What’s in a name? For me, everything

My journey through my faith hasn’t been smooth by any means, but it’s been there to various degrees for as long as I can remember. My relationship with God changed dramatically when Abi died and what had become a passive sense of anger, resentment, ridicule and distrust (mine, not His obvs) became an active relationship of love, reverence, worship and trust.

I sometimes wonder if I would have revived this relationship had Abi not died. Would I still be living apart from Him, not knowing anything about the ways He could make me better, happier, content? Still blaming Him for all the bad?

I don’t know. God shows up when we need Him and I believe He would have used another event to help me find Him again. It just happened to be that at my lowest, darkest, bleakest place I felt the presence of a man next to me, between me and my husband, there for us both. It’s so hard to describe how this felt without sounding a little crazy, but having read countless similar experiences and met people who have known the same, I know I’m far from alone.

I needed to know more about this Christianity stuff, after all it had become infinitely important. If Abi had gone to heaven, I needed to know how and whether it made a difference to my life.

So months of research, attending church, meeting Christians, listening to experiences, praying, waiting, reading… I realised that I had found Jesus! I understood who He was and what He did, that He was more than a painting or statue… He was everything. He was God. Not a man on a cloud, a ghost or a fairytale. And I found a love relationship like I never knew possible.

It has been a long, bumpy road to get here, even with confidence in what I thought I knew, but for me, it is important that I try to build on my relationship with Jesus for as long as I can, because when it’s my turn to meet Him I want to be running into his arms.

The name of Jesus, however, has long been a cliche, a joke, a curse, a flippant remark, an angry word. I’ve used His name this way myself, to my utter shame, along with For God’s Sake, Oh God!, Heaven’s Sake, Oh My God, Crikey, Lord… the list of ways I’d inadvertently been taking His name in vain is endless!

The more I came to know this beautiful man of peace, who loves me despite all that I’d done to myself and others, despite all I had said about Him, the more the way He is treated hurts.

It’s now that I realise how much the name of Jesus is used. People shout it, whisper it, write it in frustration, pain or anger, on TV, in books, on social media and in conversation. It’s so common that we don’t even know we’re doing it.

I wince. I feel uncomfortable, like when you hear someone slag off someone you know well and you don’t know how to respond.

But to curse the name of Jesus is to curse hope. It’s saying no to hope, that hope is hateful or abhorrent, that there’s no need to care one bit about hope.

And, without hope, there is nothing.

Millions of people draw hope and comfort from Jesus. Why is his name used in vain at all? Why not a genuinely bad human like Hitler or Stalin? I expect over the years, as language and meaning has changed so has how the name is used. It was likely used as some form of protection in the past, and has gradually become slang. But words are very important to us. People are particular and mindful of how appearance, gender, race or sex is referred to. We are respectful of other people’s beliefs and sensitivities (in the main!), choosing our words carefully so as not to offend, so why not with this?

For me, Jesus has become a beautiful word. A word filled with hope, comfort and friendship. A name that Abi loves. It’s the only word I can depend on. After all, there are over 170,000 other words in the English language I can choose from to express how I feel.

26 I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”

John 17:26, NIV

 

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Sunday Notes: Is the Easter story too scary for children?

Having just celebrated Easter, I noticed a definite preference for bunnies and chocolate than the events surrounding the death and resurrection of Christ. Beliefs aside, I wonder if it’s because we feel death is too hard for our children to understand… bunnies are better… right?

I read a blog a few weeks ago where a mother complained about Christianity being taught in schools. That she didn’t want her child to be exposed to stories of torture, human cruelty and the horrific execution that is crucifixion. Especially as an atheist, she didn’t see why her children should learn this distressing aspect of a religion which is supposed to claim a loving creator God. (I’m not saying this mother’s opinion is wrong, I wouldn’t want my child doing yoga in school because it goes against my beliefs, she’s of course within her rights to say the same about what offends her unbelief. This is about what we should tell our children about the real events around Easter.)

