As some of you know, I have very happy memories of my (not half as frequent as I’d like) stays at the Retreats For You writer’s retreat in Sheepwash, Devon. I’ve hoped to visit later this year to work on a new project which was given an Arts Council-funded read before Christmas. As well as its beautiful rural Devon surroundings and plentiful home-cooked food, the retreat is adored by many for the hospitality and warmth of owner Deborah and her husband Bob, with their mythical combination of scrupulous efficiency and permanent sunny smiles. I was only 26, little older than their own three children, when I first visited in 2010, and she joked about “adopting” me.
Very sadly, Bob has recently died suddenly. I don’t know the details and don’t need to: the word “sudden” says enough. Deborah – a writer herself – has understandably had to close their business and put aside her own writing while she grieves. As a self-employed, single person, no work means no earnings: and no sick pay or compassionate leave for bereavement. A Retreats For You regular, Angela Clarke, has very kindly put together a crowdfunder to help Deborah cover her costs for the duration, and I wanted to link to it here in support. I was deeply shocked, saddened and moved when I heard the news – not just because Retreats For You meant so much to me, but because of the unique struggles that self-employed people face at times like these.
Without wishing to make Deborah’s tragedy All About Me, or pretend to know in any way what it is like to lose someone you’ve lived beside for three decades, I do know that being self-employed makes coping with an unexpected death all the more challenging, in ways largely unknown to and unacknowledged by others. In 2011, just six months after I’d tentatively gone freelance full-time at the age of 27, one of my closest friends took his own life. In the next few months, my small-but-burgeoning income plummeted to nothing, as my very new business struggled to recover from the time off. In 2014 a second friend did the same, which triggered another dip in my own mental health. I’ve pulled through financially for now thanks to luck, grit and generosity (though I can’t be sure for how long I’m “in the clear” and few jobs come without some uncertainty over when I’ll see the money for them…). This blog post is partly the thinkpiece I’ve never written: I have been trying for four years to put something on self-employment and sudden grief into the media and had various pitches ignored. It’s tiring seeing article after article crowing about “women entrepreneurs” or the satisfaction of “being your own boss,” and not one acknowledging how difficult and painful it can be when you’re faced with the unthinkable without the cushion of a guaranteed income. If she wants to, once she’s able to work again, I’m sure Deborah could use her contacts and experience to bring this issue the coverage it deserves.
Meanwhile, if you’re a writer or self-employed and you have the means (I know money is tight for most of us too) please please consider supporting the fund to help Deborah, in Bob’s memory. I’ve written to Deborah privately and my love and thoughts are with her and her family.