Frank is hoping to explore at the forthcoming inquest whether this anti-depressant, prescribed along with sleeping pills just before her death, contributed to her death.http://www.telegraph.co.uk/gardening/7908616/Frank-Wilson-How-I-survived-the-death-of-my-wife-Elspeth-Thompson.html
Frank Wilson: How I survived the death of my wife, Elspeth Thompson
Four months ago, Elspeth Thompson, The Sunday Telegraph’s much-loved gardening writer, took her own life. Her husband, Frank, tells Olga Craig of her battle with depression and how he came to terms with the tragedy.
By Olga Craig
Published: 7:00AM BST 25 Jul 2010
Elspeth Thompson’s widow Frank Wilson and their five-year-old daughter, Mary Photo: Maayke de Ridder
It was the toughest task Frank Wilson has ever faced. Sitting on a sofa alongside his young daughter, Mary, a cherished only child, just two months off her sixth birthday, he cuddled her close and told her gently: “Mummy became very, very ill and she has died. And although we won’t see her again, she is with Granny angel and Grandma angel in Heaven, looking down on us with love.”
As he haltingly recalls the moment he had to tell his daughter that her mother, Elspeth Thompson, the award-winning gardening writer and author, had taken her own life, Frank struggles, and fails, to contain the tears. “I’ve taken to wearing dark glasses,” he confides, smiling weakly. “I fill up so easily…”
His bewildered daughter, distraught at the news, crumpled into convulsive tears. “Her little face turned red, her hair was all messed up. She began to gulp for breath, the way little children do,” he says. “Tears were rolling down her cheeks. When she calmed down a little I held her and whispered in her ear: ‘Do you understand?’ She just nodded her head slowly. It was a heartbreaking moment that I would not wish on anyone.”
It has been four months since Elspeth, 48, author of a hugely popular column in The Sunday Telegraph, took her own life. On the afternoon of March 25, suffering from depression and fearful of the effect her illness would have upon her relationship with her daughter, she drank some ginger wine, swallowed pills, piled 10lb of stones into her pockets and waded into a deep water-filled gravel pit just 10 minutes walk from the seaside Sussex home she shared with Frank
Though she had suffered from post-natal depression and had, more recently, been devastated by the death of her mother, the popular writer’s friends and family were stunned by her suicide. Why did such a successful and dynamic woman, who enriched the lives of so many, possibly believe that her life was no longer worth living?
Since she died, much has been written of Elspeth’s enormous contribution to the world of gardening and literature. She was an elegant and witty writer, whose readers ranged from dilettante weekend gardeners to passionate horticulturists. She pioneered the “gardening against the odds” genre and was a long-time fan of guerrilla gardening. Nothing enchanted Elspeth more than the innovative efforts of those who cultivated blooms in the most unlikely places. As she once wrote: “After 20 years of travelling to write about gardens, it is by no means just the great and grand gardens that remain in my memory. If anything, I remember all the more vividly the hundreds of tiny patches – on strips of roof tops, sun-baked shingle, even the tops of narrow boats or travellers’ converted buses – all conceived and tended with the deepest love and care.”
Hundreds followed her blogs and columns charting her work – from cultivating a pair of swampy, overgrown London allotments to building a family home on the coast from a pair of Victorian railway carriages. Since she died, scores of tributes have been penned. Her passing has been mourned by many who never met her but felt they knew her through her 14 books and countless articles. But it is Elspeth’s immediate family – Frank and Mary – for whom the burden of loss has been almost unbearably painful.
Sitting outside the family’s home – fashioned from railway carriages put there in the Twenties when housing stock was short after the First World War – Frank scans the garden that was his wife’s final project. “It’s tough, at times, to see it a little overgrown,” he says. “I’m no gardener and I know Elspeth would have it looking much better than it does. But I find it peaceful to sit here, to watch what she planted growing and bursting into flower. It reflects so much of Elspeth’s personality.”
