Goodbye Jilly

I don’t know what to say. I really don’t. And those of you reading this who know me will know that this is very unusual.

There are some things that I want to get across; but I can’t find the words. Any editor who has commissioned me will know that is also unusual. Why settle for 400 words when 600 will do.

But the main thing I want to get across is so very painful. Because my Jilly has gone.

We have often been away from each other. One or both of us will be travelling – in Jill’s case for conferences, lectures, training, or meeting people; and in my case for journalism. And we would generally take at least one holiday a year without the other – Jill would spend two weeks each year camping in Nefyn, the north Wales town where she most felt she was at home; and I would take road-trips across Europe.

This taking of separate holidays wouldn’t work for all couples. But it worked for us.

I even went on our honeymoon without Jill!

When we were planning our marriage, in June 1993, we saw a trip advertised for the following May that would take people to see the Living Stones (the modern-day church) of Israel and the Palestinian Territories with Garth Hewitt. We wanted to go, but couldn’t afford to do that trip and a honeymoon. So we decided that this would be our honeymoon. But by the time the trip came, Jill was seven months pregnant with our first son and we decided that she would stay at home. We both enjoyed dining out on that one!

In the past two or three years I have spent anything from a quarter to a third of the year away from home, staying in hotels, conference centres, universities, or wherever the story happens to be. But whenever I have been away from Jill, I have never been apart from Jill. That is, until now.

The pain of losing Jill has been hard. And is hard. Not just for me, but for my three lads. Myles, Rory and Fergus have shown incredible courage and strength – on the outside at least. I have no idea what they are thinking on the inside, or what they are going through. I only know what I am going through – but even here, I think that I am too numb to really know what I am feeling.

One thing that I am feeling is pride – pride in how my three boys have grown into three men. I used to thank Jilly for giving them to me – her perfect presents to me. She would always reply that they were part of me, that I helped to make them what they are. We were both very proud of them. And I still am.

Another thing that I am feeling is gratitude – immense gratitude. First of all for the medical personnel who cared for Jill over 48-or-so very difficult hours: the four West Midlands Ambulance Service officers who came to the house on Tuesday 3 January; the nursing and medical staff at the Accident & Emergency Department of New Cross Hospital in Wolverhampton; the specialists at the Queen Elizabeth II Hospital in Birmingham who reviewed Jill’s scans and notes; the doctors in the intensive care unit at New Cross, and the dedicated nurses who stayed with Jill through the time there: for Anna and for Sony – not just for the care they provided for Jilly; but also for the care, concern and compassion they showed to me and to Sue, Jill’s Twin, as we sat with Jill.

I am also grateful to the many hundreds of people who responded to messages I posted on Facebook asking for people to pray. I was wary of doing so – many of my friends are journalists and I knew that there would be media interest in the story (but I was completely overwhelmed by just how much of a story Jill’s death became). But I needn’t have worried. The journalists who saw the messages waited until we put out a family statement, having returned home, before putting out the news. That was such a relief to me as it helped to protect the family from coverage happening while I was still at the hospital.

We heard news of independent evangelical churches holding prayer meetings; Catholic churches holding masses; and throughout my home diocese of Lichfield, clergy, laity alike were praying for Jill. We had messages of prayer being said from across the world. Many of those praying had not made the connection between the person they were praying for and Jill Saward. They were praying because they heard somebody was in need.

The vicar of St Paul’s Church in Walsall, Mark Kinder, went to the same youth group as Jill and Sue in London and has remained a family friend, albeit with some distance as the years rolled by. But the three had been in touch and a few months ago went for a meal together. Mark was able to visit Jill in the hospital and led us in a bedside Communion service. It was Jill’s last Communion. She could not, of course, eat or drink the bread and wine; but I was able to hold my wafer, after intinction, to Jill’s lips as I said: “The body and blood of Jesus, broken and poured out for you”; before taking it myself. It was a very special and precious moment.

When it became clear to us, on Wednesday, that Jill was dying; I was overcome with a sense that Jill was making her journey to heaven, accompanied by a great chorus of prayer. That was very special to me. And for that prayer, I will be forever grateful.

As I am for my sister-in-law Rachel who was able to organise a flight to get Myles back from Hong Kong, where he works teaching English in a church kindergarten; and to my brother-in-law Joe, who travelled from his home in France to meet Myles at Heathrow and drive him to Wolverhampton and then home to Cannock.

On the Thursday evening, the family shared a meal at a local restaurant. We went early and were the only diners in there. It was an extremely important time and I am so grateful for the opportunity to spend time together and to be able to talk about Jill in the unexpected privacy of the restaurant.

Then there was the news. I’ve already touched on this – but I think it is important to say how well, for the most-part, the media have treated us. I have already mentioned that journalists who knew that Jill was dying waited for us to confirm the news before reporting it.

A short while after we published the family statement, several of our phones beeped as the BBC News App issued a news flash alert – Jill Saward was dead. We, of course, already knew that she was dead. But it was still a shock to see it confirmed – as though that somehow made it official. We switched on the BBC News Channel to watch their Midlands’ reporter Phil Mackie deliver a very moving – and well researched – tribute.

When it was over, we switched to Sky and Kay Burley was doing the same. Jill had been interviewed by Kay Burley a number of times. I don’t think that they ever met – most of the interviews were done using a satellite link with a camera in our back garden.

I also saw a number of very moving packages – edited reports using a mixture of interviews and archive material. It wasn’t a problem to hear them talk about Jilly. The family have heard it all before. It wasn’t even a problem to hear them talk about the attack in ’86. Again, Jill had spoken about it infinitum. What hurt me, and sent a shiver down my spine, was when the packages ended – the footage freeze-framing and the screen zooming in on Jilly’s face, and the dates 1965-2017 appearing on the screen.

