Where are we going?
Walk with me and work with me – watch how I do it.
Matthew 11:29 (The Message)
The Quaker writer and retreat leader Parker Palmer writes that a calling is ‘something you can’t not do’. This is how writing this book has felt. It has taken me more than seven years to get our story down on paper. In that time, there have been many occasions when I have tried to let this project go. Partly because it has felt like such a battle; the words have not always flowed and, in writing our story, I have had to relive all we walked through in our winter season of catastrophic loss. But every time I have tried to let it go it wouldn’t leave me alone.
When something is hard, it can be a struggle to discern why this is. Have we picked up something that God never intended us to carry? Or is this a battle we need to persevere through? Is there something precious in the work that will lead to transformation either for ourselves or for others, or both? During one of my times of really wanting to be released from this project, I was out walking, asking God this exact question. I felt Him say the following to me: ‘Think about the times when you let go of something that I did not intend for you to carry, or where the season was over and you needed to release the fruit and move on. How did this feel? Now think about how you feel about putting this book project down.’ As I reflected on this, I realised that in the times when I have released things that I needed to let go of, there was always a sense of freedom and liberation that came from putting it down. However, this is never how I have felt about letting this writing project go. This project is challenging and sacrificial. But it is something that I can’t not do.
I am not one for seeing a spiritual battle under every stone. Sometimes our wrestle is with the spiritual forces lined up against us, but at other times our wrestle is with God. In his book Sacred Fire, Roman Catholic priest Ronald Rolheiser retells the beautiful story of a young man asking an old monk whether he still wrestles with the devil. His response? ‘Not any longer … I wrestle with God.’
When I think about wrestling with God, I find myself drawn to the story of Jacob’s wrestle with Him (Genesis 32:22-32). Interestingly, Jacob’s wrestle took place at night, and it released a new identity in him. For me, the similarities are striking: my wrestle took place through the darkness of catastrophic loss, but through it God has released blessing and, just as He gave a new name to Jacob, He has released a new identity in me.
Walking on water
I think I have also struggled to write this book because I feel like I am taking a considerable risk. Through its pages I am ‘baring my soul’ – the good, the bad and the ugly! I also feel slightly presumptuous about suggesting ways to help others walking a similar path; I don’t feel like an expert at all.
One of my favourite authors is Brené Brown, who writes about ‘wholehearted living’. The original meaning of the word ‘courage’ comes from the Latin word for heart – cor. Brown writes, ‘In one of its earliest forms, the word courage meant “to speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart”.’ We have reduced courage to bravery in the face of battles, but it is so much more than this. Courageous people are those who are willing to be vulnerable – to tell all of their hearts. Vulnerability is what gives us the ability to take down the mask that we all wear, the cover that says, ‘I’m good; I have life sorted,’ and instead relate to others in a far more authentic way. This struck a chord with me, and since reading some of Brené’s work, I am trying to live a more ‘wholehearted life’.
Writing this book is part of that commitment; this is me trying to live wholeheartedly. I hope you’ll find here an authentic account of my journey through a winter season. I have wanted to be honest about the darkness of this season in terms of the pain, heartbreak and confusion, as well as sharing how I found the light of love, hope, purpose and, dare I say it, joy amid the darkness. I want to share the reality of my winter journey in the hope that those reading this might know that they are not alone, that there are others out there who ‘get it’.
This is scary, and it’s a risk, but it’s also exciting. As a Christian, I believe that is what faith in Jesus is all about – that weird mix of being scared by the risk you are taking but also excited to see what God will do. Taking risks is what God has always called His people to do.
One of my favourite Gospel stories is when Peter walks on water with Jesus (Matthew 14:22-32). Yes, he sank, but Jesus rescued him, and, crucially, for the rest of his life he knew what it was like to walk on water, unlike the rest of the disciples who stayed in the boat. Stepping out of my boat and giving this a go feels like a risk. But I’d rather know how this turns out than live with a ‘what if?’ I also trust Jesus that He’ll not let me drown.
