Five Years

Five Years


It has been five years since I last heard her voice, received one of her handwritten notes, or exchanged a hug with her. In some ways, this feels incomprehensible to me. When friends and work colleagues ask “How many years is it now?” I generally reply “She died January 2014”. I struggle to actually say out loud that it’s been five years. My mind cannot process the fact that I have lived five years without our brown-eyed, second-born daughter, with her heart-shaped nostrils and her infectious laugh.

The other night Leah was alive in my dreams and we were again a family of six, laughing and talking together- it was so lovely. I awoke to the stark realisation that she is not here. It reminded me of those early days after Leah died when I woke up each morning to a fresh awareness of grief and loss.

This academic year Leah’s friends are celebrating their 21st birthdays and several of them are graduating from university. Many of them still keep in touch with me and I really appreciate this. I enjoy seeing their posts on social media and I’m happy to see them doing well.

Looking back over the years since Leah left us, I would say that the first year was awful. The second year was, if anything, even more, awful than the first. The third year was also really, really, hard.

However, by the fourth year, we as a family had begun to pick ourselves up and dust ourselves off. I wouldn’t say that we started to “move on” or “get back to normal”, as this will never happen. However, we have gradually found ourselves more able to have fun and enjoy life together again. Activities and destinations that had felt too painful before, gradually began to feel possible again. This past Christmas we stayed at home together on Christmas Day for the first time since Leah died, and it was good. Previous years this would have felt too painful – we have been spending Christmas Day with our extended family since Leah died.

Every grieving person’s timeline will be different. There is no magic formula for grief. I still have no-go areas; activities and destinations that are just too painful to attempt as yet. We are blessed with a large supportive extended family, some of whom gather with us each year, for Leah’s anniversary and her birthday, to help us celebrate her life. I have fabulous friends and work colleagues. Being a Christian helps, knowing that I will be with Leah again after I die. We as a family have also benefitted greatly from the support of organisations from within the voluntary and charitable sector.

Nevertheless, there are still some days when it feels like nothing helps, some days when the littlest thing knocks the scar off the wound of grief and there I am, raw and bleeding, completely distraught yet again. The really bad days are much less frequent than they once were, but my tears are never far away and it doesn’t take a lot to bring them on. Tears can be a release though and sometimes it’s good to let the tears flow. I draw comfort from what a blessing Leah’s life was and how fortunate we were to have had her in our lives for sixteen years.

Leah loved being involved in Children’s Ministry and her plan for when she left school was to train to work with children and young people. I will never forget her face lighting up as she attempted to do all the actions to a popular children’s Bible song that I played on YouTube during one of the days that she was critically ill on a ventilator in ICU. In church last Sunday we sang a catchy children’s song that was new to me. I immediately thought about how much Leah would have enjoyed this song and how she would have probably sung it around the house. Have a listen, maybe you will find yourself singing along too:

I Am Special

(Pauline PearsonAndrew Pearson)

I am special, loved, accepted and forgiven
I am the apple of God’s eye
I am special, loved, accepted
Special, loved, protected
And I don’t even have to try

He loved me before the world began
He calls me by my name
His love will last for all time
And will never, ever change
Never change

A Sibling’s Grief

A Sibling’s Grief

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A few days ago my youngest child brought home the annual Limavady High School magazine. I took it to bed with me that night to start reading through it. One of the first places I looked was in the creative writing section. Initially, I read an endearing piece written by one of my daughter’s classmates about becoming a ‘big sister’. Then I discovered that my daughter had also written a piece entitled “My Most Memorable Experience”.

As I began to read it I discovered that she had written about her experience of losing her sister. Although I didn’t read anything that I hadn’t already known, it was still very emotional to see her experience of the death of her sister written down in black and white. However, I also felt very proud of her for being able to give her grief a voice and to do so very articulately. She wrote it in the previous school year so she would have been thirteen or at most fourteen when she wrote it.

