Life After Scott
At 8.40pm on 30 July 1996, Phil and Wendy Hewlett received a phone call that changed their lives forever. It was their son’s friend, Emlyn, phoning from Tenerife. He told them that their son Scott, 20, was missing after setting off to walk alone in the mountains three days earlier.
Phil and Wendy immediately feared the worst: “It was not like him to go off like that without telling anyone. He was not very good at keeping in touch with us, admittedly – we’d only heard from him twice since he’d arrived in Tenerife two weeks before – but he wouldn’t leave his friends like that without a word,” says Phil.
Scott Hewlett grew up in Saltash, Cornwall. He loved drama and had completed the first year of a Drama and English degree at Cardiff University. Wendy says: “The word to describe Scott is “irrepressible”. To be honest, he really wasn’t ready for serious study and, after just a year on the course, he dropped out.”
After quitting university, Scott had flown to Tenerife to spend the summer there. Within days, had talked himself into a job selling timeshare, which included accommodation. “He had the gift of the gab,” says Wendy. “He phoned us a couple of weeks after he arrived in Tenerife to tell us he was having a fantastic time. He was very upbeat. At the end of the phone call, he said ‘bye mum, I love you’. It was the last time I ever spoke to him.”
The search for Scott
The morning after receiving Emlyn’s phone call, Phil flew to Tenerife with his father, then 75, to search for Scott. They were met at the airport by Scott’s boss, Ference, who took them to the local police station. The police had begun searching for Scott the previous day but it transpired that their search had been concentrated in the wrong area. On the day Phil and his father arrived, the search recommenced, this time in an area 20 miles away.
Phil remained on the ground with a young police officer while the police helicopter scanned the area. “I was watching it circling and then it stopped,” says Phil. “The police began talking very fast in Spanish on walkie-talkies. I asked the officer what they were saying and he said bluntly ‘they’ve found him, he’s dead’. I went totally numb.”
Phil remained in Tenerife for a week following the discovery of Scott’s body while the authorities argued over which jurisdicial area he had died in. One morning, without warning, the police handed Phil a ca Scott without my permission or without me being present,” says Phil. “For a long time, it haunted us that neither of us was there; we don’t even know if he had a coffin.”
Breaking the news to Beth
For Wendy, back home in Devon, the news of Scott’s death came in a phone call from Phil. “My immediate concern was our daughter, Beth, who was 15 at the time,” says Wendy. “Because Phil was a headmaster and quite well known and respected in the local area, I knew Scott’s death would be in the papers and on the local news. Beth was away in Wadebridge doing her Duke of Edinburgh Award. I knew I needed to tell her before she heard it from someone else.”
Wendy’s sister and brother-in-law drove her to Wadebridge that day to break the news to Beth. She was, understandably, devastated.
The longest week
The week that Phil was away in Tenerife was the longest of the Hewlett family’s life. “After the first initial shock, you go into adrenalin overdrive. We had to organise Scott’s funeral, even though we only had his ashes,” says Wendy. “We held the service at home in Saltash. More than 500 people came.”
Phil recalls his time in Tenerife as being punctuated by a series of thoughtless and insensitive acts on the part of the local authorities. At the airport, for example, as he left to board the plane, he was asked to put the casket containing Scott’s ashes through the X-ray machine.
Life changed forever
The family recalls feeling almost high on the day of Scott’s funeral, fuelled by a potent mix of adrenalin and extreme emotion. It was a few days afterwards that the finality of Scott’s death sank in. “You close the door and you realise this is it, your life has changed forever,” says Phil. “That’s when it really hit us.”
“A lot of people don’t know how to deal with it when someone’s been through a tragedy like this,” adds Wendy. “People used to cross the street so they didn’t have to face talking to me. I wore sunglasses for months so I could hide behind them.”
A turning point
In the dark months after Scott’s death, the family was desperate to hear words of comfort from people who had been through the loss of a child. “We just wanted someone to say to us you will get through this, there is light at the end of the tunnel,” explains Wendy. They sought help from a national charity for parents of children who have died. It was to be a turning point for them, but not in the way that they expected.
