Rites of Passage: A mother’s grief

High above the village of Eyam, overlooking the hills, valleys and rock edges of Derbyshire, is a walled enclosure. It is a beautiful spot and well worth the walk along the leafy lane for the magnificent views of the landscape. But this is Eyam and these are the Riley Graves… and their weathered stones tell the saddest of stories.

It was the summer of 1666 and exceptionally warm. The bubonic plague was at its height in Eyam, the village that had chosen to quarantine itself rather than risk the spread of disease to the neighbouring town and villages. There were no public gatherings, except in Cucklett Delph on the outskirts of the settlement; people stayed away from each other as much as possible in the hope of escaping infection and the churchyard was no longer used for burials, with each family burying their own dead.

The Hancock family had a small farmstead on the edge of the village at Riley Top, close to the home of the Talbot family. Talbot was a blacksmith and had a smithy close to the road, as well as working the land. Having already survived a year of the plague in the village, perhaps the two families had hope that their isolated position and the fruits of their land might keep them and their children safe.

On the fifth of July, 1666, Briget and Mary, daughters of Richard and Catherine Talbot, fell victim to the plague and their father buried them beside their home. In the days that followed, Richard buried two more of his children, Ann and Robert, and his wife, Catherine, before he too succumbed to infection. Only one child remained, and when he too died, on the thirtieth of July, there were none but the Hancock family to bury him.

That final act of charity was to prove fatal. Just days later, on the third of August, two of the Hancock children, John and Elisabeth, sickened and died.  With her husband already ailing, the grieving  mother buried her children, digging shallow graves with her own hands and dragging their bodies to a spot close to their home, with a towel wrapped around their feet to avoid, as much as possible, the risk of carrying infection back to the rest of her family.

I cannot begin to imagine how that felt for the grieving mother. When someone we love passes over, regardless of our spiritual beliefs, we want to see their bodies treated with care and respect… it is a final act of love. In my mind, I see a woman not only grieving for her lost child, but the horror and despair she must have felt, seeing and feeling the small body bounce and scrape over the earth. Necessity may give us the strength to act in a manner far beyond that of which we would normally be capable, but it does not take away the horror or the pain.

Elizabeth’s son, Oner, died during the night of the sixth of August, followed a few minutes later by his father, John, and, before dawn, young William also died. Once more, Elizabeth faced the appalling task of digging their graves and dragging the bodies of her loved ones across the rough field to bury them.

Only two daughters now remained with Elizabeth. Alice died on the ninth of August and Ann on the tenth. For the last time, Elizabeth dug graves for her children, laying them beneath the earth of home with her own hands, watched, from a neighbouring hilltop by the villagers of Stoney Middleton.

It is almost impossible to imagine what she must have felt. The grief for the loss of her husband and, almost certainly, the loss of her home and livelihood on land she could not farm alone. The searing grief that any mother feels when a life begun within her own body, nurtured beneath and within her heart, is extinguished, must have been multiplied not by six, but a thousand times.

When a child is ill or in pain, all a parent wants to do take that pain away. To watch one child suffer, knowing there is nothing you can do to ease that suffering, and no way to prevent them dying a horrible and painful death… to watch their fear and pain as the disease progresses… will  feel like a knife twisting in a parent’s heart. To have to watch as first your friends, then all of your children, and your partner too, fall victim to such a dreadful predator as the plague, is unimaginable.

With no-one to whom she could turn to for comfort, no shoulder upon which she could weep…and the inevitable guilt and dreadful questions that must have plagued her about why she alone had survived, Elizabeth had to find a way to live. Eventually, she left her home to spend the rest of her days with her surviving son, who had been away from the village serving an apprenticeship. It was this son who later erected the memorial stones to his father, brothers and sisters. Around his father’s tomb are carved the words Orate Vigilate Nescitis Horam, which roughly means, ‘watch and pray, you know not the hour’. Upon the top of the tomb, is inscribed:

Remember man

As thou goest by,

As thou art now,

Even once was I;

As I doe now

So must thou lie,

Remember man

That thou must die.

It is a good reminder that the stories we tell and see played out upon the pages of history are our own. It is all too easy to look at events from which we are separated by time, culture or distance as if we were looking at a television screen. We can look and yet maintain our personal space, deflect the emotional impact, almost pretend that those involved are not ‘real’ people. We do not do so deliberately, it is probably a defence mechanism, especially in today’s world, where we are constantly bombarded by so many images of violence and tragedy that, were we to take each one to heart as if it were our own, we would founder beneath the weight of grief and despair.

