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North East author Lucie Brownlee shares her experiences of sudden bereavement

She wasn’t prepared for widowhood and it hit her hard but Lucie Brownlee's written experiences have struck a chord with many, as David Whetstone has been finding out

Lucie Brownlee
Lucie Brownlee

Lucie Brownlee has been studying creative writing and her first book is published this week. She will be signing copies of it on Saturday in a branch of Waterstone’s where she used to work. So this is a happy story, right?

Well, it is and it isn’t.

In February 2012, Lucie’s husband died suddenly. Mark was only 37. The couple had been married since 2006 and two years later they had a little girl. They had everything to live for and were very much in love. In fact, they were making love when Mark died suddenly.

“He crashed onto the pillow next to me, heavy as a felled oak,” she recalls in the book. His last words to her had been: “You’ve still got your socks on!”

As you can see, this is intensely personal stuff. Not everyone would have felt the urge to share it even with family members. But Lucie poured her feelings and her experiences of young widowhood into a blog which became the inspiration for the book, Me After You: A True Story About Love, Loss and Other Disasters.

Her blog, Wife After Death, won an award (best personal blog at the Blog North Awards) and alerted newspapers. Virgin are publishing the book and an extract was published at the weekend in one of the Sunday supplements.

The book will be in the shops by the weekend but the blog, it seems, has already struck a chord with other women who have been widowed suddenly and unexpectedly.

Mark and Lucie with their daughter in 2011
Mark and Lucie with their daughter in 2011
 

Lucie, who lives in County Durham with her six-year-old daughter – called simply B in the book – came into the office to recall the worst day of her life and was funny and chatty and smiled a lot. I don’t know what I expected. Bereavement can be tricky territory.

Lucie said: “When it happened I found myself completely isolated. None of your friends are going through it or want to talk about it. You don’t want to talk about death when you’re in your 30s and getting married and starting families.

“All the literature I read about bereavement and grief was dull... now the first stage is this and the next stage is that. This just didn’t reflect my experience at all.

“In the first few weeks I went crazy because I was in total shock.”

In her book Lucie recalls the immediate aftermath of Mark’s death and trying to justify to herself and to concerned family members why she wasn’t crying and “trying to summon up the feelings I thought I was supposed to have.

“I repeated the mantra, Mark is dead, and waited for the moment when I would collapse. Nothing.”

As well as the concerned relations there was the official business to deal with, the funeral directors, the requests for birth, death and marriage certificates, the mobile phone providers and the insurance companies.

To me Lucie recalled the times when she drowned her sorrows in wine and the “moments of gut-wrenching pain, physical pain, and moments of complete impotence”.

Talking to a counsellor, she learned that the ‘stage one, stage two...’ approach to coping with bereavement was only part of the story. Drinking a bit too much and sleeping with inappropriate men are not uncommon responses, she learned.

“What I’ve realised is there are no rules,” said Lucie.

“I am a writer but I couldn’t write a word in the first year after Mark died. I couldn’t put a coherent sentence together but then I thought I would start this blog and it took over. It really resonated with people who seemed to appreciate the rawness of it.

“I found I was wanting to post two or three times a day. I had so much I wanted to say and it was great to get responses from people who thought I wasn’t going crazy and wasn’t some kind of deviant. People appreciated it and I – sounds a terribly American thing – found it cathartic.”

Mark and Lucie enjoying each other's company on the beach
Mark and Lucie enjoying each other's company on the beach
 

Lucie grew up in Newcastle and went to Gosforth High School followed by Lancaster University where she studied theatre studies and French. Afterwards she went to France for a couple of years and then stuck a pin in a map to see where in Britain she should return to.

Bristol got the pinprick and that was where Lucie got the job in Waterstone’s. At least she was in a world of books. “I always wanted to write and I always have written (she has had short stories shortlisted in competitions) but you never think it’ll come to anything. Why would anyone want to read anything I’ve written?”

Lucie returned to the North East and was doing some temping when she met Mark through mutual friends. They were in a bar. “He had this amazing smile which really lit up his face. It was one of those love-at-first-sight moments but we really hit it off.

“We both loved languages and abroad and we both hated music after 1989.”

Mark was from Sunderland, Lucie from Newcastle. “All my friends are football fans but Mark wasn’t into football so it didn’t matter.”

They went travelling for a bit and then got married. Mark worked for GCHQ which took the couple to Cheltenham where Lucie did an MA in creative writing.

Three months after B was born, when Lucie was in the North East staying with her mother, there was a scare when Mark failed to turn up for work.

He was doing night shifts and Lucie, having failed to get a response when she called just before he was due to leave for work, was hit by a feeling of “cold dread”. His boss found that Mark had been taken to hospital and then transferred to a specialist unit in Oxford.

He had suffered a heart condition known as an aortic dissection. He was just 33 with no history of heart trouble.

It was a horribly worrying time but Mark recovered. “They said he’d been fixed up and to go and enjoy the rest of our lives,” recalled Lucie.

The couple moved back up north and Mark got a GCHQ job in Yorkshire. Lucie, having enjoyed her MA course, embarked on a PhD at Newcastle University and got on with the job of motherhood.

Then came the fateful day.

An evening’s TV viewing had been planned, some beer was cooling in the kitchen and Lucie and Mark popped to bed. Not long afterwards Lucie was screaming – “I must have been screaming but I don’t remember” – and her daughter, who had been asleep, woke up and appeared at the door.

Recalls Lucie in print: “I told her the ultimate adult lie; that everything was all right.”

Lucie knew everything wasn’t all right but even when the paramedics got to work on Mark’s chest, she was telling herself it was going to be fine.

“They were up there for 40 minutes and then one of them came down and said, ‘We’re just going to try one last thing’ and ran out to the ambulance. Even that didn’t really register. I thought he was going to have to go through the whole hospital thing again.

“But there were all these bleeps from machinery and suddenly they stopped. The paramedics stood on the stairs and the head guy said, ‘Mark’s died’, and I just said, ‘Right’. You imagine someone throwing up their hands like in EastEnders but I just stood there.

“Then you get swept up into the whole thing with the funeral directors. The whole thing does seem extremely weird... farcical.”

Me After You, Lucie Brownlee's memoir about life after Mark
Me After You, Lucie Brownlee's memoir about life after Mark
 

Lucie was told Mark had suffered a catastrophic arrhythmia. “Scar tissue had built up around his heart. I went down (to Oxford) with my dad wanting to attribute blame but they said they’d done a scan of his heart in November and this was February.”

For Lucie, there was no comfort to be found in religion or in the language of bereavement, the ‘rest in peace’ and ‘he’s in a better place now’. Lucie felt Mark would have been furious to think he would die at 37.

But the close family – Lucie has a brother and sister – rallied round. The ups and downs of the last two years have been charted in the blog and the book starts the day after Mark died.

Lucie has gained strength from the blog and the responses to it. She said: “I’ve had messages from women in their 60s saying, ‘I completely relate to this’.”

On the other hand, she was honest enough to admit that not all on Mark’s side of the family were entirely comfortable with her decision to go public. As Lucie has found, there is no single way of coping with grief that suits everybody.

Through writing about widowhood, Lucie has struck up a particular friendship with a man whom she calls Jamie in her book.

She also calls him “my friend who’s a boy” rather than her boyfriend. His girlfriend died 10 years ago. Both he and Lucie understand that in some relationships there are unseen people whose significance can never be wholly supplanted.

  • Me After You by Lucie Brownlee is published by Virgin at £11.99. Lucie will be signing copies at Waterstone’s, Emerson Chambers, Newcastle, on Saturday from 12.30-2.30pm.

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