Thursday 9 February 2017

10 things I learnt through my daughter's life

Often I comment on how thankful I am for all that our daughter taught us through her life, illness and her death. Often I look back at that time as a real pivotal point in our lives, something which really crystallised our priorities and values and caused us to focus on what things mattered most. Back in 2012, I wrote a series of blog posts on what we learn through several different aspects of parenting (here, here, here and here). Today, I thought I'd write a short summary of the key things I learnt personally through my daughter. Here are 10 points:

1) Unconditional love. I had never really understood how God could love us irrespective of what we did or didn't do. I could not really understand how one person could love another truly without condition or expectation. But suddenly you hold a helpless baby who depends on you for absolutely everything. And whilst a lot of baby care involves cute cuddles, there are also jobs which are smelly, messy and tiring, and the child never once stops to thank you. Yet that does not diminish your love for the child in the slightest. I perhaps began to understand how we can't earn God's love, but that His love is perfect and absolute already. We can respond to it in worship with thankfulness, but that doesn't change the love itself. It truly is Amazing Grace!

2) The flip side of the above comment was that it made it even harder for me to understand the choices and actions of my parents towards me when I was a child. (I wrote a little about this recently here). I never felt good enough, never felt I could meet some kind of impossible standards, and figured that it must have been because I was unloveable (and indeed, those exact words were frequently spoken towards me). Having a child of my own made it even harder for me to understand how a parent could reject and abandon their own child. I know there are mitigating factors; illness, addiction, sin. But even so, it brought a fresh wave of grief.

3) Priorities in terms of achievements. I used to worry more about small things which ultimately had no lasting value. The Bible talks much of this. We are told that 'everything that does not come from faith is sin' Romans 14:23. We are taught 'do not worry about tomorrow for each day has enough trouble of its own' Matthew 6:34. There are places where were are reminded to build with materials that last, to make sure our treasure is in heaven (Matthew 6:19), and that unless God is central in our endeavours, they are basically worthless (Psalm 127). Whilst I knew all that, when we were suddenly facing a life or death situation, it crystallised for me just how worthless a lot of what we are tempted to run after really is. I remember shortly after her death, there was a minor setback at work. I had to laugh; previously it would have upset me quite a lot, but in the face of what we had just walked through it seemed utterly trivial. And looking back, it was indeed trivial. It is easy to obsess about a detail, or a target, deadline, goal or whatever - and think that if that is not achieved that the whole of the future seems dark. However that is rarely the case. I learnt the truth of 2 Corinthians 4:18 'what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.'

4) Priorities in terms of material things. I have never been one to particularly worry about clothes, hairstyles or the decor of my home. But simply by living in the culture in which I grew up, I did spend some time worrying about my appearance, my weight, the external impression which I might make on others. Also, perhaps as a consequence of some of the things I described in point number 2, I had struggled with anorexia through a lot of my teens and into my twenties. Somehow, when my daughter lay dying, it really did not matter if I was fat or thin, whether my hair was glossy or straggly, whether my clothes were fashionable or simply functional. It didn't matter then, and it hasn't really mattered since! It felt like a choice: to waste a lot of time worrying about things that really don't matter, or to look above and beyond those things. I am not talking about the lack of self-care that might come with depression, but rather a sense that there are things that are more important. The Bible teaches that too. The first letter of Peter instructs Christian women that 'Your beauty should not come from outward adornment such as elaborate hairstyles or the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit which is of great worth in God's sight. 1 Peter 3:2-4

5) That we have a choice to make, sometimes every day, to keep living to the glory of God. I clearly remember one day, whilst our daughter was still on the intensive care unit, going out of the hospital for a coffee. We walked past some very beautiful flowers - vibrant orange bird of paradise blossoms. The coffee was strong, bitter and delicious. The air was crisp and fresh. Every sensation seemed somehow heightened and I realised that life is full of beautiful details provided by God. We can choose to ignore these things, to focus entirely on our problem or situation, or we can choose to pause, look outside of our circumstances and find things to thank God for. A strong coffee was the trigger for a real change in mindset. I found (and still do find) that in the face of overwhelming emotion or a temptation to despair that it is really helpful to focus on something tangible and beautiful and to thank God for that thing.