I could understand her point, as a mother, I have wanted to protect my children from the death and evil in this world as much as anyone. To focus on the good is the most natural thing in the world. My four-year-old refers to Jesus as ‘baby Jesus’, so to explain to him that the man hanging on the cross is Jesus grown up wasn’t the easiest thing. But I explained it as simply as I could, and he grasped it. He said it was sad and in the same breath talked about Buzz Lightyear.

Watching the news with my 10-year-old son, my heart was broken to see tears roll down his cheeks at the fighting in Syria. The confusion on his face as he watched news story after news story about humans terrorising each other not just in far away countries but in his own county. The evil in this world shown on TV is far more distressing than the story of Jesus.

My younger son starts school this year and already I’m saddened at exposing him to the big wide world that is school life. The anxiety as he learns new things and his world expands, the struggle of trying to find his place among a classroom and being told off for not doing the expected thing. School of course, has so much excitement to it, but I know that it brings fear and worry too. But of course he must do it, to live a protected life away from other people is not to live at all. I want him to find his way to God through an understanding of what happened, not that Jesus brought him some chocolate.

At Christmas, we throw ourselves all in… with bells on. Christians and non-Christians alike gather gifts and decorations to express their joy of the season. The school plays often feature a nativity where the children learn that a baby was born and that’s why we are all doing this Christmas thing. It’s an innocent, happy occasion. A baby Jesus is the most harmless image in the world. We are comfortable with a chubby baby, gentle shepherds and donkeys.

Easter, which in the Christian church is like Christmas with extra tinsel, is the marking of the resurrection of the King. The cornerstone of our beliefs. It’s our biggest day.

But Jesus’s death must come first.

I attended the Good Friday service at my church as usual and saw familiar faces and a reasonable attendance, but it was nothing exceptional. There were a number of empty seats.

The Good Friday service is reflective but there are hymns and crafts for children and we think about the way Jesus’s death relates to our lives, to who we are. As a bereaved mother, I often think of Mary watching her son be strung up by these hunters. And, while my own grief is opened up, I take immense comfort from this.

Still, it’s about death, no one really wants to talk about that bit. Why celebrate death? Where is the love in all this?

By contrast, Easter Sunday service is heaving, standing room only. So many new faces and a buzz of celebration. The party is here…

Outside of church, in the family life, there are chocolate, eggs, bunnies and chicks. We have made Easter colourful, fluffy and child-friendly, we can focus our attention on the commercial aspect of buying gifts and treats. ‘Jesus has risen from the… erm… oh, but look, let’s go and find some chocolate!’

Can children not cope with the evil in this world, the evil way Jesus was killed? I find that they can. I have struggled myself in the past to explain the story to my children, I know it’s not easy. But children can handle far more than we realise. My children aged just 5 and 10 had to handle the sudden traumatic death of their much loved sister at home. All children will experience a personal loss of some kind. I like to teach them that because Jesus was God, he knew that the people wouldn’t understand and would be scared so they would kill him, which is an emotion where most of the evil in the world today comes from anyway. But he also knew that he would come back to life, not as a spooky ghost but as a living breathing man. I teach them that because he is God, he came back to show us that he loves us and has a wonderful place for us to go to, when it’s our turn to die.

Celebrating is great, but sometimes we can learn a lot from the tough stuff. The Easter story is not meant to be frightening, it’s meant to be the most hopeful, comforting story we humans have and that, in my opinion, is the most important story of all.

Biblical breadcrumbs, books and bereavement

 

On Sunday I attended my church’s All Souls service, which is held to remember those we have loved and lost. I have been to this ever since we lost Abi. The vicar’s sermon focused on this passage. What he said resounded with me so much that I had to replicate it here for you to read.

OK, so Jesus is out and about doing his amazing stuff, healing, miracles, powerful words… and the prophet and Jesus’ relative, John the Baptist, is locked up thanks to bad King Herod. John the Baptist was a special guy. He was sent by God to prepare people for the arrival of Jesus. He was a bit rough and ready, shouting at folk and eating grubs, someone we may all think was a bit of an oddball. Herod was intrigued by him, yet scared of the reaction he was causing so he locked him up. The only problem was Herod’s wife, she hated John and tricked Herod into executing him.

