‘The day my husband Colin went to work, 10 November 2008, was just like any other.
He kissed me goodbye, dropped the kids off at school and headed out for a day’s fishing. People might imagine that, in the moments preceding a tragedy, those close to the victim may have some sort of premonition. But this did not happen for me.
At the moment my darling Colin’s fishing trawler was overturned in a freak storm off the Southend coast at 1.02pm,
I was happily ordering Christmas presents on the internet.
On that day, my life, and the lives of our families, were changed forever. Initially we hoped that Colin may have been thrown from his trawler and sought shelter in a nearby boat, so our prayers were for his speedy rescue. Then, during the following 48 hours, I realised he was gone. To know that I would never see Colin again, and not know anything about his death, was at times unbearable.
I tortured myself with thoughts of how it might have been for him. I couldn’t sleep for images of him falling into the water. Was he scared? Had he hurt himself? I longed to know every grisly detail.
Telling our children, Elliott and Florence, then aged three and seven, that their daddy was dead was the most harrowing thing I have ever had to do. I kept reminding myself that as long as I handled it properly, we would be okay. I believe children take their emotional cues from the adults around them. I was not going to fall apart, nor leave someone else to deliver the news. I was all they had and I would not and could not, let them down. In a
desperate display of young faith, Florence (then aged 7) squeezed her eyes shut, put her hands together, and pleaded
with me to “pray harder” before sobbing into my arms. Elliott (aged 3) looked completely bewildered and asked if we were still going swimming tomorrow.
My older boys Joshua (then 21) and Oliver (then 17) had lost their father (Josh’s stepfather) Michael at just 41,
to a brain tumour six years earlier, and during those initial days I lurched between no faith, and hating God for leaving my children fatherless. But I am Christian and, perhaps surprisingly, my faith has actually increased during this experience.
In the early days, my pain was fierce, unforgiving and raw. I think grief is best compared to birthing labour. In the grip of a contraction,
it’s impossible to focus on anything other than enduring the all-consuming agony. However, when it passes, you
wonder what the fuss was about and are confident that when the pain visits again, it won’t be as grim. But it is. This is how I experienced grief – as unpredictable waves of pain with brief, but cruelly hopeful, periods of respite.
On top of the emotional pain, there were the practical complications. A death certificate cannot be issued without a body, so I couldn’t claim life insurance, widowed parent’s allowance or bereavement benefit. It also meant that I received increasingly aggressive calls from Colin’s credit card agencies and banks demanding to know why he hadn’t made repayments and insisting I should pay. I kept explaining the situation but, without being
able to send proof of his death, they refused to close his accounts and continued to hound me for repayments. The fact that Colin and I had taken insurance to cover repayments in the event of death or unemployment counted for nothing without a death certificate.
One particularly unpleasant worker told me: ‘I know you claim your husband is dead, Mrs Dolby, but quite frankly, without evidence he could be living on the Bahamas.’
I refused to doubt Colin’s good, noble character. He had been my unexpected “silver lining” following a forced relocation to Leigh-on-Sea. After the boys and I moved into a modest, yet chocolate box, fisherman’s cottage in summer 1997, my son Oliver, then seven, was befriended by the lovely Dolby family next door. I learned they were a local fishing family spanning six generations, who had worked the Thames Estuary for more than 300 years. Ken was a sweet grandfather figure, whose son Colin would visit daily.
Colin had a workshop in the bottom of his father’s garden where he maintained his boat. He was a skilled craftsman,
creating delicate parts and fittings for Louisa, his trawler. Oliver loved helping him in there; mending nets, fitting wheels and getting involved in all the mucky “boys’” activities that I couldn’t facilitate.
The only downside to the arrangement was that Oliver kept coming home telling me how much Colin wanted to take me
on a date. Increasingly uncomfortable, as I didn’t find Colin remotely attractive, I finally decided reluctantly, to tackle the situation.
He was a swarthy, bearded, weather-beaten type with unkempt black hair. I’d only ever seen him in scruffy clothes with
a black woolly hat and smelling of fish. He was really not my type. But he was sweet and kind so I didn’t want to hurt his feelings. Plus, I had to live next door to him so wanted to avoid awkwardness. The next time we met, I raised the
subject as sensitively as possible. “You know Colin, I consider myself fortunate to have a neighbour like you who is so kind to the kids, but I’m sorry, I’m not interested in a relationship.”