6) We have a choice to keep walking by faith. After she died, I also felt there was a choice to make. It would have been fairly easy to fall into despair or self-pity, and indeed there were those around us who seemed to expect us to 'curse God and die' (in the discouraging words that Job's wife spoke to him). But I remember thinking that our daughter didn't have a choice, didn't have a chance to make that kind of decision. It made me realise what a privilege God had given us to keep living in the world, to keep serving Him for as many days as He has given us. That did not mean that it would always  be easy - in fact Paul wrote to Timothy that 'everybody who desires to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer tribulation' 2 Timothy 3:12. We should expect times of pain, trial and confusion. But we have a choice to fix our mind on Jesus in these trials. Hebrews Chapters 11 and 12 are really helpful as they outline the 'heroes' of our faith, and remind us that they, and even more so, Christ Jesus, went before us and modelled for us a life of faith. I do not wish to negate the pain people may go through, or that there may be times when somebody suffers from clinical depression which requires medical help; however I think in our modern age we can struggle to distinguish between clinical depression and simple human grief and sadness. There are days when it can be hard to get out of bed. There can be floods of emotion. It can be difficult to eat or sleep. One friend encouraged me at this time - just keep doing what you know to be right, putting one foot in front of the other and doing the next thing, and one day the fog will lift. Simple words, but they proved true and I have used them to encourage others.

7) That God does not let us be tested beyond what we can bear 1 Cor 10:13. Sometimes, if I was to tell you ahead of time what trials you might face in the future, you might feel that you could not stand up under it. Believe me, I would have been just the same if you had spoken to me of her death. But when we were in the storm, God was very much in the midst of it with us. We knew that more clearly than ever before, and it was a real gift to have 'our faith, which is of greater worth than gold which perishes though refined by the fire' proven genuine. (1 Peter 1)

8) The value of every single life. We had a six week period when we knew that our daughter would be profoundly disabled, but there was a chance that she might live for a few years. All my human hopes and dreams for her had evaporated - she would never climb a mountain, she would never make friends or marry, she would never learn to play music and sing, she would never run barefoot along a beach at sunrise... And yet, her life was as God had ordained. I did not find this easy to accept. God provided a wonderful Christian neurologist who told us that we should try and see her as the child God had made her to be. God had created her body, soul and spirit. The body was broken, badly broken, but the spirit had not changed. I cannot express how much those words meant, and how God used one of His servants who was just in the right place. It has also given me a greater respect and compassion for parents of 'special needs' children, and perhaps some insight into some of their deeper (and at times, darker) feelings. I see this also as a gift.

9) The value of simple comments and conversations: In the example above, I do not think the neurologist really had an idea of how immensely helpful his words were. He just spoke from his godly worldview and his medical experience. It made me realise just how powerfully uplifting simple encouragements can be, and has encouraged me to seek to use my words wisely. The book of Proverbs is instructive as to the healing power of wise and gentle words, and yet the destruction that can be brought by foolish and unguarded use of the tongue. Every one of us can be used by God simply through wise and godly conversation.

10) The biggest one of all I have kept for last. It was extremely painful to have our daughter die. We would have done anything possible to stop it from happening. It made us think long and hard about the sacrifice God made for us, sending His Son to die willingly for people who at that time hated Him. Would I have chosen to have my daughter die? No way! And yet God was willing to go through that pain because of His love for us. Taking the bread and wine at communion has never been the same since - I feel utterly overwhelmed and humbled by what Christ did for me.

Each of these lessons has been a gift; I've seen God's love and grace more clearly. I've appreciated the truth of eternity, the power of faith and the importance of priorities. I feel that distracting superficiality has been stripped away, and the remaining days of life are focussed on serving Him. And I've learnt the value of generosity and kind words, and the impact this may have on others without us even realising it.

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