The knock at the door woke me with a start. It was the middle of the night. Who could it be? Racing to the door, a figure was hidden in darkness.
‘Helen?’ I asked, realising it was my daughter, then 41.
She tried to speak, but she couldn’t catch her breath and her voice was raspy. As my eyes adjusted, I was horrified by what I saw. My darling girl’s face was covered in blood.
I knew straight away she’d been attacked, and I knew who by – her husband of 11 years, Greg Meads.
When they had first got together, Helen was a sociable mum to two kids – Michael, then nine, and Kimberley, three. I’d never warmed to Greg’s stand-offish manner. He was the polar opposite of my vivacious daughter.
But slowly, Greg stopped Helen from seeing her friends. He replaced her furniture with things he owned, and sold her car.
‘You can just use mine,’ he’d said.
It was like he was trying to make her completely reliant on him. When they welcomed their daughter, Samantha, they seemed like a happy family. But one day, Helen confessed that Greg had hit her with a rake handle while they were cleaning their horses’ stables.
I confronted Greg immediately, but he shrugged it off as an accident. My wife Pam and I were beside ourselves with worry.
‘Please leave him,’ I’d beg Helen, over and over again. She’d always refuse.
‘I love him, Dad,’ she’d reply. ‘He’ll change.’
Now she was at my door. Calling a doctor over, we discovered Helen had been beaten so badly that her larynx was crushed. I settled Helen with Pam before charging over to the home she shared with Greg.
Thankfully, the girls were still asleep and I knew he’d never lay a finger on them. Greg was calm as I confronted him.
‘You’ll have the police to answer to now,’ I raged.
But by the time I’d got back home, Greg was bombarding Helen with apologies and promises.
‘Please don’t get the police involved,’ Helen pleaded. ‘He’s really sorry and it won’t happen again. Please, Dad.’
Reluctantly, I backed down. It’s something I’ll regret forever. In the months that followed, the Helen we knew disappeared even further. She walked on eggshells, making sure Greg’s every wish was met in order to keep the peace.
Pam and I kept asking Helen to leave her marriage.
‘It’s safer if I stay,’ she’d reply. She was so scared of making him angry. I watched Greg like a hawk.
‘One wrong step and I’m going to the police,’ I vowed to Pam.
A year after that terrible night, Helen came to see us.
‘I’m leaving him,’ she said. ‘I’ll be out by next week.’
Pam and I cried tears of joy. A spark of the old Helen was flickering back to life.
But four days after Helen told us, there was a knock at the door. It was the police. The officer’s face was grave.
‘Helen is dead,’ he said.
From that moment, Pam and I went into autopilot. It was as though we were watching a terrible movie playing out.
Greg had read text messages on Helen’s phone detailing her plans to leave him. He’d followed her to their barn with a shotgun and blasted her in the throat at close range.
Our wonderful daughter had died instantly. She was just 42 years old.
I raced to collect her girls from school before the news could spread. Telling them that Mummy was gone broke my heart. Pam and I vowed to keep them safe and so they moved in with us.
A year later, in October 2010, Gregory Howard Meads, then 55, appeared before Hamilton High Court. He was unanimously found guilty of murder and sentenced to life with a non-parole term of 11 years.
It wasn’t nearly enough for the devastation he’d caused. It’s seven years since Helen died and I’ve realised the most powerful words in the world aren’t ‘I love you’ or ‘I’m sorry’.
They are ‘if only’. If only I’d noticed the signs sooner. If only I’d ignored Helen’s pleas that night. If only I’d gone to the police – perhaps my beautiful daughter would still be alive.
I knew I couldn’t let anger take over me. Instead, I’ve dedicated my life to educating people. As well as bringing up our amazing grandchildren with Pam, I’ve become an anti-violence advocate.
I speak at schools, prisons and conferences, and have written two books.
We only caught glimpses of Helen’s life. But if we’d stood back, we’d have seen the whole, terrible picture. So if something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t.
No-one should have to walk in our shoes. Don’t be left wondering if only…
David’s book, Family Violence: Lifting New Zealand’s Dark Cloud, is published by Renaissance.
I never realised I could have picked up the phone and asked for advice about how to handle the situation. Whether it’s the police or a domestic violence organisation, there are people out there who can give you help and support.
Strangers often contact me after hearing our story to tell me they’ve left a dangerous relationship or intervened on behalf of a friend or family member. It means so much to know that someone is still alive because we’ve talked about what happened to us on that terrible day.
If you or someone you know needs help or advice, contact 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732), a 24-hour counselling service in Australia.
This story was originally published in that's life! Issue 40, October 6, 2016.