Good grief

The Ruth Strauss Foundation, bereavement and how cricket helped me write The Chicken Soup Murder.

In May 2012 I was writing the first draft of my novel, The Chicken Soup Murder, and listening to the cricket, partly because my late husband loved it and I hadn’t given up the habits that tied our old life together, partly because I had decided that the fiction of the novel would unfold in real time and the made-up characters be influenced by real events.

This how it comes about that Death makes a surprise visit to the neighbourhood where young Michael lives on the afternoon of the second day of the first test against the West Indies, while Andrew Strauss is scoring a century at Lord’s.

The Chicken Soup Murder: part I Through the Dog Flap, page 40

In August 2019, seeing so many people wear red at Lord’s for Ruth Strauss Day reminded me how good it is to show solidarity with someone who’s been bereaved. Grieving can be a lonely experience.

The Ruth Strauss Foundation will raise money for research into rare lung cancers and offer support to patients and families. It was set up by her husband, former England captain and opener, Andrew. His two sons rang the bell for start of play. There were smiles, a chance for people to talk about Ruth and what she meant to them; solemnity, but also celebration.

I recognised the wish of someone who’s been bereaved to feel that something good can follow something so difficult and painful.

Like Andrew Strauss, in my early days of grieving – let’s say, the first couple of years – I wanted to do something to somehow ‘makes things better’. In my case that meant giving to Mesothelioma UK, a charity supporting people with cancer caused by asbestos, and their carers and families. Mesothelioma UK also provides valuable training to health workers, something I was keen to make sure the hospital where my husband spent his bewildering last few days would take up, the better to understand the implications of that horrible illness.

Forget-mesothelioma-not badge
Forget-mesothelioma-not badge

Grief had made me very ill and for a long time it was hard to be creative, to lose myself in other worlds. I had to stay where I could feel the threads that bound my late husband to his life, as if letting go of them would mean that he was really gone, perhaps forgotten. My mind kept repeating the trauma of his last few minutes, hours and days; the arguments at the hospital with staff who didn’t understand what was really happening, the false assurances, the early morning call, running through the empty corridors to reach his bedside minutes before he died, touching his hand and finally, when he had taken his last breath and he could no longer feel how his lungs and heart were being squeezed, holding him for the last time in my arms.

The only thing that seemed to ease my pain was setting one foot in front of the other and I was making plans for a long walk – all the way around the coastline of Britain. I thought, perhaps once I’d done that, I might be ready for something else. But things didn’t work out: my old dog was too old to walk many miles. I was homeless and wandering from friend to family to friend. Just before Christmas I was bitten on the hand when I tried to grab the collar of a dog attacking my friend’s dog. After Christmas, in terrible abdominal pain, I was back in hospital for the removal of an enormous ovarian cyst. Through these brushes with mortality, perhaps already in that moment of seeing the bones of my own hand and wondering if I’d ever hold a pen again, I came upon the idea that it might, after all, be preferable to live.

The scar on my right hand is barely visible, but I can still feel it.

Unlike Andrew Strauss, I had no children to look after. I had focused for so long on my husband’s needs that when he died I lost my sense of purpose. At last, when I was able to try again, I decided I would have two main goals in life: to write and be kind.

I was glad for Andrew Strauss that so many people wanted to share in the cause, to show solidarity, and help to raise money. For myself, I make donations, and leave it to others to make up their own minds what they can do. My novel helped me to understand something about grieving by taking it out of my own point of view. I hope it can be a way for others to talk about bereavement too, particularly with young people. I finished my novel, which is a personal achievement. You don’t need to know anything about cricket to appreciate what the rest of the book is about, but it is true that the commentary I listened to in 2012 played its part in helping me to complete the work.

For more on that subject please read, if you feel inclined (it’s not written yet) ‘Cricket in my Soup’.

Do you have experiences of writing or reading stories set in real time?

Do you have recommendations for works of fiction or non fiction helpful to people who are grieving?

Comments are welcome, below.

18 thoughts on “Good grief

  1. Words cannot convey how my heart has gone out to you, Maria. This is such a lovely and heartfelt post. To say it’s a tribute to your ability to find meaning in life and to survive is putting it too mildly. You are a SURVIVOR! I’m glad we have met and that I know you. You are truly an inspiration. Thank you for taking the time to share this touching part of your life’s story. I learned a lot; especially as a reminder to not take loved ones for granted. Here’s wishing you all the best in the future, Maria. You’ve earned it!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you, Jim, that is so kind. It can feel a little dangerous to share these things directly. Sublimating feelings in fiction is relatively safe – and a way of making sense of things. Definitely it’s good to cherish our gifts, our time on earth, our loved ones! More power to you and your writing, Jim. Thanks!

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I thought the way you incorporated cricket into The Chicken Soup Murder was effective, Maria, and now that you’ve shared the background, I understand something of where the power of the writing came from.

