New Forest TV wine expert Helen McGinn reveals the family tragedy which inspired her new book
AN emotive passage in Helen McGinn’s new novel describes a woman lighting a church candle in memory of her brother. She turns to the woman next to her and says softly: “Hearts stay broken.”
It is something that Helen, an international wine expert who appears regularly on TV’s Saturday Morning Kitchen, knows only too well.
Looking down at her hands, she says: “I think it is probably one of the truest things someone can say about losing someone.
“Memories may fade slightly, feelings become less painful, your life can get better. But your heart, that never heals completely. How can it?”
Her book, In Just One Day, deals with the aftermath when the brother of the novel’s central character, Flora, dies in a terrible accident.
It takes an unflinching look at the raw, relentless grief such a tragedy inflicts on those left behind and how, in just one brief second, everything in your life can fall apart.
For Helen, who lives in the New Forest, that moment came in January 2002.
Her brother Tim Robinson, just 25, was one of the first victims of car jacking in the UK. A teenager trying to steal Tim’s car outside his London home stabbed him seven times.
Surgeons battled to save Tim, but he later died in hospital with his family around him.
Smiling at Tim’s name, Helen says: “He was just the most gorgeous, wonderful younger brother you could have.
“Tim just loved life. Growing up in the New Forest with our sister Alex we had so much fun.
“Tim was always laughing, always joking about, even when he grew up. He was over 6ft tall with this mop of hair and a huge, wonderful smile.
“There is a lot of Tim in Billy, Flora’s brother, in the book.”
It’s a novel that has taken 20 years to write. But the memories of that awful moment when she was told Tim had been attacked remain as vivid as ever, as do those of the day he died.
Helen reveals: “What I remember most is the completely quiet stillness of it all. When I see someone die on TV drama or in a film there is always a lot of hysteria and shouting.
“But it wasn’t like that at all. When Tim died, there was just utter shock and disbelief. We all felt so numb.
“As we were going home from the hospital, I just couldn’t believe that life was still going on as normal around me. I found that so hard.
“I wanted to shout and scream at people that Tim had just died. But I didn’t. I just stayed quiet.”
The complexity of grief is something Helen wanted to explore in the book. She laughs as she recalls how she once Googled: “How long does grief last?”
She says: “What would I have done if the answer had been forever? I mean, how would that have helped!”
For her, grief was a long series of steps: “At one stage there is the anger, then disbelief, followed by searing, unrelenting pain. Acceptance, a feeling that life is getting better.
“But then step three can suddenly come straight back again, and down you plunge. Navigating grief is so hard and something no one really prepares you for.
“A grief counsellor told me how after losing his own son he thought, ‘I’ve been doing this for 20 years, but until now I just didn’t get it at all’.
“Most of us are going to go through grief but we don’t talk very much about it, which is one of the reasons why I wrote the book.
For Helen, who also writes for the Daily Mail, her own breakthrough was discovering the work of Marina Cantacuzino from the charity the Forgiveness Project.
She said: “Marina has spoken to people who have experienced pain, suffering and death in the most awful of places including war zones. She told me, ‘You can’t change the past. Are you going to live looking back and being sad? Or take all those wonderful memories and live’.”
It’s advice she has taken to heart. Her home is full of photos of Tim. Her husband Ross was best friends with Tim and the couple talk about him often, especially to their three children.
In the book, Billy is a wonderful uncle to Flora’s kids who adore him. Helen says: “I am sad my children never got to know him. But he is still very much here.
“I talk to him a lot nearly every day. I remember the good stuff. What happened to Tim does not define him in any way.
“He was so much bigger than that.”
Of her new novel, she says: “Part of the process of grief is finding meaning and whilst I might never be able to understand why what happened to Tim did, I know that my words on grief are resonating with people and that in turn helps me.”
- In Just One Day is out now (£8.99, Boldwood).