I have obtained her consent to publish her piece of writing on here, with the aim of increasing awareness of sibling grief. Several adults who lost a sibling when they were growing up, have told me that they felt that the focus was usually on their parents’ grief and that they often felt as if their enormous loss was overlooked.

My Most Memorable Experience

If you have lost someone very important to you, then you already know how it feels. And if you haven’t, you cannot possibly imagine it” – A Series of Unfortunate Events

On the 19th April 2013, my sister was diagnosed with a rare and life-threatening form of bone marrow failure known as Myelodysplasia. Cancer. She needed a bone marrow transplant urgently. We all had to get our blood tested and thankfully my brother was a match. Leah and my mum had to spend 14 weeks in Bristol Children’s Hospital. That meant for three months I was alone with my dad and brother. My older sister was away at university. I pretty much had no one. My dad just about learnt how to tie my hair up and my brother was always on his computer so I was pretty much alone.

Thankfully after the three months of them being in Bristol and me and my dad occasionally visiting when we could, the transplant was successful in curing her Myelodysplasia. I was ecstatic. I was so happy, finally, life would be normal again. We could move into our new house. It would soon be Christmas and we would become a full family again.

Christmas had passed and everything seemed normal. But it wasn’t……On the 28th December, she became unexpectedly unwell and was then admitted to ICU in Belfast City Hospital. She had only just come home and now she’d been taken away from me again.

Me, my dad and my brother had to drive up to Belfast in the middle of the night Wednesday 15th January 2014. When we got there it was eerily silent. I remember my mum taking us up to Leah’s room. I remember her lying there looking lifeless. She couldn’t move, she couldn’t speak, she couldn’t even open her eyes. She was just lying there. I remember crying for hours. Crying until my head was sore. Crying for hours. But I don’t remember it stopping. The last things I remember from that night were kissing her hair-free head and then sleeping on my aunt’s floor, dreading the morning.

The next day was by far the worst of my life. All my family were gathered in the NI Children’s Hospice. It was silent again. No one was ready. No one was prepared to lose her. They had to use two ambulances to transport her from the hospital to the hospice. They moved her into a room there, all of us were gathered around her whilst her favourite playlist of songs serenaded us in the background. I remember clutching onto her hand, while I sat on my aunt’s knee, mentally begging her to hold on. I finally lost that hope and broke down. The tears were streaming down my face. My aunt had to take me to another room because I was having a panic attack. My head was sore. My chest was tight. I couldn’t breathe.

I remember the hospice staff switching off the life support.

I remember hearing the continuous beeping stop.

I remember the moment she died.

The atmosphere was quiet, so quiet that you could nearly hear all of our hearts shattering at once. I would try and describe the feeling to you but I can’t put in words how horrendous it actually was. I would never wish that feeling upon anyone.

The wake was the next few days. They laid her white coffin open on her bed. She was wearing the dress that she had worn to her formal (which was only a few weeks before she relapsed) and some rainbow, fluffy socks that I picked out. We all put something into her coffin, one of the items being her favourite teddy, Ducky. I’d say there were over a hundred people who visited the house in total. The funeral was on Sunday but the only thing I recall is my uncles and cousins carrying her coffin.

The reality is you will grieve forever. You won’t get over the loss of someone you love. You will learn to live with it. You will heal and rebuild yourself. You will be whole again. But you will never be the same again, nor should you want to be. I know I’ve changed. I know I’ll never be the same again but I can’t tell if it’s for the better or for the worse.

Yes, I am angry. Angry because she was so young. I was so young. Sixteen-year-olds aren’t supposed to die. Ten-year-olds shouldn’t have to feel that pain. But I’ve also become stronger……..Sometimes I look up at the night sky and there’s always one star that catches my eye. It always seems the brightest. And I know she’s there, watching over me. img_0313

Grief Changes Everything

Grief Changes Everything

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It’s almost four years now since Leah died and I still struggle with going on a shopping trip  on my own. Whenever possible I shop online or wait until one of my children (or my husband) is available to accompany me. However there are some occasions when I do have to go shopping alone. I try to keep these shopping trips as brief as possible.

