Grief Changes Everything

Grief Changes Everything

ChristmasMeansMore

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.

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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.

The Importance of Encouragement

The Importance of Encouragement

At the age of 40 I became pregnant with my fourth child. That was a surprise – albeit a very pleasant one! Now, at the age of 50+ I have become a University student for the first time in my entire life.

Previous to this, my closest contact with any university, was attending weddings in the Honan Chapel in University College Cork or more recently attending Foyle Vineyard at Magee in Derry.

All of my nursing training was hospital based. I trained in the days when students weren’t supernumerary – we ran the wards, with only a small number of qualified nurses there to supervise us.

Things are very different now of course. Nursing training is university based and it’s a lot more academic than when I trained.

I have let my nursing registration lapse and I want to renew my mental health nursing qualification –  the only way to do this is via a Return to Practice course, which I am doing at Ulster University – Magee Campus. Most of it will be placement based, two days per week. It will also involve E-learning, a lot of reading and an assignment. I intend to do this while also continuing with my normal job, which is part-time. Time management is going to be a very big challenge.

This week I took annual leave from my work in order to attend the five full days of Induction/Theory Block which form the introduction to the course. In the lead up to starting this course I have felt both excited and terrified. Excited because I have always enjoyed working in the area of mental health and I’m looking forward to developing my skills and my knowledge. Terrified because I didn’t quite know what to expect; fear of the unknown and fearful of the challenges of time management.

There was one problem that I didn’t foresee though. Of the thirteen of us in the class, only two of us are returning to mental health nursing, one is doing children’s nursing and the remainder are doing adult general nursing. I of course knew that this would be a likely scenario, I just hadn’t thought it through to it’s logical conclusion.

The logical conclusion is that all of the teaching so far has been geared towards nursing in an acute care setting. This is not in and of itself a problem, as most of it is stuff that we all need to know, like drugs administration and infection control.

The problem for me however, is that all of this discussion of scenarios regarding the care of ill patients in an acute hospital setting is constantly reminding me of the many weeks that I spent in hospital with Leah and everything that this entailed.

You might think that I’m naive, but I never anticipated this.

I’ve been back at my work, in the Health Service, for over a year and I’ve experienced more “grief triggers” in the first three days of this course than I would normally encounter in an average month when I’m doing my job.

One of the nice things about my current job, is that I plan my own work and it’s mostly based around home visits, so if I am struggling emotionally, I can move things around a little and take some breathing space until I’m feeling better. Even the fact of driving several miles through beautiful countryside to get to some of my home visits is very therapeutic.

Scenery

All of this has been really helpful for me in coping with grief. In the early months of returning to work after Leah died, there was even days when I decided to just do paperwork rather that face the public. Having this flexibility has enabled me to have zero sickness absence and still get all my work done by “pacing myself”. 

One of the difficulties for me this week is the intensity of it all – not much pacing and not a lot of breathing space for somebody like me who is at times dealing with some very strong emotions.

Today’s lectures were in a building in the grounds of Altnagelvin Hospital. I found this difficult, as the car park is opposite the South Wing where Leah had two admissions. I was walking through the hospital grounds, lost in my thoughts, when I met a man that I used to work with and be quite friendly with before Leah was born. I’ve met him once since Leah died and I had only only bumped into him a few times in the years previous to that, as we have both changed jobs since we last worked together in the late 1990’s.

When I bumped into him today, he looked at me with compassion in his eyes and told me that he prays for me almost every day. He told me that every week day when he’s driving to work (approximately 27 miles) he prays individually by name for each person that he knows of who is especially in need of God’s comfort. I could barely get the words out to thank him, I felt so overwhelmed with his kindness and so very thankful.

Isn’t it good to know that there are people like this gentleman – a qualified social worker – working in our Health Service?

There is a passage in the Bible in Exodus 17 where Joshua is fighting in a battle. Whenever Moses holds up his hands in prayer, Joshua and his army are winning, but whenever Moses gets tired and lowers his hands, then Joshua and his army starts to lose. So then Moses’ friends, Aaron and Hur come up with a bright idea:

Exodus 17:12-13 (GNT)

When Moses’ arms grew tired, Aaron and Hur brought a stone for him to sit on, while they stood beside him and held up his arms, holding them steady until the sun went down. In this way Joshua totally defeated the Amalekites.

I love this Bible story because what it tells me is how important it is to receive support and encouragement and to give support and encouragement. There were four key players in this story – Joshua with his army, Moses who prayed and Aaron and Hur who encouraged and helped Moses while he prayed.

