The fog of grief and misery was finally lifted by the sight of snowdrops

Steph Booth: ‘After Tony’s death, I gave up on my garden but my garden did not give up on me’

Steph Booth, widow of Tony Booth, and a former Irish Times columnist. Photograph: Tessa Kerr

As Tony became increasingly frail, I would, in odd moments, allow my brain to reflect on what it would mean to be a widow.

A strange thing to do, but I thought I might be able to prepare myself.

On reflection, I can see it was just one more of the slightly crazy places stress can take you whilst you are convincing yourself you are being rational, even normal.

In reality, I knew then nothing can prepare you for the reality of grief.


Tony was 24 years older than me, so in the natural course of things he was likely to die first. It was still a dreadful shock when he died even though I had watched as our GP administered end-of-life drugs to Tony, who then never regained consciousness. I did not cry when he died. The tears were there in my chest and throat and pricking my eyes, but they did not make it any further. It would be almost a year after Tony’s death before I finally broke down and really sobbed. I wanted to cry, I thought it might help, but I can see now that for some bizarre reason embarrassment, or self-consciousness, prevented me.

Was I going to cry because that was what I was expected to do, or because I wanted to?

And why was I even worrying about any of this?

That is one of the unexpected things I discovered. It seemed everyone had a take on it and their own, usually well-intentioned, ideas about how I should behave. I found myself increasingly resentful of this invasion of my most personal space. It was as if other people were trying to inhabit my grief. I struggled to deal with the tension between my need to cope, my grief and other people’s expectations, without managing any of it.

My garden has always been my source of inner peace, but at this moment even that failed me. I lost any interest, preferring to watch, with an almost masochistic satisfaction, as the chaos from the neglect of Tony’s last few weeks of life and the continuing neglect into winter, reflected my inner turmoil and pain. I can remember how surprised I was by the speed at which a garden can run out of control. I had put so much effort into creating the garden, my gift to Tony, to us and still he had died. None of my deals with God, or any other deity, had worked. I was too tired, too angry and nothing seemed worth the effort any more. It turned out I could not save him.

Steph Booth with her husband Tony on Alnmouth beach in Northumberland. north-eastern England. Photographer: George Skipper

Of course, writing my book was a fantastic excuse for clinging to a solitary existence. I carried out the day-to-day business such as shopping and meetings, but I virtually stopped going out otherwise. I could justify my choices by claiming I was on a roll with my work and did not want to stop. I might lose my thread. Deadlines were another great reason for having no time to do anything other than write.

Zoo out in my garden

Meanwhile, I continued to ignore my garden as diligently as I sought to avoid a social life. Any advice on creating a wildlife garden usually includes suggesting not tidying up too much in late autumn, leaving flower heads for birds to feed on and leaves and twigs for small mammals to burrow into. I imagine, on that basis, there was a positive zoo out in my garden over the winter of 2017-18.

If I did not fall asleep fairly quickly after settling into bed, I often found myself watching the clock move past two and sometimes three o'clock in the morning

My grief made sleeping difficult, something that had not troubled me before. If I did not fall asleep fairly quickly after settling into bed, I often found myself watching the clock move past two and sometimes three o’clock in the morning. My mind would meander into its gloomiest recesses as I recalled all the awful times I had endured in my life.

Of course, all the good things and happy, loving memories did not feature in this nocturnal self-flagellation. The brutality of Tony’s illness, and dementia is utterly brutal, had brought me low. I blamed myself for everything even, as I knew this was illogical. Surely, this would only have happened to us because I was not a good enough human being.

I was caught in a vicious circle of lack of sleep and being too tired to eat. The self-neglect which had really gripped me during the the last few weeks of Tony’s life continued – although the diet of tea and toast for every meal was occasionally varied with a supper of a packet of crisps and a bag of Haribo Star mix.

Wine in the evening was also helpful, especially as my anxiety about not being able to sleep increased. I know I was lucky this did not become an increasing habit. Even at the point of my greatest dependency, it would take me at least three nights to drink a bottle, but I was drinking every night. I was angry with Tony for leaving me and this was my way of showing him just what he had done.

The fog of misery did gradually dissipate, but not yet for anything more positive. I missed him and would have given anything to have him back, even for a moment. But then another part of me knew, with complete certainty, we needed to have a blazing row. Yelling at him would be a release from the misery.

I believed I had nothing to look forward to. As yet, my book held no promise beyond being tied to a computer screen trying to make sense of what had happened to Tony and me. I hoped desperately telling our story might help others in the same situation.

As spring approached, I regretted not filling pots with tulip bulbs – something I usually did every autumn

As spring approached, I regretted not filling pots with tulip bulbs – something I usually did every autumn. They are such a beautiful reminder of good things to come, but my full-on self-destruct mode had prevented me from doing such a simple, life-enhancing task. Then I spotted the snowdrops in my garden. I have always loved their spare, elegant simplicity. They were showing me that although I had given up on my garden, my garden had not given up on me. I had to return to it and clear away the winter detritus to allow these little flowers to demonstrate their full glory. Goodness, how twee does that sound – claiming to be rescued by snowdrops?

Kickstart I needed

But it was the kickstart I needed. I could save my garden. It was the first step in learning to regrow my life and being able to forgive Tony. The hard physical exercise of gardening cleared my mind, forced me to start eating properly which, in turn, upped my energy levels. My sleep patterns improved. I fell in love with my garden again.

Steph and Tony Booth in 2006. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

I also completed my book, which felt like another milestone on the booby-trapped road that is grief. Booby-trapped because I miss him, but understand I probably always will. Booby-trapped because I can still be caught out by hearing a snatch of song; being in a crowd and suddenly smelling Tony’s aftershave; someone who for a brief moment looks like him. But the pain that would have once induced is gradually giving way to a smile of remembrance and a recognition that he is still around and with me as I reconnect with my other passions.

I was recently in Cornwall taking part in the literary festival in Fowey. On one of the days I was down there, I went to the Lost Garden of Heligan – somewhere I have wanted to visit for ages. Naturally, I had to look at the plants that were for sale. I was hoping to find a camellia, but their season was over. What there was were four rhododendrons, three of one type and just one of another.

When I looked at the label of the single one it was called, ‘Grumpy’ – Tony’s nickname.

The name he would use to sign cards and gifts to me. I bought him and brought him home and he is now back in our garden.

The circle is complete.

Life does go on.