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”

Colors of Goodbye ~ A Book Review

Colors of Goodbye ~ A Book Review

Despite my determination NOT to buy any more new books until I had made some inroads into the pile of unread titles weighing down my bookshelves, as soon as I read about the new book written by September Vaudrey and published last month, I was hooked. Within minutes my fingers had navigated the familiar keys of my keyboard, the book was ordered and it was on its’ way.

Colors of Goodbye

As soon as it arrived, Colors of Goodbye: A Memoir of Holding On, Letting Go, and Reclaiming Joy in the Wake of Loss captivated me with its tasteful cover and the delicate artwork that marks the beginning of each new chapter. I couldn’t wait to start reading it. I read the entire 292 pages in less than a week. There is much about September’s journey as a grieving mother that is different to mine, but there are also many similarities. September’s 19 year old daughter has a car accident and she is in a coma. They are told that she is ‘brain dead’.

September is a natural writer, she shares openly and authentically with her readers how she processes everything that happens:

Praying and hoping that God will perform a miracle and heal Katie.

Wondering if she should tell her adult children everything about Katie’s medical condition before they fly home or if she should wait and speak to them face to face, but thereby run the risk of them being informed via social media or text whilst en route?

September describes being alone with her daughter in ICU and noticing how quiet it is, save the beeping of the monitors and the rhythmic whoosh of the ventilator. She holds her daughter’s hand and asks herself “Is this real or is it a parent’s worst nightmare?” I too was that parent, alone in an ICU room with my unconscious daughter and the sounds of beeping and swooshing, knowing I would never again hear my daughter’s voice or feel her loving embrace.

Interspersed with these details are references to September’s unshakeable faith in a God who cares and her unfaltering sense of humour – I felt so at home in this book.

September writes through her pain and talks us through some of the challenges of being a grieving parent who is parenting grieving children. She speaks of her and her husband being together, yet alone – he doesn’t know what it feels like for a mother to lose a daughter and she doesn’t know what it’s like for a father to lose his little girl. Their four other children are teenagers and young adults and between the six of them they demonstrate a range of grieving styles. September describes the delicate process of learning to respect each other’s ways of coping. Her stoic husband Scott describes their grief and loss as being like an amputation – ‘the wound will eventually heal but we’ll still be missing an arm.

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September gives us insight into her thought processes as she endeavours to both hold on and let go. To find enduring ways to remember Katie and honour her place in their family, whilst at the same time not wishing to turn their home into a ‘Katie shrine’. September talks about the gaping wound in her soul that her daughter’s death has created and how easy it would be to fill this hole with bitterness, anger and self-pity. On the three year anniversary of her daughter’s death September discovers that the sorrow that has been her constant companion since Katie died was now mingled with ‘an inexplicable sense of peace and unapologetic sparks of joy’. September writes of this discovery:

God, always the gentleman, had not rushed me or demanded I accept this life whose story line still horrified me, and perhaps always would. He had simply continued to invite and to fan little embers of joy beneath the ashes as constant reminders of His love for me. He had not forgotten me or my family or our pain.

September’s authentic voice, as she writes movingly about the life and death of her beautiful daughter Katie and life after loss, has helped me to reflect on my own grief journey. Whilst travelling through the story of this grieving mama, I have revisited some of my own difficult places and found little pieces of healing. I highly recommend this book to anyone seeking to navigate the minefields of grief and loss while holding on to their faith in a loving God.

In this 6 minute video September and Scott talk about their loss. Scott says that he has good news and bad news: the good news is that you won’t always feel this way, that gradually the intolerable ache softens, the bad news is that you never get over this. He says that he’s learned to get on with life, but the loss of his daughter is always just below the surface. September says that in the almost eight years since Katie died, that God has continuously showed up in their story, usually in the thumbprints of other people – especially when people don’t forget your child and they don’t forget your sorrow – she describes ‘church’ as a community of people who do life together.