On Herod’s birthday the daughter of Herodias danced for the guests and pleased Herod so much that he promised with an oath to give her whatever she asked. Prompted by her mother, she said, “Give me here on a platter the head of John the Baptist.” The king was distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he ordered that her request be granted and had John beheaded in the prison. His head was brought in on a platter and given to the girl, who carried it to her mother. John’s disciples came and took his body and buried it. Then they went and told Jesus. (Matthew 14: 6-12)

So, Jesus has just had the sad news that John has been killed, and it is not what he says but what he does that is so remarkable.

When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place. Hearing of this, the crowds followed him on foot from the towns. When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick.

As evening approached, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.”

Jesus replied, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.”
“We have here only five loaves of bread and two fish,” they answered.
“Bring them here to me,” he said. And he directed the people to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people. They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children. (Matthew 14: 13-20)

He withdraws. This all-powerful son of God, the one who people looked to for help spiritually and physically, the one who had all the answers, who was so confident in his faith and understanding of the human race, retreated. He was bereaved. He needed to be alone, to grieve, to contemplate and process what had happened.

Yet, people didn’t care about this, they just wanted Jesus to look after them. They needed fixing, healing, ministering to. They needed him to serve and guide them as he had been. Can you imagine in your grief, crowds of people following you, asking for your time and energy?

Yet, despite his grief, Jesus saw the crowds and went to them. He didn’t say ‘Can I just have a few days off, please,’, or ‘Go away! I’m grieving my friend here can’t you think about anyone but yourselves, you insensitive bunch!’ Did he turn away from them and close his eyes? Did he sit, depressed and numb to their cries for help? Nope, he saw them. He felt compassion for them and began to heal them. He went straight back to his work, not for any other reason than love.

And he didn’t just whip round a few to get some healing done to get them off his back for a bit. Nope, he then performed another miracle by feeding every single one of them. He fed them all, with five loaves of bread and two fishes. There was even some left over.

He could easily have said, right John is dead, I’m giving up on this, I’m fighting a losing battle, what’s the point anymore. But he used his bereavement and ministered to thousands of people, filling them physically and spiritually. John’s death was not in vain. Jesus was not giving up that easily. The message of God’s love would bless others despite this tragedy.

Sat in the service, I thought of the books I’m writing. I considered the ways my own grief may have ‘blessed others’ – the organ donation, the fundraising for Bristol Children’s Hospital, the appreciation and forgiveness of others, the blog writing, and now the books: the children’s book, grief journal and a memoir.

I didn’t plan any of these things, they all sort of happened out of the needs of others – Abi was dying but other lives could be changed from her organs, people wanted to give money in Abi’s memory so the fundraising happened, I heard from people who had been bereaved so the blog writing developed, and by listening to what would help others the ideas for the books came about.

The books, I hope, will be like Jesus’s bread – using one story – the story of our loss – to help many others.

 

 

Would you like to donate to help me publish a children’s book about dying?
Just £1 will make a big difference to help me get the book out there to comfort children like ours who have been bereaved.

For more information click the JustGiving logo below:

 

Don’t sweat the small stuff, pray it!

Since Abi died, prayer has become part of my day. I didn’t often pray before, except in church or the occasional Lord’s Prayer. Now, my prayers are more like mini conversations with God. Sometimes, I read a psalm or sing a worship song. Sometimes I read a passage of the Bible aloud, slowly. I rarely have time to sit in silence and pray, as my house is just too busy, so I often find myself in the loo or shower – multitasking my only quiet time to talk with God.

The prayers I have said over the years have also changed. I started by crying out to God, whispering prayers of sorrow, praying for comfort and protection. Gradually, my prayers are ways to say thank you for the blessings in my life, to say sorry for messing up all the time, to ask for help. I then was able to intercede for others outside my immediate network. Praying for the healing of another person you don’t know is surprisingly powerful and shifts the focus away from the self and towards a love for others.

But I’m not a very good pray-er. I say the wrong thing at times, I try to say holy, eloquent words but get jumbled, I lose my train of thought. I wish my prayers had more depth and, I suppose, like my writing were grammatically correct!

I sometimes write my prayers down as that’s easier for me than talking off the cuff. But what to pray for can sometimes leave me stuck.

