by Richard Darlington
from Signs of the Times No. 59 - Oct 2015
My wife Elizabeth died in Dr Kershaw’s Hospice, in Oldham, on 11 July 2014. The care and respect given by the staff there was lovely. I would like to share some of my reflections since then.
What happens before and after death is a mystery. We both had a similar understanding that, at death, our soul or spirit simply gets reabsorbed into the spirit of the cosmos. I had thought that was it.
But a sense of peace that pervaded our feelings after Elizabeth died introduced a new dimension in that there seems to be some sort of continuation of individual consciousness as part of that great spirit of the cosmos. Our GP, who is a Sikh, tells me this is what her religion believes too. Susannah, our daughter, who, with her husband, has experienced the sense of spirit of peoples in the Amazon forest, has (if I have understood her correctly) come to believe that our spirits continue to exist in some mysterious way, and if we call upon them they are there to support us.
‘Learning to live with it’ sums up our approach to Elizabeth’s cancer and to her early death and I am finding it continuing to be helpful, though not easy, integrating our 55 years together into life. As our daughter put it when we learnt of Elizabeth's diagnosis, ‘What is, is’.
I have found our church enveloping me with love and care, for which I am so grateful, and it has struck me how others are mourning Elizabeth too. The funeral was very special for us family and friends. Elizabeth and I discussed it beforehand and had expected that there was a set format but thanks to our rector, Christopher Halliday, we learnt it was entirely up to us what was in the funeral service. Elizabeth and I agreed to have the coffin in church before people arrived and for immediate family members to sit around her in silence. It was wonderful that everyone coming into church was silent too.
The testimonies are too long to be included here in full, but I have picked out salient points, one of the last of which came from Revd Roger White who said she radiated a quiet serenity while getting on with Traidcraft and the Jubilee 2000 Campaign.
Barbara Christopher shared her experience of Elizabeth as a colleague and friend. She highlighted the level of Elizabeth’s professional attainment as a managerial social worker, and her thoughtfulness in listening and in giving well thought out responses. Her sense of fairness, justice and equality was evident in the causes she supported and how she treated other people. Barbara paid tribute to how Elizabeth supported her during her ordination training and her taking on Traidcraft for St. Mary’s.
I shared my tribute as a husband including her doubts about marrying me, her early lack of self-assurance and how hard it was for her in the early years of motherhood away from friends. I spoke about when, through group therapy, she became more self-assured and this caused eruptions in our marriage, and how I had to learn to change too by attending group therapy with her. Elizabeth’s grandfather apparently said at our wedding that our marriage would not last. He was almost right but happily we stuck together and found our way through the hard times. It was at that time she left the Quakers and became an Anglican. We had sorted ourselves out by the time we moved to Oldham, which saw the best of us. We were largely in tune regarding national and world affairs and both enjoyed the same music, theatre, hillwalking and camping. One of my regrets is that she died a few days too soon to hear the result of the vote on the ordination of women to be bishops.
Susannah, our daughter, said:
‘I want to pay tribute to my mother together with Dad. I am so pleased that they found each other, and could live with the support, love and comradeship of another practical idealist, and that they found you, this church, which has given them a real sense of home, community and belonging.
‘One of the most beautiful things I have ever witnessed was the quality of love expressed by my father for my mother during her last days. As Dad said, their relationship had its stormy crisis which had the teenage me wishing they would split up so that the conflict could end, which resolved itself through group therapy. I want to acknowledge them both for tending the garden of their relationship and for sticking with it when the going got tough, when, as Mum told me later, they only managed to stay the course because they were people of their word.
‘I’ve treasured having a Mum with whom I could share my own ponderings about the nature of existence and our humanity right from being a little girl up to last month. Mum held her love for the world in a very private way I think, but I’m sure we all felt it, and saw it in her long term commitment to re-cycling, renewable energy, Fair Trade, the inter-faith forum, support for victims of torture, her professional life and in all those one to one moments of care. Thinking about her during those last days at the loving hospice, and since her death, I’ve realised even more than ever before, how she held a big vision for the healing of the world, and yet so patient and present in all the small, practical steps of love and commitment made manifest in her life.
‘Maybe her last gift to the world was her radiant, shining smile which she shared with all of us till very close to the end. Those of us who had the privilege of being beamed at like that, by someone so consciously and willingly approaching the mystery of death, will, I’m sure, carry it with us as a blessing always.’
Our son Martin followed. He said:
‘If I was given one word to sum up Mum I’d say “wisdom”; given three words, I’d say “apparently effortless wisdom” because I’m aware that she had to learn and grow into the person she became. She had an emotional wisdom and an empathy with anyone and everyone. The only criteria required to be in Mum’s good books was to be a human and the only way you could drop out was by your actions and your deeds. Not by where you were from, what language you spoke, what your beliefs were, what colour your skin or any other criteria other than what you did.
‘Mum and Dad have given Susannah and me unconditional love and support which I have taken for granted for too many years. I met Sharon seven years ago who then became my wife. Sharon, as a mother herself, observed my parents and was able to open my eyes. In the last seven years my relationship with Mum and Dad could not have been better.’
The Funeral Service book included 35 other tributes from family and friends. Since the funeral I received a letter from an old friend of Elizabeth which included this:
‘Thank you and all your family for opening up that holy space to us. Not every funeral takes us straight to heaven, but Elizabeth’s did. Never thought of a funeral as a converting experience before!’
In fact, one 54-year-old family member said he had had no truck with religion all his life and what he experienced at Elizabeth's funeral has shown him that his life has been empty all this time
And as for me, I am learning to live on my own and to integrate the past into life anew though missing not being able to share things with her like world affairs. The words on her grave (carved in pure Yorkshire stone) were put together by Susannah, Martin and myself: