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A journey through grief

28 October 2022

Two years after losing his wife, Tony Horsfall sets out what he has learnt about loss


WHEN my wife, Evelyn, died in July 2020, after ten years of fighting cancer, I felt a mixture of relief, because her suffering was over, and release, because I was no longer responsible for her care. Although expected, her death was still a shock: I will never forget the sight of her lying motionless on the bed, the life gone from her body. We had been married 46 years.

The immediate aftermath was a whirl of activity, preparing for her funeral and doing all that is necessary after a death. A wave of attention and affection was directed towards me, but, when that subsided, the real work of grieving began, and I started the task of rebuilding my life and learning to live without her.

“What have you lost as well as your loved one?” my grief counsellor asked. It slowly became apparent that it was far more than her presence and companionship: a thousand holes opened up in my life, gaps that Evelyn had filled happily and efficiently — washing, ironing, cooking, gardening, to name a few. I needed help in so many ways, starting with how to cook (I couldn’t even boil an egg). Friends were keen to help, and slowly I began to get a handle on how to care for myself.


THREE months in, it dawned on me that she really was not coming back. She had gone for good. The bubble of unreality burst. From now on, I was on my own. The rigours of life in lockdown started to bite, and, as winter and the dark nights set in, so did loneliness. Eating meals, day after day, by myself, was the hardest.

I reached my lowest point during the third national lockdown, in January 2021, when I lost hope and could not believe there was a future for me. At the same time, the light never quite went out. I realised that I had to fight back and not allow myself to be overwhelmed, or be defined by my loss.

So, I spent Sunday mornings in my office, studying and praying. In particular, I needed to rediscover and reclaim my identity as God’s deeply loved child — and to believe that he still had a future for me, even as a widower.

It was hard to trust God, but the thought came to me that one’s trust is not the issue: what matters is the trustworthiness of God. Somehow, my heart began to heal, to thaw, and, when spring 2021 came (with lighter nights, and an easing of Covid restrictions), something inside me lifted, and I knew that I was on the mend. Life began to gather pace, and happiness returned, albeit spasmodically. Before long, the first year of bereavement was over.


NOW, more than two years down the line, I can look back on that first year more objectively. What helped me with my grief journey? What did I learn?

Tony Horsfall

I was grateful to have joined a well-run online grief course, griefshare.org, but there are many others, such as the Bereavement Journey (thebereavementjourney.org), and to learn about the process of grieving. I soon realised that grief is more than a linear progression through denial, anger, bargaining, and depression, to acceptance.

All those stages may occur, but not necessarily in that order; the process is messier and more unpredictable, even random. There is an ebb and flow to it: a moving backwards and forwards between acceptance and denial, an oscillation between confronting the grief and stepping back from it for respite.

I like, too, the thought that grief does not go away, or grow smaller. Rather, we integrate it into our lives, and grow around it, incorporating it into the new reality. We do not forget, nor should we, but the pain decreases with time, and the eruption of grief becomes less frequent. Nevertheless, grief is deeply personal and distinctive. We grieve in different ways, and at different paces. That must always be respected.


THROUGHOUT my grief journey, I also sought the counsel of mature, experienced people with whom to talk and be honest. Almost every week, I spoke with a grief counsellor, Bill, who explained to me more about the nature of grief and gave me materials to read. This was helpful, as was his patient support and occasional challenge to my thinking.

It was Bill who said that, when we lose a spouse, we lose not only the person we loved, but the person who loved us. This seemed to be the nub of my heartache. I could continue to love Evelyn, but she could no longer love me. There was a hole, a vacuum, of which I needed to be aware.

Likewise, I had regular sessions with Debbie, a psychologist friend. These began when Evelyn was terminally ill, and stretched out over many months. Here, we talked more about how I was feeling, and I shed many tears. Debbie provided a safe place for me and a good listening ear, as well as sound advice when it was needed. I cannot emphasise highly enough the value of this kind of support for those who are grieving. You can find support from cruse.org.uk and teardropgrief.co.uk, as well as the Association of Christian Counsellors, acc-uk.org.

I discovered that men and women grieve differently. On the whole, women more easily cope with being alone, and more naturally find help and support from other women. Men, by contrast, are often not so good by themselves, don’t easily confide in others, and can tend towards a quick-fix solution. Hence there is a rather blunt saying: “Women grieve, but men replace.” There is a great temptation for a man to start a new relationship too soon. It was a trap that I myself fell into.

Without intending it, I developed an online friendship with a lady, and, when it inevitably fell apart, I was devastated. This contributed to my January depression, and was my own doing. At the time, I thought I was being guided by God; so my faith took a nosedive, and I was angry with God, wondering why he allowed me to suffer again.

In retrospect, I was not ready. It came out of my loneliness and need, the hole in my heart. I was emotionally vulnerable, as many are who have lost their spouse. From my perspective now, I can see that I was still under the cloud of grief, and my judgement was distorted, but you could not have told me that then. I was impatient, and in a rush to move forward.


I CAN also see, more clearly than ever now, the danger of getting stuck in grief. The associated emotions, such as depression, despair, and hopelessness, are very powerful, and can overwhelm us. We want to hide away and stay where it is safe, to cling to our loved one and the familiar life that was, letting the world pass us by. It takes a lot of courage to break that cycle and determine to live again.

There is a great danger of passivity, of doing nothing, and it can masquerade as love for the one departed. We have to be brave enough to decide to rebuild, and strong enough to believe that God still has a plan for us. Finding meaning and purpose and a reason to live is crucial if we are to recover. We honour the departed by continuing to live. That does not mean that we have stopped loving them, or that we will forget them.

Time has moved on, and my healing has continued. The following months brought many opportunities to be out and about, to be involved in ministry, and to develop a new way of life. The past still matters, but so does the present, and increasingly the future.

I felt God say to me, even before Evelyn died, that I had one more “adventure” to live, and that — perhaps — is taking shape now. This summer, two years after losing Evelyn, I married a beautiful Christian lady, and we have started a new life together on the south coast of England.

Grief does something good to us, if we allow it. It shapes and moulds us, and hopefully makes us more compassionate and tender towards others. It makes us grateful for the life we have, and the days we live. Grief never goes away entirely, but we learn to absorb it into who we are. We are better people because we have grieved.


Tony Horsfall is an author, retreat leader, and mentor. His most recent book, Grief Notes: Walking through loss: The first year after bereavement, is published by BRF at £8.99 (Church Times Bookshop £8.09) (Books, 15 July).

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