In years gone by I loved shopping and my shopping trips often lasted for several hours, but it is definitely now something that I do very much out of necessity rather than for pleasure. Today was one of those days when I headed out alone to get a few bits and pieces. Life has been busier than usual lately, so my youngest and I haven’t had time recently to go on one of our regular joint shopping trips.

As soon as I entered Foyleside Shopping Centre I was immediately drawn to the beautiful sound of children singing. I instinctively moved in the direction of this sound until a choir of Primary School children sweetly singing Christmas songs came into my line of vision. This young choir was surrounded by other shoppers who had stopped to listen and by adoring parents capturing the moment on camera.

In an instant I was transported back to when I was that proud parent and Leah was a young girl in her Primary School choir. Leah loved to sing. Tears blurred my vision as my heart ached with longing to once again hear the sweet voice that every Christmas echoed throughout our house with the words of one of Leah’s favourite Christmas songs:

IT’S SOMEBODY’S BIRTHDAY

by Ian White

Crackers and turkeys and pudding and cream,
Toys in the window that I’ve never seen.
This is the Christmas that everyone sees,
But Christmas means more to me.

Chorus
It’s somebody’s birthday I won’t forget,
As I open the things that I get.
I’ll remember the inn and the stable so bare,
And Jesus who once lay there.
~
Everyone’s out shopping late every night,
For candles and presents and Christmas tree lights
This is the Christmas that everyone sees,
But Christmas means more to me.
~
Christmas morning, the start of the day,
There’s presents to open and new games to play.
This is the Christmas that everyone sees,
But Christmas means more to me.

Leah playing guitar1Dec17

My visit to Foyleside was brought to a swift ending – thirty minutes after I had parked my car I was back in it and driving away. Grief changes everything.

Another First

Another First

Since downloading a step counter onto my phone a few weeks ago I’ve become a lot more aware of how active I am (or otherwise) on different days throughout the week. Comparing my ‘steps’ with other family members also allows for a little ‘competitive edge’!

So this evening, after a rather sedentary weekend, I headed out to walk the three mile ‘square’ around where we live. Within minutes I realised that this was the first time since before Leah became ill in 2013 that I had headed out on my own to walk the roads around where we live.

Field

When my mother died in 2008 in her eighties, I was quite aware of the many ‘firsts’ in that first year after she died. The second year after mum died was definitely a lot easier than the first. Losing a child has been very different; even three and a half years later it feels like there are still so many ‘firsts’ that I have to face, because to have faced them before now would have been too painful. I used to enjoy cycling the country roads where we live during the summer, both alone and with the children, but I have never been back on my bike since Leah died. That’s just one of several activities that I once enjoyed, but that I now avoid doing. Sometimes it’s easier to stay in the ‘safe zone’ than to do things or go places that are likely to trigger a grief reaction.

About half a mile into my walk I came to the field with the donkeys. A friendly donkey walked right over to the ditch where I was standing – just like the donkeys always used to do when I stopped there with Leah and her siblings.

donkey

This seemingly innocuous act caught me completely off guard – for a split second I was back in 2012 and everything was like it used to be – going for walks with the children and stopping to engage with friendly donkeys. Then a flood of emotion hit me along with the realisation of how much has changed since I last stood there looking at a donkey. I found it very difficult trying to process it all. I was glad of the quietness of the evening as I wrestled with my emotions and the tears fell freely.

About a mile or so further on, I encountered some sheep. They weren’t as friendly as the donkey, but some of them stopped to look at me.

Sheep 1

As I thought about these sheep, I reflected on these words from Psalm 23  which is a psalm that I especially like:

The Lord is my Shepherd,

I shall not want,

Sometimes, when I’m very stressed, I repeat these words inside my head to remind and reassure myself that God is my Shepherd and that He has promised to take care of me. At times I recall how Leah used to sing the Stuart Townend version of this psalm  with the Girl’s Brigade choir and how her face used to radiate joy when she was singing. Listening to the words of this song brings me comfort too.

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

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.