The Woman in the Coffee Shop

The Woman in the Coffee Shop

Recently I went to a Coffee Shop with some friends. On entering I noticed a woman that I had known in a work context several years ago, but hadn’t come into contact with in the past four years, since Leah became ill and died. I initially wondered if she would remember me, but then my attention was drawn to the yummy looking buns in the Display Counter.

As I was paying for my hot chocolate this woman approached me and greeted me warmly. I asked her about her daughter, amazed that her ‘wee girl’ is now at university. She then proceeded to ask me about my husband and each of my children. I started to feel a little nervous as I inwardly thought ‘Surely she must know about Leah.

Then, after she had enquired about my living children, she reached out and grasped my hand and quietly said, with a voice filled with compassion. “I’m so sorry for the loss of your daughter, I’m so sorry for everything that you’ve all been through.” Tears stung my eyes as I thanked her. We talked a bit about work and then within minutes we had gone our separate ways.

I joined my friends at a nearby table. We chatted and caught up with each other’s lives just as we had gone there to do. To the best of my knowledge they were oblivious to what had just taken place, which is as it should be – my friends don’t need to ‘eat, breathe and sleep’ my grief. Those friends have been there for me when I have needed them to be and hopefully I am there for them in their times of need too – friendships should be a two-way street.

However, those few moments with someone I hadn’t been in contact with in over four years were so very precious. She didn’t remind me of my loss, because I never for one minute forget that I am the mother of four children, one of whom is no longer here. Nor did she ‘make me cry’ as some have apologised for doing, my tears are always there just below the surface. In those few moments she held space for my grief, and she acknowledged each of my children. Her ability to make an emotional connection with me and to empathise with my situation was just what I needed at that particular time.

Those who know me well know that I’m a big fan of Brené Brown. Brené explains empathy and the concept of ‘holding space’ for someone better than I ever could:

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The Rainbow

The Rainbow

Yesterday afternoon when I was in Ballyoan Cemetery tidying Leah’s grave I found myself overwhelmed with feelings of sadness. My lovely mum was dead nine years on Wednesday past the 22nd February. On the 7th February, it was seven years since our close friend Elizabeth left us. Elizabeth is also buried in Ballyoan.

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Returning to the car, I rested my head on the steering wheel and sobbed, totally overcome with grief. I cried out to God and told Him that this was all too much, living daily with the weight of grief and loss.

Most of the time I feel like I am coping quite well, but now suddenly, everything just felt like it was too much. All at once, life felt like an impossible burden.

I lifted my head from the steering wheel and gazed through tear stained eyes at the horizon ahead. To my amazement, although it had not been raining in the cemetery, a beautiful rainbow stretched across the sky, seizing my attention.

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I immediately thought of a verse from one of the children’s Bible songs that Leah loved, one that we used to teach the children when we led Children’s Church together:

Whenever you see a rainbow

Whenever you see a rainbow

Whenever you see a rainbow

Remember God is love.

I remembered also the verses in the Bible in Genesis 9  that tell us that a rainbow in the sky is a sign of God’s covenant with Moses where God promises never again to flood the whole earth.

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Then I recalled some of God’s other promises to us, where He has promised to always be with us, such as in Isaiah 43:2

When you go through deep waters, I will be with you. When you go through rivers of difficulty, you will not drown. When you walk through the fire of oppression, you will not be burned up; the flames will not consume you. (NLT)

As I thought about all of this, fragments of hope once again seeped in through the cracks of my broken heart. Gradually, imperceptibly, my perspective began to change, as I thanked God for sending this beautiful rainbow to remind me that He is a powerful God who loves me and provides for my needs. Some verses from Matthew 11  came to mind also:

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Music always ministers to my soul so as I drove home I listened to the song ‘My Troubled Soul’ by Robert Critchley.

My troubled soul,
Why so weighed down?
You were not made to bear this heavy load

Cast all your burdens, upon the Lord

Jesus cares, He cares for you.

Jesus cares, He cares for you
And all your worrying won’t help you make it through
Cast all your burdens, upon the Lord
And trust again, in the promise of His love.

(I will) Praise that mighty name of Jesus
Praise the Lord, the Lifter of my head
Praise the Rock of my Salvation
All my days are in His faithful hands.

My anxious heart
Why so upset?
When trials come, how you so easily forget
To cast your burdens, upon the Lord
Jesus cares, He cares for you.

Jesus cares. He cares for you
And all your worrying won’t help you make it through
Cast all your burdens, upon the Lord
And trust again, in the promise of His love.

