Lost in the black hole of grief

They were in love: a perfect, gilded couple. Then disaster struck and Jeremy felt his life had ended. But he survived to make a film about his murdered wife. By John Crace

John Crace
Wednesday 07 August 1996 23:02 BST

"Grief is something you cannot ignore. Everyone has to deal with the death of someone close to them at some point, and the sense of loss that comes with it is the most powerful, life-changing event that any of us is likely to experience. Yet no one prepares you for how much it is going to hurt, or for how long. It is as if grief is the big secret no one must know about."

Jeremy Howe should know what he is talking about. Four years ago, his wife, Lizzie, a 34-year-old academic, was murdered in her room at York University, where she was teaching at an Open University summer school, by a student named Robin Pask, who was later diagnosed as suffering from a mental illness. Howe, who was then working as drama editor for Radio 3, found his life transformed overnight.

"On the Saturday morning I could survey our lives and there was a recognisable landscape with signposts and maps; by the end of the weekend, it was as if I was standing on a bleak mountainside and in front there was an uncharted, trackless plain which I had no idea how to cross. There was no future."

Still, Howe and his two daughters, Jessica and Lucy, now aged eight and 10, have survived. Two years ago, he took a job with BBC Bristol as producer for their new directors' series 10 x 10, and he has now directed his first film, A Moving Image, which is an exploration of his own grief. His aim had been to get away from the sanitised versions of grief that typically appear in the psychology and mental health sections of bookshops, where a detached observer explains the processes of grief - shock, denial, anger, sadness, acceptance - and to show what it was like to be in grief.

In spite of this, he hadn't intended to produce anything quite so personal. "My original plan was to make a list of people who had experienced grief and to interview them," he says. "Then I realised there was no point talking to other people to get the experience that I had been through."

Up until Lizzie's death, Howe had enjoyed a traditional, sheltered, middle- class lifestyle. In fact, to many, he and Lizzie had seemed to be the "gilded couple". They had met and fallen in love at Oxford, had two adorable children and both seemed destined for successful high-profile careers. It was all so reassuringly normal that Howe had no inkling of how dramatically his relationships would change.

"I had always got on really well with Lizzie's family and I do again now, but in the immediate aftermath of her death things became extremely rocky. Grief is single-minded and destructive and it pulls people apart. It felt as though I was being hit by shock wave after shock wave of emotion, and I was just hanging on to survive.

"It was the same for Lizzie's family. We all thought that no one understood how bad it was for us, and no one had anything much to give anyone else."

Howe's emotions were further confused by his desire and need to look after and protect his children. After he returned from York, where he identified Lizzie's body, his first feeling was one of relief that he had got back too late to tell the children.

Even the next morning, he pretended everything was OK, until after breakfast, when he took the children out into the garden to break the news. That afternoon, all three wept uncontrollably while watching a ballet video the children had seen the day before - a symbolic return to a time when the children believed all was well.

At first, Howe tried to kid himself that he was coping, but he soon got very clear signs that he wasn't. "I felt under so much pressure that I thought my body was going to disintegrate. I started behaving irrationally. In retrospect, it seems obvious that it was right for Jessica and Lucy to go to their mother's funeral, but at the time I wasn't at all sure.

"It also became increasingly difficult to deal with the children's grief. Jessica really needed to talk to her mother, and at night she would say her prayers and would then ask God if she could talk to Mummy to tell her about her day. This could go on for up to half an hour, and I found it so unbearably painful that I was often tempted to get her to stop."

A sense of normality started to return when Howe was referred to a psychologist, Dr John Hall.

"He brought me down to an altitude at which I could start to breathe again," says Howe. "He was brilliant at helping me to cope with the everyday things that seemed beyond me, such as shopping, cooking, and thinking about half-term and Christmas, and he absorbed my trauma by repeating that these things happen. When I told him that my grief felt like an infinite black hole which was swallowing up my whole life, he said, 'The hole may be huge or it may be small, but let's define it. You may want to look in or you may want to ring-fence it.' "

One area that you sense Howe has chosen to ring-fence is his feelings towards his wife's killer. He claims that Robin Pask means nothing to him, but, when pressed, admits that if he allowed himself really to think about it he would go mad with anger and despair. For the most part, though, Howe has looked deep into the black hole and come through intact. One of the hardest things for him to come to terms with is that his love for Lizzie continues and cannot be reciprocated, and he has struggled to find a way in which she could come back to life for him.

"It was almost as though she could only exist in snapshots in my mind, and I wanted to be able to see her move - the moving image of the film's title. I thought that the manner of her death was so shocking that it was blocking her coming back to me. So I decided that if I confronted this by going back to the room where she was killed, it might happen. But it didn't. The room was more disturbing than I could possibly have imagined. It was immeasurably empty - not violent, not peaceful - and there was no sign of any life. Maybe I was asking too much. Catharsis is something that happens in Greek tragedy, not real life."

Curiously, Lizzie comes across as a very vital presence in his film, as someone who informs rather than infects his life. Howe agrees that it is the process of making the film as much as the content itself that has helped him towards the resolution he had been searching for. "I had to impose a structure on the film, and this helped me to give some shape to the mess. And once things are in some kind of order, you can move on."

The past four years have changed Howe profoundly. He feels that he has lost his sense of fun, he worries about his capacity to be both father and mother to his children, and he still misses Lizzie - often most intensely at the more routine moments of the day, such as getting the children ready for bed.

But it has not been unremitting gloom. Howe has experienced mood swings, now and then even feeling something like exhilaration, and one of his greatest fears - that Jessica's and Lucy's childhood would be over - has not materialised.

Shortly before Lizzie was killed, Howe was scheduled to produce Marlowe's The Jew of Malta. When he returned from compassionate leave, he found he had nothing to bring to such a vicious play. Instead, he asked to produce The Winter's Tale - a story of loss redeemed by love, with Hermione coming back to life after spending 16 years apparently dead. Somehow or other, Howe never got round to producing this play either. Until now.

'A Moving Image' will be shown on BBC2 on Tuesday 13 August at 8pm.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in