A Theology of Suffering

A Theology of Suffering

Habbakuk

Malcolm Duncan  is one of my favourite N. Ireland Bible teachers. I first heard him live at New Horizon in 2014, a few months after Leah had died. My concentration and attention span were limited but Malcolm’s preaching really held my attention.

Malcolm’s charge at New Horizon in 2014 was to preach each night from the Sermon on the Mount. On the Thursday night Malcolm announced that he felt that God wanted him to depart from what he was scheduled to speak on, in order to talk about suffering and grief in a message entitled His Presence in our pain. It was such a God moment. There were many friends and family there that night who were grieving deeply for Leah. Not to mention the many others in the 2,500 strong crowd who were grieving for loved ones or who were experiencing other kinds of suffering.

Malcolm said that night:

Have you ever cried out to God, “Why?” How can we not be moved when we hear the stories of Christians around the world that are suffering such horrific persecution. At some point in their life, every Christian will go through something that causes them to ask, “Why?” Mary and Martha went through that experience when Lazarus died.

The sisters sent word to Jesus, “Lord, the one who you love is sick.” Never think that sickness or death or suffering or unanswered prayer are an indication that God does not love you.  There is a cruel theology in the church that says if you are facing illness or sickness it is because you don’t have enough faith – that is NOT the case.  Suffering does not mean that God is punishing you.

Within weeks of this event, Malcolm Duncan was going to know grief and suffering like he had never known it before. In the months that followed, three members of his close extended family died by suicide, while three other family members – his mother, his wife and his brother, were simultaneously hospitalised in three different hospitals, for very serious illnesses.

Two podcasts that Malcolm subsequently recorded with Dave Criddle, entitled Hard Times and Hard Times Part 2  have been such a blessing to me. I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’ve listened to these podcasts and sat writing notes in my journal.

In these podcasts Malcolm and Dave talk about how they’ve attended church feeling weak and broken and that it’s ok to not be ok. They said that although sometimes they have felt God’s presence in a very real way in their suffering, there have been many other times when they don’t feel God at all, they just continue on because they believe.

Malcolm talks about his faith being less ‘fluffy’ now and about being clearer about the difference between joy and happiness – happiness is fleeting and depends on our circumstances, whereas joy is deeply rooted in something much more meaningful. He says that emotional pain has caused him to dig deeper for meaning , but he also acknowledges that for many people, pain and suffering become the fulcrum on which their lives turn away from God.

How many times I have stood sobbing at Leah’s grave (this past week included), contemplating one of her favourite verses inscribed on the kneeling plate:

kneeling plate

Malcolm’s life has turned further into God, which he describes as ‘a work of grace’. He talks about saying to God “Unless you get me through this, I won’t make it.” Ah, but how those words resonate with my own heart.

He asks “How does one travel with sadness – the absence of a sense of God’s presence -because finding God in the midst of suffering is not a given?” He says “What do we do with a God who doesn’t always heal, One who doesn’t always answer prayer?” Malcolm courageously admits to having thousands of questions. It is like the Balm of Gilead to my soul, to at last encounter a Christian leader who admits to being plagued with many of the same questions that I have wrestled with.  He says that one day God will answer all of our questions, but on that day, the questions won’t matter anyway.

Near the end of the first podcast is my favourite line of all, when Malcolm says that our churches are caught up with thinking about a theology of healing, when perhaps what they/we really need is a THEOLOGY OF SUFFERING!

“Hard Times” with Malcolm Duncan & Dave Criddle

“Hard Times, pt. 2” with Malcolm Duncan & Dave Criddle

Tomorrow is a New Day

Tomorrow is a New Day

My first day back at my own desk, where I used to work before I went off work to care for Leah, turned out to be incredibly difficult.

Not because my work colleagues aren’t nice – they are lovely. We even managed to pop out to a local cafe for lunch. I enjoy their company and I love eating out.

Not because I don’t like my job – I love my work.

What broke me was the vivid awareness, that the last time I drove that route to work, parked in that spot, worked at that desk, I had four children alive on this earth.