(I will) Praise that mighty name of Jesus
Praise the Lord, the Lifter of my head
Praise the Rock of my Salvation
All my days are in His faithful hands.

Chocolate Bird’s Nests

Chocolate Bird’s Nests

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I know it’s not the Easter Holidays yet, but it is Mid-Term, so my youngest and I thought it would be fun to create another illustrated recipe blog post. Our previous recipe blog post was published over eighteen months ago and it continues to be very popular, with over 800 page views to date.

These ‘no bake’ recipes are simple to make, delicious to eat and they can be a great way of spending quality time with your children.

Ingredients we used:

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Nestlé Shredded Wheat – we used three of the inner packets, each containing two biscuits – six biscuits in total.

Cooking chocolate – we used a 300g packet

Cadbury Mini Eggs – 200g (These are quite hard and could present a choking hazard to children under 4 years or to older children with swallowing difficulties).

Method:

Ensure that everyone washes their hands thoroughly before starting.

Firstly, spread out some bun cases on a clean, dry tray.

Then let the children use their hands to crumble the shredded wheat finely into a bowl.

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Next let them break the cooking chocolate up into squares in a ceramic (not a plastic) bowl.

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The chocolate can be melted by an adult, by placing the bowl over a saucepan of boiling water, or by placing the bowl in the microwave and stirring thoroughly every 60 seconds until melted.

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Add the crumbled shredded wheat to the melted chocolate and stir until thoroughly mixed.

Place spoonfuls of the mixture in each bun case.

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Flatten the centre into a nest shape and place the chocolate eggs firmly on top.

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Leave until set, which takes approximately an hour.

Eat and enjoy.

Ensure everyone’s teeth are well brushed before going to bed.

You could expand on the theme of these ‘bird’s nests’ by talking with your children about Spring, Easter and the promise of new life. You could also talk about what this time of year means to you personally – in a way that is appropriate to their age and level of understanding, of course.

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What Easter means to me.
The Land of the Living

The Land of the Living

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Friday 27th December 2013 started well. That night we were planning to go to a big surprise get together of family and friends for my niece’s 30th birthday. Leah was happiest when surrounded by family and friends and this was the first family get-together that she had been allowed to attend since her bone marrow transplant in Bristol on the 1st August earlier that year. Leah was very excited.

30th-birthday-invite

However, during that day Leah became seriously ill, with an initial diagnosis of pneumonia. She was admitted to the Cancer Centre  in Belfast and subsequently transferred to ICU at Belfast City Hospital. Two and a half weeks later we had a family get together of a different kind, when we all gathered together at the N.I. Children’s Hospice  to say our goodbyes – the ones that we didn’t want to have to say.

During Advent I have been reading the daily devotionals that were especially written for the charity Samaritan’s Purse UK by Malcolm Duncan. He is a Pastor at Gold Hill Baptist Church and a leader at Spring Harvest. Malcolm is sadly very familiar with grief and loss. I previously wrote here about his very helpful sermons on the topic of the theology of suffering. In his devotional for the 1st December what Malcolm wrote regarding the death of a friend of his, has really stuck with me and brought me great comfort:

When my friend died, she left the land of dying and entered the land of the living. Death did not win. Cancer did not win. Sin did not win. Her salvation is now complete. She is more fully alive than she has ever been. She is more fully herself than she ever was. She is complete, truly released and free. Nothing can change who she now is. This is the great hope of every Christian. God wins! God always wins in the lives of Christians because God always has the last word.

During those two and a half weeks when Leah was dying, she and I derived so much comfort from listening to her favourite songs, which she had previously saved into playlists. Their lyrics washed over our hearts and minds and pointed us to the only One who could give us the strength to face each day.

leahs-playlist

Since Leah’s death most of these songs have continued to bring me comfort, as I miss Leah and yearn for her presence in our lives. Today I have one of the songs from this list playing on repeat; ‘Bring the Rain‘ by MercyMe.