I recall a scene in the film, Bruce Almighty, where Bruce has died and meets God in heaven. God asks him what he prays for most, Bruce replies ‘world peace’. God smiles and says ‘That’s very good, if you’re trying to win a Miss World contest. What do you really pray for…?’ To which Bruce replies, ‘That Grace [his ex-girlfriend] is happy’.

And that’s a useful way to think about prayer. Of course, I often pray for the big events going on in the world, I also pray the common prayers in church, but what God needs me to do most is to pray into the stuff that matters to me.

A friend, who was in deep grief, met with me and we prayed together. During that prayer we prayed for our lost loved ones and for the people who were missing them, but we also prayed for what some would think ‘small’ things. We prayed that we’d find a way to encourage more volunteers to help at church, we prayed we’d find another supplier of food that we share at our group, we prayed that the sun would shine so that we could take the children to the park…

Simple, small details and insignificant when you compare them to the death of a loved one. But are they?

I reflected on how these small things make up the bigger picture… that if we got one more volunteer then that group can run and many people will benefit… that if we found another local food supplier we can feed them and it will encourage friendship and conversation… that if the sun shines we can get outside and enjoy some fresh air, meet up with friends and find some joy…

All these seemingly tiny details impact another slightly bigger detail.

It’s not been easy, but I’m learning about listening to God, who is guiding me constantly though my day – and asking him to help me take care of the small things in my life so that he is part of my whole life.

 

 

Forgiveness Series: 4. Forgiving yourself

One of the hardest aspects of grief – as a grieving parent – is forgiving yourself.

Children die every day. And, for every child that has left this world, is a parent left wondering what they did wrong, how they could have prevented it, why they weren’t in their child’s place.

Abi’s death could not have been predicted nor prevented, yet still I wondered what I could have done to save her. If I’d have noticed sooner and taken her to hospital… had she had some injury in her past that may have caused her hemorrhage… or perhaps things I did or didn’t do in the pregnancy and birth affected her. Then there was the guilt of every single time I lost my temper with her, or punished her, or said no to her.

Even, as in my case, where there is very little scope for ‘blame’ or ‘regret’, guilt still found a place in my loss.

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Forgiveness Series: 3. The Fourfold Path of Forgiveness

In The Book of Forgiving, Desmond & Mpho Tutu offer a process called ‘The Fourfold Path’, which helps us to move from a position of anger and resentment to one of forgiveness and (inner and outer) peace.

This part makes up most of the book, but I have outlined the basic elements of the path below:

Telling the story – this is you talking, and talking, and talking, about what has happened – the shock, the pain, the fear, the details. Getting the story out, again and again can help you to process the events and move towards understanding and forgiveness.

It will also help you to ‘own’  the story. I owned the story of how Abi died by talking and writing about her death, in all it’s real and painful detail. Yes, it’s all devastating to hear or to read, but it’s also MY story and will forever be. Talk about your pain – whether that’s a traumatic death, a life-changing medical diagnosis, an offence or abuse – and own your story. Try to do this factually, without the addition of things you thought happened or were in the another person’s mind.

Exercise: Tell your story to your stone, whisper it or shout it, but hear your voice say the words to the person who you want to forgive. Explain why you feel the way you do, talk about how you want to move on from the resentment. Then, when ready, write your story down, the whole thing. Get it out and work through the key points. This will help you to see where the roots of the problem lie. You can always destroy or delete it afterwards. 

Naming the hurt – It is very important to name your hurt. When we bury our true feelings we only seem to suffer even more because of it. Marriages crumble under the weight of unspoken resentments and unacknowledged hurts. When we ignore the pain, it grows and spreads like a tumour that eventually drains us and affects all our relationships.

This happens a lot in grief. After a death, people stop talking about the deceased. No one wants to mention their name because it reminds everyone of the loss, so nothing is ever said, and this silence screams at those most deeply grieving. If you feel angry, admit that – to yourself and maybe others (the authors guide you through this). Put a name to your emotions and they won’t seem so scary and overwhelming.

