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At first I thought my husband was playing the fool, then I lost sight of him and my world began to fall apart

Published 31/10/2015

Helen and Boris the dog at home
Helen and Boris the dog at home
Helen with husband JS, who died in Barbados
Helen with her partner Ian

After the tragic deaths of Holywood couple John and Lynette Rodgers, who drowned while on honeymoon in South Africa a week ago, author Helen Bailey recalls how she watched from the beach as her own husband perished in the sea on a Caribbean holiday.

There was nothing remarkable about how the morning of Sunday, February 27, 2011 began. OK, I woke up in Barbados instead of my home town of London, but although my body was on holiday, my brain had not yet adapted to the more relaxed surroundings of the Caribbean, and it buzzed with its usual anxieties: I've got a sore throat; I can feel a zit coming up; how are the dog's bowels?

Looking back, I could weep that, while I was frantically gargling with TCP and stressing over what flip-flops to wear, the final countdown to my husband's death had started: both of us unaware that a terrible life-changing event was hurtling our way.

The trip to Barbados was a break we both badly needed, and we'd booked it at my suggestion.

A workaholic, John (known as JS) had run a successful character licensing agency for 30 years. But changing markets had damaged the business and it was struggling to survive. He was tired, bitter and withdrawn, unwilling or unable to talk to me about his problems. I was tired of living in silence.

As the holiday approached, I began to panic that nothing would change, other than the presence of a few palm trees, and we'd feel like strangers in paradise. But my fears were unfounded.

Taking a sip of his first rum punch as we sat sheltering from a tropical downpour, JS looked at me over his cocktail umbrella and said in a Mockney accent, "It's good 'ere, innit?"

I laughed, partly because it was so funny to hear him talk that way, but also from relief that we'd done the right thing by escaping. A few days later, I looked across at him reading on his sunbed and reflected that I'd been worrying about nothing.

He was relaxed and happy, the man I had known and loved for over 20 years. He saw me looking. "Why didn't I meet you 40 years ago?" he teased. I reminded him that, given he was 19 years older than me, if we had been romantically involved 40 years ago he would have been locked away.

Over breakfast that Sunday, we discussed the day ahead. We had a reservation for lunch on the other side of the island, so the plan was to read on the beach for an hour and then take a leisurely drive over. I wasn't going to go swimming because I didn't want to get my hair wet, but JS planned to take a dip.

And it was then that I noticed Mike, a guest we'd met earlier in the week, sitting beside the pool, his shins thick with surgical dressings. I went over to speak to him. He told me that he'd been swimming in the sea, had got caught in a current and crashed into a rock. "The currents can be strong out there," he warned. Looking at the calm turquoise water in front of us, it seemed hard to believe.

We'd been reading on the beach for half an hour or so when JS announced that he was going for a swim. I was unhappy and reminded him of Mike's warning about the strong currents. "I'll be fine," he said dismissively. "I won't go out very far."

As he climbed off his sunbed and walked past the beach attendant, I felt uneasy, enough to shout after him, "Be careful! I mean it!" jabbing my finger in his direction.

I was more embarrassed that I had shrieked like a nagging fishwife, than concerned for his safety.

What follows next has been replayed in my mind thousands of times, like a home movie on a continuous loop.

I know what happens, I know the outcome, but it doesn't stop me from pleading: "Don't go into the water!" It reminds me of the CCTV footage of Princess Diana leaving the Ritz Hotel in Paris on the night of her death; whenever I see her approach those revolving doors I still beg her not to get in the car. I know she will, but I hope she won't.

I watched as JS strolled across the sand, flexed his shoulders, adjusted his shorts and walked into the sea. Still anxious, I left my sunbed and sat on a low wall next to the beach, watching. I was distracted by a hotel guest who started talking to me about microwaveable meals. I remember him saying, "Ping! Ping!" My husband was about to die and I was on a beach, in a bikini, listening to a man doing an impression of a microwave.

A shout went up: "I think there's a man in trouble in the water!"

I looked up and saw someone out to sea, way beyond the cordoned safe swimming area, waving their arms as they shouted for help, over and over again. It was my husband.

At first, I thought he was playing the fool, teasing me, that the people who were bravely plunging into the water to go to his aid were wasting their time, and that he would feel foolish that his joke had backfired. Then his arms fell forward, I lost sight of him, and my world began to implode.

My memory from that point is a swirling mass of scenes: of men running into the sea; being hugged tightly by a woman who told me that God knew what was best for me. I remember a jet ski bringing my husband to the shore and me running into the water to meet it and seeing JS, blue and unconscious.

There was a fleeting moment's relief when, pummelled and punched, JS vomited water and briefly regained his colour, only for his face to turn the terrifying blue of cyanosis.

I remember the CPR that was carried out on the beach while I tickled his feet and shouted the names of his children to try to bring him round, but I can't tell you what time this happened, or for how long. What I can tell you is that during the terrifying ambulance ride to hospital, I knew deep down that pumping his chest and shocking his heart was futile, that there was no way back for JS's poor waterlogged lungs and oxygen-starved brain.

At the hospital, my husband was taken one way and I was led another, ushered into a soulless side room clutching my beach bag, still wearing my bikini and flip-flops. I didn't have to wait long before a grim-faced doctor came in. "He's dead, isn't he?" I asked. "I'm so sorry," the doctor replied.

Nothing prepares you for crash-landing on Planet Grief 3,000 miles from home, in a bikini. For the flashbacks, for the terrifying first night after death, for the panic attacks that send you running in terror and the nightmares that wake you up and make you too scared to sleep.

There were days when I prayed to die, times when I couldn't bear to live. But the human spirit is remarkably resilient, and as I write in my memoir, eventually I scrabbled out of the pit of grief, forever scarred, but a survivor with a strength of spirit I never knew I had.

To anyone who is reading this who despairs that they will never live, love or laugh again after loss, you will.

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.

  • When Bad Things Happen in Good Bikinis by Helen Bailey is out now, €13.50 (Blink Publishing). Helen's blog is planetgrief.com

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