The Dead Wife's Handbook: A Novel

The Dead Wife's Handbook: A Novel

by Hannah Beckerman


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"Today is my death anniversary. A year ago today I was still alive."

Rachel, Max, and their daughter Ellie had the perfect life—until the night Rachel’s heart stopped beating. She was thirty-six.

Just as her family can’t forget her, Rachel can’t quite let go of them either. Caught in a place between worlds, Rachel watches helplessly as she begins to fade from their lives.

This fresh debut novel touches on the various stages of bereavement, from denial to acceptance. As Max and Ellie work through their grief, Rachel too struggles to come to terms with her death. And as her husband starts to date again, Rachel realizes that one day Max will find love, and that Ellie will have a new mother figure in her life.

The Dead Wife’s Handbook is a heartwarming and touching book, very commercial in its approach and a compelling read. It will touch a wide readership, and is a perfect read for fans of the bestseller The Lovely Bones.

Skyhorse Publishing, as well as our Arcade, Yucca, and Good Books imprints, are proud to publish a broad range of books for readers interested in fiction—novels, novellas, political and medical thrillers, comedy, satire, historical fiction, romance, erotic and love stories, mystery, classic literature, folklore and mythology, literary classics including Shakespeare, Dumas, Wilde, Cather, and much more. While not every title we publish becomes a New York Times bestseller or a national bestseller, we are committed to books on subjects that are sometimes overlooked and to authors whose work might not otherwise find a home.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781628727906
Publisher: Arcade
Publication date: 08/15/2017
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 432
Sales rank: 685,935
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Hannah Beckerman is a former TV and film producer who spent fifteen years producing and commissioning documentaries about the arts, history, and science before turning her hand to writing. She is the author of The Dead Wife's Handbook and has contributed short stories to the Sunday Express and Sunlounger 2. She is also freelance journalist for FT Weekend Magazine. Hannah lives in London with her husband and their incredibly lively toddler. She is currently writing her second novel.

Read an Excerpt

The Dead Wife's Handbook

By Hannah Beckerman

Skyhorse Publishing

Copyright © 2014 Hannah Beckerman
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62872-558-2


Today is my anniversary. Not my wedding anniversary or my engagement anniversary or the anniversary of the day Max and I first met at a friend's wedding and knew immediately that this could be something special in a way that I'd always imagined only ever happened in movies.

Today is my Death Anniversary. A year ago today I was still alive, with fifteen hours remaining before the arrhythmia I'd been oblivious to for the past thirty-six years would fatally disturb the supply of blood to my left ventricle, which in turn would cease pumping blood to my brain which would, in a matter of minutes, kill me.

"Anniversary" probably isn't the right word, is it?

I've wondered a lot over the past few days, ever since I heard Max and his parents discuss it, what Max and Ellie and my mum and all the other people whose lives I used to be a part of will do today. I've wondered whether it's maudlin and self-indulgent and even selfish of me to hope that they'll commemorate it somehow. But I also know that I'll be devastated if they don't.

I'm often full of trepidation when the whiteness dissolves and I wonder what, on each occasion, I might discover on my return. Especially after lengthy absences dominated by fear and speculation about what I may have missed in my time apart. Not that time has any clear, linear definition for me now, not in the sense that I knew it back then. I rely on fragments of information each time my access is restored to determine how long I've been absent, like a detective searching for clues to fill the missing gaps in the timeline of the living world. For me now, instead of time, there's space and silence and often, despite the loneliness, an inexplicable tranquillity. But that doesn't stop me worrying about how they are, about what they're up to, about how they've been coping during my absence. I think worrying's just a mother's prerogative isn't it, dead or alive?

Today appears to be starting much like any other. The clouds have cleared to reveal the illuminated digits of a bedside alarm clock — the very same clock that woke me, every single morning, for the last seven years of my life — telling me it's a little after six-thirty. Ellie is scrambling under the duvet where Max is only just beginning to stir toward consciousness. She burrows under his heavy, sleeping arm and absent-mindedly twists the sparse hairs on his chest around her fingers. He takes hold of her hand, only in part to stop the tickling, but mostly to reassure her he knows she's there.

This is the time of day I miss them most. I miss the sensation of Ellie clambering onto our bed and the gentle weight of her lithe body awakening me each morning. I miss her obliviousness to the adult limbs she crawled over in her bid to locate the smallest of gaps between us where she'd slip, feet first, under the duvet. I miss the smell of her hair and watching her dozing eyelids flutter and the warmth of her limbs — exuding heat after a long night under her Hello Kitty bed linen — intertwined with mine.

Max and I each used to wrap our arms around her, holding her tight between us. An Ellie Sandwich we'd call her, and it would make her giggle. We'd tell her she was the best breakfast anyone could wish for.


Max emits a deep groan and pulls Ellie into a secure embrace by way of a response.

"Daddy, are you awake?"

Ellie struggles to free herself from Max's arms and gently pokes at his eyelids.

"No. I'm still asleep."

Ellie giggles. It's a game they seem to play almost every morning and yet one Ellie never appears to tire of.

"You are awake, Daddy. You talked."