Inside the house, a charming clutter of paint pots and seashells, swatches of material, crayons and Mary’s paintings jostle for space beside the pots and pans in the brightly painted kitchen.
“Though we loved the house, our neighbours and the community, we had been thinking of moving a little closer to London,” Frank says. “She had plans, so many things she still wanted to do. I even found a shopping list including the ingredients for a fish pie that she always made on Good Friday, which was just days after she died.”
It is slightly easier with hindsight, he says, to recall the small but telling changes in his wife’s behaviour as her depression deepened in the last weeks of her life. But Elspeth rarely spoke of her illness.
“I have managed to avoid the torturous questions. The endless needing to know why she did it,” he says. “Something my late mother told me – as a clergyman’s wife and Samaritans volunteer, she had some insight into mental illness – has helped enormously. She taught me that one has to accept. Even if you can’t understand. And that is what I have done. I miss Elspeth. I always will, I loved her. But I have accepted that she did what she did, even though I don’t understand it. I don’t think I will ever believe she intended to kill herself – I don’t think she would have, or could have done it if she was in her right mind. I know she had plans for the future. But I have to accept that, at that moment, life, for her, seemed too bleak and hopeless to continue. I believe the balance of her mind was suddenly tipped – possibly by an anti-depressant, the small print of which warns that it may bring on suicidal thoughts in some patients.”
Frank is hoping to explore at the forthcoming inquest whether this anti-depressant, prescribed along with sleeping pills just before her death, contributed to her death.
Elspeth and Frank met through his older brother, Stephen, and she was a family friend long before they started their relationship. Initially, they seemed an unlikely pair: he a city boy, she brought up initially in the idyllic countryside of Staplehurst in Kent. He loved blues and soul, she favoured Dylan. A fluent Italian speaker, she had travelled widely in Europe; he adored America, criss-crossing the southern states as a fan of roots music. “But it worked wonderfully,” he says. “Elspeth was this glamorous, elegant woman who was just tremendous fun. Interested in everything. We would go to Memphis and visit the Sun Records studio where Elvis, Howlin’ Wolf and Jerry Lee Lewis recorded, then go to see the botanical gardens.”
When the couple married in 1999, Elspeth had already suffered one miscarriage. “I wasn’t immediately ready for children,” he says, “but Elspeth’s biological clock was ticking, and when she didn’t get pregnant again we opted for IVF. We had several attempts but, luckily, we had our little miracle, Mary.”
Life, he says, could not have been better. Elspeth’s career had taken off and though Frank’s work was in London – where he spent three nights a week at the couple’s Brixton home – their marriage was happy. But, in the background, there were the growing signs of Elspeth’s depression. Though accomplished and popular, she was, Frank says, riddled with insecurity.
“Only those who knew her well saw that behind that outer shell of ability and grace and beauty, there was a terrible lack of self-confidence and esteem. In one of the letters she left she acknowledged that, when she was up, she could see her own talents. But when she was down she could no longer see how wonderful she was. In the dark moments she lost sight of the Elspeth who could do so many things. Her confidence disappeared. I would do my best to reassure her and tell her not to worry too much about things – that worrying only makes things seem worse.”
Increasingly, Elspeth found it difficult to celebrate her triumphs. “We would, perhaps, throw a party which would be a wonderful success, because Elspeth made it so successful. We would be inundated with thank-you letters. But for weeks afterwards she would worry, constantly asking if it had really been good, if people had enjoyed it.
“I think it preyed on her mind a little that she had no formal horticultural training. Even though the fact that she wasn’t restrained by that endeared her to readers. She found it frustrating, too, that she could identify innovative trends – such as the rising popularity of allotments, or guerrilla gardening – but found it hard to get publishers interested. Until it became the next big thing. She set herself high standards and worried she would never achieve them. But nine times out of 10 she did.”
After a family holiday in Tobago in February, Frank noticed that his wife, while carefree on vacation, seemed subdued in the weeks after they returned home. She was plagued by insomnia and Frank would often wake in the early hours to find his wife in her study. “Even with me she was good at putting on a brave face,” he says.