 Bring The Rain

I can count a million times
People asking me how I
Can praise You with all that I’ve gone through
The question just amazes me
Can circumstances possibly
Change who I forever am in You
Maybe since my life was changed
Long before these rainy days
It’s never really ever crossed my mind
To turn my back on you, oh Lord
My only shelter from the storm
But instead I draw closer through these times
So I pray

Bring me joy, bring me peace
Bring the chance to be free
Bring me anything that brings You glory
And I know there’ll be days
When this life brings me pain
But if that’s what it takes to praise You
Jesus, bring the rain

I am Yours regardless of
The dark clouds that may loom above
Because You are much greater than my pain
You who made a way for me
By suffering Your destiny
So tell me what’s a little rain
So I pray

Holy, holy, holy
Is the Lord God Almighty

30 Days of Gratitude

30 Days of Gratitude

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I love it when researchers start telling us that something is good for us and that ‘something’ is a thing that the Bible has been saying for thousands of years – the importance of gratitude.

Psalm 118:24

This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.

1 Thessalonians 5:18

Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

I especially love these words written by Paul while in prison:

Philippians 4:6-7

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Here is a link to an easy to read (and understand) research based article entitled How Gratitude Changes the Brain – And How to Make it Work For You.

A few weeks ago I read an excellent article by bereaved mum Angela Miller on her blog entitled A Bed for my Heart called Grateful and Grieving. I posted a link to it on my Facebook page and said that this describes how I feel about the month of December – ‘grateful and grieving’. Grateful for the many blessings in my life, but grieving the loss of our precious and much loved daughter.

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December is not only the time of year when family togetherness is totally emphasized and the empty seat at the table is at its most conspicuous, but it’s also the month in which Leah’s illness first began (2012), the month in which Leah suddenly and unexpectedly became critically ill and was admitted to ICU (2013), as well as being the month in which Leah was born (31st December 1997).

However, as December came closer, I quickly realised that I was more ‘grieving’ than ‘grateful’. I really thought that I had learned how to live with the pain of grief and loss that is my constant companion, but I suddenly found that I was starting to unravel. I was once again crying myself to sleep, grateful for the oblivion that a few hours of sleep can bring. At the same time I was feeling guilty for focussing so much on what I have lost instead of being thankful for all that I have.

Then, I noticed on Facebook that another bereaved mum with whom I’m friends, was doing #TheHappinessDare – 30 Days of Gratitude. I looked up the link that she included on her Facebook post and it took me to this blog post by Jennifer Dukes Lee: The Stubborn Refusal to Give in to Despair — A Dare for All of Us. Jennifer provides a printable list of thirty prompts (which she refers to as 30 Days of Gratitude) to help us count our blessings.

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I was immediately drawn to this idea. The only decision for me was whether I would do this publicly every day via my Facebook page or privately in my journal (or both). Having mulled it over for a few days, I’ve decided that I will derive the most benefit from following the prompts privately in my journal. So armed with a pretty notebook, the printed prompts, glue and a scissors, I have put together my own 30 Days of Gratitude Journal and I have it all ready to begin on the 1st December.

This Christmas season I’m going to take time each day to appreciate the gifts that I already have. Perhaps you too would benefit from participating in the 30 Days of Gratitude challenge this Christmas season?

The Forgotten Ones: Grieving Siblings

The Forgotten Ones: Grieving Siblings

Children’s Grief Awareness Day is on 17 November, a global day designed to help us all become more aware of the needs of grieving children — and of the benefits they obtain through the support of others. It also marks the start of Children’s Grief Awareness Week.
The theme for this year’s Children’s Grief Awareness Week is #MakeTime2Listen.

Key messages:
1 in 29 children and young people in our schools have been bereaved of a parent or sibling – that’s roughly one per class.
All too often, bereaved children feel as if no-one understands what they are going through
They need their families, friends, teachers and communities to listen carefully to them, helping them feel understood and supported
Even if they haven’t got words to describe how they are feeling or thinking, family and friends can ‘listen’ to their body language and behaviour
A young person might not want to talk right now, but it’s helpful for them to know someone is there to listen when they are ready
Parents and carers shouldn’t have to cope alone. Family, friends, colleagues, schools and the government all have a part to play in listening to grieving children
Specialist support services should be available in all local areas for all grieving children and their families that need them – wherever they live and however they have been bereaved – helping them realise someone is listening
#MakeTime2Listen this Children’s Grief Awareness Week and throughout the year

One way in which I am marking Children’s Grief Awareness Week is by reblogging a very well written blog post by a bereaved mama called Melanie:

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I am always afraid that Dominic will be forgotten.  

I’m afraid that as time passes, things change and lives move forward, his place in hearts will be squeezed smaller and smaller until only a speck remains.

Not in my heart, of course.

Or in the hearts of those closest to him, but in general-he will become less relevant.

But he is not the only one who can be forgotten.  I am just as fearful that my living children will be forgotten.

