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.

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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.

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”

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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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.

 

 

When Your Family’s Lost a Loved One ~ A Book Review

When Your Family’s Lost a Loved One ~ A Book Review

Having finally got a few days to myself, I am disciplining myself to start working my way through the mound of unread books on my bookshelves. One of these books is When Your Family’s Lost a Loved One: Finding Hope Together  written by David and Nancy Guthrie and published by Focus on the Family.

N Guthrie book

Nancy and David Guthrie have one surviving son and they buried two children in infancy due to a genetic condition called Zellweger Syndrome . This is the kind of book that you could keep within reach for the first two or three years after a family bereavement, for all family members to dip in and out of, as they feel able. It is relatively easy to read, and very helpful. Nancy is a gifted writer and speaker. I was so blessed to have been able to hear her speak live in Belfast, last year, at the Irish Women’s Convention.

This book covers every aspect of family grief; such as preserving the marriage relationship, parenting grieving children, surviving holidays, displaying photographs and belongings of the person who has died, dealing with ‘well-wishers’, holding on to your faith, all discussed in a realistic and practical way.

The book also features interviews with others who have experienced different types of grief, such as the loss of a spouse, a parent or the loss of an older child to suicide.

This book is written from a faith perspective but in a sensitive way – we aren’t expected to smile and be happy just because our loved one is in a better place.

The closing chapter is entitled ‘Going On‘ and here Nancy writes:

“There comes a time in our grief that we realise we have to figure out how to keep on living, how to incorporate the loss into our lives. We want to feel normal again, to feel joy again. But even entertaining that prospect feels like a betrayal of the person who is gone……..If we choose to let go of the pain, or at least let it become manageable, it doesn’t mean we love the one we’ve lost any less. And it doesn’t mean that person’s life was any less significant or meaningful or that we will forget. Perhaps it’s not so much that we let go of our grief, but that we give our grief permission to lessen its grip on us.”

I have read several of Nancy’s books and always find them to be sensitive, helpful and easy to read. This book would make an excellent gift for any family who are seeking to navigate their way through grief in the context of a strong Christian faith. Nancy closes with the words:

Your loss has given you a new appreciation for life – and a new anticipation of eternity.

A discussion guide to use with this book is available here.

I Wondered How She Was Doing Now

I Wondered How She Was Doing Now

When you lose a child

A few days ago I found myself thinking about somebody who I used to know. She and I met at a Parents and Toddlers group sixteen years ago, but our paths hadn’t crossed in recent years. Her youngest daughter is around the same age as Leah.

Two years previous to us meeting up at Parents and Toddlers, her only son, a toddler, had drowned in a tragic accident. I was heartbroken for her. I could not imagine the enormity of her loss. However I always appreciated her openness and her honesty as she recounted to me the awful details of that day and the days that followed it, while our little ones played happily together and sang nursery rhymes.

She told me of how traumatised her older daughter was, from the events of that terrible day. She talked about the many ways in which grief was affecting her children and her marriage. She spoke about her efforts to source grief support for her children and how frustrated she felt at times about the suitability of what was available. Those were very difficult days for all of them.

This past week I unexpectedly found myself recalling these conversations and wondering what life was like for her and her daughters now. I wished that I could ask her how many years the sense of ‘brokenness’ had persisted.

Today when I was in Tesco paying for my groceries I noticed that she was beside me! We walked out of the shop together and chatted for several minutes. I asked her how her two girls were doing. It sounds like they are both doing really well. I’m so happy for her and for them. I asked her how she had coped with her older girl leaving home and the fact that her younger girl will soon be leaving home also; I got a very positive upbeat response – she’s really happy to see them both doing so well.

I wanted to ask her how many years it had taken her to actually start feeling okay again, but I wasn’t entirely sure that she knew about Leah’s death and I knew that I would just start crying. I really didn’t think it was fair to dump my emotions on her – she’s had more than her fair share of dark days. To be honest, maybe it was enough for me to know that they have all survived emotionally and that there is a light at the end of this dark tunnel.

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Forget Me Not 2016

Forget Me Not 2016

 

Yesterday, we attended the annual Forget Me Not Remembrance Service at the N.I. Children’s Hospice. As always, it was very moving and very beautiful.

My favourite part this year was the staff choir. There is something incredibly special about having the staff who cared for your child in their last days/hours ministering to you in song.

The staff take the entire service, which is also very special. Their loving support for the families of the children they have cared for, continues for as long as it is needed. This year the staff choir sang a song entitled This is the Sound of One Voice:

This is the sound of all of us
Singing with love and the will to trust
Hear your voice though your heart is crushed
This is the sound of all of us
This is the sound of all of us

One of the staff members who spoke told us that to care for someone is to learn the song that is in their heart and to sing it to them when they have forgotten it. How true this is; these people possess so much wisdom. Another one said that there will be days when there won’t be a song in your heart, but sing anyway. This resonated with me, as music has been so much a part of my journey with Leah and her illness.

