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A year without Sarah: Memory, Loss and the Pain of Mother’s Day Emails

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The Observer writer Sarah Hughes died at just 48. Her husband talks about how he is coping and the launch of the memoir that was so dear to her

Kristian Glynn with children Ruby and Oisin with their dog Murphy
Sarah’s husband, Kristian Glynn, with their children Ruby and Oisin and their dog Murphy at home in London. Photograph: Andy Hall/The Observer

For some of the bereaved, the torrent of promotional Mother’s Day emails at this time of year is more upsetting than the day itself. This is certainly the case for Kristian Glynn, whose wife, the accomplished journalist Sarah Hughes, died of cancer last April aged 48.

“Those messages are relentless,” he tells me, as he and their two teenage children approach the first anniversary of her death.

Mother’s Day was never a big event inside their home and this year Glynn has no formal plans to mark the moment. Instead, with Ruby, 15, and Oisin, 13, he will have the sort of regular Sunday that Hughes always enjoyed. “Her beloved ritual was to have a big meal and a moment of peace with all the newspapers in front of her – and then to chuck all the finished sections into the middle of the room,” he says.

Of much greater significance will be the joyful launch at the end of this month of the book Hughes was writing when she died. Holding Tight, Letting Go: My Life, Death and all the Madness in Between is a collection of her essays that has since been completed by writers and colleagues who were close to the author.

Sarah Hughes, who died in April 2021.
Sarah Hughes, who died in April 2021. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

Hughes’ own powerful writing about dealing with sickness in lockdown, and an earlier piece about enduring two stillbirths are both included, as is a passionate defence of “trashy” fiction and a celebration of the joys of fashion, even when she was in poor health.

One particular passage, in an essay by Hughes about memory, closely echoes Glynn’s sentiments about Mother’s Day. Parents, she writes, should not be idolised by their children, even in death: “It is important that they do not see me as Saint Mum, the dead angel in heaven, but rather that they remember me in all my imperfections. Throwing shoes, shouting, losing my temper at just the wrong moment. Loving them fiercely, too, reading to them, checking their homework, making sure that, despite everything they feel wanted and adored.”

Elsewhere she writes about how difficult it proved to find the promised consolation in some of the standard, admired texts about death. A book such as Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking didn’t work for her, Hughes confesses. The problem was it was her who was leaving. Touchingly, she recalls idly wondering in the past which of her friends would not make it to old age. Now the answer was obvious.

In Glynn’s own chapter, a fond note that closes the book, he argues it was his late wife’s “great empathy that made her the writer she was”. And contributed chapters from friends and colleagues make it plain just how integral she was to their happiness.

Another of Hughes’ key characteristics, an immense appetite for everything that interested her, also beams out from the pages. Among her enthusiasms were Tottenham Hotspur, horse racing, the books of Daphne du Maurier and the television series Game of Thrones.

“If she loved something she really went in to bat for it,” says Glynn. “It was a kind of a stream of consciousness when she got going. I can hear her voice when I read the book.”

It was as a television writer for the Guardian that Hughes built up an extraordinarily large community of fans, although her work for this Sunday newspaper stretched back to the early 2000s, when she helped put together the sports pages.

When we speak Glynn has just returned from Cheltenham races, once an annual outing for the couple. He had fun, he says, but knew it would be different. “There’s lots of things I’m still doing that I’d have done with Sarah. I know they’re never going to be the same.

“With Cheltenham it didn’t matter if it was the two of us, or if we met friends there, we always knew we would have a great time.”

Glynn, whose family are from Donegal, Ireland, met Hughes in London through their love of sport, but his grownup job, detecting money laundering and conducting due diligence on business clients, soon took them to New York, where Hughes began her freelance writing career. Travel remained important to both of them, even once they had a family.

“Holidays were one of our big things. Last half-term I went to Berlin with the kids. If Sarah had been there as well she would’ve known exactly where to go. She just had that lust for life and knowledge,” he says. “Our honeymoon was in Russia and she turned up there with a pile of Dostoevsky; all the Russian classics. She always had a book nearby.”

Had Hughes lived, Glynn thinks she would have tried her hand at her beloved historical fiction. “There would certainly have been billowing cloaks,” he jokes.

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He and the children will continue to do the things Hughes loved, he says. “You get up and you go on, but you don’t forget. People tell me the anniversary next month will be hard, but really it’s hard every day. As I sometimes say to the kids, though, the worst has already happened. She can’t die again.”

It was important for Hughes’ book to be published, Glynn says, not simply because she wanted it, but because he knew it would help others. “I knew from the response to things she’d written in the Observer just how beneficial it could be for people.”

The published book, as Glynn suggests, is full of Hughes’ life force. And it presents her “scars and all”, as there is a clear-eyed, unfiltered chapter about the marks left on her body by injury and surgery.

As a naughty schoolgirl in Edinburgh she had fallen on the cobbles and later knocked her head on a lamp-post celebrating Euro 96. Later came caesarean sections and a mastectomy. Her skin provided, she writes, “a living map of all that I have been through”.

Hughes’ journalism, then her body, and now her book are testament to a life packed with adventure and misadventure. She achieved and felt more than enough for one lifetime, but that does not make dying young any fairer.

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