss, they understand they have no “claim” to this grief the way her family does, as do I, and yet…the feelings of loss are genuine.
While still sobbing in my kitchen, I wrote another of these underground friends who knew Helen via her writing. “What would Helen say?” I asked her, still in shock. “She might say, ‘What the fuck?'” she replied. Yes.
While I documented my own life—grieving and mothering a toddler in the NYC area, Helen’s blog documented her life as a widow in London with a dark sense of humor and wit that quickly drew an entire community of women from around the world together. Somehow reading her blog, despite the fact that its subject matter was the sudden drowning of her beloved before her eyes, one felt lighter. The comments sections had lengthy threads where women were able to draw strength from each other and even laugh. I remember one thread that evolved into the women jokingly talking about wearing tie dye and living on a commune together. Helen always moderated the comments with her usual grace and style, making each woman feel her friend. Helen asked to link to one of my own posts, “Live Well,” about how we couldn’t necessarily strive for happiness or a happy ending, but we could strive to live well. When I began this new blog, she left comments and sometimes asked if she could post them on her blog. I was always so happy to see her comments because I respected her so much: her own writing talent, her wit, and this air of sophistication that her stories of her life in London carried for me.
When I eventually stopped writing on my first blog three years after my husband died, she wrote to say she’d noticed I hadn’t written there in a year and wanted to check in on us. Her blog had also taken a back seat but she was starting to post again in preparation for the book release. I replied, “I am happy to read your voice again. It’s like you’re an old friend.”
It has been a few months since Helen was found. I understand now why people who found out later that Dan had died were so devastated in a particular way. I get that now. Here I was, imagining that even on this day, Helen might have been in England, sitting in her kitchen, sipping her PG Tips, only to find out that she has been gone now for months—that she can not be found on this earth. Her book, When Bad Things Happen in Good Bikinis, was published last year. I used to send new widows to her blog, and they’d respond with things like, “I’m already chuckling…” and so I can recommend this book as well without reservation. I am so glad that she got to finish it.
After I read this surreal news this morning, I did what I’m strangely compelled to do at times like this: I searched for every word of every comment and correspondence that we had in the past six years. All I could think about was putting together some kind of tribute in words to this lovely woman whom I befriended during the darkest period of both our lives. Early grief is so fuzzy and hazy, and yet has a clarity about it at the very same time—a sharpness, a crystallization. Experiences and relationships made during that time period become holy. After I read through our correspondence, I went for my daily walk and cried. When people die, we want to say their name aloud, “Helen!” was all I could say over and over again in disbelief as I walked around the figure eight shaped walking path four times with streaming tears leaving behind soft stains on my face after the wind had dried them . I wanted her to know how much she had meant to me. But when I came home and read through some of our correspondence, I found I already had:
Helen- I am really grateful for you. You make me laugh so much. And your spirit coming through your writing from another continent makes me believe in souls and that we are more than animals. Your spirit is absolutely full of life. You are the someone everyone wants in their corner. You are doing an amazing thing uniting all of those women and so early on in your own journey…out of your sorrow is coming laughter for many. How strange and wonderful and heartbreaking all at once.
Still, I am sad that we hadn’t been in touch more recently, specifically for the five year anniversary of her late husband’s death a few weeks before her own. I wish I had written to check up on her. That is a big anniversary. I am sorry for that.
I find her obituary in the Guardian, and these kind words from her editor:
“[Helen had] the ability to enter into the emotional lives of her characters with a wit and wisdom which is recognised by readers and the hallmark of all great writers of fiction – the skill of stepping into the hearts and minds of her characters. Empathy, wit, observation, hard work and dedication – all of these were attributes Helen had in abundance.”
Yes, such a wonderful combination of all of those traits and so much more. Arthur Schopenhauer said of each loss:”the deep pain that is felt at the death of every friendly soul arises from the feeling that there is in every individual something which is inexpressible, peculiar to him alone, and is, therefore, absolutely and irretrievably lost.” For me, today, something has been absolutely and irretrievably lost. I have lost a sweet comrade, one of my own- both as a widow and a writer.
