Heartache and Death: Talking to Children

Back in September we had a new arrival in our family – Biscuit, the hamster. She had been long awaited, a gift promised because of a house move across the country. Our 6 year old was so very excited and, although she hasn’t done the lion’s share of looking after it, she has adored this tiny furry friend (or sister as she was referred to from time to time).

Sadly, we found lovely Biscuit dead in her bed this week. She had been fine, running around her cage, eating her food, running on her wheel. She should have lived for at least a year, if not two. Her death is very unexpected.

I share this because we aren’t surrounded by opportunities to talk about death and the heartache that comes. It was almost simpler when my grannie (the 6 year old’s great-grannie) died in the autumn. She was old, she was poorly for a few days beforehand, and she was slightly removed from our day-to-day family life. Of course, my daughter was sad when Grannie Mac died, but with Biscuit it’s been something else.

When my husband and I discovered Biscuit’s furry corpse, still so soft and cuddly feeling, my natural instinct was protection. “Could we just go and buy her an identical one? Replace Biscuit before she notices?” I asked my husband anxiously. Thankfully, my husband is much better at this than me.

“No,” he said, “We’ve got to do this properly.”

Despite my best instincts to shelter my little one from the heartache of sudden death and loss, the best protection that lasts long-term is the type of protection that allows you to develop a strong heart for the future. Not cold-hearted and impenetrable, where no pain and loss makes a mark. Instead, a strong-heartedness that knows that, in time, despite the current heartache, you will overcome the loss that death provides.

We told her. As the words came out of my mouth, her face crumpled as she let out a cry. The tears came and it was devastating to watch her as she experienced the depths of grief for a beloved family member. As the news has settled, we’ve talked about how we might say goodbye to our furry friend. We’ve shared our favourite things about her. We’ve let our daughter cry and grieve as best as we can, even though – to us – it was just a £10 hamster from Pets at Home.

There are hundreds of websites out there that will tell you how to break the news of death to a child, how to talk about death, how to help your child grieve when the time comes. This is not one of those. Rather, this is one pained mother encouraging you to be honest with your child. To hold them close when the tears come, and to keep pointing them onwards to a time when they won’t feel so much heartache.

Death and heartache are an inevitable part of life. Our job, as parents, is to enable our children to walk this painful path with hope and love.

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New Year, New You?

It’s the first day of the New Year and my various email inboxes has been inundated with sales and offers all generated to muster up this image of new me. This new me is, as based on the 25 or so emails I’ve received from various companies, a requisite of human existence. Now, I am far from the perfect person: I get cross, I nitpick, I fall into the trap of being too ‘busy’ for others, I lack generosity of thought towards others. Clearly, I am not such a good person. In fact, you could say, there is much room for improvement.

But when is enough enough? Which of these many emails with offers of help for self-improvement will finally allow me to be a better version of myself? I have lost count of the money wasted on gym plans unused, recipe plans uncooked and self-help books unread.

In all likelihood and in reality, none of these supposed fixes possess the power to improve myself… at least, not in the way that I need improving. In all likelihood and reality, I will finish 2023 the same weight as I am now, wearing the same clothes, with the same hairstyle and the same penchant for late nights, chocolate binging and Netflix.

I have been fooled over many years into believing that there is something fundamentally wrong with almost everything about me and my behaviour. I am fatally flawed and so, as each new year arrives, I make unsustainable promises to myself about exercise and food, my appearance, my emotions. I have been conditioned by companies to believe that there is something that needs to be fixed in my life… and, crucially, I have wrongly believed that they have the antidote.

Over the last few years, though, I have come to realise that this is not the case. Don’t worry. I am not delusional; I am well aware of my imperfections. However, I have become more aware that the shame I feel around my body, or my mental health, or my behaviour when I am under pressure, or even just my neurodivergent-related organisational problems, will not be solved by the very companies who have spent so much of my life conditioning that shame into being. I have become more aware that my imperfection does not require a new me each January. It’s not that I don’t wish to change, or even that I don’t think I need to change. It’s that I know that a new me isn’t strictly for a new year. It’s that I want to get off the treadmill where I am sold an idea as though it is a necessity.

