25 March 2020, The Tablet

The kindness of strangers amid the sudden death of my brother

The kindness of strangers amid the sudden death of my brother

The Virgin and Child.
Bernadette Kehoe

“Paul – I’ve been praying for Paul!” 

These were words that were spoken about my brother, by somebody I’d just met, in the most extraordinary of circumstances, in the most extraordinary of times.

Never would I have imagined that the "final" Mass I attended before the churches closed their doors as a result of the coronavirus pandemic would be, in effect, a memorial Mass for Paul.

Hours after his unexpected death, in a church I’d never been to in my life, I found myself touched by the kindness of strangers. A kindness that was bittersweet; Paul loved visiting the Isle of Wight and collapsed suddenly, during what turned out to be a final holiday.

In spite of fears of lockdowns and travel restrictions, I raced down to the island, reaching his side just five minutes before he passed away.

Amid the shock, the hospital chaplain, Fr Emmanuel, appeared; a welcome presence. From behind our face masks he led prayers, emphasising the unique aspect of Christianity as a faith – that the empty tomb is key. That when life throws its worst in our direction, hope can never be extinguished. Apposite in this current moment.

There was an invitation to join his congregation the next morning for the last public Mass before the lockdown. We gratefully appreciated hearing Paul’s name spoken out loud. In fact, hearing his name ring out in this public context in a church was, I immediately realised, the only chance for this to happen at this present moment, due to the restrictions now in place. 

Having arrived slightly late to the unfamiliar parish,  we’d missed the start – later learning that Fr Emmanuel had spoken of Paul to the congregation at the beginning. 

A lovely Irish Sister told us afterwards she’d been praying for Paul since first hearing his name mentioned, but admitted being puzzled throughout Mass, trying to work out which Paul it was: “I know two or three!” she joked.  A few Irish yarns followed, which brought laughter. It gave a sense of Ireland, a sense of my parents’ generation.  Paul would have loved that. It brought to mind the wake that we wouldn’t be having.

Ahead lies a funeral that will be very different to the one that Paul would have wanted. He’d certainly have liked a good Irish gathering with a few stories and songs. His friends and fellow musicians in Birmingham will have to wait for that until a later date when we can come together and remember his legendary guitar playing. Extraordinary that he gave us the slip in the very week that it became impossible to gather a crowd and raise a glass in his memory……! 


May green be the grass you walk on,

May blue be the skies above you,

May pure be the joys that surround you, 

May true be the hearts that love you.

(An Irish toast)


On leaving the church that morning, I spotted, by chance,  on the back table,  the traditional Irish prayer that we chose for our parents’ gravestone, not that long ago:


May the road rise to meet you

May the wind be at your back

May the sun shine warm upon your face

May the rain fall softly on your fields

And until we meet again

May you keep safe

In the gentle loving arms of God


Thank you Fr Emmanuel. Thank you Sister Teresa and the other Sisters at the church that day. Thank you to the wonderful staff of St Mary’s hospital;  your kindness, in adversity, will not be forgotten.


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