"I'm sleep-talking, munchkin. I'm definitely not awake. See."

Max produces a loud, exaggerated snore. Ellie is still laughing.

"Daddy, be awake. It's morning."

"Only just. Stop poking me in the eye and I'll almost certainly wake up faster. How did you sleep, sweetheart?"

"I slept all night. I didn't even have to go to the toilet."

"That's very good, angel. And did you have any nice dreams?"

Max asks about Ellie's dreams every morning. It's his way of continuing a tradition, our tradition, a tradition which began just weeks into our romance, in which I'd share with him the intricately recovered details of stories I'd told myself during the night. He said he'd never known anyone remember their dreams with such vividness, that he couldn't believe someone could be so affected during the day by events that existed only in the unconscious depths of night. Occasionally I'd dream that he'd been unfaithful to me and in the morning I'd feel as unnerved as if he really had betrayed me.

You can't blame me for infidelities I commit during your dreams, he'd say, laughing, comforting, reassuring me that even my most potent fears didn't have the power to make something real.

Now I don't dream at all. I don't sleep so I can't dream. Dreaming is just one of the many experiences that I miss about being alive. I miss the magic of it, the knowledge that I'm still thinking, fearing, desiring and despairing long after I'm conscious of it. I miss the chance to escape.

"Can't remember. What did you dream about, Daddy?"

"Well, sweetheart, I had a dream about Mummy. You were in it too. We were in a little boat on the sea, like that one we had in Greece, and it was really hot and sunny. Do you remember that boat we hired for the day, when we sailed around all those pretty bays?"

"Was that when I wanted an ice cream but you said you couldn't get me one?"

Max laughs. She's right. She spent the whole day on a boat desperate for ice cream, unable to understand why we couldn't magic her one out of thin air. It was a blissful holiday. Two idyllic weeks in Greece — first Athens and then Naxos — with Max as our personal tour guide. I'd worried when we'd booked it that Ellie would get bored, scrambling over ancient ruins and exploring historical landmarks, but she seemed to have inherited Max's passion for history and was spellbound by his tales of gods and goddesses, of war and revenge, of love and honor.

It had been the first holiday when Ellie, still only five at the time, had nonetheless been a proper traveling companion, staying up late with us to banquet on plump olives and pan-fried halloumi, fresh grilled sardines and oversized prawns, reminiscing about the day's events, discussing tomorrow's possible adventures and developing her own, individual hierarchy of aesthetic pleasures: her preference for clear blue waters over dusty olive groves, for hills over flatlands, for sunsets over midday blue skies.

It was our last holiday together as a family. I wonder if she'll have any memories of it at all in years to come.

"Trust you to remember the one time I failed to find you an ice cream. I'm a pretty good ice-cream hunter usually, aren't I?"

Ellie giggles and flings her arm across Max's chest. I close my eyes and imagine it's me she's clinging to, the warmth of her breath on my neck a memory still recent enough that for the briefest of moments I believe I can actually feel her: the plumpness of her cheek on my shoulder, the weight of her body in my arms, the softness of her hair against my lips, the air from deep within her breezing softly over my skin.

I ache, physically, to hold her.

I open my eyes to find Max gently prising Ellie from his body. He holds her face in his hands and studies her with a seriousness at odds with the conversation they've just been having.

"Sweetheart, do you know what day it is today?"

I feel the tectonic plates of panic shift. For the past few days I've thought of nothing other than the hope that he'd remind her, but now that he is I find myself wishing he wouldn't. I know it's not fair on her to keep invoking the memories, but equally — selfishly — I can feel the preemptive disappointment should he allow her to forget.

"Er, it's Wednesday, Daddy. I went to school yesterday, and the day before, and before that it was the weekend."

"Yes, sweetheart, you're right. But today's also a special day. Shall I tell you why?"

Ellie's expression combines confusion, suspicion and hope. She hasn't remembered. Of course she hasn't. She's only just seven, after all. It's a relief, to be honest, to know that she hasn't been counting down the days toward the anniversary of the night she was told her mummy's never coming home again.

"What's special today? Are we having a party?"

"No, munchkin, we're not having a party. Do you remember this time last year when we were all really sad because Mummy got ill and she wasn't going to be with us anymore? Well, today it's exactly a year since Mummy died. So I thought it would be nice if, after school, you and I visit the place where she's buried. We could maybe take her some flowers to let her know that we're thinking about her. Do you think you might like to do that?"

I'd love you to do that.

Ellie doesn't seem so sure. She buries her head in Max's chest, her eyes scrunched closed, as if wanting to shut herself off from the whole world and from this conversation in particular.

Max strokes the top of her head.

"What's wrong, sweetheart? Does it make you sad to talk about Mummy? You know that's okay, don't you? I feel really sad when we talk about Mummy. We miss her, don't we?"

Ellie's only response is the tensing of her body into an even tighter ball, her eyes still firmly closed.

Perhaps that's my answer. Perhaps it's all too much for Ellie. Perhaps both Max and I are forgetting just how young she is, how vulnerable, how fragile still.