And yet, I am hopeful for some change, because I know that within me there is a great desire for good change. There is a desire to be kinder (to myself and others), to go deeper into relationships, to grow into myself and my voice whilst maintaining humility. There is a desire for change that lasts and that matters; there is a desire for a change, not of my dress size, but of my heart size.

I am hopeful that, as I spend more time with my bible and praying, that I might become more aware of the magnitude of God’s love for me. I am hopeful that, as I become more aware of that love, I might feel less shame around the things which hold me back. I am hopeful that God will do the work on my heart if I would only allow him in. I am hopeful that I will be less nitpicky, less busy, less cross and more generous. Not because it’s a new year and new me, but because God is enlarging my heart and calling me to be more like the me he created me to be. He is calling me to be more like him, to be with him.

New year, new me? No. It’s a new year, same me. But this year, I am hopeful that God will continue to draw me close to him, that I may know my true worth lies not in the quick fixes offered by companies, but in his inescapable heart-enlarging love for me.

Happy New Year!

Yesterday’s Promises

Lost
shouting
screaming
wondering
“Where are you?”

You said
you’d never leave
and yet

Are you there?
Do you hear me?
Do you care?

Then
a whisper
a reminder painted
across the sky
prisms
of colour
point to the promises of yesterday
a stranger
sent from you

Declares
God is good.
Look

to the cross.

Yesterday’s Promises, by Olivia Haines
26/9/2022
Luke 24: 13-35
Image: Preach the Story, 2019

Stepping into Freedom

Last week I wrote about freedom, which you can find here. Shortly after I’d hit the publish key, it all changed in the UK: our Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, put us into lockdown. Yet, our freedom to choose remains.

Yesterday evening, after a very long day solo-parenting, I went for a walk. More precisely, I put my coat on, grabbed my earphones, plugged them into some loud worship music, shoved my trainers on and ran out of the door. Before too long I reached a railway bridge and walked underneath, just as a train shuddered across above me.

It was strange. Here I was, singing along to the lyrics:

“I am chosen, not forsaken. I am who you say I am.
You are for me, not against me. I am who you say I am.”

(Who You Say I Am, Hillsong Worship)

Yet, I’d reached the evening of a day questioning all of that. You’ve chosen me, God? Really? You’re with me, God? Really? You say who I am, but who even am I? The reply comes:

“I’m a child of God.
Yes I am.”
(Who You Say I Am, Hillsong Worship)

How could I, even for a moment, question all that I know to be true? As I walked under the bridge, with the train juddering across, I didn’t doubt for a moment that the bridge would hold and not crush me as I walked beneath. It struck me, in that moment, that I trust human engineering readily and yet in the last week have not been entirely trusting of God.

Stepping into freedom requires us to let go of whatever we are holding on to, and trusting God to hold it for us. What has struck me since my walk is that I keep saying, “I’m just about clinging on.” Clinging on to what? It certainly isn’t God, in spite of my daily prayer and study of the Bible. Perhaps I am in mourning for the things lost? Clinging on to the what could have beens and what should have beens. Perhaps I am in denial around how little control I actually have over all of this? Clinging on to the control I do have. Perhaps it is something else that I am clinging to.

This week I’ve been on virtual retreat with some friends from college and we’ve been thinking about the idea of coming home with Jesus. One of the threads which has come up for us all is this idea that Jesus breaks all that binds us, in order that we can be free. In this new rhythm of life, I need to spend some time thinking about what it is that I am holding on to. And then I need to let go of it and entrust it to God.

Just as that bridge held as the train rattled across, God’s love for us all holds even as the impact and ripples of Covid-19 are felt in our lives. However you’re feeling right now, know that God is with you and for you.