I wasn’t prepared for Colin’s reaction. He threw back his head and roared with laughter. Wiping tears from his eyes he said, “What a bloody cheek, your son has been telling me for months how much you fancy me!” Then he looked deeply into my eyes and said with a smile and no hint of embarrassment, “but the difference is, it’s true about how I feel about you”.
Colin invited me to spend a day at sea with him and watching him in his natural environment was a revelation. He could be shy on land but on the water it was like witnessing an awkward, land-bound seal dive underwater and transform into a creature of grace and power. By the time we got home, I was experiencing an almost pubescent, stomach-churning euphoria. The day had begun with a trip out with a friend but, by the time we’d returned home, I knew beyond all doubt that I was very much in love and this wonderful, wild, beautiful, gentle man was was the one I would marry.
Colin was 38 when our first child was born. He revelled in fatherhood and told me many times that marriage and children was something he never expected. Our relationship was the greatest surprise to us both and our biggest joy was spending time with friends and the four children in the park, swimming and going out on the boat in warm weather. We never had much money so everything we did was on a budget, but that didn’t dampen our happiness.
I treasured all those precious times we spent together, and so it was these happy, yet heartbreaking, memories that I drew on to give me strength in the dark months following Colin’s death.
I sat for hours untangling the mountainous paperwork and challenging the nightmarish hostile legal situation I found myself in. I had to take on the banks, credit card agencies, his mobile phone provider, loan company, benefits agency and insurers. Then I had to find a way to prove my husband was dead, without any physical evidence.
Eventually, it was another widow, a lawyer, who I met at a support group, who suggested I consider the “reasonable
evidence test” used by families of tsunami victims in the absence of their bodies.
So I gathered evidence from police records, medical information, mobile phone data, marine accident reports, weather reports and radar readings. I built a case which showed that Colin could not have survived the treacherously cold water for more than four minutes, that his
phone signal disappeared at the same moment that his boat radar vanished from the grid. There were no boats or vessels in the vicinity that he could have sheltered in and his boat had vanished at the same time a freak gust of wind had been recorded by the Met Office. Eventually, I won my case and was presented with an interim death
certificate, so I could show the banks evidence that my husband was dead.
But it wasn’t just the laborious legal wrangling that I found difficult to cope with. Initially, I found the overwhelming responsibility of unplanned single parenthood utterly exhausting. I longed for someone to offer to take the children away for a few hours so I could lay on the bed with a duvet over me, breathing in the scent of Colin’s clothes. I was on autopilot, functioning but not really emotionally present in anything I did.
I wanted to spend hours looking at photos of Colin or watching video clips on my phone where I could hear his voice or see him move. I wanted to walk and walk to search for him, even though I knew I’d never find him again. I longed and pined for him continually. Everything I did was underpinned with constant sorrow.
I developed an overpowering need to tell strangers my story, which must have been desperately embarrassing for them.
I needed to hear myself say, “My husband has died.”
Colin was eventually returned to us on 11 July 2009. Understandably, the children had become very anxious about
going in the sea so, on this date, I had booked us a day trip on a paddle steamer on the Thames as my way of trying to rebuild their confidence. An hour into our journey, the police liaison officer rang to
warn me that a body had been found on Shoebury beach and that the authorities strongly suspected it was Colin. So at the precise moment the children and I sailed out to sea, the same stretch of water was bringing him home. We were finally able to lay Colin to rest in the summer of 2009, nine months after he first went missing.
Four years have passed and we are now in a much better place. When people told me time would heal, I used to want to
punch them, but they were right. Although having to deal with small children and the rage of older teens has been exhausting, it’s also helped to keep me going as I have to be strong for them. My love for the children has always been greater than my own pain – maybe only by a fraction – but enough to drag me through those difficult early months.
Pain can lead to bitterness, but it can also increase compassion, empathy and resilience, and these are precious
characteristics I hope with all my heart that my beautiful children, who have been robbed of so much, can hold onto
throughout their lives. I have always reminded myself to be grateful for small pleasures and be mindful of people on the planet who have it far worse. Practising gratitude is a wonderful remedy for self-pity. And the children remind me so much of him – his eyes, his smile, his cheeky humour and love all shine through them. They are his footprints on the earth and, while they are here, he is never truly gone.
Because, despite the pain, the chaos and the loss we’ve endured, I continue to believe that happiness is a choice and I choose happiness for me and for my children.
Colin would approve.