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Charles Freestone’s wife confused me. In the 1881 Census, he is married to Eliza, and they have three children: William, Ellen and Maria. A fourth child, Charles, came along in 1883. But who was Eliza before she married Charles? Well, I’d found a marriage record for Charles Freestone, right area of the country: he had married Eliza Jones in October 1875. The only problem was, the only Eliza Jones I could find in the 1871 census wasn’t born in the same place as Eliza Freestone, and hadn’t married Charles. Maybe it was the wrong Charles Freestone? Another way of finding out a mother’s maiden name is to look at the birth record of her children, where it will sometimes be recorded. Success! Both Ellen and Maria’s birth record have their mother’s maiden name as Hunt. Well, temporary success … nowhere could I find a record of Eliza Hunt marrying Charles Freestone; yet it seemed she had…

So through the marriage records I went once, twice, pausing slightly at an Eliza Hunt marrying James Jones, but rejecting it … Eventually, I decided I would have to examine this marriage. Eliza Hunt married James Jones in October 1873. They were both in their 20s. But, still only in his twenties, and just under a year later in October 1874, James Jones had died; I haven’t yet found out why. Eliza Jones, as she now was, married Charles Freestone on October 1875. Their oldest child, William, was born in 1876. Charles, initially an agricultural labourer, became a coal carter, a trade his sons joined him in. But I find myself coming back to the figure of James Jones, despite the point of this research being Charles and Eliza and their children.

How did James die, and did he suffer? What effect did James’ death have on Eliza? Had their marriage been happy or sad? Did it affect her later marriage to Charles, and her parenting of her children? How much did she grieve, and how much choice did she have about a second marriage? What about James’ family: how did they feel, and did Eliza stay in contact with them? How did it affect her faith in God, assuming she had any? I know her daughter was a staunch Methodist, but I don’t know what faith her parents had. Did Eliza feel it unfair to lose her first husband so soon, and did she rail against God? Or did she see it more as in keeping with the nature of life, that some people would die too young? I just don’t know, and probably never will.

The story of our Sister Helen prompted similar thoughts. She was the daughter of an Anglican priest, whose main work was as the principal of various schools, until he became the Rector of Cold Norton in Essex, where he stayed until his death in November 1876. By then he had already lost his fourth daughter, Mary aged 19. In the five years after his death, four more of his children would die: Florence, aged 22, Robert, aged 18, George and Edward, aged 20. A comment in a letter from M. Lavinia reveals more information: ‘Do you know that poor Sr Helen has 2 internal tumours & if able to bear it, has to be operated on? Her mother is paralysed – one sister has tumours & consumption & things are poor.’ Whether Sr Helen had this operation, and what happened to her tumours, I do not know: but she survived this crisis, dying several years after M. Lavinia in 1904, at the age of 58.

Having gathered them from newspaper reports, I may or may not have the complete list of her siblings who died in the 1870s and early 1880s. But as I found them, I became increasingly shocked by the sheer number of siblings Sr Helen lost at this time. What effect did this have on her, and on her faith? Presumably one of the sisters may be the one who had tumours and consumption, but at least one brother died ‘suddenly’ and George died as a result of helping at a landslip in India, the year after he married. I have no idea what it must be like to lose so many family members in so short a time, to be barely over one death before another comes along.

If she, or Eliza, or any of the millions more who have suffered tragedies over the centuries, have become angry with God, that is only natural. God can take all sorts of anger from us, as the Psalms show, and any authentic relationship with God will include an honest expression of any anger we feel, of the full expression of our emotions, rather than a simplistic, covered up relationship, of the type that thinks we have to be a certain way in order to come before God. We may not be angry, and even if we suffer, we may not feel angry with God. But, if we are, to yell and rail and ask why, is fine: God can take all that, and in the railing hopefully help us move on, eventually. Yet if Sr Helen, or Eliza, had asked ‘why has God done this to me?’ I’m not certain that is a helpful question. We live in a fallen world, and tragedies do happen. That’s not to sound unfeeling, but I do feel strongly that when something ‘bad’ happens, to ask ‘why has God does this to me?’ is to miss the point. God hasn’t done it to you!

Psalm 91 is a case in point: to read ‘there shall no evil happen to you, neither shall any plague come near your dwelling’ could lead to a certain amount of resentment, especially if you’re one of the many who suffered badly with Covid, or lost someone through the pandemic. Obviously, plague has come near your dwelling, and God seemingly did not protect you. And yet … long pondering of this Psalm has brought me a different approach: ‘there shall no evil happen to you’. Again, you may well feel that evil has happened to you, for whatever reason. But the ultimate evil surely is to be without God: and I think that is what this Psalm expresses. Trust, that whatever happens, and however close plague comes near to your dwelling, you will not be without God. You may well feel as though you’re without God; but God will be with you in the heart of your suffering, whether you’re aware of it or not. And, eventually, sometime, God will bring you through; eventually, whether before or after death, we will see the total amount of God’s love for us. A love that can carry us through the sufferings the world inflicts on us, rather than a God who will, with no sense of rhyme or reason, inflict suffering.

Why did God do this to you? Ask why, yell why, batter God with the question ‘why?’; ask, yell and continue to ask and yell: it is a very powerful form of prayer. But still – it was not God who did this to you, although it may well be God who carries you through.

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