“No one will be able to stand against you as long as you live. For I will be with you as I was with Moses. I will not fail you or abandon you.”
(Joshua 1: 5, New Living Translation)

Freedom

“Mummy, what does freedom mean?” asked my 4 year old last week.

We then had a good (long) conversation about being free. Free to do what we want. Free from people telling us what to do. Free from things that control us. She had many more questions, like can I wear what I want? Eat what I want? Do what I want?

That’s when the conversation went somewhere a bit deeper. After explaining that mostly mummy and daddy choose her food to make sure she keeps growing big and strong, I reassured her that she could mostly choose her own clothes. I then told her that soon we’d have to not leave the house. We wouldn’t be able to go to nursery, or church, or the park. Her response?

“Why aren’t we free?”

Wow. These questions have stayed with me all week. It’s tricky, isn’t it? Yet, I explained to her that we are still free. Even if we don’t go out of the house. We are free and we have freedom.

  1. Freedom of choice.
    Right now we have freedom to choose how we act as people in a society made up of the vulnerable and invulnerable. We can choose to use our freedom to gather in groups, go to work unnecessarily, travel on public transport for no reason, or spend time with friends in person. Or, we can choose to use our freedom to stay at home, play games, work from home, find ways to keep in touch with people. We can choose to use our freedom to stay at home and keep the vulnerable safe. We can choose to flatten the curve. We can choose to honour those who have no choice but to keep working in our hospitals, schools, police, energy services.

    We have freedom to choose.
  2. Freedom from fear.
    And secondly, regardless of current situation, we have freedom from fear. When he was alive and teaching on this earth, Jesus said: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” (John 10:10, NIV) Right now, there is a lot of fear, anxiety and panic across the world. It has seeped into our homes and is the thief which Jesus refers to. This thief will steal, kill, and destroy hope. If we let it.

    We have freedom to choose. Freedom to chose hope. Freedom from fear. If we put our trust in Jesus, he will give us life in its fullness. If we put our trust in Jesus, he will give us true freedom. If we put our trust in Jesus, he will give us a hope and a peace which passes all understanding.

The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
(Philippians 4)

Bullying

Short disclaimer: This is a reflection on the effects of bullying, not a witch hunt for blood. It is written about an event that happened at the tail end of 2013.

While at university I was the subject of a misplaced joke. Some might call it bullying, whilst others would just say it was a misplaced joke. I’m not sure what I call it. I want to let you in to how this ‘joke’ made me feel – immediately afterwards, and over the following weeks.

#fugly #slut

These were the words left for me on a board when I came into a study room to do exactly that: study. I had booked the room for 3 hours, with some friends, so we could work together on a presentation. As I walked into that room, I was breathless. I felt winded. And as I turned to look at my friend who was with me, I cried. This was followed by a brief lull in the emotions as we waited for the rest of our group… but when they walked in, I cried again. In fact, the afternoon was not a productive study session. It was interspersed with crying, paranoia, anxiety and great sadness from within me.

That night, at home, I sobbed down the phone to my mum. She was horrified that not only had it happened, but that it could have been written by someone who is training to be a teacher. To her it wasn’t solely about the nature of the words and how hurtful they were, but also about professional conduct. I went to sleep, feeling soothed, thinking ‘tomorrow is a new day!’ And it was. It was a Friday. I wasn’t in university, my housemate was away, I was alone. Or, at least, I felt like I was alone. I spent the entire day watching Geordie Shore (which is atrocious, but highly addictive) and eating rubbish. I just sat and let the waves of sadness, waves of anxiety and waves of inferiority wash over me. I didn’t believe the words they had used to describe me, but I felt insecure. I knew then as I know now, I am not a slut… but I felt dirty and weak.

