'I will make this journey with you in my heart'
PUBLISHED: 10:53 13 June 2017 | UPDATED: 10:53 13 June 2017
What's the best way to cope with grief? When Elene Marsden's husband Steve died earlier this year she was lost. But continuing with plans they had been making for a travel adventure this summer has given her a focus that has helped her navigate the pain. She told Sheena Grant more.
I first met Elene Marsden in the depths of winter, to write a piece about her love of charity shop clothes. She was bubbly, warm, great fun and full of excitement about an overland journey to Japan she and her husband Steve were planning to make this summer.
But a few months later I received an email from Elene. Steve had died in February. He had bowel cancer and was gone within six months of diagnosis.
He and Elene had been together 46 years - since she was just 13 and he was 14. They had met in her native south Wales. There was never anyone else for either of them.
Elene had no idea what shape her life would take without Steve. All her plans for a future she had thought was theirs were in tatters.
But in the last few days of Steve’s life, as Elene sat at his hospice bedside in Ipswich, reading aloud to him from his meticulous journal of a solo trip he had made to Japan two years before, she told him she would make the journey they had planned to take together on her own.
At first it seemed preposterous but then, after the first rudderless days and weeks without him, it started to look less terrifying than her new, everyday reality. And it offered the chance to try and handle her grief through action, rather than surrendering to the feeling of lurching, at the mercy of something she couldn’t control.
“I know grief is different for everyone,” she says. “But organising this journey has given me a focus that is helping me find a way through.”
Elene leaves on her two-month adventure in just a few weeks. On the way, she will visit her two sons, living in Azerbaijan and Japan. She knows parts of the trip will be daunting and emotionally tough but she will take Steve’s journal with her and draw comfort from the fact that in some intangible way, he is beside her.
“No-one knows what’s round the corner,” she says. “Steve’s illness has taught me that. This August would have been our 39th wedding anniversary and despite my loss I know I’ve been lucky to have what we had. A lot of people don’t. Our relationship was still as intense and beautiful as when we were teenagers. I try and hold onto that thought.
“Steve had started planning our overland journey to Japan before he became ill. After he died, I found the plans on his laptop. He had already done the journey on his own in 2015, on trains and boats, and we were going to repeat it together. After he was diagnosed, he knew it would never happen.
“He was in the hospice for 10 days and in the last few days I read his journal of that earlier trip out to him. As I was reading it, I said: ‘I am going to do this journey. I will do it with your journal, with you in my heart.’ At first, after he died, I didn’t feel strong enough to do it this year but then I had a change of mind. A friend is holding a fundraising barn dance in memory of Steve, for St Elizabeth Hospice, and the next day, I will set off on my journey.
“I suppose making the trip alone is brave but on the other hand the pain of losing someone that important to you is so intense that the world in its enormity somehow doesn’t feel that scary a place in comparison.”
From Azerbaijan she will fly to Dubai before going on to Hong Kong and Japan. Afterwards, she will take a boat to Shanghai, where a friend of Steve’s will show her around. Five days later she will travel by train to Beijing and from there board the Trans-Siberian Railway to Moscow, sharing a compartment with a stranger.
“I’ve got to be a bit brave for that journey, which is six days,” she says.
After four nights in Moscow, she will fly home.
“My first grandchild is due in September and I know I’ve got to do this journey now,” she says. “I might not have the bravery next year. It won’t be exactly the same journey Steve had envisaged but I have used his plans as a guide. I like to think he was aware as I read his journal to him and resolved to do the journey with him in my heart.”
Elene, whose recent ‘one love’ wrist tattoo is an indelible reminder of all she and Steve shared, has also drawn comfort from writing her thoughts and feelings in a journal of her own.
“If I can do this journey and survive I will be able to find my own way in the world,” she says. “I am hoping it will strengthen me for what’s ahead. Steve would have wanted me to do this journey and he will be there with me. I have no idea what will happen when I return home but I will be able to take the experience on to the next stage of my life. Not everyone who has lost someone can do what I am doing but maybe, they could be inspired to take that first holiday on their own, to feel brave enough to go for it too.”