Encouragement is so important. In another Bible story – the one about the twelve spies entering Canaan, Joshua on this occasion is one of the encouragers, while others are spreading negativity and discouragement:

Numbers 14:5-7 (NIV)

Then Moses and Aaron fell facedown in front of the whole Israelite assembly gathered there. Joshua son of Nun and Caleb son of Jephunneh, who were among those who had explored the land, tore their clothes and said to the entire Israelite assembly, “The land we passed through and explored is exceedingly good.If the Lord is pleased with us, he will lead us into that land, a land flowing with milk and honey, and will give it to us.

In the New Testament in 1 Thessalonians 5:11(NIV) we are instructed to:

Encourage one another and build each other up

Who can YOU encourage today and tomorrow, at home or at work or wherever you are?

Abide With Me

Abide With Me

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Usually my grief triggers are something that I can clearly pinpoint, but not this evening. I unexpectedly felt an overwhelming sense of yearning for Leah and a deep longing for her presence with us.

I never saw the wave coming. We had been having quite an enjoyable Sunday. Then suddenly, out of nowhere it would seem, a tidal wave of grief crashed over me and left me gasping for air, wondering how I would ever make it back to the shores of emotional balance once more.

I try so hard to keep on top of things mentally. For most of my adult life I have practised some form of scripture meditation, where I choose an encouraging Bible verse to focus my thoughts on each day.

In Philippians 4:8 we are told “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”

We are also told in 2 Corinthians 10:5take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.”

All of my life I was a brilliant sleeper, until Leah died. Now I fall asleep easily, but I often wake up again three or four hours later. I lie awake for maybe an hour, before falling asleep again. I usually leave the bedroom so as not to disturb Horace and I listen to music or Bible teaching, so as to keep my thoughts from running wild. Then I fall asleep on the couch or in a spare bed.

I try really hard to take my negative thoughts “captive” and focus on the many blessings in my life, but sometimes this grief and loss and yearning for the one who is missing from our family, completely overwhelms me. Once again I wonder how it’s possible to go on living with a broken heart.

The promises in God’s word always bring me encouragement though, especially 2 Corinthians 1:4. I really hope and pray that what I learn on this journey, can be used to bring hope and encouragement to others.

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One of of the ways in which I receive God’s comfort is through music. Since yesterday I have been listening to a new song by Matt Redman who is my favourite worship leader/singer/song writer. This man is so gifted, his songs just melt my heart. Leah and I both loved his music.

Abide With Me

I have a home
Eternal home
But for now I walk this broken world

You walked it first
You know our pain
But You show hope can rise again up from the grave

Abide with me
Abide with me
Don’t let me fall
And don’t let go

Walk with me
And never leave
Ever close God abide with me

There in the night
Gethsemane
Before the cross
Before the nails

I’m overwhelmed
Alone, You prayed
You met us in our suffering and bore our shame

Abide with me
Abide with me
Don’t let me fall
And don’t let go

Walk with me
And never leave
Ever close God abide with me

O, love that will not ever let me go
Love that will not ever let me go

You never let me go
Love that will not ever let me go

And up ahead
Eternity
We’ll weep no more and sing for joy abide with me
We’ll weep no more and sing for joy abide with me

Abide with me
Abide with me
Don’t let me fall
And don’t let go

Walk with me
And never leave
Ever close God abide with me
Ever close God abide with me
Ever close God abide with me

O, love that will not ever let me go
Love that will not ever let me go

You never let me go
Love that will not ever let me go

Love that will not ever let me go
Love that will not ever let me go

You never let me go
Love that will not ever let me go
You never let me go
Love that will not ever let me go

Sisters

Sisters

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Today is our eldest daughter’s 21st birthday. Our much loved, longed for, prayed for, beautiful, eldest child.

For weeks now I’ve been thinking about and planning for, the family get togethers we will be having to celebrate this milestone – when her University exams are finally out of the way.

I fished out Rachel’s baby book this morning, to get some photos of her as a baby, to make up a “Happy Birthday collage” – as one does.

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I opened the first page, expecting just to see photos of Rachel, but amidst the first photos of Rachel as a baby, I was also bombarded with photos of two smiling little girls with captions like “sisters”.

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Rachel was three and a half years old when Leah was born. She loved her new sister from day one and never showed any signs of jealousy or resentment.

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Seeing these photos this morning, caught me completely off guard, and triggered such a huge wave of grief, that my breakfast threatened to make a reappearance.

Every family event is bitter sweet.

From Leah's Facebook page. The caption reads "I love having my sister home for the weekend."
From Leah’s Facebook page.
The caption reads “I love having my sister home for the weekend.”