Sometimes, our protective barriers are torn down and we are as one with the victims of tragedy. How many, for example, who watched the Twin Towers fall, will ever forget or be unmoved?  Even those of us who were half a world away. Sometimes a story touches us and we open ourselves to it. It becomes personal. The separations wrought by time and distance mean nothing as we share, for a moment, the life of another human soul.

Not one of us would wish to face such a nightmare scenario and none can know how we would cope or how we would act in such circumstances. But we can recognise a parent’s love for their children and hope that even while fear might drive us to reaction, love would call up a deeper strength that would allow us to act from the heart.

As we outlined the story of the Riley Graves for our companions, both empathy and sympathy blossomed as Elizabeth’s story touched our hearts. We could stand in her shoes, just for a moment, protected by the passage of time, and feel an echo of her fear, loss and grief. Her home is now gone, its stones long-since removed and absorbed into the walls that criss-cross the landscape. But, although the graves of her family, within their enclosure, still seem an open wound upon the green of the field, for most of us, the overwhelming impression with which we were left was one of love.

26 thoughts on “Rites of Passage: A mother’s grief

  1. My main challenge is learning how to watch movies, documentaries, read books, blogs, emails, etc., WITHOUT being drawn into the drama and challenges being played out before me – to learn some detachment for pure sanity, if you will – 🙂 That said, loved this post/shared story, the pictures, the insights – – reminded me of the real life, modern day, beautiful spirit I once met, and once was ‘served food by’ some years ago – without full details, she basically managed to survive the whole sale slaughter of her family, her neighbors, and all – left in a ‘heap of bodies’ and believed to be ‘dead’ by the assailants – she managed to crawl out, and with injuries/broken bones, crawl her way to one refuge, then another – over 3 years – she made her way, step by step, journey by journey, to be in the space/time I first met her – as she greeted my friend who was taking me ‘to lunch’ – in her small restaurant, that fixed/prepared/served with smile all the food she loved from her ‘used-to-be-life’ – with such grace as one might find in the living room of a dear and cherished childhood friend – She is my hero, from now – when folks talk about ‘how bad it used to be’ and I think, “It still is – here and there, at moments in time, but still – – folks drag themselves from the dark and the horror, over and over, to bring light, grace and better understanding to the rest of us, all the time – – ” – – 🙂 This, right here, reminded me of her, again, tonight – thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Yup. I have need at times privately or publicly to “explore/prepare for the worst options before I am free to plan and hope for the best’. Much to the sorrow of many who know me. Once in awhile though me exploring or saying out loud the worst possible outcome is just what is needed for me or others to say well okay donkey then nothing to do there but over here I can …..” and in the end pays off better ROI in the end so far than so much of the ignore it pithy advice I come across and that wounds others when their need is so great for something other than cliches no matter how classic and deeply leveled

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for this beautiful and truly touching story, Sue. My heart goes out to all who have died because they happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and those who have had to go on without them. I did not lose my children to death, but losing them was a sort of spiritual death, especially my daughter. We have been reunited as grown-ups, but nothing will ever replace that time that was lost.

    Today we had to go to a hospital in another town for one of Richard’s procedures and before we left, one of our dogs, Little Man, who we rescued from the rain perhaps around January after he was dumped, was acting very odd, his head and neck going to the right as he could not control it. He is very old, and has a collapsed trachea and is deaf, and likely a heart issue and a stomach tumor as well. Despite the very real likelihood that he will die in a short time, I felt heartbroken as we had to leave him home in that condition. It is a dog and not a human being, but what I have realized is that life is so sacred, whether we are talking human beings, dogs, or even creatures that we might be afraid of, and all of us are here because we are intended to be. So when something comes along to end that situation, we can only understand that all of us, and all of the creatures on this earth are cycling as the earth and the stars and the entire universe is. We don’t know if or when we will return to earth, or in what form. So we can just look to live every single day, every single minute with those people and creatures we love, and even those we don’t until we (or them) move to the next plane. We think of our own mourning as we lose a loved one, but we don’t even know fully how animals mourn. I believe they do, and I think the mourning is a state where we pass from one way of being to the next. We mourn because we cannot see, feel or touch the next stage, but that is not to say it is not there. We miss what we know of those who live on this earth, and those things that we cannot control. I hope we will all go lightly from this earth when it comes time. Thank you most kindly.

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