Exercise:

  1. Hold your stone in your dominant hand. Name out loud a hurt you are feeling. As you name it, clench the stone.
  2. Open your hand. As you release your fist, release the hurt.
  3. Repeat this for each of your hurts.
  4. Write down all the things you have lost and name the feelings that accompany those losses. What does your heart tell you. What is the weight of your loss. Name it so you can heal it.

In my grief, I felt so many emotions. Sometimes they all came at once and led me to feel overwhelmed. Other times, I went through periods of anger, or depression, or anxiety. Recognizing these helped me immensely, and while I still have periods of these feelings, I now know that it is better for me to allow them to happen than to try to bury them because they are too painful.

Granting forgiveness – This is how we move from the position of victim to one of a hero – a hero being someone who takes their pain and uses it to do something awesome like forgive and love others. All of us are human and are all capable of love, hate, beauty, cruelty, indifference and goodness. It would be nice to think there are those who are perfectly good, but that’s just not the case.

It’s easy to say ‘I forgive you’, but incredibly hard to mean it. You’ll know when you do, because you’ll feel able to breathe deeply again, your shoulders will relax and yes, it will feel like a weight has lifted off your shoulders. What you may actually find is that you begin to grow through forgiveness – that spreads to all areas of your life – your past, your relationships, even the person who cuts you up on the motorway…

Exercise:
1. Take your stone and wash it. You have spoken to it, clenched it and now you will cleanse it.
2. Get a bowl of water and dip the stone in three times. Each time you dip the stone in say ‘I forgive you.’
3. Write down what you have lost by not being able to forgive. Write about the person who has harmed you – why do you think they have done what they did? Now write how this experience has made you stronger. Has it helped you grow and show empathy for others? Write your story again, but not as the victim, as the hero. How did you deal with the situation and how will you prevent such harm happening to others?

For a long time after my loss, I felt like the perpetrator in a battle of resentment and anger. Why wasn’t I being forgiving? Why didn’t I forget? Why wasn’t I moving on? This only led me to clam up even more. It became a vicious cycle. I knew that in order to break this cycle I had to open my heart to forgive. Not to ‘make up’ or ‘tolerate’ but to truly forgive. It wasn’t easy, but it did transform my life and my grief.

Renewing or Releasing the Relationship – Having worked through your path to forgiveness, you’re left with a ‘what next?’ You can now decide what will happen to your relationship with the person you have forgiven. You can renew the relationship, using your forgiveness to create a new connection. Or, you can release the relationship, putting the person and the emotions related to them behind you. It is possible to release a relationship and forgive. Forgiveness is not about putting yourself in another vulnerable position. In cases where the perpetrator isn’t asking for your forgiveness or is no longer alive there isn’t a relationship to have. It can take a long while to get to this stage of the process, but when you do it will be immensely beneficial for you and your peace of mind and heart.

Exercise:

  1. Decide whether you want to renew your stone as a thing of beauty (paint it or place it somewhere), or to release it back to nature.
  2. Write down if it was possible to make something beautiful out of what you had. Was it difficult to do this. What did you learn about renewing and releasing?

The final post about forgiveness looks at forgiving yourself.

 

Forgiveness Series: 2. The forgiveness myths

In my first post about forgiveness, I outlined the impact resentment can have on our physical and emotional health and wellbeing.

In the second chapter of The Book of Forgiving, Desmond & Mpho Tutu explain what forgiveness is not. This might seem odd, but there are many things we assume about forgiveness that only add further barriers to our ability to forgive.

Forgiveness is not weakness
We greatly admire people who are forgiving, who seem to move on from their hurt or ‘cope with their loss’. We don’t think they are weak, far from it; we tell them how strong they are, yet somehow, if we forgive, it can feel as though we are giving in, being weak. Forgiveness requires immense strength, but it also offers complete freedom.

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Forgiveness Series: 1. Why forgive?

Grief is a complicated emotion. In the early days, life’s trivialities pale into insignificance. Little disagreements or annoyances fade away as you are thrown into the stark reality that life is precious. Arguing about whose turn it is to put the bins out seems petty and pointless, which of course it is.

