Karen, how long have you been writing and how did you get started?
I’ve always loved writing and, throughout my life, especially during momentous times (good and bad) have found it helpful to get my thoughts out on paper. In my late teens and early twenties I occasionally felt ‘pregnant with poem’ and had to grab paper and pen, sit down and work at rearranging words until they expressed exactly what I was feeling at the time.
Jennifer recounts a very personal and difficult time for you and your husband when you lost your beautiful newborn daughter – what led you to write about this experience now?
I always hoped to be able to write Jennifer’s story because I think it’s an amazing story! At our lowest point, God burst in and made his opinion on it all very clear. And every parent wants to talk about their child. That’s usually true even (and sometimes especially) when that child has died. A lady whose stillborn daughter would have been 46 this year commented on my Facebook page saying that when it’s Emma Jane’s birthday, she wants to shout about it from the rooftops! This book is me shouting from the rooftops!
And why now? I retired at the end of October 2018. My mother had sadly died in 2017, and with no elderly parents or parents-in-law to care for and no children left at home, I suddenly had time! And also, now being the oldest generation in our family, there was a sudden sense of urgency to write, while I still could, this story of God, our creator, being lovingly involved in our day to day lives – so that I could share the story He has given me, with those who don’t yet know Him.
The book is filled with hope and we discover many people were impacted by Jennifer’s short life – is there an instance that stands out to you?
The most surprising one to me was the lady who shared a health visitor with me and who had had a termination of pregnancy when her baby was diagnosed with anencephaly. I had thought that our story couldn’t be any comfort to someone in that situation, but it actually really helped her. She realised that if she had been given more time, she might have made a different decision, and that helped lessen the burden of guilt that she was carrying.
Jennifer was discovered to have multiple abnormalities before birth and you were faced with the very difficult decision of choosing between a termination and continuing with the pregnancy – what would you say to someone who found themselves in a similar position?
One: Allow yourself time to recover from the initial shock and grief. Ask the staff for a few days. Use that time to let your mind adjust to what’s happened.
Two: If you’re a praying person, pray. If you’re not, try it!
Three: It’s so much easier to do your own research online these days and you will find organisations who can give you clear information about what might be ahead if you continue the pregnancy and will support you through it. ‘Every Life Counts’ (based in Ireland but cover UK), SOFT (Support Organisation for Trisomy 13/18), ‘Carrying to Term’ (based in USA) and ‘Together for Short Lives’ (UK) all have Facebook and Instagram pages. ‘Together for Short Lives’ can liaise for you between your antenatal department and your local children’s hospice to provide ‘perinatal hospice care’ for your whole family to help you treasure the time with your unborn child and prepare for his/her birth.
Four: Termination of pregnancy is not the easy option – it is often traumatising, and often results in complex grief reactions. Continuing is not easy either, and you need to assemble a good support team from family and friends. But if you continue, you get to love, care for and spend time with your child as long as the pregnancy lasts, and maybe even beyond.
Confronting such a tragedy can leave friends and family at a loss to know how to respond – what counsel would you give those who are close to people who have lost a child, however young?
The ‘however young’ part of that question is important – miscarriage at whatever stage is also the loss of a child. Everyone is different and everyone grieves differently and grieves every loss they have differently. And those around them can be scared to say the wrong thing in case it upsets them. But it’s much better to try to say something than not – to risk being rejected, than to say nothing at all. So, ask what would help them. If it was a miscarriage, ask when the due date would have been and ask if you could perhaps support them on that date in some way. Ask if there’s any other way that you can be of help – are there situations, get-togethers with family, friends etc that might be particularly difficult for them where they might need support in attending or not attending? Don’t second-guess – ask! As it approaches Mothers’ Day or Fathers’ Day, let them know that you’re thinking about them and again ask if there’s anything you can do to be a support to them. And if their baby has been delivered, ask if they would like to talk about him/her. If they do, see how the conversation opens up but don’t push. Ask questions you would ask about any baby – what colour his/her hair was, how much she/he weighed, who she/he looked like – anything at all. Ask if they would appreciate you remembering special dates, and if so, remember them – send a card, flowers, a message, check if they would appreciate company. And ask if it’s OK to mention their child’s name. And if it is, do, and never stop, no matter how many years pass.
