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‘My husband’s ashes are still unscattered, but we’re doing OK’

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When Sophie Townsend’s husband, Russell, died in 2012 she was overcome with grief, but as the mother of two young children she had to keep going. Here she describes the new life she began at the age of 39, a single parent and widow slowly “re-entering the world” – and becoming OK.

Byron Bay, on the north coast of New South Wales, Australia, is a magical place – it’s hard to describe without sounding like a holiday brochure, but the crystal-clear water, the stretches of white sand, the lush rainforest – well, that’s just the way it is.

It’s 2013, a year since my husband died, and when I first think of the trip to Byron, it’s to scatter his ashes.

Right now, they’re in the ugly plastic container they came in from the crematorium. He grew up near Byron, and I think that the girls and I could scatter them in the ocean. But when I’m packing the car, I can’t do it. It’s a 10-hour trip up the coast from Sydney, and I hate the idea of him being so far away.

And so we go without them. It’s just a holiday, a way to unwind – walking barefoot on the sand, floating in the sea. A little bit of rest and relaxation in this place we love.

We spend most days on Main Beach, where there are crowds of surfers and it’s an easy walk to fish and chip shops and ice creameries. But on our last day I tell the girls I’d like to go to Wategos Beach. Poppy and Bear, now aged nine and 11, are unenthusiastic about Wategos, but it’s the beach I love best – it’s where their dad took me on our first ever holiday together. And it was where he and I sat at the edge of the surf with them, building castles in the sand, letting the tide overwhelm our sand-sculptures. The girls would squeal, their little legs carrying them up the beach, chased by the ever-diminishing tide.

They indulge me, and there we are, diving under the waves – me and my girls, letting the ocean do what it does best, washing away worries, holding us, allowing us to relax into its rhythm.

I come up from under a wave and I feel it now – the rip current – a channel of fast-moving water pulling us out from shore. Bear and Poppy have been pulled away from me, and they’re trying to swim back. I can see them, struggling, being pulled further away from safety. So I shout at them, not to panic, to just keep swimming sideways. The worst thing you can do is try to get into the shore – you’ll always lose that battle, so you need to keep calm, conserve your energy, keep breathing. I see them go under, bob up, and I can’t believe I missed the danger signs, and I wonder how this happened, so fast, and I keep yelling, “Don’t panic!” But it’s clear that this is very, very dangerous.

Poppy, the youngest, is nearest to me, and she makes it into my arms. Bear keeps paddling, but the current keeps pushing her away. There she goes again, under, and up, and under, and I signal to her to keep her hand up in the air, and a wave pushes Poppy and me towards the jagged rocks. And it seems that we could be safe here – if we could scramble up, we’d be all right, but we’re pummelled, over and over, beaten against the rocks. I try to put my body between Poppy and the sharp edges, try to lift her over my head and on to the rock shelf, but I’m not strong enough, and Bear has disappeared from view.

A voice. “I got you, let’s get in. Just hold on.”

I say, “But my girl, my other girl, she’s…”

But he keeps his focus. He swims through the water, us clinging on, gets us on to the sand.

And there she is, there’s Bear, spluttering and shivering, and the three of us sit, panting, crying, relieved.

I thank the guy who saved us, and he shrugs, embarrassed by my gratitude. I take the girls back to our rented apartment, for our last night before the drive back home. And despite the terrible stove and the banged-up pots, I cook a meal, and we eat together.

We’re enjoying sitting together, talking. Poppy is retelling the story of what she’s calling our near-death experience. She has a keen sense of drama, and re-enacts the whole thing for us, with spluttering and hand-waving, as her sister, so very cool, rolls her eyes.

It feels that this simple meal, the three of us eating together, is something special, something new. It’s something about survival, I guess.

I haven’t cooked them dinner in such a long time. This year, the first one after their father died, they have also lost their mother. Bits of their mother, anyway.

When Russell was diagnosed with lung cancer we said we’d keep the girls’ lives as normal as possible. It was a crazy idea really – there’s nothing normal about cancer, nothing at all. Watching your father get sicker, thinner, more reliant on morphine to relieve the pain is not normal. Watching your mother trying to hold it together, trying not to cry in front of you, saying something cheerful as she hands your father his afternoon dose of morphine, is not normal either.

He died in February, on a hot, muggy Sydney day, nine months after he was diagnosed. Sitting by your father’s side, watching him die, as your mother screams, as the world seems to fade to black – that’s not normal.

In that first year after his death, I was so wounded, and it was the girls who felt it. They looked to me to make it better. In that first year, there were so many things I didn’t know how to do. I had to learn how to pay all the bills for the electricity and the gas because they’d always been in his name. I had to work out how to get the house clean and tidy without his help. In the first winter after he died, I didn’t even know how to get the heating working – Russell had a special trick for getting the pilot light on, so we lived for weeks, cold and miserable. Mostly, I didn’t know how to hold them, how to make them feel better.

