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.
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.
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.
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.