However, over time, grief can breed resentment and anger as you try to find your place in this world without your child and try to understand other people’s emotions. You’ve changed, they’ve changed, everything you ever knew has changed.

These feelings are always natural, as I described in my post about the Whirlpool of Grief. However, it is easy to get caught up in the cycle of anger. Once you focus on those feelings, it is hard to move on from them. This leaves you feeling bitter, lonely and hopeless, and others feeling unable to help you or understand you.

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Psalm 127: God is the answer

In my weary, 8-month pregnant, sleep-deprived state, the weekend doesn’t appeal. As the chores mount up (and are harder to get through as bending and lifting becomes an effort), the children fight over what (irritating) TV show to watch all the while creating even more mess and work, the husband idling after a stressful week and still recovering from illness, three work deadlines to meet by Monday, worrying about finances and things I need to do but physically can’t… etc… I ask God to be my focus and I immediately get the amazing Psalm 127.

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In the midst of life’s distractions, it’s easy to succumb to the pressure, the sense of simply being overwhelmed, worrying about the future (I would hide under the duvet, if it wasn’t so uncomfortable to lie down with my aching pelvis!).

God has shown me that, without Him, there’s no point. That He’s made me to deal with this, and more!

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God has always provided for us. He’s guided the growth of my business. He’s given my husband a stable job. I need to put the effort in and use the brain He gave me, but He always provides the opportunities for me to provide for my family.

But I also need to allow myself to switch off and rest. To not worry about the provision, to trust that it will come. To be mindful of what – and who – I have now, today.

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Each of our children are blessings – the ones who never made it to birth, the ones who didn’t stay, and especially the ones who test us more than others. It’s not their fault they create physical and emotional work. It’s not my fault I’m too tired to deal with it all at times. They are not there to be worshipped and pampered, but to be moulded and shaped with love and healthy discipline, given space to find their feet within a loving home.

Having another (fifth) baby is scary at times too, as I consider how I’ll cope, or not, with all the other pressures in my life.

Yet this is God’s miracle and I must cherish it. I know we are truly privileged and I must try to ignore the practical stuff to see this, to see that I won’t always feel this tired, this weary.

I must find a way to see the many blessings through the few trials. And God is the answer.

A picture of health

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This is a picture of Abi and me on holiday in about 2011. I love the health and happiness radiating from BOTH of us in this picture. Of course, there was never any sign that Abi would have a brain haemorrhage two years later but what struck me when I saw this was not Abi particularly, but me. This is how I remember Abi, but it’s not what I think of when I see me.

While I was never overweight, I had worked hard to get myself fit after having three children. I was caring about myself for the first time and it shows. I felt confident, happy in my own skin, mentally calm…

Since Abi died, I feel like a bleak shadow of that former me. My skin appears greyer, my eyes tired, my fingernails are chewed and sore, my body unfit and neglected…

I stopped exercising as it brought on palpations when my anxiety took over. I didn’t see the point in loving myself anymore. I failed my daughter, why should I care about myself?

I am now tied into a pattern of compulsive eating, because food is my only comfort. I’ve gained weight (obviously being pregnant twice in 3 years has something to do with that!). I’m not one to worry about my weight but I know my pattern of behaviour is not healthy, physically or mentally. It’s almost self-destructive. It’s a common trait of the bereaved.

I posted on my faith blog, By His Light, yesterday about how I mourn so much harder when life is tough. When there is illness, overwork, stress and anxiety. When parenting challenges me to my core and being fair or consistent goes out of the window. I feel more tearful as the pressures mount and miss Abi terribly.

I withdraw at times like this… because I need the solace. I want to build a wall around myself where I can just hide under a duvet and wallow… for a while, until it passes. I don’t want others to see this vulnerable me, I want them to see only the me I know… and like.

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Of course, I can’t do that. I have three children to look after, a home and business to run. A husband who needs his wife to keep it together. A baby growing inside me who needs to be nurtured.

So I turn to food as my pick-me-up, several times a day. It helps for the briefest moment so I’m back again in an hour or so. I feel excited by food. Yet I’m starting to feel the discomfort of the weight (not least the baby pressing on my lungs)… I suppose it represents, physically, the emotional weight of grief.

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