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  • Writer's pictureMatt Woodcock

#38 Lonely.

I had one of the most heartbreaking conversations of my ministerial life the other day.

I’d gone for a pastoral walk and an outdoor coffee with a lovely man who we’ll call Tony.

He’s given me permission to share his story.

Tony is lonely. Deeply and desperately lonely.

He doesn’t want sympathy, pity or charity- he just wants friends. Companions. People to talk to and laugh with.

Somewhere to belong. A community of people to belong to.

Contrary to the common stereotype of ‘lonely people’, Tony isn’t the reclusive, strange or eccentric loner type.

He’s gregarious, funny and easy company.

A proper northern bloke with a good heart, a kind character and a generous spirit.

And yet he still finds himself 'not waving but drowning', to quote the Stevie Smith poem.

Drowning in what he calls 'aloneness'.

The story of how Tony got to this point is a particularly unfair and tragic one.

Happily married with two grown-up kids, he lived a sociable and richly varied life.

But then his wife died after a long illness.

Struggling to cope with the loss, Tony wanted to end his life.

‘What the **** am I going to do, love?!’ he remembers shouting out to her one night in a moment of despair.

Two hours later the phone went. It was the police.

Tony was told his precious son had been killed in a road crash.

That was nearly 15 years ago.

Tony stayed alive and functioning for the sake of his other son and family. He tried to keep busy and stay active, but old friends and other couples he and his wife socialised with soon drifted away.

It wasn’t long before he’d become isolated and nearly always alone.

Tony told me: ‘Someone from work asked if I was alright. I said ‘no, I’m not.’ He just walked off. He didn’t know what to say.’

Tony’s saving grace has been his son’s family and a nearby friend who he began walking with once a week.

‘I live for those walks,’ he said.

‘It can be the only time in a whole week I get to talk to someone. These days neighbours don’t really socialise. Nobody knows each other. It’s so sad. Where can I go to have a good chat?’

Tony tried his local pub. It was a disaster.

Leaving his coat on a chair in front of the big screen showing the football, he returned to find three young men at the table.

‘Excuse me, but I was sitting there.’ Tony told them.

‘Well you’re not ****ing now, are you?’ he was told.

‘But what about my coat?’

‘That ****ing rag? We chucked it over there.’

Helpless and afraid, Tony picked up his coat and went home. Unsurprisingly, he hasn’t been back.

Despite not being religious, Tony thought he might fare better at his local parish church.

Noticing a sign outside publicising a coffee morning, he got in touch with the church organiser.

‘That doesn’t happen anymore,’ he was curtly told.

There was no follow up question as to why he might be wanting to go to it. No suggestion of somewhere else he could try. No inkling that Tony might be wanting to engage in their community life.

And we wonder why many of our churches are empty.

Tony was on the verge of trying another neighbourhood drop-in he’d heard about, but then Covid hit.

‘Now a lot of people are experiencing what I do every day,’ he said.

‘That feeling of being stuck in and isolated.

‘Our communities need to have more going on. There’s loads of people like me around - we just need a way of finding each other.’

Meeting Tony was a stark reminder to me that lonely isolation can strike anyone.

If ever there was a song to sum up the tragic reality of it, it would be The Beatles’ Eleanor Rigby.

Released in 1964, it remains such a sad and true reflection - and a terrible indictment - of the state of things. Ironically, a tragic state no amount of social media interaction seems able to solve.

‘All the lonely people, where do they all come from?

‘All the lonely people, where do they all belong?’

Well, from what I know, they are widowers like Tony, and they come from our neighbourhoods and live down our streets.

And where do they belong?

The sad answer to that is often nowhere and to no-one.

So the bigger and more challenging question - for community and faith groups, council leaders and us as individuals and neighbours - is what are we willing to do about it?

For our church, firing up the urn again and getting the coffee morning reopened will be a good start.

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Gill Wardle Chadbon
Gill Wardle Chadbon

You are so right! I came across finding faith during lockdown. Luckily the church in the nearby town remained open and was so welcoming. I feel lockdown might be a blessing for growth in churches. I do hope so. God bless 'Tony' 🙏



This is heart breaking. You just dont know how someone is really doing until you ask them and most importantly listen to them.

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