Broken yet Blessed

Broken yet Blessed

Esther's Tree

This morning as I sat having my Devotional Time, I looked up and there across the room I saw it – the beautiful miniature Christmas Tree that Esther Scobie had made us for what would be Leah’s last Christmas. My youngest had decorated the room after I went to bed last night! Little did any of us know in December 2013 that it would also be Esther’s last Christmas.

Tears spilled down my cheeks as I remembered the many thoughtful cards and notes that I received from Esther over the years, but especially during Leah’s illness. It is so hard to say goodbye to the special people in our lives.

Yet how blessed I am to have known Esther and how blessed I am by the many other beautiful people that God has brought into my life – some for a short season and some for the long haul.

Philippians 1:3
“I thank my God upon every remembrance of you”

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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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Wrestling with God

Wrestling with God

One of the devotionals that I regularly use during my daily time with God is the First 5 app  from Proverbs 31 Ministries. This app is free to download and is compatible with iOS and Android. The First 5 app provides written Bible teaching Monday through Friday, with a teaching video every Saturday that includes a summary of the learning from the previous week.

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A few weeks ago the weekend teaching was based on 2 Corinthians 12: 8-12 and was presented by Lysa TerKeurst, who is president of Proverbs 31 Ministries. Her message was entitled Perseverance through Pain. Earlier this year Lysa had a significant health scare which resulted in her undergoing surgery to remove half her colon. The results could have been devastating, but she has made an excellent recovery. At the time Lysa wrote on her public Facebook page:

I have no words. Except “thank you.” Thank You, God. Thank you friends who prayed me through this. Thank you to this surgeon who finally figured out why I was in excruciating pain for days and days in that hospital bed.
Thank you that I still get to do life.

In her weekend teaching Lysa referred to her recent illness and recovery and talked about finding joy during difficult times and about the gift of experiencing God’s grace despite the pain. However Lysa is very clear that she doesn’t want to offer ‘easy answers’ to those who have prayed for healing for themselves or their loved ones and instead of God saying ‘yes’ He has apparently said ‘no’. Lysa talked about the death of her sister as a result of ‘a medical tragedy’. She said that after her sister died, she very much did not want people to offer her ‘easy answers’ as to why this tragedy had happened, because she needed space to ‘wrestle well’ with God.

Lysa’s phrase about wrestling well with God really resonated with me. I’ve written here before about wrestling with God. I don’t feel that I ever ‘lost’ my faith during Leah’s illness and death, however I have ‘wrestled with God’ over it all and I continue to do so as I seek to reconcile the events that have taken place, with what I believe to be true about God and about life. Tragedy and suffering definitely alter the lens through which everything is viewed.

Last weekend my husband and I watched the film Shadowlands, which is based on the romantic relationship between Oxford academic C. S. Lewis  and American poet  Joy Gresham, her death from cancer, and how this challenged Lewis’ Christian faith. We had previously watched the film when it was first released in 1993. This time round we found the film absolutely heart-breaking and we could identify with so much of it. However our recollection of watching it on the previous occasion many years ago, was of it being a ‘nice love story with beautiful scenery and a sad ending’!

There is a part towards the end of the film (at 1hr 55 min) after Joy has died when C. S. Lewis is grieving deeply and he joins his academic friends/colleagues at a social gathering. Lewis says to his friends:
I wasn’t going to come tonight but then I thought I would.”
One of his friends responds:
Life must go on.
Lewis’s answer to this comment begins with the line:
I don’t know that it must, but it certainly does.
He then entreats his friends with the words:
Don’t tell me it’s all for the best.
Undeterred by Lewis’s heartfelt plea, one of his friends (one who wears a clerical collar) begins to give him a theological explanation for what has happened. At this point, C. S. Lewis, overcome with emotion, shouts at his friends, then apologises and quickly leaves. His parting words, said under his breath are:
I just wanted company tonight.

My husband and I have no recollection of this scene from the first time that we watched Shadowlands, but needless to mention, it impacted us greatly this time around. Although I feel greatly blessed by the many people that I have in my life who understand grief and loss and who continue to provide emotional support whenever I need it, I could also relate to this scene in which C.S. Lewis just wanted his grief and loss acknowledged and didn’t want to be offered ‘easy answers’. The scene is so heartfelt and poignant.

C. S. Lewis is also an excellent example of someone who knew how to wrestle well with God. His books continue to inspire long after his death and he is often quoted by other writers and speakers.