This awareness triggered an almost overwhelming wave of grief.

It took all of my willpower to get through this first day, while praying silently for strength.

At the end of today, as I headed back to my car, on a nearby street, the tears started flowing.

My intention was to drive straight to the cemetery and spend some time at Leah’s grave.

I started the car and pulled off, but very quickly parked again – I had a flat tyre!

Normally in these circumstances I would attempt to change it myself and then some kind gentleman would invariably come along and offer to do it for me!

Not this time – a flat tyre was the last thing that I needed at the end of an emotionally fraught day.

I stayed in the car and phoned my husband and sobbed down the phone.

He phoned me back a while later to say that he had phoned “Roadside Recovery” to come and change the tyre for me.

The idea of needing Roadside Recovery to come and change a tyre upset me even further.

On my last day of working in my present location after Leah was diagnosed, my car broke down. I ended up sobbing in the car, waiting for Roadside Recovery to turn up. I write about this here.

Here I was again, two years later, on my first day back in that same office, sitting sobbing in the car, waiting for Roadside Recovery to turn up.

I felt so defeated and demoralised.

I listened to “Oceans” by Hillsong on continuos repeat as I sat in my car and waited for the same Roadside Recovery company to arrive. To my immense relief, it wasn’t the same man as the last time. Emotionally I would have found that very difficult – too much déjà vu!

The young man who arrived was cheerful and pleasant. More importantly, he didn’t tease me about being ‘helpless’ or ‘incapable’. He apologised for taking so long and did what he had to do, swiftly and graciously.

By 7pm I was good to go and headed off to visit Leah’s grave.

The graveyard felt so peaceful.

The previously vacant plot opposite Leah’s now contains a baby boy. The card on one of the fresh wreaths tells me that he’s a little brother. I thought about his heart broken family.

Leah’s kneeling plate was looking all dusty so I walked back to the car for some baby wipes to clean it up a little. I don’t like her ‘joy’ being covered over.

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In closing, I’ve just two things to say about today:

Firstly, grief can be rough, very rough.

The wound of grief is like a deep wound that has scabbed over. All that it takes is for something to knock the scab off that wound and the flesh is once again laid bare, painful and bleeding. For a little while, everything feels as raw as it did when that wound was first acquired.

Secondly, tomorrow is a new day.

One of my very favourite Bible verses is

Lamentations 3:22-23 (ESV)

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness
.”

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Another Milestone

Another Milestone

Whenever Leah was diagnosed in 2013 I desperately wanted to keep on working. I love my job and going to work is one of my coping strategies. However, it quickly became apparent that I needed to be at home with Leah. I write about the circumstances that led to me going off work here.

I did not at all begrudge doing this, but at the same time I also felt a distinct sense of loss.

When we returned from Bristol, towards the end of 2013, I had a conversation with my employer about returning to work. I wanted to believe that my daughter was going to be well enough for this to happen.

In early December 2013, I asked for and was given a 2014 work diary. I wanted this tangible symbol that I would soon be returning to work and would need this diary. I kept it in my bedroom where I could see it, as reassurance that all of our lives would soon start returning to normal.

Then, in January 2014, Leah died. I couldn’t imagine ever being capable of working again. Just getting out of bed and getting dressed was quite an achievement. My employers were very supportive and patient. Eventually, by mutual agreement, it was agreed that I would return to my part-time post on the 1st September 2014.

Due to someone being on Maternity Leave, I was offered the opportunity of initially returning to a post in a rural area, somewhere that is more convenient for me. I was very pleased, as I knew that this would make my transition back to work easier, for several reasons.

As September approached, I felt both excited and nervous. The weekend immediately prior to my returning to work was awful, just awful.

My grief intensified.

I imagined that if my employers could see the state that I was in, they wouldn’t even let me through the door, much less let me loose on the unsuspecting public.

Besides my overwhelming grief, I didn’t know if I could still enjoy my work.

