Saturday 26 May 2018

10 years since my baby died: A reflection

Today marks ten years since our first child died. These past months have been strange as we remember everything that took place between 12th April 2008 when she became ill and 26th May 2008 when she died. We always remember at this time of year, but this year has been different. Sometimes the emotions have been stronger, almost as though it happened yesterday. Some days, it feels so distant that it is almost as though it was something that happened to somebody else in some kind of dream. Sometimes I feel that I have said everything that needs to be said, and that there are no new memories and no new discussion points.

But I am often reminded of how much she remains part of our lives, and how she taught us more in a short life than many children will teach their parents. Even this year, we've had several friends walk a similar path, and it can be an honour to walk alongside them, to share their stories and their tears, and try to help them find their strength and hope in God. Part of the gift that our daughter gave us is that particular role, perhaps not a role that one would choose, but one which we have been prepared for in some ways.

Three years ago I wrote about how grief changes with time, and about the things that I would want people to know about how the grief felt with the passing of the years. Today I will build on that, and share some other reflections. I am writing to those who are walking through grief and loss, and to those who walk beside them.

1. You don't 'get over it', and nobody should expect you. I see it more like a person who has a limb amputated - the immediate pain and subsequent disability might pass, and a person might learn to function to a very high level. Just look at some of the paralympian athletes! But the part is still missing, and there may be days when that causes more pain or disability than at other times - perhaps associated with illness, stress or other trauma. Your life builds around the loss, but there will be a part that is changed forever.

2. Change can be positive or negative or neutral. I find it helpful to consider all the ways that our daughter's illness and death changed our lives for the better, and on the darker days to spend time counting the blessings. I've written more about that here, but in summary, I think we have a clearer perspective of what is really important, tend to be more focussed and live 'in the moment', not knowing what tomorrow holds. I think having known deep sorrow, we can sometimes appreciate greater joy. We are not afraid of discussing difficult topics, and don't run from uncomfortable conversations or emotions. There are many things that are good. But sometimes this can also bring aspects that are not so easy - it can sometimes be difficult to relate to others, especially when people are getting very worried about 'first world problems' or things that seem trivial. There are times when the grief can feel very lonely, and it can be difficult to explain to people who we have met more recently. The focus on what is happening now, and not worrying about tomorrow can sometimes make it difficult to plan more than a month or two ahead.

3. Every person's grief is different. That might sound very obvious, but it is so important to listen carefully to what a grieving person is saying, and not to try and apply any 'formulas' for their recovery. Even if two situations seem very similar on the outside, the individuals involved are unique. This year I've spent some time reflecting on whether there are any fundamental beliefs that might make it easier for a person to work through agonising loss, and I think a large part might be how they view the nature of God. I wrote about that here , here and here. But even then, the way a person will respond day to day, the fluctuations, the temptations - these will be different between individuals.

4. You cannot grade grief. All loss is painful. It does not make sense to try and comfort a person by pointing out all the other people who are in far 'worse' situations, or who have experienced a string of losses. I am thankful that God cares about the details of our lives so very much, and is filled with compassion for each of us. We must take care not to minimise another person's loss (or our own), but rather approach each situation and its context.

5. At the same time, we must remember that suffering is to be expected in this life. As the Apostle Peter wrote (1 Peter 4:12-13) 'Beloved, do not think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you; but rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ's sufferings, that when His glory is revealed, you also may be glad with exceeding joy'. It is also wrong to think that your own suffering is worse than anybody else can imagine. I have reflected on this before, but I think it was much easier for us to be living in southern Africa after our daughter died, where one out of two women in my city had a baby die under the age of five. It was accepted to be a painful loss, but not beyond the normal experience in society. Sometimes by tiptoeing around a person, perhaps allowing and even enabling sinful behaviours, we can actually hinder their processing of the situation and moving forward.

6. There are days when you just long for heaven, for the place where 'God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away' Revelation 21:4. This need not be a bad thing - I think through pain, we can have a clearer perspective on eternity and those things that matter most. But just because something brings good does not mean that it is not painful.

7. Similarly to the point above, faith and grief are not opposites. I find John chapter 11 very helpful here. When Jesus was told of the death of Lazarus, He wept even though He knew He was about to perform an incredible miracle. Why did He weep? Because death and loss are painful. Did Jesus' sorrow mean He lacked faith? Absolutely not! I think this is important, because one thing that we found difficult was what felt like an assumption that because we were able to hold fast to our faith (and indeed our faith grew!), that this was not a very painful time, and that it doesn't still hurt. It sometimes can be easier to identify people who are obviously struggling - perhaps expressing major doubts in their faith, stumbling into sin, adopting unhealthy behaviours and coping strategies. But even if you think your friend is 'coping well', ask them from time to time even as the years pass.

8. God's word and promises are the rock on which we stand. I love the Psalms - because there, the full range of human emotions and experience are laid bare as the writers bring their pain and fear, or their joy and delight, before God. God is not shocked by our emotions, since they are part of how He made us. We can pour out our hearts before Him, any time we wish. There may be many clamouring voices offering worldly wisdom or passing comfort, but God's word is eternal and will stand the test of time. For me, the Psalms in particular remind me of that.

9. 'Seeing then that we have a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathise with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need'. Hebrews 4:14-16 Those words are pure gold!

Our daughter's life was a very pivotal time in our lives. There were days when it felt very clearly that there was a choice to be made in how we lived and in how we responded. It was a time of priority setting, and considering everything in the light of eternity. It was the time when we knew with certainty: 'In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while, if need be, you have been grieved by various trials, that the genuineness of your faith, being much more precious than gold that perishes, though it is tested by fire, may be found to praise, honour and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ, whom having not seen you love. Though now you do not see Him, yet believing, you rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory, receiving the end of your faith - the salvation of your souls' 1 Peter 1:6-9