Recently a couple of people have asked me how things seem now, six years after our daughter died. One of the first big changes is simply the pace of life – now that we have three young boys, and are both working part-time (which involves quite a lot of hours and a lot of juggling of schedules) there simply isn’t all that much time to really stop and think about it. Or at least, there doesn’t seem to be time to really reflect on things but that does not mean we do not think about her, some days more than others. We’ve recently passed through the strange week in May, where we remember her death and our second son’s legal adoption exactly two years later, and our first son’s birthday three days after that. That week is always a strange jumble of emotions, and really it is a reminder that God’s timing is perfect, that He can bring hope out of sorrow, and that He simply does not make mistakes.
There are some things which are harder as the years go by. When she died, we had been living in one African country, and then were evacuated to Johannesburg for the six weeks of her illness. We returned for a further two years after she had died, and during that time our next son was born (during a four month stay in the north east of Scotland, where we had never been and where we had no friends or family at the time when we arrived) and our second son was adopted. He had his life-threatening illness around that time, and by the time we returned to our UK base four years ago, we had a one year old and a recovering seven month old. A lot of the drama had passed, and the people who had walked beside us during those challenges were now many thousand miles away. Of course some people in the UK had met our daughter before we moved back to Africa when she was three weeks old, and many came to the funeral. But that was not the same as living the events with us.
I think that is the thing that is hardest now. I do not know whether it is a result of our itinerant lifestyle, or whether this is normal after several years, but people simply don’t remember or know that we even had a daughter. It can be a dilemma for me when meeting new people who often remark on our boys, whether or not to speak about her. Sometimes it just seems to make others uncomfortable. Much depends on context; if I think it is relevant or helpful I will talk about her. I always say I have four children, but then people are so taken with the three boys so close together in age that they forget to ask about the fourth. It’s often easier that way.
We never wanted to define ourselves as people who had lost a child. I do not wish to seem harsh, but it does seem that in countries where child death is a less frequent occurrence that a family who has a child die can be almost smothered by the responses of others. And yet at the same time, there is a distance, that ‘we can’t possibly imagine what you have been through’ kind of response. We were always clear that we were thankful for her life, and that God in His wisdom would be more glorified through that short life than through many much longer lives. And if God is glorified, and she is now perfectly restored in heaven, then what is there to be sad about? And on one level, it really is as simple as that. It certainly is to the other children, who cannot really understand why we get sad from time to time. For them, it is something to rejoice about and to look forward to!
However, despite that, perhaps more so now, I sometimes do wish that people remembered. There have been a couple of instances lately where I have found people a little insensitive as they have spoken with lack of faith about more minor illnesses in children, or where people have tended to put parents of an ill child on some kind of pedestal as though they have shown some kind of extremely remarkable faith. I don’t wish to sound unkind, and some of it may be me coveting a bit of human sympathy or encouragement myself. There are times when I feel like pointing out that sometimes children do die, and that is not a result of anybody’s lack of faith, nor is it a reason to fall apart, but rather that God knows the day ordained for each of us. Sometimes I want to point out that in the city where we were living when she died, one woman in two would have a child die under the age of five. It was so normal, so much part of life, that without minimising the sadness and sorrow, there was no room for dramatic emotions, and over the top responses. Sometimes I want to tell people to open their eyes to the world around them, to turn on the radio for just a few minutes or to read a newspaper, and then they will realise just how comfortable and easy many of us have things here.
In some ways this is good. I feel very aware of how simple life can be, and of what a blessing it is to have a roof over our head, to have sufficient food, to have jobs which are challenging and enjoyable as well as providing enough money, to have family, to have friends, to be able to worship in freedom, to be able to read the Bible in our own language. I think part of this appreciation comes from knowing we cannot take that for granted. Some of this will be due to our daughter’s death, and some of it will be from having lived in several low resource countries and having seen the harsh realities there.
Sometimes I try to work out what it is that makes us feel different. The Bible talks in several places about being ‘strangers and aliens in the world’, or in other translations, ‘pilgrims’. I don’t think a Christian should ever feel fully ‘at home’ in this world, because our whole worldview is based on eternity. The Apostle Peter writes about trials which come for a time, in order that our faith, which is of greater worth than gold, which perishes though refined by the fire, may be proven genuine and result in praise, glory and honour at the revelation of Christ’. Paul talks about ‘light and momentary afflictions which are achieving a weight of eternal glory’. If our true home is in heaven, then nothing in this world (home, material possessions, jobs) should really tie us down, these things are all temporary. But I think there is another sense of restlessness. I had an interesting conversation about that with another family whose daughter died a couple of years ago, where they described the same restlessness. I think we know the reality of heaven, and there are days when we simply long for this life to be over, and to be reunited not only with our children, but to see the glorious reality of Christ face to face. The other factor that can make us feel a bit misunderstood is having moved around so much and having seen a different side of life. We find it difficult to relate to people who are keen to settle in a nice house in suburbia, get their children in to the right schools, and basically stay put living a quiet life for the next twenty or thirty years. There may well be nothing wrong with this, and that kind of stability can lead to strong relationships being built, commitment to a particular church, and from these, clear communication of the truth and hope of the gospel. But it is not easy for us to relate, because we tend to live one day at a time, perhaps having a ‘medium term’ plan, but always with the knowledge that God could change it all in an instant.
It is very rare that either of us will have a proper conversation about our daughter. Sometimes I long for that. I would love to sit with a friend and talk through her photo album, to laugh and to cry, to remember and to reflect. We don’t really have that level of relationship, again partly because we have moved around (since returning from Africa four years ago, we have lived in four cities in three different countries). Part of it is the pace and schedule of our life-work balance – that we often have work related tasks to complete in the evening, or are hosting Christian events or are attending our mid-week meetings, or there are additional professional training events to attend, and once a week or so we will both be on clinical duties until about 10pm. We home educate our children – there are many reasons for this, partly because it offers good solid continuity as we move around, but even more importantly, we can build the biblical worldview which is our greatest priority for them, embrace the opportunities that arise day to day, allow each child to progress at their own pace in each subject, allow them space and time for imaginative play and a ‘real childhood’ and to encourage the formation of healthy relationships across ages and different sectors of society. But this also takes time and effort, and whilst the boys are young, it is not often possible to have an in depth conversation with a friend.
Most of the time, I am content about this. Each day is filled with blessings and encouragements, yes there are also challenges, but there is purpose and direction. We are responsible before God for how we live for today, not for our reminiscence about yesterday or our dreams about tomorrow. And so we live very much in the present, looking forward to a future with hope. Sometimes it is simple pragmatism. Some things matter, others don’t. And there is no point in getting upset over things that have no lasting value. There is a kind of steadiness and maybe even emotional maturity, whereas when I was younger I would tend to get into a spiral of despair about something which was perhaps trivial, and which certainly could not be changed.
But alongside this, I am so moved when anybody does mention my daughter. There are those friends, although separated by many miles who really did walk with us, bringing comfort and encouragement. These are the people who really understand us. When I receive an email or text message that reminds me of her, or that tells me that others remember her, my heart sings. Often as I spend time out of doors with the boys, enjoying the warmth of the sun and the beauty of creation, as the boys run ahead, climbing and jumping, racing, laughing, playing, then I remember her, I remember the soft, warm bundle of hope that she was, and despite the beauty that surrounds me, know that there is something even more magnificent ahead of us.