I wondered if everything that had happened, had changed me so much, that I would no longer find any satisfaction in what I had once found so fulfilling.

Well, work has been so good for me. It’s the only part of my life that’s more or less the same today, as it was before Leah took ill.

Having something in my life that hasn’t changed, when it feels like everything else in my life has changed beyond recognition, is so reassuring.

To my amazement, I soon discovered that I still knew how to do my job.

Not only that, I still love it.

Many mornings I still cry on my way to work, but as soon as I get there, the busyness of my work commitments push my distress to the back of my mind.

In the first few months after returning to work, as soon as I stepped outside the Health Centre to come home, I used to feel the heavy cloak of my grief descend upon me once again. Sometimes on my way home, I would pull in somewhere and give way to my emotions, so as not to upset everyone when I arrived home.

One day at work, someone momentarily forgot my name and introduced me to a work colleague as “Leah’s Mummy“. I thought that was so beautiful – that acknowledgement that although my daughter is dead, I am still her Mummy. I loved that they weren’t afraid to say Leah’s name in case I would get upset or something. Leah’s school is close to where I was working and her story is well known in the local community.

My work colleagues didn’t make a big fuss of my grief and I wouldn’t have wanted them to. However, quietly, behind closed doors, words of support were uttered and hugs were given, whenever I most needed them. I really appreciated that, as some days I was just hanging by a thread.

Today was my last day working in that rural town, sadly for me.

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On Monday 15th June I return to my permanent post in the City. To the office where I was working during the early months of Leah’s illness, until shortly after she received her diagnosis. To the desk where I received phone calls from haematology regarding Leah’s blood tests. To the carpark where I sat in my car and cried hysterically, because those blood results had convinced me that there really was something seriously wrong with my child.

I have a mixture of feelings.

I’m very aware that I’ve so much to be thankful for:

Thankful for paid employment.

Thankful for a job that I love.

Thankful that I was given the opportunity to ease my way back into working life via a slightly quieter rural location.

Thankful for supportive work colleagues, both where I’m leaving and where I’m returning to.

Thankful for relatively good health that has enabled me to not have even one day’s sickness absence since my return.

Thankful that the same God who has been by my side up to now, continues to walk with me and will give me strength for all that lies ahead.

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Love Notes

Love Notes

Leah and Miriam 2005
Leah and Miriam 2005

Today I was unpacking a bag of stuff that came down from our old house and I found another of Leah’s “love notes”.

She wrote it to me in 2012, when I was very upset about something that had happened.

In it she quotes Psalm 9:9-10

The Lord defends those who suffer; he defends them in times of trouble. Those who know the Lord trust Him, because He will not leave those who come to Him.”

Then she writes some beautiful words of encouragement, regarding the situation that I was distressed about.

Of course, when I found this note, all I could do was cry and sob my heart out.

How I miss Leah’s love notes, her timely hugs and her words of encouragement.

Yet, I know it is better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all.

I am also mindful of how blessed I am to have a husband and four children.

I am blessed that I am loved.

Simon, Miriam, Rachel and Leah, October 2004
Simon, Miriam, Rachel and Leah,
October 2004

I am mindful of how blessed we are as a family, to have had Leah in our midst for sixteen precious years and 16 days.

I am so blessed by each little note that I find, that reminds me of Leah – not that I need reminding – and the part that she played in our family.

She was my flesh and blood, the one whom I carried in my womb for nine months, felt every kick, birthed into this world, fed at my breast, gazed into her Moses Basket to check she was still breathing, shopped for, cooked for, loved with a Mother’s love and reluctantly handed back to the One who loves her with a perfect love.

Parenting brings so very many challenges – no one ever said it was going to be easy. I guess I just didn’t know it was going to be this hard.

How easy it would be to give up on life, to drown in this pool of tears.

However, just as Leah’s response to her situation was “God has a plan for my life“, so it is mine.

My hopes and prayers could be summed up in the words of 2 Corinthians 1:3-4 (NIV)

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.

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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.