I will miss especially her dark humor, “The waves of grief are, as you say, indescribable and can often come without warning. I am hoping that I will learn to ride them (I’ve learnt that I can’t avoid water metaphors and grief so I just go with it).” These are the kinds of things only we could say to each other.
I will miss her encouragement of my own writing when I am filled with self-doubt. “Confidence can be worked on but innate talent (in your case you are clearly a natural wordsmith) cannot be taught, only polished. You won’t make a fool of yourself, I promise. I don’t make promises lightly.” While I often doubted the encouragement of my writing by other friends because I feared they were doing so out of self-pity, I knew Helen was being genuine. I trusted her because I’d known her to be a voice of truth.
I do not want to share all of our correspondence here, but I will miss the simple back and forth between two people who had never met with closings like, “Sending you love from London. Hxxxxx,” “Much love and gratitude for your life- Julia,” “Sending you and little A love from across the Atlantic,” “From an ocean away and from my true soul- thank you for being a light to me. Thank you for writing yourself. Your words will be a gift to people- they will make them smile in the midst of tears, Julia” and “It’s not a one way street you know. Likewise for me lovely lass. H.”
I had thought that one day we might meet in person, and we had corresponded about that as well. “Until we meet one day in person…in London or NYC sipping champagne! J” We talked about time she spent with her husband in NYC and if she could ever go back, “Perhaps the impetus for that journey will be you and the champagne we will share. I’m crying just thinking about it. H.” I am sorry that this meeting will never happen. I am sorry that I am here composing this today. Somehow when I post this, I will know for sure that it is true, that this has really happened so unjustly to my friend. She helped so many others, and yet her life was taken. I pray for justice for her. She will leave no comments here.
Today after reading the news, I found and watched a video of Helen, one of a few she made for the first time promoting the recent book. I’ve probably seen a photo or two of her, but I’d never heard her voice. But in sharing our stories through our writing on our blogs, as well as our correspondence, we connected across space and time, and I heard her “voice.” Despite distance, I thought of her as close. “Reading is the sole means by which we slip, involuntarily, often helplessly, into another’s skin, another’s voice, another’s soul,” says Joyce Carol Oates.
I want to leave you with bits and pieces from a very long second-to-last email from Helen encouraging me about my writing. I hope that her words can encourage someone today in whatever venture they’re called to as they encouraged me and help her beautiful spirit live on in some small way:
Your email had me shaking my head (and laughing and wanting to hug you) in disbelief at our similarities, so before I address the points in your email (gosh, that sounds very formal, doesn’t it?) I wanted to tell you a story. Grab that cup of PG Tips and a whole packet of digestives, because this could be a long one…
…You have to do it. I’m going to make that an order. If you don’t at least try, it will eat you up. You will be terrified. I am. Constantly. Periodically, I suffer from panic attacks and anxiety and intermittent bouts of agoraphobia. If we never take that leap of faith, how can we tell whether we will crash and burn or soar? …Let’s try and have courage together…
…I wish you could sit at my kitchen table and we could cry and hug and kick each other’s butts when necessary. You have SO MUCH to give, but the first step is just standing up on shaky legs and putting your hand up to say, “I’m going to do it.” Note that I didn’t say, “I’m ready,” because in truth I don’t think anyone with our issues is ever going to be ready…
…Go for it girl and I will be cheering you on (and holding your hand) every step of the way.
I am so sad that she can no longer hold my hand each step of the way, but I am so thankful to have crossed paths with this classy woman. Readers, please think of my friend Helen today, and in her honor,”Let’s try and have courage together.” Helen, though you proved differently with yours, my words here feel futile once again, and it feels impossible to honor you rightly. Please know how much you will be missed by me, from across the Atlantic. You were my friend. I won’t forget you.
As she often signed off,
“Solidarity and love,”
Image via BBC.