Living with Dying
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Date: 9 March, 2010

 

'For example, when you are ill and you miss a morning service you don’t have a few people wishing you well you can have hundreds.'

Andy Jackson reviews Living with Dying, the new book by Grace Sheppard

It seems churlish to critique the widow of a well-loved Bishop whose new book is about death and dying. Some might argue that no-one should say anything bad about Grace Sheppard’s ‘Living with Dying’ but, nonetheless, I have some issues about her book.

Grace’s husband was the Rt Rev David Sheppard, a former captain of the England cricket team, vicar of Canning Town, Bishop of Woolwich and Bishop of Liverpool from 1975 – 1997, who died of bowel cancer in 2005.

Part of my discomfort stems from my background and so I can’t blame Grace for all I found wrong with the book. My father is a minister and my mother is an ordained hospital chaplain so I know at first hand what it is like living in a manse with a huge community of people constantly around you.

For example, when you are ill and you miss a morning service you don’t have a few people wishing you well you can have hundreds, and at times it seems that there’s no escape and a chance for much-craved solitude.

Chinks

I remembered what this was like while reading the book and felt sorry for Grace even though she seemed to be thankful of being part of the community that came with her husband’s job. However, there were chinks in the armour of being a clergy wife which makes me think that this wasn’t the case all of the time.

There’s an immediate assumption that the book concentrates on the death of David, which it doesn’t. The first half of the book is an autobiography of Grace and David’s life combined with times when they were affected by the death of friends or family.

In this part, I felt the book tried to do too much. The book felt disjointed, as if Grace was trying to cram in too much in a very short space. What she writes is fascinating but the flow of the text suffers as a result.

The book could easily repeat David’s autobiography ‘Steps Along Hope Street’ and I appreciate that it’s a tall order to write something different but similar along with your own subject in the one volume!

But when this snapshot ends and the book changes to deal with the diagnosis of cancer, it becomes a transforming, emotional, powerful, therapeutic journey of hope, despair, worry, joy and, finally, peace.

Difficult

Writing about a loved one’s final years and death must have been gruellingly difficult, and to do so without being maudlin and self pitying is a great achievement. Grace openly shares her journey with us and reminds us all that there is life beyond death, even though we don’t want to accept the loss of a loved one.

Because David was so close to so many people, Grace also writes about the vast numbers of flowers and letters received after David’s death, and that she got help from two other people in dealing with the correspondence.

She also mentions the negative side of losing such a high profile husband, such as people asking is “she was keeping busy”.

Contained within what she calls a roller-coaster ride of emotion, there are parts of the book that show pure genius and deep insight.

Not long before David died, there was a 70th birthday party for Grace – he wanted it to go ahead despite being so very ill. Once guests arrived, they were given an FAQ sheet which explained so many things to save Grace and the rest of the family explaining themselves over and over. Brilliant!

Grace also talked about her shock absorbers early on in the book. I loved that phrase. She was writing about the death of her father and used examples of worship, humour and even her garden as ways of dealing with her grief.

Private

She also shares very deeply private moments including a call from Archbishop Desmond Tutu who blessed her in Xhosa, his mother tongue. He also wrote the foreword to the book.

Grace also talks about the value of friends saying that they are your lifeblood after bereavement and that friendships should be nurtured, especially in today’s throw-away society.

There are many other aspects and insights that makes ‘Living with Dying’ a good book for those in a church who have been bereaved. Forgive the cramming at the start and you’ll read a moving account of life after death.

One other thing to mention: Sarah John’s illustration on the cover is simply wonderful. It’s a picture of two hands holding a bowl, head or breast - the interpretation is yours to make. It’s very apt for the title and beautifully drawn.

Click on the title of the book to buy a copy from amazon.co.uk and part of the sale will go to Christian Aid