I haven’t made them a proper meal for so long because, in all the grief, I forgot how. So a bowl of pasta, slightly overcooked, with a sauce that is really not my best, felt like a feast. It felt like a first step. Just a few days after the first anniversary of Russell’s death, we started to re-enter the world.

Find out more

Losing the thing you are most sure of and coming out the other side.

Re-entry is not smooth. There are plenty of good days, but bad ones too. They argue with each other, each of them argues with me. There’s still a lot of silence in the house, not quite enough laughter. I wake up crying sometimes, and there are times I look at my girls, and that sadness in their eyes is more than I can stand. But in the winter after the first anniversary, I manage to get the heating working, and we have a system now for dinner – I cook most nights, but I’m teaching them a few simple meals, and we sit together, and eat, and talk about our day, and we try to feel OK that there’s three of us, not four.

The night before Poppy turns 11, a few months after the second anniversary of her dad’s death, I have it together enough to make cupcakes for her to take in for her class. It’s a triumph; a symbol that life is on an even(ish) keel.

In the morning, we walk into the school, through the gate and into the playground, carefully carrying the tray of cakes. She says goodbye to me hurriedly, doesn’t want me to linger, because it’s her birthday and she wants to be with her friends, to share cake and tell them about her presents. I watch her walk into her class, the other kids gathering round her and her bounty, and I get that stab of loneliness that I’ve been getting so often lately. It happens at the oddest times, like at school drop-off, or when Bear says she’s busy with her friends and can’t come to the movies with me. Bear’s 13 now, in her second year of high school. She barely comes out of her room these days.

I love the girls desperately, but as they grow up, they keep moving away from me. I want something else, someone else. I want someone to ask about my day, hold me at night. I’m scared of doing anything about it, but I’m also scared not to, because this loneliness keeps getting worse. I am persuaded to try internet dating, and I don’t take to it. I complain to a friend that one of the men matched with me says he’s passionate about tropical fish. She asks why on Earth that’s a problem – surely it’s impossible to dislike someone just because they like tropical fish?

“It’s the being passionate,” I tell her. “Like it’s world peace or something.” She frowns at me, and when I tell her that no-one in the world of online dating uses inverted commas correctly, she takes me to a bar.

I meet someone, and I like the way he smiles. In the crush of people and the noise of the band, a smile, a joke, something warm and natural without the involvement of fish or misplaced apostrophes, hits me hard. We talk and laugh and the loneliness has gone, for now. It feels like enough, because really, I want so little, need this so much, that I’ll take what I can get. And take it I do – way too much, way too fast.

After a few weeks, I begin to imagine the girls meeting him. They’ll love him, I know it. He’ll love them. He tells me he’s worried about meeting them too soon, wants to wait. But I’m sure it will be all right. I want him to know them, for them to know him, because I think he’ll make them happy. He makes me happy, I think, so why wait?

I tell him I love him. And he winces. It’s way too much, way too fast.

And I’m alone again, and it feels like pressing on a bruise – that pain you have that’s just vague enough not to worry about too much, until you apply pressure, and for that moment, the pain gets so sharp, and so real, it takes your breath away. That’s what it’s like, in the wake of the first failed love affair, in the absence of someone to love me, in the absence of Russell.

As you move on from death, and from that intense grief and shock, the way you feel doesn’t get better in a measurable, straightforward trajectory. It has got better, mostly. The friends and family that kept me together and sane still keep me together and sane. I’m better at seeing my girls move through the world, increasingly without my help – they’re young women now, after-all – Bear is 20, Poppy 17.

Then I hear his favourite song on the radio in a boutique, while I’m trying on a pair of jeans, and I can’t move. The sales assistant knocks on the door to see how I’m going and I can’t speak. Another day, quite out of nowhere, I remember the way he looked in a crisp white shirt and I fall apart. There are nights when I’m putting out the garbage and I’m furious that he’s not here to help.

But there are moments when I think about a joke he once told, and it makes me laugh.

His ashes are still in the ugly plastic container from the crematorium. He would have hated me spending lots of money on a nice urn, and I don’t know where we’d scatter them – everywhere feels too far away. I had thought of scattering them in our garden, but just as I’d made up my mind to do it, the back wall came down in a storm, and after the clean-up and rebuild, it all felt too hard.

People ask me if I’m OK being single, but I don’t feel very single at all. I have the girls, my dog, my family and friends. I’m dug into the place where I live, and I walk in the park and to coffee with neighbours, and it’s OK. It’s more than OK. Sometimes I dream he’s alive and I wake up, shocked not to find him there. But then I remember. I remember going to specialists, getting the news. I remember the way his skin got so pale, the way he got so thin. I remember the breath he took, the last one, so guttural and strange.

But I remember the good things too. There’s an awful lot of good things to remember, and a lot to look forward to, and in between, I’m OK.

The children’s names, Bear and Poppy, are pseudonyms

Illustrated by Katie Horwich

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