On the Monday before she died, Elspeth and Frank had lunch together at their home before he set off for London. The couple talked regularly while Frank was in London. On the day before she died, however, which was Frank’s father’s birthday, Elspeth telephoned her father-in-law but, instead of speaking to him, held the phone to Mary so that she could sing Happy Birthday to her grandfather. “Then she simply put the phone down. That was odd. Normally she would have talked to him.”
For a few moments Frank sits in silence. His voice breaking, he recalls his last conversation with his wife. “I phoned her that night and she seemed like a totally different person,” he recalls. “Usually she did most of the talking but she said very little, and anything she did say was delivered in a flat, monotone voice. I asked her several times if she was OK. She said she wasn’t sleeping and was tired. I was worried but she kept insisting she was OK and I knew I would be home the following evening.”
The next day Elspeth emailed her husband saying she needed to go to accident and emergency to have a minor foot injury seen to. She asked him to come home a little earlier as she had arranged for Mary to stay with a friend after school and wanted him to pick her up from there if she wasn’t back in time. “Now, I know it was a cover story,” Frank says softly, tears threatening. “I called endlessly that day but I thought she had had to switch off her mobile while in the hospital.”
When Frank got back to Rye around seven in the evening, he took a taxi to pick up Mary and the pair went home. He noticed that while Elspeth’s car was there, the house lights were off. “I remember it was a filthy night. Raining and windy and wild. The moment I walked through the front door I saw the handwritten note sitting on Mary’s electric piano.”
Its contents, though brief, were heartbreakingly poignant. Elspeth had written: “I’ve fed the dogs and put the heating on so that you won’t be cold. I’m sorry. So very sorry. But I’ve gone to the lake with a bottle and pills. I love you. I love Mary.” Beneath she had written a short explanation of how she felt she could no longer go on.
As Frank recounts the letter his voice breaks. “Elspeth left other longer letters. One for me, one for friends, one for family and one for Mary when she is older in which she tells her how much she loved her and how she hopes that, in the future, she will be some small measure of inspiration for her. In one she spoke of her fears that her increasing isolation would affect her ability to be a good mother to Mary and she didn’t want that. Of how she feared her depression would deepen and become more frequent.”
Frank ran to a nearby house where he left Mary and he and two neighbours drove to the lake. There, he found a ginger wine bottle and pill packet. “I was shouting her name, over and over.”
By now police had been called and the long wait began. “I think that was the worst bit. The waiting. People were so kind. They would tell me that it’s hard to overdose on modern-day sleeping pills or anti-depressants. That maybe she had gone to the woods to sleep it off. But a day later, when a police family liaison officer arrived, I knew Elspeth had been found.
“Since Elspeth died, so many people have been so kind and thoughtful – my family, friends, neighbours, the teachers and parents at Mary’s school and my employers. I’m so grateful for all they do for us.”
Frank is adapting well to being a single parent and Mary is slowly coming to terms with the loss of her mother. “She worries if I’m not around and, if the slightest thing goes wrong, it is me she wants, as though she fears I will leave, too. At first I told her that I would always be here for her. But a wonderful children’s bereavement charity, Winston’s Wish, has been helping me deal with her questions. They told me that was a promise I couldn’t make – that I needed to explain to her who would look after her if anything were to happen to me – and they helped me realise that absolute but gentle honesty is the only way.
“When she is older she will read her mother’s letter herself, when she is ready for all the information. I also hope that there will be a verdict from the local coroner, which will help everyone understand exactly what happened. I want Mary to know that her mother didn’t kill herself because she didn’t love her, but because she became very ill. She needs to know that her mother became depressed to the point of mental illness.
”My task now is to make everything as stable and as loving as I can for Mary and, with the help of others, we can look to the future with confidence while remaining very grateful for Elspeth’s wonderful but short life. One’s deepest instinct, as a parent, is to protect your child from every hurt. But you can’t always do that. Sometimes it is just out of your hands.”