To care for someone

During the refreshments afterwards the nurse who cared for Leah on the 16th January 2014 came to speak with us. We had never spoken to her since that day, she talked about the positive impact that Leah’s last moments had on her own life. Her words blessed me immeasurably.

She also told us about having made a poster for the door of Leah’s room that morning before we arrived, with One Direction on it. However, as family members started to arrive, she spoke to them to find out about Leah’s likes and dislikes. She soon discovered that Leah definitely wasn’t a One Direction fan, but that she did love music. She scrapped the original poster and made a new one.

Poster

 

I’m very glad that she did, because that poster meant so much to me. While Leah was in ICU, she had to wear a hospital gown because of all the tubes that were connected to her. On one occasion, I returned to Leah’s room to find that the nurses had dressed my unconscious daughter in a gown that was completely imprinted with the words hospital property. I was absolutely devastated. I stood there staring at it in horror, as I silently asked myself “Is this what my gorgeous daughter has become, a piece of hospital property?

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When we arrived that day at the Children’s Hospice for Leah’s end of life care  and I saw the poster on her bedroom door with her name on it, I knew that we were in the right place. Before we left, I went back down the corridor and photographed this poster, because it meant so much to me.

This nurse also told us about a little boy who hadn’t much time left and wanted to pet a giraffe before he died. He was much too ill to be taken to Belfast Zoo  so they contacted the Zoo and arranged for a real live young giraffe to be brought to visit this child in his room at the Children’s Hospice – isn’t that just so amazing??!!

After leaving the Hospice we called at Monkstown Woods  to visit the Butterfly Grove. Leah is remembered there because of the fundraising that so many of you have done in her name for the Children’s Hospice.

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Then it was time to for us to go to Leah’s Auntie Evelyn’s house for tea. Evelyn had invited some other family members to be there also, along with Leah’s ‘adopted’ Auntie Marion. A few years ago Leah asked Evelyn’s friend Marion if she could ‘adopt’ her as an auntie.

We had lovely food, sat in the warm sunshine – yes the sun does occasionally shine in Ireland – and we enjoyed each other’s company. When I thanked Evelyn for providing such a lovely tea for us, she reminded me that it was exactly what Leah would have wanted; Leah was always happiest when surrounded by family and friends and she loved good food.

I think that we honour our loved ones best when we take the time to be together and do those things that they enjoyed doing.

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Remembering Merryn

Remembering Merryn

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I am really struggling to put my thoughts into words after attending Merryn’s Service of Thanksgiving today.

Leah was diagnosed in April 2013 and some of the members of Merryn’s extended family immediately came on board in their support of us.

Then in July 2013 came the devastating news of Merryn’s diagnosis. I was very concerned, as I perceived Merryn’s diagnosis of neuroblastoma to be far more serious than Leah’s diagnosis. Well, none of us know just how these things are going to work out, do we?

A few months after Leah died in January 2014, our church organised a walk and a climb in memory of Leah to raise funds for Merryn. This raised £9,100 for the Merryn Lacy Trust

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I followed closely the posts on Facebook written by Merryn’s parents. Recently, as I read these posts and looked at the photos of Merryn, my heart sank. I could see that Merryn was a very ill little girl and that her parents were hearing and seeing things that no parent ever wants to hear or see. Jenny and Michael did their best to inject hope and positivity into the posts that they wrote, but I could sense their heartache and their despair.

I remember the days of the ‘positive spin’. I can recall discussing this with another cancer mum when Leah and I were in Bristol. This mum and I agreed that the daily reality of caring for our very ill children and witnessing their suffering, was at times so harrowing, that there was no way that we could inflict the undiluted truth on the unsuspecting public.

‘Positive spin’ was a technique that we deliberately employed, to protect our friends and our family, from the full extent of how difficult and distressing our circumstances truly were. Of course, we also wanted to preserve hope – ours and everyone else’s. Hope was our lifeline. We became experts at finding hope, when humanly speaking, there was little to be found. I remember ‘celebrating’ and writing any day that I don’t get bad news is a good day, when an ICU consultant told me one day that there had been no further deterioration in Leah’s condition. After days of being consistently told that Leah’s condition was steadily deteriorating and that she was unlikely to recover, I clung to whatever hope I could find, all the while praying fervently for a miracle of healing.

