Helen Bailey talks about Grief
As a writer of young adult fiction, never did I think that I would one day write non-fiction, let alone a memoir about the aftermath of the death of my husband. But life offers up some strange twists and turns, not least finding myself widowed at the age of forty-six on a beach in Barbados in February 2011, all whilst wearing a bikini.
I never suffered from writer’s block whilst writing the young adult fiction I was known for. Rather smugly, I believed writer’s block only existed for those that had too much time on their hands. I was working full-time as well as writing, so I had no time to worry about where my characters were going next. I set them off on their journey and hung on for the ride. Oh, how fate wiped that smug look off my face, as, despite being used to turning round copy to tight deadlines during the day and churning out thousands of words for my books at night, the Grim Reaper shut down my ability to write, grief annihilating any shred of creativity left in me. I was desperate to write about how I was feeling – to get some perspective on my grief – but I was totally and utterly constipated, in the literary sense, of course.
To move things along, I set myself the task of starting a blog to coincide with my husband’s birthday in June, almost four months after he drowned. I had been sneering of bloggers in the past, believing them to be introspective navel-gazers who needed to get out and get a life rather than sit hunched over a keyboard imagining one, but, nevertheless, I set up Planet Grief, so called because I felt as if I was living on a different planet. Nothing in my life after my husband’s death felt familiar, not even the sight of my fingers on my computer’s keyboard: I was wearing a wedding ring, but I had no husband.
Most writers will admit to the terror of the white page, those first moments when a new book has to make the transition from an idea in your head to fully formed sentences in black and white, but this took terror to a new level, and I felt physically sick with nerves as I sat at my desk. I told myself that I didn’t need to be witty or clever, that all I needed to do was to write a factual account of how I marked the day (sending balloons up over Hampstead Heath), and if I couldn’t do that, I would follow the advice of the late and very great Maya Angelou, who wrote of writer’s block: ‘What I try to do is write. I may write for two weeks “the cat sat on the mat, that is that, not a rat.” And it might be just the most boring and awful stuff. But I try.’ I felt that I wouldn’t even be able to write about cats, mats or rats, so I resolved to just type the word ‘and’ over and over again, until a more exciting word popped up. But once I started to type, nervously at first, words flowed from me. The blockage had gone. It was painful at first, but the relief was immense. I realised that whilst I may have lost my husband that dreadful Sunday morning in the Caribbean, the Grim Reaper hadn’t stolen my ability to write, or my sense of humour. It felt like a major victory, and it was the first feeling of normality I’d experienced in almost four months.
Planet Grief was always intended to be a private account of my grieving – the loneliness of buying a single Scotch egg or tearfully dragging a slug-infested wheelie bin into the street – but it began to be shared between widowed friends and, eventually, it went public. I was overwhelmed with the response and sense of camaraderie as this ever-increasing community of lost souls struggled to form a new life out of the ashes of our old one.
Although I was approached on several occasions to publish a book based on the blog, it was only recently that I took the step to do so. When Bad Things Happen in Good Bikinis: Life, Death and a Dog Called Boris, is a collection of original ‘grief as it happened’ blog posts, previously unpublished material and new work reflecting on my journey, all peppered with the thoughts and experiences of others who have been bereaved. It has been incredibly painful to look back on those days of raw grief, but, at the same time, I feel I can speak from a position of authenticity when I say to others going through painful times of all types, not just bereavement: Trust me when I promise you that it will get better, that you won’t always feel this bleak, this frightened, this lost. You don’t have to believe me when I tell you this. Just trust me. It will all be OK in the end, I promise you.