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Sometimes there is no other way

Sometimes there is no other way

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Sometimes I don’t blog because I’m generally busy getting on with life and I either don’t have much to say or I don’t have the time to say it! Other times I don’t blog because I’m feeling very sad and I’m tired of writing sad posts. Then I think; what the heck – this is my blog and I’ll cry if I want to – people can choose not to read it if they don’t like it.

This past summer was mostly good. The day of the A and AS level exam results in August was both happy and sad. Our son did fantastically well but I was also acutely aware that Leah wasn’t here to get any exam results. I went to the school with our son to get his AS results and I congratulated Leah’s friends on their excellent A level results. I was very grateful to the one parent at the school who acknowledged my grief and loss with a hug, in the midst of receiving her son’s amazing A level results.

While our son posed for a photo for the local papers with others who had received excellent results, I sat in the car in a quiet corner of the school car park sobbing. By the time he texted looking for me to come and collect him, I had regained my composure. Results day needed to be about his success, not about my sadness.

This past week Prize Day took place in both the school that Leah attended and the school that Simon now attends. We attended Simon’s prize giving event as proud parents. However I hadn’t really thought about the possibility that some of Leah’s peers would also be there receiving their prizes before departing for university. One of these was the very girl who started Nursery School alongside Leah many years ago – they walked through the door of the Nursery class together that first morning. So much has changed since then. This triggered more difficult emotions for me, which I sought to contain.

We didn’t have occasion to attend Prize Giving at the High School this year, but a kind friend gave me her copy of the programme. In the Prize Day programmes for both schools there is a section that lists which universities this year’s A level students have moved on to. I scrutinised this section in both programmes, but naturally Leah’s name isn’t mentioned. This time three years ago while in hospital in Bristol, Leah talked to me of her future career plans, but that clearly was not meant to be. Leah’s name is mentioned in another part of the programme though, where she continues to make us proud. I was so pleased to read the names of this years’ recipients of the award created in her memory:

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I try hard to live in the present, to count my blessings, to be grateful for what I have, to focus my thoughts on the good things in my life and the people that I love, but despite it all, grief and loss at times becomes overwhelming. Sometimes no matter how hard I pray and look to God for the strength to go on, no matter how much I read my Bible or how many Bible teaching podcasts I listen to, the sadness just doesn’t go away and those tears have to be shed – there is no other way.

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Being Part of the Family of God

Being Part of the Family of God

I’m on holidays in Edinburgh this weekend. I’ve never been to Edinburgh before. When I’m at home in N. Ireland I attend a relatively traditional church, so when I’m away from home I enjoy visiting churches with a more contemporary style, especially ones with a multicultural congregation. We are all going to be together in heaven, so we may as well start getting used to each other down here.

After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language,standing before the throne and before the Lamb.

Revelation 7:9

While looking for a church to attend this weekend I initially used Google search and Google maps, then I visited the websites of the various churches that my search had elicited. Ideally I wanted one not much further than about three miles from where I’m staying, so that eliminated several churches that looked really good. Other churches were eliminated from my search for various other reasons. I discovered that there are many churches to choose from in Edinburgh so I prayed and asked God to help me choose the right church. I eventually picked Destiny Church  in Leith.

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As I approached the Destiny Church building this morning, dressed very casually, I saw two men in very smart suits and ties, both carrying Bibles, walking in the same direction. I immediately worried that I had misunderstood the dress code for Destiny Church, but these two men walked on by and entered the “Free Church” down the road. I would hate to look conspicuous by getting the “dress code” wrong – it has happened to me before!

On my arrival at ‘Destiny’ I was warmly welcomed and offered a cup of tea, coffee or herbal tea. I asked for a cup of cold water which was quickly provided. As soon as the ‘Welcome Team’ realised that I was from N. Ireland they introduced me to their pastor – Sammy. Within minutes of meeting him I discovered that his brother is somebody I know, as he is the pastor of a church in my hometown that I have visited several times, so I felt right at home.

During the service I sat beside a lovely woman from Singapore, now living in Spain, who regularly visits the UK. A casual onlooker would have thought we were long-lost friends just reunited! After the service when we had to say good-bye we hugged each other warmly.

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The style of worship was contemporary and led by a multicultural group of young people. Some of the songs were new to me and the words were lovely, other songs were ‘golden oldies’, like “Blessed Assurance” by Fanny Crosby, one of my favourite hymn writers:

Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine;

Oh, what a foretaste of glory divine!