I wondered what I had been thinking of, when I had made plans to work today, but Wednesday is my busy clinic day and I almost never take it off. I also don’t like having too much time to think. I just wasn’t sure how I was going to regain my composure.

Thankfully, I rarely – if ever – look as if I’ve been crying, so once I reached the Health Centre car park, I blew my nose and was very glad, as I have been on many other occassions, of that “busy clinic morning”.

I’ve talked before about the song “Somewhere Only We Know” here and here.

I walked across an empty land
I knew the pathway like the back of my hand
I felt the earth beneath my feet
Sat by the river and it made me complete

Oh simple thing where have you gone?
I’m getting old and I need something to rely on
So tell me when you’re gonna let me in
I’m getting tired and I need somewhere to begin

I came across a fallen tree
I felt the branches of it looking at me
Is this the place we used to love?
Is this the place that I’ve been dreaming of?

Oh simple thing where have you gone?
I’m getting old and I need something to rely on
So tell me when you’re gonna let me in
I’m getting tired and I need somewhere to begin

And if you have a minute why don’t we go
Talk about it somewhere only we know?
This could be the end of everything
So why don’t we go
Somewhere only we know?

Somewhere only we know?

Grief triggers” are in many ways a case of “somewhere only we know“.

What triggers my grief won’t necessarily trigger your grief and vice versa.

I hadn’t anticipated this wave of grief. So, not only do we not know what will trigger somebody else’s grief, we often don’t even know what will trigger our own grief.

Such a steep learning curve.

Three of my Favourite Words

Three of my Favourite Words

I currently have three words that I really like.

They are – in no particular order – HOPE, JOY, and GRACE.

I don’t claim to exemplify the qualities inherent in the concepts that these words embody, but I would like to think that by focussing my thinking on them, they will then become more evident in my life.

Wikipedia describes HOPE as an optimistic attitude of mind based on an expectation of positive outcomes related to events and circumstances in one’s life or the world at large.

Kay Warren describes JOY as the settled assurance that God is in control of all the details of my life, the quiet confidence that ultimately everything is going to be alright, and the determined choice to praise God in every situation.

John MacArthur defines GRACE as the free and benevolent influence of a holy God operating sovereignly in the lives of undeserving sinners.

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Some people criticise modern worship songs and choruses by saying that they are too simple, with not enough depth to them.

I accept that some of the traditional hymns contain an amazing depth of theology, that is lacking in some of our modern worship songs.

However, I think that there’s a place for both.

When I’m in a place of very deep emotional pain, it’s usually not deep theology that I need. Sometimes I need to very simply be reminded of the basic truths of the Christian Gospel.

On several occasions since Leah has died, we as a family have attended a church other than our own, in the hope of being able to worship God, without being engulfed in the inevitable emotion produced by attending the church where our daughter was so involved and where our children have grown up.

It really is impossible however to avoid “grief triggers” completely, so on these occasions I usually find myself crying in whatever church we’re visiting.

On one of these occasions not long after Leah had died, the church where we were visiting was having a family service. The hymns that they sang were very simple – of the “Jesus loves me, this I know” variety. Instead of a sermon, they showed a children’s DVD that taught a simple Bible lesson.

I came away feeling that I had met with God. A full blown sermon could have left me feeling discouraged by my inability to connect with what I was hearing. I was exhausted from grieving and my attention span was very short. Their simple service, aimed at the younger members of the congregation, had been exactly what I needed.

I just needed to be reminded of the basics:

God loves me.

Jesus died for me.

Some day all who love the Lord Jesus will be reunited for all eternity.

Listening to modern worship songs, with their beautiful words, helps me to hold on to these truths on a daily basis.

One of the songs that I’ve been listening to a lot lately is simply called GRACE by Martin Smith:

I was lost when you found me here

You pulled me close and held me near

And I’m a fool but still You love

I’ll be your fool for the King of Love

You gave me wings so I could fly

And gave me a song to color the sky

And all I have is all from you

And all I want is all of you

It’s Grace, grace

I’m nothing without You

Grace, Your grace

Shines on me

And there’ve been days when I’ve walked away

Too much to carry nothing left to say

Forgive me Lord when I’m weak and lost

You traded heaven for a wooden cross

And all these years You’ve carried me

You’ve been my eyes when I couldn’t see

And beauty grows in the driving rain

Your oil of gladness in the times of pain

Your Grace, grace

I’m nothing without You

Grace, Your grace

Shines on me

Grace, oh grace

I’m everything with You

Grace, Your grace

Shines on me