I recollect sitting on the hard chairs outside ICU in Belfast City Hospital, writing updates about Leah’s medical condition, trying to be as honest as I could and give enough accurate information so that people could pray for us, but then also injecting as much ‘positivity’ as I could muster. I clearly recall writing the last update on Wednesday 15th January 2014 and thinking “Vicky, the time for ‘injecting positivity’ has come to an end, just tell it like it is.” With an aching heart I wrote the words that no parent ever wants to utter: “At present it looks likely that end of life care for Leah will be put in place tomorrow Thursday.

On Wednesday past, the 4th May, a friend contacted me at work to tell me that Merryn had died. I was heartbroken, I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I sat alone in a Clinic Room and sobbed for all who knew and loved this beautiful little girl.

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Today, a white coffin was once again brought in to Kilfennan Presbyterian Church. Such a heartbreaking sight. I found it so hard to witness the pain etched in the faces of Merryn’s family members, knowing the road that they now must walk. This road of grief and loss and sadness.

There was comfort too, the comfort of friends, of family and of faith. In the weeks and months and years to come, Merryn’s family will need every ounce of this comfort.

When Holidays Hurt ~ A Book Review

When Holidays Hurt ~ A Book Review

To help me cope with Christmas, and all the emotions that it brings since Leah became ill and died, I treated myself to a new book on the recommendation of another bereaved Mummy.

Actually I love books, so it doesn’t take much to persuade me to buy a new one.

This past year during Lent, our minister suggested that we give up something that we would REALLY miss like Facebook or – horror of horrors – Amazon – I chickened out I’m afraid.

Maybe some day.

Cleaning vs reading

 

My recent purchase is called WHEN HOLIDAYS HURT by Bo SternBo is a Mum of four, whose husband was diagnosed with terminal amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a form of motor neurone disease (MND).

The description of the book immediately drew me in:

Bo Stern has spent the past two Christmases struggling to connect with the joy of the season. As she has watched her husband, Steve, struggle with terminal ALS, Bo has quietly felt her spirit for the season fade and has noticed countless others suffering the same way.

When the book arrived I wasn’t disappointed. It’s hardback, compact and pleasing to the eye. More importantly, the content is ministering to my heart.

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Here is what I read today:

Bo doesn’t just cover the Christmas Holidays, she has readings for the New Year, Easter, Weddings and other significant days. At £7.99 Sterling this book would make an excellent gift for any person of faith who has a hurting heart.

If you would like to read Bo’s story and visit her blog, click here. Sadly, her husband Steve left this earth to go to his heavenly home on July 18th, 2015. Read his obituary here.

Blog Quote Bo Stern

Leah’s Parting Gifts

Leah’s Parting Gifts

During the week I was speaking to somebody who has recently been bereaved of somebody close to them whom they loved very much. We talked about their illness and their end of life care.

In the course of our conversation I discovered that their loved one had died on the birthday of the person who was speaking to me.

I was quite taken aback at hearing this. I was unsure of what to say. Somehow, in my mind, this seemed to make this person’s story even sadder.

Quickly in my mind I searched for what I thought would be an appropriate response to what I had just been told. I opened my mouth to sympathetically say “That must be very difficult for you.” but instead I asked softly “What did that feel like?

To my surprise, this person replied very positively that she saw it as a ‘gift’ – her loved one was terminally ill and in pain and she perceived it as her parting gift that her loved one’s body was released from pain and sickness on her birthday!

I have reflected much on this conversation since. The person I was speaking to was unaware of my circumstances and I think that was good, because it allowed her to speak freely without feeling uncomfortable or ‘worried’ about me.

Her positive attitude in the midst of her own obvious sadness and sense of loss has been helpful to me. I was reminded once again of how important ‘perspective’ is – how we frame a situation really does affect how we feel about it.

I was also reminded that grief and distress is such an individual thing and that we can never truly know the significance of any situation for another person unless we hold space for that other person to communicate to us what it means to them.

If I had replied with my intended response of “That must be very difficult for you.” I would have indirectly been implying that she should feel negatively about her loved one dying on her birthday – maybe then she would not have felt comfortable about telling me how she really felt. We would both have missed out.

Since this conversation took place, I have thought about the children’s story book Badger’s Parting Gifts, which I read many times to my children when they were small, to help them to understand and process death in a positive way.

This book describes how Badger’s friends were very sad after he died. Then they remembered all the special treasures that they had in their lives because of having had Badger as a friend and they drew comfort from this in their grief and loss.

Leah wasn’t old like Badger, she was only sixteen, but she has also left us so many gifts. I thought about listing some of those gifts here, but then I realised that – just like Badger and his friends – the ‘gifts’ that Leah left will be individual for each of you, depending on the capacity in which you knew her. 

Maybe you too would like to read “Badger’s Parting Gifts” – it’s narrated here in this Youtube video: