Life After You by Lucie Brownlee

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Life After You by Lucie Brownlee

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Category: Autobiography
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Rebecca Foster
Reviewed by Rebecca Foster
Summary: With honesty and humour, Brownlee reconstructs the two years following her husband's sudden death. This Newcastle-based researcher and writer had to navigate emotional milestones and significant anniversaries to find a new life for herself and her daughter.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: September 2015
Publisher: Virgin Books
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9780753555842

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It was February 2012 when Brownlee's husband Mark, age 37, dropped dead in the middle of sex. They were staying at her mother's house in advance of her grandmother's funeral and trying to conceive their second child. Four years earlier Mark had suffered an aortic dissection, but his health had been stable since. Although there was little doubt in her mind that Mark died instantly, she performed CPR while her three-year-old watched from the doorway, then called the police. Almost before she knew it, they were all in the midst of planning a second family funeral: discussing flower arrangements, cremation and charity donations. How did it come to this?

The early parts of the book are written in a matter-of-fact, even detached style, perhaps mirroring Brownlee's numbness. 'I was unable to summon any sympathy, even for the grandma I dearly loved,' she remembers. 'Five days in, and already grief had begun to calcify my emotional response.' Two things that might have contributed to closure didn't help at all: going back to their home in North Yorkshire to collect belongings only showed how relics of Mark were everywhere, and a trip to the hospital in Oxford where he'd had surgery didn't turn up anyone to blame; Mark's cause of death was arrhythmia and couldn't have been prevented.

As the months passed and significant anniversaries came and went – Easter, their daughter's birthday, their wedding anniversary, what would have been Mark's birthday, one year since his death, and so on – Brownlee tried to change her life in positive ways. She sold their Yorkshire house and found somewhere in a village close to her mother and sister in Newcastle; she also started a PhD on Mary Callery, an American artist who was part of Picasso's milieu. Yet she felt guilty that the money for her course was received upon Mark's death.

In her everyday life, she was not coping well with grief. Recreational drinking had turned into a bottle of wine per night habit, and even with a counsellor and group bereavement sessions she struggled with weight loss and panic attacks. Prozac and a puppy only helped a bit. Brownlee was also getting something of a reputation as a man-eater: surprised by her lust for the manly plumber, she'd struck up a no-strings-attached sexual relationship.

Whether they'd known Mark or not, people avoided mentioning him. 'It was a phenomenon which I came to accept as normality. No one talked about him, ever. I wasn't sure why that was. If it was for fear of upsetting me, they needn't have worried – I was already upset. Really, it couldn't get any worse.' This book is by no means a formula for getting through grief; it is one woman's experience, told frankly but with all the humour she can muster. There is no endpoint to her grief, but after two years things are noticeably easier.

My sister is still a new widow, so I read this expecting it to resonate with her situation, and it certainly does. I have two issues with the book, though. One is that, in referring to Mark, it is always 'He,' 'Him' and 'His.' That capitalising convention is generally used to refer to God, so it doesn't seem appropriate here. The other is the title and marketing. When originally published by Virgin last year, the book had the title Me After You. That's been changed to sound a little less like a Jojo Moyes novel, but the cover is more chick lit than ever, which doesn't really match the contents of the book. (It's informal and conversational, yes, but doesn't deserve to be accidentally shelved with women's fiction.) Even so, the title incorrectly suggests that Mark will be addressed directly in the second person.

I would recommend this to widows but also to anyone who enjoys reading memoirs about significant life events. Brownlee stresses that you never know how you'll react to something until it actually happens to you. She is refreshingly forthcoming about the mistakes she made along the way and the fact that grief is an ongoing and unpredictable process. You won't be able to read this without feeling more compassion for people who have to deal with loss on a daily basis.

We also have a review of Me After You by Lucie Brownlee.

Further reading suggestion: In fiction, try The Valentine's Card by Juliet Ashton; for non-fiction, we recommend Tips From Widows by Jan Robinson.

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