“We arrived at the home of the charity’s local representatives,” says Wendy. “It was six weeks after Scott died. A woman opened the door to us and she was in tears. She said ‘Come in. You’ll have to excuse me, he only has seven days left to live’. We were stunned, we didn’t know what to say. It turned out she was talking about her son who had died in a car accident seven years earlier. It was seven days before the anniversary of his death. His bedroom was like a shrine to him and they never went away or went out at the weekend because his father visited his grave every Saturday and Sunday. They were locked in their grief. This couple never once said to us ‘we understand what you’re going through, it’ll be OK, there is light at the end of the tunnel’ because, for them, there wasn’t. We drove away and I said ‘I’m not ending up like that. I’ve lost my son but I’ve still got a life and a husband and a daughter. I owe it to them not to be like that.’”
Spark of determination
This episode gave the family a renewed spark of determination to get through their terrible loss. “I think you have to want to have a life,” says Wendy. “And you have to learn to accept your loss. Over time, we have come to realise that Scott’s death has given us an insight into what really matters in life and we appreciate that we are lucky in many ways. It has also given us a degree of empathy and understanding that we might not have had otherwise. We have talked to a number of people who have lost people they love in tragic circumstances and tried to share a message of hope. In the years since he died, we have gradually learned how to enjoy life again.”
An unexpected source of comfort
Wendy admits that she remembers very little about the two years after Scott died. Help did not come from the places they expected to find it, but it did come from another source.
“My cousin Joan was interested in spiritualism so she invited me to go along with her to a meeting one day. It was nearly the end of the evening when the spiritualist, a lady called Jean Hole, said she had a message for me. She told me she had a young man with her in his early 20s who had had a fall and had injuries down his left-hand side. She said he had only just passed and had fought against it. She told me he had been in a hot country and had had problems breathing (Scott was asthmatic). The lady said he wanted me to know he was happy and he had an older man with him and a dog (Scott had had a dog called Harry). I couldn’t speak. I just got up and walked out.”
Wendy visited the medium again during a private reading for one of her cousin’s friends. “Again, she came to me and said she had a young man with her. She described Scott, from his blonde hair to his purple wraparound sunglasses. The last time I saw him he was wearing those sunglasses. She told me he had been climbing when something had flown out of a bush and startled him. He stepped backwards, lost his footing and fell. She told us one of his shoes had come off as he stumbled. When he was found, he was wearing one shoe.”
Phil also wanted to hear from the medium and, this time, Wendy and Phil visited her alone. “When we arrived she said ‘thank goodness you are here, he has been keeping me up all night, jumping on my bed because he knows you are coming.’ She told them that her husband had gone into town to collect something ‘that the young man wants me to give to his sister’. During the reading, Jean asked Wendy ‘why have you got his earring? That was for his father.’ Wendy explains that, when Scott was hastily cremated in Tenerife, the police omitted to remove his earring. Phil had become obsessed about the earring and wanted to wear it himself. They had retrieved it from the ashes but it was blackened and distorted to such an extent that it could not be worn so, instead, Wendy had taken to wearing it on a chain around her neck.
“What the lady didn’t know,” adds Wendy, “is that earring use to move about on its own when I wore it. When I was sitting still sometimes, I could feel it moving on my neck.”
When Jean Hole’s husband returned from town, he was carrying a single red rose – the flower that Beth had placed on her brother’s casket during his funeral. Joan also handed Phil a poem that had been dictated to her by the young man. He carries it in his wallet to this day.
“We didn’t see Jean Hole again after that,” says Wendy. “We didn’t feel the need to keep going back and talking to her, but what she said gave us peace and a conviction that Scott was still around, even though we couldn’t physically see him.”