Heir of salvation, purchase of God,

Born of His Spirit, washed in His blood.

 

This is my story, this is my song,

Praising my Savior all the day long.

This is my story, this is my song,

Praising my Savior all the day long.

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Perfect submission, perfect delight,

Visions of rapture now burst on my sight;

Angels descending, bring from above

Echoes of mercy, whispers of love.

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Perfect submission, all is at rest,

I in my Savior am happy and blest;

Watching and waiting, looking above,

Filled with His goodness, lost in His love.

I rarely make it through a Sunday service without tears and this was no exception. Singing verse two of that hymn led me to think of Leah, now with the Angels, singing God’s praises.

The Bible teaching was brought to us by Pastor Pete and was based on John 5: 16-47. He applied the Word both to the believer and the seeker. He also quoted from C.S. Lewis     during his sermon. I really like C.S. Lewis and it never ceases to amaze me how many people quote from him!

Towards the end of his sermon Pastor Pete read this lovely poem by Myra Brooks Welch to illustrate the difference that Jesus can make in us when we surrender our lives to Him:

The Touch of the Master’s Hand

‘Twas battered and scarred, and the auctioneer

      Thought it scarcely worth his while

To waste much time on the old violin,

      But held it up with a smile.

“What am I bidden, good folks,” he cried,

    “Who’ll start the bidding for me?”

“A dollar, a dollar. Then two! Only two?

      Two dollars, and who’ll make it three?”
“Three dollars, once; three dollars, twice;

      Going for three…” But no,

From the room, far back, a grey-haired man

      Came forward and picked up the bow;

Then wiping the dust from the old violin,

      And tightening the loosened strings,

He played a melody pure and sweet,

      As a caroling angel sings.
The music ceased, and the auctioneer,

      With a voice that was quiet and low,

Said: “What am I bid for the old violin?”

      And he held it up with the bow.

“A thousand dollars, and who’ll make it two?

      Two thousand! And who’ll make it three?

Three thousand, once; three thousand, twice,

    And going and gone,” said he.
The people cheered, but some of them cried,

    “We do not quite understand.

What changed its worth?” Swift came the reply:

    “The touch of the Master’s hand.”

And many a man with life out of tune,

      And battered and scarred with sin,

Is auctioned cheap to the thoughtless crowd

      Much like the old violin.
A “mess of pottage,” a glass of wine,

    A game — and he travels on.

He is “going” once, and “going” twice,

    He’s “going” and almost “gone.”

But the Master comes, and the foolish crowd

    Never can quite understand

The worth of a soul and the change that is wrought

    By the touch of the Master’s hand.

After the service there was plenty of time to mingle and chat. Before I left Pastor Sammy took the time to pray with me. I felt blessed and encouraged. How lovely it is to be a part of the family of God – to enter a building as a total stranger and to quickly feel so welcome and ‘at home’.

Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household. 

Ephesians 2:19 (NIV)

Operation Beautiful~One Note At A Time

Operation Beautiful~One Note At A Time

Tomorrow I’m leading Children’s Church – something I seldom volunteer for since Leah died. This morning I was scouring the house for our  Veggietales  DVD collection to use one of them in Children’s Church, when it occurred to me that some of them might be in Leah’s bedroom. As I was searching through Leah’s possessions, I found myself lingering, reminiscing, and grieving.

Sometimes people ask me whether it gets easier as time goes on? I’m not sure if the pain of child loss ever gets any less. What has changed as time goes on is my ability to deal with the pain. I’m gradually learning some coping strategies that enable me to live with the pain of child loss, so that I can, by God’s grace, live a relatively normal life most of the time.

Choose

There are some of Leah’s belongings that I haven’t looked through at all since she died. Today, while going through a few of those, I came across a booklet that she had received at  Girl’s Brigade called ‘Spiritual Sparkles‘.

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I know that being a part of Girl’s Brigade was really important to Leah and that she would probably have read this booklet from cover to cover. I found myself glancing through it as I thought about my daughter. My attention was suddenly gripped by this page:

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The ‘secret post-iter‘! That’s where she got the idea from! Leah was well known for writing encouraging notes on post-its and leaving them for others to read. In March 2013 Leah introduced this concept at the LOST outreach weekend for young people in Limavady.

