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Love´s Last Gift by Bebhinn Ramsay, dedicated to Alastair Ramsay.

Writing.ie | Resources | Better Non-Fiction Guides | Writing Memoir
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Bebhin Ramsey

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Writing a memoir began as a therapeutic rather than a literary pursuit for me.

In May of this year, Hachette will publish Love´s Last Gift, a memoir of my experience of the sudden death of my husband Alastair and the consequences of his death.   Alastair died five years ago from a rare complication to a common infection, while we were on holidays in San Francisco with our two young sons.   I was thirty-one at the time and my world as I knew it collapsed irrevocably. In Love´s Last Gift, I share with the reader a taste of the early, heady days of our love, the life we had in London and the shocking experience of his death in America. I write of my desperate and unsuccessful attempts to find answers and solace, from a Buddhist retreat to taking my two young sons on the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage in the North of Spain.   I recount how I spent the first year dealing with the realities of life as a single parent and how I was overwhelmed with a feeling of injustice. ‘Alastair should not have died’ was my constant mantra.

Over time, I found a way of changing my thinking about my husband´s death and in doing so, was able to find solace.Love’s Last Gift is my pilgrimage to finding acceptance and peace. Just over a year after Alastair’s death, I set up the Alastair Ramsay Charitable Trust, ARCH, and moved with my two young sons, to Florianópolis, Brazil to oversee the set-up of a child-focussed charity, Child Health Florianópolis, in his honour. Over the following three years, we raised money with friends and family and helped over 200 people in 60 low-income families with sick children to improve their quality of life. In 2011, I received a local award in Brazil for ‘women who make a difference´. I dedicated the award to Alastair and to all the hundreds of women and men who created ARCH and Child Health Florianopolis.   All author royalties of Love´s Last Gift go to ARCH. This memoir is therefore a vehicle for raising funds to continue the humanitarian work that was started in Alastair´s honour.

Writing was a childhood passion of mine. At the age of nine or ten, I used to write poetry and would lose myself in the experience.   As I grew older, this passion was pushed aside as I started my career in international development, and writing became limited to bullet-point funding proposals and monitoring reports.   For friends´ hen-parties and birthdays, I would still spend hours writing fun limericks for them and in times of difficulty, I would write endlessly in my diary.

Alastair, my late husband, often said that I should write a book.   In the year before he died he said prophetically that something dramatic had to happen to me in order for me to write a book. Little did we know that his own sudden death would catapult me into becoming a published author.

When I went to Brazil to set up the child-focussed charity in 2008, a friend suggested that I write a blog to keep all supporters informed of my experiences. I began to write monthly blogs and post them on the Foundation website.   Soon, my monthly blog writing sessions became an important therapeutic ritual for me, replete of course with the essential bottle of red wine.   Making writing a part of my routine was absolutely central to allowing me to flex my atrophied writing muscles and to remember the joy and power of writing as a therapeutic tool.

While in Brazil, I began to date a local man, which led to an unexpected pregnancy with my third child. The pregnancy knocked me sideways and shone light on the fact that emotionally, I was still married to Alastair.   In order to truly welcome this new baby into my life, I felt the overwhelming need to empty myself of the experience of Alastair´s death and its aftermath.   During this pregnancy, I would stay up until 2 a.m., writing desperately and purging myself of all remnants of guilt, anger and deep, deep saddness within me.

After the initial birth of the book, months of moulding began to turn this initial outpouring into a book with a clear structure and storyline. I faced three key challenges when writing this memoir.   The first was to learn to accept constructive criticism.   I shared first drafts with a number of author friends of mine and asked for their feedback. Later, I worked closely with my editor Ciara, from Hachette. Love´s Last Gift is so intimate that negative feedback seemed at times like a personal affront.   My friends and editor were very tactful in their advice however and I managed to seperate the story from the writing. I took on board many of their comments and suggestions and the whole experience was one long, practical lesson in how to write.

Another challenge I faced in writing a memoir was to balance truth with readibility. I strove to be as honest as possible, but I had to omit many things to enable the story to flow effectively and avoid getting bogged down in details. Also, I had to play a bit with the sequence of events to create an engaging story and express the core messages that I sought to communicate. For example, I wanted to end the book with the birth of my third child, as a symbol of hope and rebirth, but other parts of the book, such as coming to a deep sense of peace over my husband´s death, came after the birth.   It strikes me that it is important to have a degree of flexibility and creativity in crafting a memoir, to achieve a poetic quality, without sacrificing honesty.

The third challenge I faced in writing a memoir was my concern for other people´s privacy.   I used only people´s first name initial instead of full names throughout the book. In some situations, I used a false initial to protect identities, such as for people affected by HIV with whom we work in Brazil. I made 20 copies of the book at an early stage and gave them as Christmas presents to Alastair´s family and my family and friends.   I asked them to read the book and let me know if they were uncomfortable with anything I had written.   Only one friend asked me to reword one sentence, which I happily did.

Moving from writing to publishing is a challenge that all first-time authors share.   In total, it took about one year to find the right publisher and I was happily surprised that the process was light years easier and more synchronistic that the horror stories I had heard over the years.   As with all aspects of my life over the last five years, the right publisher appeared at just the right moment.

Writing my memoir Life´s Last Gift has already been a huge success for me. As well as therapeutic, it was the fulfillment of both my dream as an aspiring writer and my late husband´s dream of having his name on the front cover of a book.   The advance received from the publishers is already helping vulnerable children and families in Brazil.   My memoir is written from the heart, and I hope it touches the hearts of others. For those who are experiencing loss, I hope it will communicate to them that they are not alone and that the world is still a beautiful place.   Whatever comes next on this journey as an author is delicious icing on the cake!

About the author

(c) Bebhin Ramsey May 2012

Life’s Last Gift is out now and available in all good bookshops and from Hachette website

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