For me, you see, the story actually began 10 years years ago. 10 years ago, I was a different person. I was insecure and weak. I was paranoid and anxious. I was depressed. Not as a result of bullying, but as a result of having the wrong priorities in my life. I had absolutely hit rock bottom, which included a brief encounter with suicidal thoughts, and an attempt on my own life. Thankfully, because of my ever-loving parents, I was able to move home and begin to fix myself. It was a very long process but, with their love and support, and the love and support of wiser friends, I was able to get back on my feet once more. Recently, I’ve been able to take the final step I need to heal: counselling. I am able to, with a supportive professional, come to terms with my angers and anxieties; my insecurities and paranoias; and start leaving it in the past, where it belongs.

If we now jump back again, into the present, you may now begin to understand why I spent a week feeling sick and crying. It wasn’t all the time. It was, like I said before, waves. I was fine, until I wasn’t. The misplaced ‘joke’ broke me in the immediate aftermath. It brought me back to my teenage years. I was insecure. I definitely didn’t think I was pretty. Those insecurities were never things that I was bullied for at school. But they were insecurities which were never dealt with. And they did control my first few years as a young adult, from 18-21 years old.

I’m done, now, with this incident at university. Obviously, I hoped there would be certain outcomes (there weren’t), but the best outcome for me would have been if the perpetrator realised that it was never about offence. If you take me out of it, it is about what is ok to say, and what isn’t. If you leave me in it, it is about this misguided thought process of the 21st Century. It is about people thinking they can say and/or write what they want, without thinking more deeply about the person they’re talking/writing about.

For me, this is the challenge. Boris Johnson, Priti Patel, Michael Gove, Gavin Williamson, I know you won’t read this… but I wish you would. It isn’t about the facts which we fill children’s heads with. And it isn’t about how well people will contribute to society, economically. It is about working out what each child’s insecurities are, and tackling them. It is about teaching children to have respect and empathy. It is about guiding children and teenagers and young adults away from those feelings of anxiety and paranoia. Finally, it is about how well children today will contribute to society, emotionally and socially.

We all need to work out how we can develop children’s emotional and social intelligence; how we can nurture each child’s health and wellbeing. I used to think that began in the classroom. Many are calling for a change in the media, a change in how social media is policed. But none of that matters if we aren’t raising up children who know better and do better. None of that matters if we aren’t raising up children who know what resilience and empathy look like in equal measure. None of that matters if we aren’t raising up children who know their true worth does not lie in economics or physical attraction, but in something greater. I now know that it starts with me: mum.

Fixer Uppers

“So he’s a bit of a fixer upper, so he’s got a few flaws…
We’re not sayin’ you can change him
‘Cause people don’t really change
We’re only saying that love’s a force
That’s powerful and strange.
People make bad choices if they’re mad
Or scared, or stressed.
Throw a little love their way
And you’ll bring out their best
.”
(Fixer Upper, Frozen)

It’s funny, isn’t it? ‘Let It Go’ quickly became the defining memory and feature of Disney’s 2013 film Frozen. Yet this song, ‘Fixer Upper’, is the crux of the story and its morale. It links back to the beginning of the film, when Elsa is told by Grand Pabbie (the chief troll) that fear will be her greatest enemy. Fast forward and Anna is being told by the same trolls that people make bad choices when acting out of anger, fear or stress. On the surface the story at this point is about Anna and her quest for true love to undo the ice in her heart, yet this song points beyond that to the end of the story.

It cleverly, if you’re looking for it, points past the obvious to the underlying problem which needs solving. Above all, Elsa needs releasing from the fear of her powers, in order that she might be truly free to live as she was created. We see this in subtle ways throughout the film (and its sequel). In ‘Let It Go’ Anna delights in her new found freedom, because the truth is out. But truth only does part of the work here; freedom is short-lived because, even though everyone now knows her secret, she still exists in fear. Fear, rather than freedom, control her and her actions.

The film ends with Elsa finally realising that love is the answer. Instead of fear, she controls her power with love, and finally the eternal winter thaws and Arendelle is restored. Frozen 2, without giving too much away for those who are yet to see it, is a continuation of Elsa stepping into the freedom of knowing who you really are. Freedom, it’s safe to say, is a key theme of the Frozen duology.

