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He did not die alone

28 October 2016

Pat Ashworth reflects on five years of grieving


Moving on: the North Yorkshire Moors Railway, near where Ted Ashworth’s ashes were scattered

Moving on: the North Yorkshire Moors Railway, near where Ted Ashworth’s ashes were scattered

IT IS here again: the season of the departed. All Saints’, All Souls’, Remembrance — the cycle of the Church’s year is my cycle, too; an October death synonymous with autumn, positioned among the falling leaves and the wild west winds and the shortening days.

Five years is reckoned to be the time it takes to come to terms with the sudden death of a spouse. It was swift and shocking: an aneurism that struck in the night when I was thousands of miles away on Church Times business in Africa. None of us worried too much when we could not get hold of him for a day or two, because he was perfectly well, and there was bound to be an explana­tion.

There are worse deaths, but it was the dying alone, with no one to hold his hand, that haunted me in the years following 2011. I looked for answers and reassurance. His name was annually read out in the long and solemn litany of the November bereavement service, and there was comfort, dignity, and fellow-feeling in that. Some of the deaths of those named had been hard and pro­tracted, and I knew that he had not suffered as they had suffered: for that, there had to be thankfulness.

But sermons contradicted con­solation. Suffering went on after death for those who were not be­­lievers, I heard delivered on one occasion, with a certainty that bor­dered on the fatuous. I thought of my lovely, agnostic, deep-thinking physicist husband, and did not believe that to be true. What was truth at all?

I lit candles in country churches. I took refuge in the psalms, the only book that seemed to reflect the roller­coaster of emotion which questioning people go through. When my voice came back, and I returned to sing in the choir, I found hymns a mixed blessing: the deathbed images from some of the great hymn-writers were often cloying, and I found it hard to sing lines such as “Hold thou thy cross before my closing eyes, Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies.”

Music was generally a refuge, however, and so was poetry. Wordsworth’s “A slumber did my spirit seal” turned me into the pantheist I always knew myself to be:


No motion has she now, no force;

She neither hears nor sees;

Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course,

With rocks, and stones, and trees.


I returned to Milton and Donne. Secular books were often a great deal more helpful than the spiritual, and Helen Macdonald’s master­piece, H is for Hawk (Vintage, 2014), resonated with me because of the honesty with which she charted the journey that follows sudden loss (Reading groups, 1 May 2015).

Her father died suddenly, leaving her stricken with grief. She took refuge in the training of a hawk, a spiritual contest akin to that which T. H. White had charted in his book The Goshawk. White’s hawk, Gos, was eventually lost: for all his certainty that it was dead, he clung to the belief that the bird might still be out there in the forest, in a lost, other world.

”Some part of me that didn’t work according to the everyday rules of the world but with the logic of myths and dreams . . . had hoped, too, that somewhere in that other world was my father,” Macdonald writes. “His death had been so sudden. There had been no time to prepare for it, no sense in it hap­pening at all. He could only be lost. He was out there, still, some­where in that tangled wood with all the rest of the lost and dead.

”I know now what those dreams in spring had meant, the ones of a hawk slipping through a rent in the air into another world. I’d wanted to fly with the hawk to find my father; find him and bring him home.”

We waited three years to scatter the ashes, because we did not want it to be a melancholy experience. Standing in sunshine on a hump-backed bridge over the North York­shire Moors Railway, we waited for the scheduled steam train to plough along the line on its way to Whitby, and at the moment it approached the bridge, we let the ashes fly. They danced in the rising vapours and the rush of energy, and blew on to the moorland above.

We marvelled at the extra­ordinary chance encounter we had had on Goathland station, as we crossed the line to make our way to the remote bridge. A violent knocking on the window had alerted us to the presence on the standing train of the very priest who had taken the funeral, and had scooped my family off the ground while I was marooned in Africa.

He had not known that we were there, or what for. We had not known that he had been planning a holiday in the area. It did not seem like a coincidence: we felt that there was blessing in it, a rounding-off, the sense of a journey completed.

And yet it took the words of another wise priest to bring some closure. I had found sanctuary in the familiar surroundings of the Catholic House of Prayer on Iona; but, on the recommendation of a colleague, I took myself off to Los Olivos, a retreat house in the Sierra Nevada, in Spain, where nobody knew me, and I could talk freely.

”I wasn’t there,” I said in anguish, voicing the thing that would never go away. “It’s the not having been there, the knowing he was alone when he died, the not knowing what happened that is eating me up.”

He was not alone, the wise priest said simply. God was with him when he was born, and God was with him when he died. I reflect on that now, at the approach of All Souls’, and think that the five-year estimate is probably about right.

It should be easier this season, when the dead are on our minds, and the candles are lit, and the prayers are spoken.

Requiescat in pace.

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