I have lived in the South-West of England for over 20 years, and Fiona and I lived the greater part of our married life here. While we missed Yorkshire, we never regretted moving here and I would probably not move back, unless my Dad wins the Lottery and buys us a cottage in the Dales 😉
While I am progressing well along the grieving path having lost her eighteen months ago, I was taken completely by surprise by an unexpected emotional response I felt a few weeks ago.
Ellie and I were up in Yorkshire on holiday, at the holiday cottage near Skipton where our family have stayed for the last sixteen years – with the exception of last year as the anticipated memories would still have been very raw. And the cottage was no problem; we had a lovely week in our tranquil, idyllic refuge from the hustle of everyday life. Fiona’s memories were strong there, of course, but in a good way.
Where I came unstuck was when I went to my home town of Yeadon, passing through my original home town of Guiseley, to see my old friend with whom I’d arranged to meet up. Seeing all the places that Fiona and I used to frequent in our earlier years together, was what I found made me feel very odd, and indeed rather sad. While we love South Devon, our formative years as a young married couple were spent in Yeadon, and the memories evoked by the visit that evening – even though it was a dark evening and I couldn’t see much – were poignant and sad. I arrived back at the cottage that evening really quite shaken by the intensity of the emotional reaction I’d had. I have so many happy memories from our past life in Yorkshire, before the immense and life-changing adventure of moving more than 300 miles away to start a new life.
Memories of taking our boys out for walks, with the dogs, in their prams and pushchairs (the boys, not the dogs!). Seeing how hugely my home towns have changed over the past 23 years (since I left) – and not for the better, either*. Memories of surviving in poverty and hardship, where the last few pennies we needed to buy a loaf of bread had to be scraped out of the back of the cutlery drawer. Memories of the boys’ birthday parties; my Dad’s bodybuilding gym; our tiny first house; and our second house which was like a palace in comparison. The grubby black muck of melted snow and the bone-numbing cold so typical of Yorkshire in the winter. Memories of friends, music and worship; walks and stunning views from the hills; memories of seeing God work amazing things in our lives. The griefs, the challenges and the joys of two young lives shared and merged into one.
Somehow, all that came back to me in a rush, comparable to the combat fatigue I had experienced during the fight. And it shook me up good and proper.
I think of it as combat fatigue because it took only a small trigger to kick off all the painful feelings again; the feelings from the battle with cancer and the pain of losing her. Dr. John W. Appel, a U.S. Army combat physician, had this to say about the strain of constant battle: “…there [is] no such thing as ‘getting used to combat’. Each moment of it imposes a strain so great that men will break in direct relation to the intensity and duration of their exposure. Thus psychiatric casualties are as inevitable as gunshot wounds in warfare“. (1) And that’s what it was like, and still is even now, years after the constant, unrelenting battle (which began in late 2013 and ended in October 2016). I am bruised, broken, damaged, and in need of continuing healing from my best friend, Jesus, Who holds my hand on this road.
I suppose that what I have realised is that, while I have (largely successfully) dealt with – and come through – the pain of losing Fiona, and coming to terms with living here in my house that is now so obviously devoid of her light and presence, I had not appreciated how much it would cost me to revisit the good memories of the past, in the places where they happened. The places we went together. The place where I first saw her; the place where she used to live before we were married; the place where I first asked her out. All those familiar, physical places, which, again, no longer look like they used to do back then, so it’s almost as if the memories are all that is left. And that’s very painful; seeing the places where I grew up so changed, and being reminded of the good times we had there. Yes, it’s great to remember those times, but it also has the effect of reminding me of just what I have lost, for this life at least. It has highlighted the gaping space at my side which is where Fiona used to be. In the same way as the old landscapes up there in Guiseley and Yeadon have been lost forever under the blight of tarmac and concrete, so my lovely wife is no longer here with me – until we meet again on the other side of the veil.
So, how do I cope with that?
Well, I am processing it all in a similar manner to how I have processed everything else that’s happened. I confront the feelings, see where they come from and how they affect me, and then turn them around for good. I remember the good things fondly and with gladness and gratitude, and I remember the hard times with gratitude also because God always came through for us, and He never once let us down. And so, the happy memories I hold precious as examples of how good life was, and indeed still is. In essence, whether Fiona is here or not, those memories would only ever be all I have left of those times, because what is past is indeed only ever memories. But the lasting effects of all those experiences are what build up wisdom, gratitude and love – both for God and for others. They convince me even more that death is not the end – don’t ask me how; I actually don’t know, it’s just a deep-seated conviction I have about that.
St. Paul puts it like this: “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.” – (Romans 5:1-5, emphasis mine). And it’s that hope – something to look forward to, and to live in, in the here and now – that keeps me going. Hope for this life, and hope for the next.
As always, with any painful experience, it’s how we deal with it that determines how we will come through. If we can find the strength and determination to just press on and get on with it, that will carry us through, no matter how hopeless things seem. Even if it’s just one small step at a time. And even if you don’t feel it, even if you are not aware of it, still the Presence of God is right there with you as you struggle with your feelings. The Lord is close to the broken-hearted, and He saves those who are crushed in spirit (Ps 34:18). He really is, and He really does. In the meantime, keep your hope alight and press on. Determine that you are not going to let this time beat you. The human spirit is tougher, stronger and more resilient than you would ever believe possible, but it’s not until the hard times come, of course, that we actually see that in action. Wholeness is coming, and your salvation – that wholeness – is at hand.
Header picture shows my beautiful Fiona at the age of 29, with my son Richard on her shoulders, in May, 1993. Rich would have been nearly four years old there; he’s now the same age as Fiona is in that photo. She was so gorgeous, wasnt she? 😀 What a blessed man I am to have been married to such a beauty.
*My Dad always used to say, “When I were a lad, all this were just fields”. And now I know how he felt.
(1) Dr. John W. Appel, U.S. Army combat physician, quoted in ‘Eighth Air Force – The American Bomber Crews in Britain’ by Prof. Donald L. Miller, Aurum Press Ltd (2007), p.129