You are a medical practitioner and a Christian – how did Jennifer’s life impact your work and faith?
Jennifer’s life grew my faith because I saw how God was present and involved with us in all of it. It grew my expectation of God. I know that whatever happens, He’s with me, involved with me, bringing blessing in the unlikeliest of situations.
When I was expecting her, I was working at the State Hospital in Carstairs and suddenly, in a new way, was able to empathise with the loss a parent experiences when their son or daughter develops severe and enduring mental illness. That continued to be a very useful insight. And Jennifer’s life emphasised to me that all of my patients were very precious to God.
What is the main thing you hope readers will take away from Jennifer?
That God’s amazing! And that if we are in relationship with Him, it changes everything.
How did you find the publication process?
The Instant Apostle team is very approachable and supportive, and have been great at guiding me through all the different stages. After all the plaudits from family and friends about having a book accepted for publication, however, it was a bit of a shock to reach copy editing stage and begin to listen to a more critical voice! It’s a bit like a being at the dental hygienist – not pleasant at all, but definitely worth it! The book was definitely in far better shape after that process. I had mentioned many people from my past, not all of whom I was still in touch with. Seeking permissions to use the names of people I hadn’t spoken with for decades was quite anxiety provoking but has had some lovely benefits which I mention in the acknowledgements of the book.
Did you get input from friends and family for Jennifer or was the book something you felt best to work on alone?
Our other daughters were hugely supportive. Ruth had kept my first attempt at writing it many years ago on a memory stick and sent that to me when I began to think of working on it again. And Sally came up with the idea of telling the story through excerpts from different diaries and letters which suddenly made it feel more achievable. Gordon (as usual, he might say) didn’t really get any choice to be involved as I bashed on with it on my own, but I had to surface now and again to check his memory for things I’d forgotten or never even known. And he read it through for me a couple of times and was able to correct a few things that I’d misremembered. And a lovely family member in Australia and another lovely friend from university days both read through the manuscript for me which was very affirming at a time when my confidence in the book was a bit shaky.
What one piece of advice would you want to give to a new writer?
Think very hard about who needs to hear what you are saying and write it for them.
What are you working on now?
Having just received my own quota of the books 11 days ago, I’m working hard to get the word out and then package and send them out to buyers. With lockdown easing a little in Scotland now, I’ve been able to take a copy of the book in person to one of the people I mentioned in the book whom I hadn’t seen for 27 years so that was lovely and I’m hoping to meet up soon with someone I met via the Instagram book page @theregrewflowers. In Instagram I’ve discovered a whole community of grieving parents who use it to reach out to others, share their stories and talk about their children. That community has been particularly important for them during Lockdown and I would like to continue to be involved with it.
Finally, what is your favourite book and why?
I’ve decided, for the purposes of this impossible question, that the definition of my favourite book has to be one that I’ve read more than once. I’ve read two novels three times – one of those is Till we Have Faces by C S Lewis and the other is So Many Ways to Begin by Jon McGregor. I would really like to read both of them again but the one I most want to read again is the latter, which makes it the winner by a whisker.
Jon McGregor writes beautifully so the language of the book is wonderful. And he is so humane. He treasures the ordinary and helps his readers see the wonder and the possibilities of what’s right in front of them at that very moment. So Many Ways to Begin is about love and longing; the yearning for deep connection and finding it hidden in plain sight.
In terms of non-fiction, the book I’ve learned most from recently is Instant Apostle’s The Peg and the Pumice Stone by Glyn Jones, encouraging each of us to use whatever He has given us, however ordinary, to share God’s love and God’s good news with whoever He puts in front of us. My prayer is that God will help me to use the story of Jennifer in that way.