It would be easy to find oneself avoiding a book like this. After all, as the author says it is ‘brave work that grieving well requires of us.’
Tony Horsfall should know because the story of his wife’s death is a very sad one. Evelyn died from cancer in a care home during the pandemic and Tony, who had moved into the residential unit to be with her during lockdown, contracted Covid-19 himself. He wrote vividly about his experiences on Facebook and developed a devoted online following as a result.
However, his book, Grief Notes: Walking through loss (BRF, 2022), charts the first year of his bereavement. In places, it is not an easy read as his loss resonates, without a doubt, with the reader’s own losses.
Tony’s expertise as a retreat leader and writer, make him an exceptionally self-aware mourner. He is touchingly honest about the negative emotions he feels; the aching loneliness, the deceptive ease with which he slipped into a new relationship which didn’t work out as he had hoped… and so on.
The insights he gains through facing the grieving process head-on make it well worth persevering with a book so manifestly full of another person’s pain. We might prefer not to confront the truths he uncovers, but we would have missed such an opportunity to understand human emotions if we did.
There is a thread running throughout – where to find that love again that we crave, now our beloved has disappeared? Friendship to fill the void becomes so important to him, as does reacquainting himself with the child of God he (and each of us) is; the younger self we once were, the real self – the soul – who transcends our earthly existence.
Some books about grief can become a string of good quotes from the learned, so much so that we feel somewhat distanced; as if what others have felt is all very well, but one’s own take is different. That’s as it should be, however, because as Tony rightly says each of us grieves uniquely. That is not to say there aren’t common themes.
It was a surprise to me to find it was a football manager quoted by Tony who set me thinking. Here within Tony’s journal of grief appear the paradoxical words of Leeds United manager, Marcelo Bielsa, musing on how life shapes people for good or ill:
‘The moments in my life when I have improved are closely related to failure. The moments in life when I have regressed are closely related to success. Being successful deforms us as human beings. It relaxes us. It plays tricks on us. It makes us worse individuals. It feeds our egos. Failure forms us, makes us more solid, brings us closer to our convictions. It makes us more coherent.’
Shades here, perhaps, of Richard Rohr’s book that I recommend to students of the spirituality of ageing, Falling Upward: A spirituality for the two halves of life, (SPCK, 2013).
Grief for someone we have loved deeply makes failures of us all. Life loses its enchantment in the aftermath of a loved one’s death. And yet, Tony Horsfall’s message is that if we can approach such a chasm in our life with an open mindset, it can be an opportunity for spiritual growth, a way of regaining the right balance.
The diary format of the book is combined with chapter end notes on key Bible passages and nuggets of wisdom in the form of bullet points. His are hard-won insights. Surrendering to God’s will in all things, even during an acute period of mourning and accommodating oneself to the grief that never quite leaves us may give God a chance to show us a new way of being. If we can be sufficiently open to possibilities, grief can be a liberating period of life.
‘Disappointment – His appointment Change one letter, then I see. That the thwarting of my purpose Is God’s better choice for me.’
Laura Sophia Soole (unknown – 1927)
Tony Horsfall comes through his first year of bereavement a changed man and, it would appear, a wiser one. It is our good fortune that he sees writing as one of the tasks, the new plans, God has in store for him. BRF rightly regards him as one of its most gifted authors. Lucky us! Even if you have to steel yourself a little, you won’t be sorry you made the effort to read this book.
Tony Horsfall is a freelance trainer, retreat leader and author based in Yorkshire. He is an elder of Ackworth Community Church and regularly travels abroad leading retreats and quiet days. Tony also contributes to BRF’s Bible reading notes, New Daylight and Bible Reflections for Older People.