"Angel, I'm sorry. I know it's hard. Really I do. I'm not going to make you do anything you don't want to. I just thought it might be nice for us to remember Mummy in that way today. Is it talking about Mummy that's making you upset?"

There's an almost imperceptible shaking of Ellie's long brown curls. It's at moments like this that I most question what I'm doing here. Why let me witness what's going on in the world without enabling me to scoop up my baby girl and make it all better for her?

"Do you think you might be able to talk to me, sweetheart? I think we're both really sad today, but maybe it'll be a bit better if we tell each other how we're feeling. Do you think you can do that?"

Ellie's unresponsive. I don't know what to do. I know there's nothing I can do. But then I'm not sure I'd know what to do if I was Max either. I'm not sure there's anyone who can teach you how to make the world right for one who's already had so much go wrong.

"Is it that you don't want to go to the cemetery? Is that it?"

Ellie exhales a heavily burdened breath and tentatively nods her head.

It pains me even though I know it shouldn't. Rationally I know that no seven-year-old would relish the prospect of visiting a cemetery. Maternally I know that she's too fragile to suffer repeated grief. And yet I still fear the possibility of getting lost in the labyrinth of Ellie's memory, of becoming nothing more than a word spoken without remembrance or thought or feeling attached. But I'm not sure what more Max could possibly do to try and keep alive in her mind the mother who loved her so very much and who never wanted to leave her.

"Sweetheart, can you look at me?"

Max tries to pull Ellie's head from where it's still burrowed against his body, but it's as if she's stuck to him with glue, such is her determination to shield herself from the grief she's so far from being ready to face.

"Okay, you stay there. But do you think you can tell me what it is you don't like about the cemetery? Because I think if you can tell me it might not feel so bad."

There's a long pause while Ellie considers Max's proposition.

"It's scary."

The words, mumbled into Max's chest, are only just audible, as though to say them clearly, out loud, may bring upon the speaker some bad fortune even worse than the one she's already endured.

I'd thought that there was no greater guilt beyond that of dying and leaving your daughter motherless. I thought I'd accepted that I had no control over my death, that it wasn't in my power not to leave Ellie, that sometimes there's simply no correlation between the things we feel guilty about and our complicity in their cause. I'd thought perhaps the guilt might begin to erode with time.

But guilt, it would seem, is the titanium of emotions.

"Angel, I think everyone finds cemeteries a bit scary. Why don't you tell me what scares you most and maybe we can make your fears go away?"

Max manages to prize Ellie's head from his chest where she's finally ready to open her eyes and face the world that's betrayed her.

"It's all those dead bodies. They're horrible. How do you know they're not going to come out of the ground like in Scooby-Doo?" Ellie's more assertive now, confident that the cartoon world must surely mirror her own.

"In Scooby-Doo, it's never really a monster or a zombie that goes around scaring people, though, is it? It's always just a person dressed up like that, like at Halloween. You know there's no such thing as people coming back from the dead, don't you?"

I can't help but wonder if it wouldn't be preferable to Ellie if the dead were to come back to haunt the living. At least in that case death wouldn't be final. At least then she might not have lost me forever.

"But it's so quiet there. It really gives me the creeps."

Ellie's looking at Max imploringly now. Maybe they should just wait until next year, or the year after that, or whatever time in the unforeseeable future she's ready to face the inanimate commemoration of me. It's not as though my headstone's going anywhere, after all.

"I know cemeteries can be a bit spooky, sweetheart, but I'd be there with you. How about this: how about we just pop along after school and if you really don't like it after five minutes, we'll leave. How does that sound?"

That sounds like the perfect solution, Max.

"Mmm ... okay, Daddy. If you find it scary too then I don't want you to have to go all by yourself. But you promise that if we get creeped out we can leave?" "I promise, angel. Hand on heart."

And hope not to die.

As Max and Ellie settle into the final few minutes of their morning embrace, Max pulls Ellie into his arms and kisses her, protectively, on the top of her head.

I always knew Max would be a great father. I just hadn't been prepared for the extent to which my own love for him would multiply when I witnessed how great he became as a father. I'd thought, during those first few years together when it was just the two of us, that it wasn't possible to love him anymore than I already did. I thought I knew the unrivaled depths of his patience, his generosity, his compassion, of his uncanny ability to make every situation — however difficult — seem manageable. But then along came Ellie and with her the proof that even those you think you know best still have the capacity to surprise you, as I witnessed the tenderness and awe with which he greeted our little girl into the world.

And now, here he is, parenting our child without me. I'd never really considered that possibility. I don't suppose many people can bear to acknowledge the chance, however remote, that they may not be around to guide their children into adulthood.

As the seven o'clock beeps ring out from the bedside alarm clock, the whiteness begins to gather beneath me and I know, for this morning at least, that my access is coming to an end. I watch Max and Ellie slowly fade out of view, leaving me with the image of them huddled under a duvet together, sharing the coziest of morning rituals, a sight that would fill any mother's heart — even my defunct one — with love and with longing.


Excerpted from The Dead Wife's Handbook by Hannah Beckerman. Copyright © 2014 Hannah Beckerman. Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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