Before we left Sam’s House in Bristol in October 2013, I was dispatched to the shops to buy her a packet of post-it notes. Afterwards one of our friends posted this on Facebook:

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After Leah died our eldest daughter Rachel showed me this post-it that Leah had stuck on her bedroom mirror:

Rachel's Post It

Leah also had lots of post-its stuck up around her own bedroom to encourage her as she recovered from her bone marrow transplant and battled GvHD (graft vs host disease). She struggled with the very unpleasant side-effects of high dose steroid therapy and chemotherapy hair loss and she needed all the encouragement she could find:

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I miss Leah’s little notes; every time I do a clear out I find some little card or note of encouragement that I received from her over the years. I cry for what I have lost, I thank God for what I have had and I carefully place each note or card in a Memory Box.

I think the idea behind Operation Beautiful  is really worthwhile. Their website explains their purpose:

The mission of Operation Beautiful is to post anonymous notes in public places for other people to find. The point is that WE ARE ALL BEAUTIFUL. You are enough… just the way you are!

I know that Leah was very concerned about the many negative messages that young people are getting and the effect that this is having on their self image and their self esteem. I can see why this simple concept would have really appealed to her. I think that it’s a lovely idea.

Sympathy Cards

Sympathy Cards

After a loved one dies there are some tasks that have to be attended to right away, such as registering the death, choosing a coffin, planning the funeral service, hosting a wake, – some of these depend on one’s cultural and religious traditions of course. With other tasks there is more choice and flexibility as to when we tackle them, such as sorting through a loved ones belongings and personal effects. This is very much an individual decision and the ‘right time’ varies greatly from person to person. For us it was important that Leah’s cousins and friends could have ‘a little piece of Leah’ so from quite early on we gave away some of her personal possessions.

However, it was only last week that I found myself able to clear out the drawer that contained all of her medication. There was a part of me that still couldn’t believe that Leah had ever become so ill – it just seemed like a bad dream. I would periodically open her medication drawer and stare in disbelief at its contents – had this really become part of the story of Leah’s life? Last Saturday I finally took all of her injections and tablets to our local pharmacy for safe disposal.

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However all of Leah’s GCSE coursework still remains untouched underneath her desk.

Today I tackled a task that I had known for quite some time needed to be addressed, but I just could not find the emotional energy to do so. Since shortly after Leah died, two of the three shelves in the bookcase in our Family Room have been completely occupied by two large baskets overflowing with sympathy cards, two books of condolences, Leah’s death certificate and other similar items.

For weeks after Leah died, the postman arrived every day with a stack of cards, held together by an elastic band. It seems like everybody we had ever met, from our childhood to the present day, took time out of their busy lives to write and let us know how much they cared about the passing of our beloved daughter. We even received some beautiful cards and heartfelt messages from people whom we had never met but who had heard of our sad loss. The owners of the local pub (which we did not frequent) took up a collection from their customers in Leah’s memory and a card came from them containing a gift of £220 for the Children’s Hospice. The kindness and thoughtfulness of friends and strangers meant so much to us in our devastation.

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We received cards from Christians, Muslims and atheists, from people with a deep faith and people with no faith, but each one was beautifully written with words that came straight from the heart. We received thoughtfully written cards from politicians on both sides of the political divide and even a few beautifully crafted handmade cards. Some of the most touching messages to read were those written by teachers who had taught Leah at school.

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I had no idea that there were so many beautiful sympathy cards out there and I was very touched by the efforts that people went to in choosing them and in thinking of what to write. Some people enclosed handwritten letters with carefully chosen words, others underlined the words on the cards that they had so thoughtfully chosen for us. Some of you never sent your cards, I know that because when I met you in the street you said things like “I have a card for you sitting on my kitchen table, but……” and I finished the sentence for you by suggesting “but you don’t know what to write?” You looked relieved when I offered this explanation and I asked for a hug instead.

Today I went through every item, read it, appreciated the love with which each card was sent to us and then put them all away into a large storage box.

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I consulted with my youngest daughter as to what should occupy these two shelves in the Family Room instead. She suggested that we put each child’s Baby Book and their baby photo albums there, so that when we are together as a family we can remember the many happy times that we have all shared over the years. That is what so many of your cards have urged us to do ~ treasure the memories.

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This was a poem that we received from the Children’s Hospice. I especially like the lines:

Cherish all the memories 

But don’t let time stand still

Although we cherish our memories greatly from when Leah was with us, time does not stand still and we have to live on and make new memories too.