Not in the same way-they are HERE.

They are participating in life and making new memories, new connections and strengthening old ones.

I’m afraid their grief will be overlooked, unacknowledged-swept under the giant rug of life and busyness that seems to cover everything unpleasant or undervalued.

If the course of a bereaved parent’s grief is marked by initial outpouring of concern, comfort and care followed by the falling…

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Love in a Box

Love in a Box

When I became a parent I was very keen that our children would understand that Christmas is for giving and not just for getting. I wanted our children to understand that many children throughout the world do not have the material goods with which we are blessed here in the UK and Ireland and to care about this fact.

Around that time I heard about Operation Christmas Child. Operation Christmas Child is a very simple concept: you find an empty shoebox, gift wrap it, then fill it with love in the form of toys, sweets, pencils, notebooks, a toothbrush and toothpaste, soap and a flannel, a scarf, gloves and hat and send it to a child in a country that is much less well off than we are here. On the outside of the box you indicate whether the box is for a boy or a girl and the general age group (2-4, 5-9 or 10-14) that it’s suitable for. You also make a donation of £3.00 per box to cover shipping costs.

Our children used to each pack a shoebox for a child of the same age as themselves. The hardest part used to be covering the shoebox with the wrapping paper. Thankfully when our children were small, my two older nieces from London used to visit us over mid-term and they helped with this, which I very much appreciated. Nowadays you can buy pre-printed shoe boxes  specifically for this purpose. If your group buys them in bulk, they work out about 50p each.

Each year in October a Sunday afternoon would be set aside when I would sit down with the children to wrap and pack the shoeboxes. In recent years, after the boxes were filled, Leah took on the responsibility of checking each one to ensure that nothing had been forgotten. One year (while still in Primary School) Leah went to the local collection centre in Limavady to help check all the boxes that had been collected before they were sent on to their destination.

Our children used to also enclose a Christmas card in their shoebox that they had written to the child who would receive their box. One year, to Leah’s absolute joy, the child who received her shoe box wrote back and even sent a little picture of herself. Her name was Bojana, she lived in Montenegro and she was the same age as Leah. Leah was so excited to hear from this young girl.

Every year, when we shopped the January sales, Leah was quick to spot items that could be used later that year to pack our shoeboxes. Before we left for Bristol Children’s Hospital  in July 2013 Leah and I had already gathered up much of what would be needed to pack our shoeboxes when we returned in a couple of months. However, things did not go the way we expected them to and it was mid – November before we returned home. Shoebox Sunday at our church had been and gone and to be truthful, packing shoeboxes was not uppermost in our thoughts.

After Leah died in January 2014, participating in Operation Christmas Child joined a long list of family activities that now felt so painful that I couldn’t imagine myself ever being able to take part in them again. Each autumn as the Operation Christmas Child leaflets were given out at church, the promotional video was shown and each family came to church on Shoebox Sunday with their contribution, my heart silently broke and my tears flowed freely. To be honest, I have always cried watching the Operation Christmas Child videos, seeing the suffering of those families living in abject poverty and how grateful they are for so little, but now I had other reasons to cry as well.

However, this year when they started giving out the leaflets I said to my youngest “I wonder could we manage it this year?” I knew there was no way that I could tackle wrapping the boxes, so I bought four of the ready to use flat-packed shoeboxes a few weeks ago. However, after looking at them sitting in a corner of the Living Room for a week, I concluded that I couldn’t go through with it and I stored them away in a cupboard. I reasoned that they would keep until next year.

I knew that the last weekend in October was the final occasion before Shoebox Sunday in early November that I would have any reasonable amount of free time to spend filling these shoeboxes, but I just couldn’t do it. However all week afterwards it floated around in the back of my mind; this ‘family tradition’ that was so important to Leah and was once so important to me too.

So that is how, on a very busy Friday at the start of November, with a to-do list as long as my arm, I carved out time for my youngest and I to fill four shoeboxes: one from each child – four boxes filled with love. Today we brought them with us to church and we added them to the ‘wall’ of over two hundred shoeboxes that have been collected.

Of all the promotional videos created in support of Operation Christmas Child, my absolute favourite is the one with the backing track Love in a Box by Melisa Bester. One of Australia’s youngest artists, Melisa Bester, recorded this song for Operation Christmas Child in 2006 – when she was only eight years old. Please watch the video and listen to the beautiful words. Also, do take a few moments to tell me about your experiences of packing love in a box and sending it off to a child in another country to let them know that they are loved.