This Christmas, I gave myself permission to let some of my usual traditions go.
For the past 6 years, I have baked mince pies, chocolate gingerbread, shortbread and a Christmas cake, I have decorated the whole house and planned our Christmas dinner in detail, and with all the 3 course trimmings- I like Christmas food. We usually hang symbols on our Jesse Tree every evening of advent, I read The Vigil, and we plan a relatively full social calendar.
This year we couldn’t find the symbols, I had no inclination or energy to bake, and Christmas dinner was a curious mix of roast gammon, fish fingers and chips, and plain dry bread – the kids were all ill- and Christmas still happened.
We had just spent 5 months being homeless, staying for a few weeks at a time with different friends. I was in the early stages of pregnancy, and the sickest I had ever been.
Six of the final seven weeks of this nomadic season, were spent at my parents home, in a different city. It was hard. Hardest of all – the kids and I were separated from HusbandMan for most of it. Work for him was awful at that point, and it was a pretty painful season.
We finally found a home, or rather, God provided it for us out of the blue, back in the town we had just left, and for what we could afford.
A miracle in itself.
It is beautiful. It is enormous. It’s right in the centre of town with two parking spaces, and whilst it lacks a garden, we are minutes from the park and other outdoor spaces. We feel so at home, and not a day goes by when I don’t thank God for it.
We moved in on the Friday at the end of October, and with much generous help, got the place mostly looking organised, and how we wanted it. There was still some chaos, and by the end of the week we lost momentum unpacking boxes, but we were getting there.
HusbandMan went away with work that following weekend, but I had help in the form of a glorious Saturday afternoon at a friend’s house, being fed and watered, the kids played with and generally being taken care of.
My first midwife appointment for about 8 weeks was the day before, and despite not being certain that we could hear the baby’s heartbeat on the doppler (at 18 weeks it may have just been hiding), I wasn’t hugely worried about it.
But when on Tuesday I had a pinkish tinge, and on the Wednesday there was slight but definite blood spotting, we were strongly advised to go to the hospital to get it checked out.
We had an ultrasound scan, and I jokingly asked if we definitely had a baby in there. She said yes, but that it wasn’t good news. The shock of hearing that our baby had no heartbeat and no blood flow registering on the screen, and that instead of 19 weeks, they were only measuring at 15.5 weeks, took me a few moments to realise that this didn’t just mean that our baby was small. However HusbandMan had got there quicker and he looked ashen. We asked for a second opinion, which was sensitively given, but then had the confirmation that actually our baby was dead, that I had been carrying them around for about 3.5weeks, and my body only just told me that something was up.
Shocked didn’t quite cover it.
Devastated and confused is closer.
I know that I am loved by a God who authors life and has raised people from the dead on many occasions, but this seemed so sudden and so final, that I didn’t know how to pray – whether to grieve or wait expectantly for resurrection.
After all the following blood tests etc. we decided to wait a day before taking the anti-progesterone pill which would begin the process of kicking my body into delivery mode. We needed some time to process everything, as best we could- not feel rushed into the process of aborting our prematurely ended pregnancy.
Thankfully when I did take it the next day, my body (having laboured three times before) took the hint, and I had the quickest, easiest labour yet, in hospital a day later. The whole experience there was a surreal and utterly disorganised process to say the least (another story for another time), but I didn’t need to be induced, praise God, and it was all over pretty quickly and very cleanly.
Just fourteen days after moving in, we had birthed our dead daughter on Rememberance day.
We took about half an hour to sit with her, after they brought her back in, not that we had any idea of her gender at the time. We sat, with her in a tiny moses basket, simultaneously uncomfortable at her brown and squashed appearance (we had been told to expect this), and marveling at the breathtaking definition of her facial features and bone structure. How, despite having been dead for nearly four weeks, this 15.5 week old baby looked so much like a person, albeit one who should have had a lot more growing to do.
In that intimate, raw interlude, we held our daughter and each other and thanked God for the privilege of carrying her as long as we did. We cried for ourselves, our disappointment and heartbreak, as we commended her to Jesus, where she belongs, telling her that we loved her and look forward to seeing her again and meeting her properly. We were surrounded by the tangible presence of God, and were comforted by knowing how close he was to us.