That was different. That was final.

We have been inundated with messages of support – again from all over the world. Statesmen and sports stars; politicians and campaigners; archbishops and ordinary people. Every message we have received is special. We haven’t read them all. I will do – but it will take time. There have been thousands – literally thousands – of messages.

Some are from strangers who didn’t know me or Jilly; but who were helped by reading her book or seeing her on television or in newspapers; some are from people who had been in direct contact with Jill and had received support from her. Many are from friends. Many are from strangers. But all of them are extremely precious and we are so grateful for everybody who has taken the time to get in touch. Your words and messages mean so much to us.

We are also grateful for the practical care we have been shown: including two local churches who have drawn up a rota and have been delivering “meals on wheels” to us; on top of food parcels from our local parish and other Christians. I think there is an assumption that as we are four males, we cannot cook. That, in ordinary circumstances, wouldn’t be true. But for the present, it certainly is.

Hours have merged into hours; days have merged into days; and if it wasn’t for the food parcels we would certainly have gone hungry. We don’t know many of the people who have been preparing meals for us; but we are all very, very grateful.

Jill’s funeral will take place tomorrow (Tuesday) at Lichfield Cathedral. Organising a service in a cathedral can be daunting experience; and so much more complex than in a parish church. The service would have been held at St Luke’s Church in Cannock – the church where Jill and I were members. But it was thought that St Luke’s wouldn’t be big enough to cope with the large number of people expected.

The Dean of Lichfield, Adrian Dorber, readily agreed to the cathedral hosting Jill’s funeral; and his staff team have pulled out all the stops to ensure that the planning for such a large event went so smoothly. Adrian will welcome mourners at the start of the service, and our local bishop – Clive Gregory, Bishop of Wolverhampton – will deliver the blessing; while the major part of the service will be led by our vicar Peter Hart, and family friend, retired priest Gary Piper.

Sue will deliver a brief tribute, talking about “her Snij” – Snij was the nickname that Sue used to call Jill; while Sue was known as Pog – affectionate childhood names that have stood the test of time. And Christian singer Garth Hewitt – with whom I went on our honeymoon without Jill – will lead the singing of one of his songs, Bread of Life.

The lyrics of this song were important in helping Jill overcome the trauma of ’86. In her book, Jill wrote about the evening after the attack:

“However hard I try, I cannot stop my mind going back to that terrible hour. The violence of the attack. The extent. All the sordid details. This is no use. I must think of something more positive. The chorus of a song I heard at Greenbelt, a big Christian festival of the arts, creeps into my mind:

Bread of life, bread of life
All things made new
Bread and wine, bread and wine,
We feed on you.

I sing the words quietly to myself every time I wake up and am so grateful for their reassurance. I will be made new. It says all things. Not all things excluding rape victims. Which is how I felt.”

This song has remained important to Jill throughout her life. Pog and I sung it to her in her final hours in New Cross Hospital.

I am aching. Jilly and I are Christians and even though I know that she is now with our Lord and Saviour; the pain of her death is very strong.

The longest we have been away from each other previously is around a month. But we were always in contact; and never apart. She has been gone for less than a fortnight, and already I am missing her so much. Things happen and I think “I’ve got to message Jill”, “I can’t wait to tell Jill” or “Jill will love to hear about this” – but, of course, she won’t.

I hear the key in the door and my heart lifts – Jill’s back. But, of course, she isn’t. It is somebody else.

It will take a long time to come to terms with Jill’s death – but the support of family, friends, and even strangers is helping – as is the knowledge that the hospital were able to fulfil Jill’s desire to be an organ donor – two lives have been transformed, or even saved, by Jill’s death. And that is something that Jill wanted to happen.

As I write this – late on Monday night – I have a sense of calm. Jill’s funeral is a matter of hours away. There is nothing more that we can do. I don’t think I will sleep much this evening. I haven’t slept much since Jill died. Tomorrow, we shall say our final goodbye – or almost our final goodbye.

As I said earlier, the north Wales town of Nefyn was home to Jill, as far as she was concerned. She loved the town and its people as much as they loved her. In Nefyn, Jill felt safe and secure. It is where she went to recharge her batteries and were she could be “just Jill.”

Many people from Nefyn are travelling to Lichfield for the funeral tomorrow. I asked Jill, several times, whether she wanted to move there (I can be based anywhere for my work). She wanted to live in Nefyn; but we didn’t move there because she was concerned that local people were being priced out of the town by outsiders moving in. She didn’t want to contribute to the difficulty. In everything, she was caring and considerate of the needs for others.

Later this year I, together with Myles, Rory and Fergus, will take Jill’s ashes to Nefyn. She will return “home” and her mortal remains will find their home in the town that was so important to Jill. And while that will be a great comfort to all of us; the real comfort is in knowing that Jill is now in heaven with the God she loved and served.

I love you Jilly. Take care my Gawjus Wifey.

  • Continued prayers for you all Gavin. Thank you for the way you have communicated with us throughout. x

  • Danny O’Brien Bca

    Never got to meet Jill but she was a good friend of mine on FB and done amazing work for Anti-knife uk without asking for a thank you….which she always got. Supported Thumbs down 2 knife crime campaign by getting friends and strangers to do a thumbs down pose. Jill also nominated me for my BCAc which was never expected. Wish I had met her, infact we was arranging a meal for all admin next month. Jill was always reminding me of my grammer and we have chats about Brentford and she was always there in my low days too. RIP JILL…..more then just a FB friend xxx

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