    What I’ve read, when I’ve been in dark places, have been books with a strong thread of darkness running through them. Maybe it’s because of that thing you’ve identified, their ability to take me ‘out of my own point of view’.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you, Cath. I know not everyone likes cricket and not everyone who likes cricket enjoys reading fiction but sport itself isn’t so much the point as the way that we take meaning from everyday things. Books with a thread of darkness work for me too. My husband’s way of coping with what was happening was to watch sport and endless episodes of Men Behaving Badly! I still feel grateful to that show and it’s good to remember that Mike could still laugh out loud. Thanks!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh yes, I see how Men Behaving Badly could be part of that strategy. It worked in the same way that your writing did – layering meaning beneath the humour.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Thank you – I like those layers! Every time I see Martin Clunes striding along in Bridport I think, shall I tell him what that meant to us? It was such a comfort. But he’s just out shopping so I haven’t yet!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I so desperately feel for you and can’t imagine that awful grief of losing my own husband in that way and having all those dreadful things to deal with afterwards. In answer to your question, my dad’s last illness did make it almost impossible to write the very thing I wanted to write to entertain him. I wrote instead ever day that my mother, sister and I were waiting with him in intensive care during the last week of his life, as if I were watching other people not myself. Some years later I used that writing. At the time it was simply my means of processing the grief. I cried when I wrote it even though not all of it was sad.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Paula. When Mike was ill I was writing a novel and did a little every day to keep myself sane, but after he died I had to leave it because I was in quite another place. You have a wonderful gift of creativity and fun – I can imagine you wanting to write something to entertain your dad! But those last moments we spend with someone have such weight – we don’t forget. Everything seems sharper. I am glad your writing helped you, as mine helped and still helps me.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Such a wonderful, honest and brave post, Maria. I admire you and the people who have commented because although I lost my dear darling brother when he was fourteen years old, I never reconciled my grief, never shared it with anyone including my parents who were so devastated they couldn’t talk about it. Even to this day, I doubt I will be able to put my sixteen year old self into a story, to explain my feelings of loss and the unjustness of his death. But your words give me courage…thank you.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That is so kind of you to say, Gretchen. It’s a very hard thing to lose a young brother like that and at sixteen you were so young too. Even after all these years it isn’t too late to talk about it – that silence around death is understandable but the pain is still there. It has taken me a long time to write directly about this in such a personal way. I know I still need help – however long ago it was the need may still be there. Also to feel that it still matters though the world has moved on! How you feel does matter and I am glad you have said something about that in your comment. That gives me courage too! Thank you.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. I really appreciate your comments, Maria, and it’s got me thinking. You asked “Do you have recommendations for works of fiction or non fiction helpful to people who are grieving?” and it made me think of my writers group when we were approached to suggest a book for a young child who had lost his father quite suddenly. It was difficult to come up with an age-appropriate book. So this, coupled with your question, makes me think I should tackle the subject, perhaps from the perspective of a teenage girl. One thing I know, it won’t be an easy story for me to write!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Something that being bereaved teaches you is that it brings back memories for other people too. Yes age appropriate recommendations would be so helpful! Sometimes you have to write your own … Good luck if you decide to go ahead. From where you are you’ll understand so much – both what the girl goes through and how to interpret other people’s response or lack of it. I’d read it!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. That’s very encouraging. You make me feel more confident about the idea, Maria. Yes, I agree that reading about bereavement brings back memories for others. When I read something like that it triggers my memories and makes the story more emotional, more personal. I’ll have to work on a draft and maybe scout around for age-related book options. If/when a story comes along, you will get the first copy!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Maria, this piece is so beautifully written and heartrending in its honesty. Your post brings to mind deaths and losses over the years – each with its catalogue of words unspoken, feelings unexpressed. Would written words – fact or fiction – have helped me at the time? I suspect not. I turn away from dark subjects and from anything that might make me think or feel. But later, maybe.

    I’m just over half way through ‘Chicken Soup Murder’. I’m absorbed by the story and by the voices; it’s unlike anything I can remember reading and it will stay with me long after I finish it. Knowing more of the background through which it came to be written which will only make the reading experience all the richer.

    The excerpt you have included in your post is one that I’ve highlighted too. I may not be a cricket fan but the cricket thread (and the 2012 Olympics) ground the book in a very real way for me. It hadn’t occurred to me until this moment that I have my own equivalent from the death of my sister. As we waited in the relatives’ room in the final week of her life, the first London Marathon was televised (1981). I remember it so vividly: life going on whilst she was losing her fight for her own. My sister and the London Marathon are intrinsically linked even now. (I have a similar link with the London Olympics but thankfully with a much better outcome.)

    I applaud your personal fight, Maria, and your courage in drawing on your experiences to help others. ‘Cricket in my Soup’ is a wonderful title: I hope to see it in print one day!


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