Although the couple haven’t actively sought help from a medium since their last visit to Joan Hole, there have been many spiritual experiences that have convinced them of the continued presence of Scott in their lives. The latest was a message from a friend’s psychic neighbour during a recent visit to the States. The message was “I just wanted to let you know he is here and he knows about the wedding.” In December 2012, their daughter Beth became engaged to her fiancé Mark.
Phil comments: “I know some people are very against spiritualism but I say there are lots of different routes to God. If a spiritualist has empathy and the ability to tune into something that helps people, what is wrong with that? It is about being open-minded. There is a lot of nonsense out there and there are undoubtedly rogues, but there is also more that happens in the world than we can fully understand and Wendy and I are happy to accept the small things that have been thrown our way. You can either accept them or reject them. We choose to accept them.”
The family has also found strength in their relationship with Hannah Lindfield, a young woman with Pfeiffer’s Syndrome for whom they have provided respite care for nearly 20 years, since before Scott died. “Hannah has helped us more than she will ever know. She has faced such a lot of challenges in her life, as a result of her medical condition, and seeing what she has to cope with serves, somehow, to take the focus off us. She has been like a surrogate daughter to us and her mum and dad, Millie and Mark, have involved us completely in her life and upbringing. It has been a privilege.”
A story of hope
It is now 17 years since Scott died. Phil says: “Imagine your worst nightmare. That was what it was like losing Scott, and the events surrounding his death. At first, you fight against what has happened but, over time, you learn to let go and accept the new reality. That’s when you can start to rebuild your life. Seventeen years on, we no longer have bad days although we do have bad moments. We are not depressive and we don’t dwell on things. We’ve worked out that this doesn’t change anything, it doesn’t bring him back. So, we make a conscious decision to try and enjoy our life to the full.”
Wendy adds: “Despite everything we’ve been through, ours is a story of hope. We want to say to anyone facing a tragic loss that you can still have a life but you have to want to. We made a conscious decision to focus on what we still had in our lives, not what we’d lost.
“You do feel guilty at first that you are laughing or having a good time but, you know, life could end tomorrow so you have to make the most of it. We know how to enjoy the simple things in life, we know what makes us happy and how to have a good time. When it first happens, it is there at the forefront of your mind, but gradually, over time, it recedes a little. Time is a great healer.”
Many couples facing the loss of a child subsequently split up, so what is it that has kept Phil and Wendy together? “I kept busy,” says Wendy, “and made Phil do the same. We were lucky enough to have a cottage in South Devon to escape to at weekends where no-one knew us and what we’d been through. We talk to each other a lot, we don’t sulk or brood on things.”
Phil adds: “To be honest, I was utterly in awe of the way Wendy dealt with this. She was so strong and focused, she was my rock. I thought if she can cope with this, so can I.”
They acknowledge that they each grieved for Scott in very different ways. “Phil cried and I shouted,” says Wendy. “You have to respect the way the other person grieves and let them do it. Sometimes, one partner might want to start a personal crusade in response to a tragic loss, whereas the other one might just want to quietly grieve. Both responses are equally valid and I don’t think you should try and make the other person do things the way that you do.”
A simple life
“Life will never be the same again, it’s true, but that doesn’t mean life has no worth or can’t be enjoyed. We have learned to enjoy the simple things in life. Holidays, money, possessions, they’re all great, but ultimately they’re not what really matters,” says Wendy.
“We continue to face challenges, of course,” adds Phil. “A big one was finding the courage to let Beth go and follow her heart. At 18, she wanted to go to London to study at drama school. We were very nervous at first but, for her 18th birthday, we gave her a song that contains the line “what is the use of wings if you can’t fly?” That says it all really.”
“In a perverse way, Scott’s death has given us a gift. It has made us re-evaluate our lives and taught us that life is really about loving and caring for those who come into your orbit, whether that is family or friends. It has also given us a responsibility to others, as people tend to listen to what we say, particularly if they, too, have lost a child. We are all the product of the experiences life sends our way. It is what we choose to do with these experiences that counts.”
“The deeper the sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.”