We named her Hope Izabela Christine, and buried her at the end of November in a local church yard. It was a beautiful service, a stunning, though cold day, and we were surrounded by parents, siblings, and those who are practically adoptive family anyhow.
I had dearly wanted to sing this song, as singing is a way I am most released into worship, and express my emotions. Plus I sing to all my babies. I am immensely grateful to God for giving me the grace to get through it.
Advent had already started, and we, carried by an army of people praying for us and gifting us food and flowers – some of whom came over with practical help- tried to deal with our grief and the grief of our children, amidst work, family life, our new home and the build up to Christmas.
HusbandMan had arranged 25days of surprises for me, which ranged from movie nights, to a date out at Kate Rusby’s Christmas gig, to gifts of chocolate, cake and G&T, to a carved tree decoration with our Hope’s full name and birthday, plus various coffee dates and family treats, all trying to bless me and speak my love language of quality time.
He even made printouts. He is rather wonderful.
Yet grief is a funny thing:
Despite the joy of these excursions and treats; despite the fact that I process things pretty quickly and was genuinely doing ok emotionally about Hope; I started to find that I was feeling tearful and slightly panicky at the thought of these most delightful and undemanding plans. I found the uncertainty of what was coming, made me hugely stressed and unhappy, and it took every ounce of courage to get out and go.
HusbandMan graciously adapted to this, by telling me what was on the agenda for the following week. December therefore developed some really lovely memories to treasure, despite the fact that neither of us were feeling especially christmassy.
The Wednesday before Christmas, the kids got ill.
We ignored our instincts to stay home, instead heading south to spend a few days with family, which was, in retrospect, the wrong choice given the circumstances, and we were physically and emotionally exhausted by it.
On Christmas day, I only took daughter #2 to church, as the others were too unwell. We and the girls sat up to Christmas dinner, and our son flopped miserably on the sofa in the same room watching Sarah & Duck. It was a strange ‘festive’ combination.
Yet it was also blissful.
Here we were, our little family, being just us, together, free from the pressure and expectations of others, from any prior expectations of our own.We needed rest, peace, to be ourselves. Here was joy.
This whole Advent/Christmas season has been held in a permanent tension.
I have wrestled with the pain of losing a child – and the coming of the baby Jesus.
Seen the excitement of the lights and parties, bought and anticipated presents – but also felt our loss, leave me sitting both in the centre and way outside of the celebration.
I have felt confidence in God’s unchanging goodness and faithfulness – coupled with the deep disappointment that what I had expected, and longed for would no longer be fulfilled.
Yet somehow I have felt more awe and wonder during this season than ever before. I have hope where we have lost our own precious Hope.
We need to hunker down and recover.
All of us.
There is no short cut with mental health or with grief, so I will not expect us to be ‘back to normal’ in a month or two. There is no normal. Only what is in front of us.
HusbandMan is grieving just as deeply as I am, though differently, and really struggling. Yet when many kind, well-meaning people stop him to offer condolences, they seem to forget to ask him how he’s doing, but immediately enquire about me. He is smashing expectations that he should be invulnerable, stoic and unwilling to show his pain, and tells them how he is doing anyway.
I am only just recovering physically from the birth experience, all the energy and hormonal crazy I have expended, and Now I’m struggling with anxiety and mild panic attacks.
I am fighting these, practising taking my thoughts captive, discerning what is true. But this doesn’t mean that it is any less real. Sometimes I need to do something regardless of my feelings, because I may find I enjoy it after all, but at others I need to stop. I will do what gives me peace, whether or not that means disappointment will follow. And I choose not to feel guilty. I am only answerable to God, and to Husbandman, so I’m giving myself grace and permission to be gentle.
‘The Light Shines in the darkness – and the darkness has not overcome it.’
2016 has been incredibly hard.
But within it God has done many beautiful things, and more importantly, He has been right in the thick of it with us.
He will bring us to freedom.
He is our hope and our provision, our rock, our stronghold and our refuge.
He is and has been our comfort and tender parent.
2017 as just another year can offer me nothing. But the light of the world, who loves us, and came to be as one of us, promises that He is trustworthy and in him our deep hopes and His promises will never be unfulfilled.
‘Yet, in the dark street shineth the Everlasting Light.
The hopes and fears of all the years, are met in thee tonight. ‘
O Little Town Of Bethlehem