Where do we find freedom? Some find freedom in exercise, relationships, work, but I’d argue we only find true freedom in Christ.

“Only Christ can get rid of the veil so they can see for themselves that there’s nothing there. Whenever, though, they turn to face God as Moses did, God removes the veil and there they are—face-to-face! They suddenly recognize that God is a living, personal presence, not a piece of chiseled stone. And when God is personally present, a living Spirit, that old, constricting legislation is recognized as obsolete. We’re free of it! All of us! Nothing between us and God, our faces shining with the brightness of his face. And so we are transfigured much like the Messiah, our lives gradually becoming brighter and more beautiful as God enters our lives and we become like him.”
2 Corinthians 3: 15-18 (MSG Version)

Paul makes it clear that it is Jesus alone who can rid people of the veil which previously hid God’s glory from them. Since Jesus’ death and resurrection, there’s nothing behind that veil; God is a living presence, shining in our faces with all of God’s brilliance. Today the veil is all the things which stop us from seeing that Jesus is the one who brings true freedom. The veil is work, family, ambitions and goals. It is thinking that we have it within ourselves to find freedom. Elsa only realises that the solution is love because she witnesses the self-sacrificial love of her sister. So, we too must realise that the solution is love through witnessing the self-sacrificial love of God.

It is only in dropping the veil and allowing God to enter our lives that we find freedom. As God’s spirit enters our lives, we become more like him, our lives transfigured in brightness, we find freedom: “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” (2 Corinthians 3: 17, NIV)

We are all a bit of a fixer upper. We all have something we need to be set free from. We all make bad choices, when we’re angry, stressed or scared. But throw a lot of love our way, and it’ll bring out our best.

Backstage Help Required

“Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The earnest prayer of a righteous person has great power and produces wonderful results.” James 5: 16

Backstage-Pass

It’s interesting, isn’t it, that so many of us think we are the only ones struggling with something. No-one else could possibly understand. And yet, this verse says otherwise. We are never alone in our falling short; we are never alone in our struggles. It is part of the human condition.

Yet, how many of us allow people into the backstage areas of our lives? Who are we accountable to? Who has permission to ask us those tough questions that require total honesty?

For me, it’s always been this fear of being ‘found out’ that has kept me from showing my backstage life to others. Inviting people in might mean they think less of me… but why would that ever have been my concern? People might think less of the me I’ve portrayed, but it isn’t even the real me. It’s just the front stage, polished act I’d grown into playing throughout years of collusion in my mind.

I say ‘I had’ because I’m trying to live this out in the present. I’m having the really tough, sometimes costly conversations. I’m letting people into the backstage who can pray with me, give me advice, or sometimes just hold my hand through it all. And wow do my shoulders feel lighter.

In his book on leadership, Simon Walker writes about the consequences of not letting people into the backstage: inevitably, the backstage starts to leak onto the front stage; or it just completely explodes. He says, “what lies behind the creation of a front and back stage is the sense that we can’t entirely trust our audience, and so we need to manage what they see of us.” And yet, where we trust, where we intentionally let people in to the stuff we are struggling with, where we make ourselves vulnerable, we find relief and freedom.

Though we risk rejection and judgment, it’s only of the false self we have put forward anyway. In reality, vulnerability allows others to be vulnerable; it breeds honesty, acceptance and respect.

Who are you vulnerable with?

Who do you let into your backstage?

A Lifetime of Shame

The first time stress took control I was a teenager. I didn’t even know I was floundering. It wasn’t a case of on the outside I was smiling and putting on a front, hiding the inside sadness. I was happy. I had good friends. But I was anxious. And I was stressed.

I developed alopecia, and tufts of my hair along my centre parting began to fall out. It’s not known exactly what causes your immune system to attack your hair follicles, but it is thought that stress is one of the factors that plays a role. Obviously, having some of my hair fall out as a teenage girl didn’t help my self esteem or amounts of stress.

