Love And Loss Times

Published 9 years ago

At 50, Monica Zwolsman has a jovial irreverence about her. There is a reason behind that, the single mother of two has endured one tragedy after another.

In the course of a decade, she lost two husbands and an infant son. She moved cities numerously during this time and eventually settled in the Gold Coast, Australia, where she survived a divorce from “husband number three”, father of her two young boys.

Today, Zwolsman makes peace with her tragedies in a new book, Love. Loss. Life (published by Jacana).


“I’ve spent so much of my life trying to forget and I had to forget in order to survive…I had to be emotionally stable enough,” she says.

In April 1994, a week before South Africa’s historic elections, her award-winning photographer husband, Ken Oosterbroek, was shot and killed while out on assignment. He was a victim of the bloody political violence sweeping the country.

“Everyone knew he was dead except me…when I got there, people had just ran away and I ran into the hospital and I just saw his feet sticking out, he was [on a gurney] covered, with his feet sticking out and that’s when I realized [he was dead]…I was so stunned they probably had to steer me home.”


At the time, Zwolsman was a crime reporter with The Star, a popular Johannesburg daily, she knew the dangers of the time. But his death was a deafening blow.

“I just floated along in a cloud, babbling on mindlessly…eventually I took a lot of sleeping pills and I hid in the cupboard. Occasionally people would try to check up on me and I just hated that. I put my bed in the cupboard…I would take strong sleeping tablets and I just slept in the cupboard.”

Looking for a way forward, she left for London.

“I just left and I said to the estate agent, “pack up everything and take it to the dump”. I packed a suitcase of stuff; memorabilia, mainly photos, a shirt of his…and just left. I was so odd, I hid in London as well. I had a little apartment and I had a job. I would just wander around the streets, I would walk all the time because I never slept…because if I [didn’t] go sleep, I wouldn’t have to wake up and realize ‘Oh god, Ken’s dead’!”


But that difficult time eventually came to an end. Returning to South Africa in 1995 for the inquest into Oosterbroek’s death, she met a “friend-of-a-friend”, photographer Steven Hilton-Barber, in her words meeting him, on the anniversary of Ken’s death, was electric.

“…we spent the night together partying wildly. By morning, I was the Merry Widow personified. I’d totally lost the sympathy vote and nobody remained my friend. I returned to London but a few weeks later, Steven arrived in London and we got married soon after.”

Husband number two was a “wild, woolly man” and they traveled the world together seeking adventure. In 2002, they had a beautiful baby boy, Benjamin. However, their happiness was short-lived. That year, Hilton-Barber suffered a fatal heart attack. He was just 39 and Benjamin was five months old.

A few months after Hilton-Barber’s death, Benjamin had a minor operation, but wires crossed with medication, the baby went into a coma and never woke up. In the space of a year, she had lost both husband and son.


“So, there I was, now 40 years old, a widow with a dead son.  I could not imagine the agony of having to continue living…I begged people to put me out of my misery, like a dog.”

Once again, Zwolsman left town, to Australia, where she now lives. Fourteen months later, she had met and married “husband number three”, had a son and was pregnant with the next. She began a new life in earnest.

But that, too, was short-lived. She and her husband separated a few years later and she was at her lowest. Her memoir opens at that point, she is depressed, devastated and considering suicide, wondering if her children would ever forgive her.


Fast-forward to the present, she is coping well. She is a proud mother of two and an English teacher.

Putting pen to paper, she says, is a ‘full stop’; the declaration of an end to a series of unfortunate events. And despite the sorrow she shares in her story, Zwolsman manages to let some humor seep in.

“Putting all my surnames [on the book] was supposed to be funny but now everyone goes Monica Nicholson Oosterbroek Hilton-Barber Zwolsman…it was supposed to be a joke but I think it backfired.”