Ultimately, even though I was generally happy and well liked, I didn’t feel good enough in any part of life. I wasn’t enough for teachers, always handing in my homework late, or just not doing it; I wasn’t enough for any of the boys, always having jokes made about my big nose; I wasn’t enough for anyone. I began to believe, despite many people championing me, that I was not enough. The problem was me. I needed to be different.

When I went to university, I reinvented myself. I was affectionately known as ‘Party Olivia’ and was well known for being the life and soul of the party. In time though, my self esteem plummeted and my anxiety sky rocketed. I patched myself up with nights out and alcopops, seeking affirmation from all the worst places. I remember staring at myself in the mirror and dreaming of being thinner, more toned, prettier.

September 2009 was around the corner, and I should have been heading back to university for my 3rd year. I can’t remember why, but my mum asked me if I actually wanted to go back. Then she said the words which changed the trajectory of my life: “We will be proud of you no matter what.” Within days, I’d dropped out of university, and moved into the house where she was living for her curacy. Life’s problems weren’t solved, but it gave me breathing space and I moved up to Lancaster 2 years later to begin my teacher training.

I arrived and instantly felt at home. Finally, I was in a space where I could begin to deal with my anxiety and accessed counselling via my local NHS trust. I had great housemates and a wonderful church family. I excelled academically for the first time in my life, and enjoyed the challenges of the teacher life. I had a kind and loving boyfriend, who quickly became my chief cheerleader. And then my husband.

But my mental health issues didn’t end there. I longed for a child, and we fell pregnant in the late spring of 2015. I spent 9 months dreaming about motherhood, with people telling me what a natural mother I’d be. I was just, apparently, so maternal. And so, it utterly floored me when this tiny human was born and I felt so utterly helpless. Anxiety and stress crept back in, dark thoughts controlled my brain, and the silence and loneliness were painful. Suddenly, I knew I wasn’t enough once again.

Feelings of unworthiness, anxiety, stress can be crippling. I say ‘can be’ because they no longer control my mind or my life. With the support, love and prayers of those close to me, I exercise conviction and battle those thoughts when they do come. I have a wonderful counsellor who I see regularly, and I can not recommend talking to a professional enough.

I am 31 and I’ve hidden in the shame of mental ill-health for most of my life. But there is no shame. It’s ok to not be ok. It’s ok to be hurting. And it’s ok to talk about it.

But remember, one day you will smile again. And that will be ok too.

Invitation

Isn’t an invitation wonderful? Come with me. Let’s spend time together. Let’s eat. Dance. Drink. Celebrate. Mourn. Play. Or party.

Whatever the invitation, we can be sure that receiving it is a fabulous thing. It means we have been thought of; that someone wants to spend time with us. Isn’t that wondrous in a world where, despite apparent connectedness through social networking sites, 1 in 10 of us feels lonely often? In fact, Britain was voted the loneliness capital of Europe, by the Office of National Statistics. 

The last 12 months have been lonely for me. I’ve become a mum and, whilst much of it has been wonderful, I have struggled with the lack of business and noise around me, as I had when teaching full-time. Not only that, but we (my husband and I) have had to turn down many invitations either as a couple or as an individual. Many of the things we are invited to are in the evening, so one or both of us has to stay home and look after our little girl. We’ve been so blessed to have had a couple of nights out together, courtesy of good friends babysitting.

That being said, I’ve met lots of wonderful women, their babies and their partners in the past 12 months. I’ve been to birthdays, baptisms, and even have a wedding in the diary. We’ve been for tea and cake at people’s houses, caught up in coffee shops and taken up invitations for bumbling round town.

Invitations may have to be declined, or plans altered to fit in with this new life, but it is good for the soul to think of someone else first. But it doesn’t really matter whether I get to go out or not, because that isn’t necessarily what helps us to feel connected.

It is the imple invitation – knowing you were thought of and wanted, knowing you were included – that has a transformative power. The power to overcome even the most loneliest of feelings.

To feel connected.

To feel loved.