Why have I chosen the metaphor of the seasons? Firstly, because I am married to a farmer. This means our lives are inextricably linked with the seasons of nature. The rhythm of our lives changes with the seasons as Jon’s work varies according to the seasons. Our lifestyle is unusual in our culture. We are a society that has become divorced from the natural world in so many ways. Most of us work inside and have jobs that have no link to nature’s seasons, and we buy our food in supermarkets where it doesn’t matter what time of year it is – we can always buy strawberries!
Secondly, I’ve chosen a metaphor from nature because I believe the natural world has a lot to teach us about how to live well. As Galileo said, God has written two books: the Book of Scripture – the Bible – and the Book of Nature, and they communicate complementary truths. I find being out in nature restorative; it is a place where I feel more connected with my soul and hence with God. The natural world is a ‘thin place’, somewhere I go to meet with God, and where He regularly communicates His truth to me through my surroundings.
In addition, seasons of loss in our lives share many similarities with the natural season of winter. They can be pretty bleak, cold and dark. Often, they are times in life where the abundance and fruitfulness of other seasons feel like a distant memory. Just like a deciduous tree is stripped back to bare branches, we can feel like our lives have been stripped right back too.
However, winter is not all bad. Consider the beauty of a clear, bright, frosty morning, or the silence that descends with the falling snow, or the joy of a snowball fight. There is a real beauty to be found in the natural world during winter. Moreover, this season of dormancy, of being stripped back, lays the foundation for the new life that bursts forth each spring.
Winter is also a season of retreat, of cosying up inside, reading great books, watching favourite films, or sharing good food with friends and family. This is a practice the Danes call hygge, which is essentially the art of creating intimacy. Happiness researcher Meik Wiking writes:
Hygge is about an atmosphere and an experience, rather than about things. It is about being with the people we love. A feeling of home. A feeling that we are safe, that we are shielded from the world and allow ourselves to let our guard down.
Danish winters are known to be among the longest, coldest and darkest in the world. However, despite this, in global happiness polls, Denmark consistently ranks in the top ten. Could one of the reasons for this be that Danes have learnt how to embrace winter through the practice of hygge?
After our daughter Libby died, a very dear friend gave me a card with a poem written by Andy Raine, entitled ‘Walking with Grief’. This poem beautifully articulates the truth that, much as we might want to, we can’t hurry our way through grief.
Walking in nature in winter is much the same. I love walking up on the Uffington White Horse, which is close to where we live. In the summer I find I can stride out along the ancient Ridgeway footpath that tracks across White Horse Hill. However, in the wintertime, my pace is slower; I have to be much more cautious, watching out for patches of ice on frosty mornings, or I simply find myself slowed down by all the mud! Frustrating as it is to slacken my pace, when I do, something extraordinary happens: I am far more present to my surroundings. I notice details that I miss as I stride through the same place in summer. More than this, with the stripping back that comes with winter, things that were hidden behind dense foliage are now revealed. Through the bare branches I can see more and further than I could in summer.
What’s true in nature is true in our lives too. If we allow ourselves to walk slowly with grief, we can be more fully present to God, ourselves and others on our journey. I also believe that the stripping back of winter allows us to see truths about God and consequently about ourselves, things that are harder to see in other seasons of life. If we allow them to, this stripping back and slowing down gives us the opportunity to experience God’s love in new and tangible ways, right in the midst of the cold and dark of winter. Crucially, it’s His loving presence that will strengthen us to endure the cold and dark of winter, and that will, in time, heal us too. In God’s hands, seasons of loss can be turned into seasons of growth. The fruit of a winter season walked with God is wisdom; the ability to live life well. But as I am learning, wisdom doesn’t run – it, or rather He, walks. Jesus is the only truly wise person ever to have lived, and His invitation to us is not to run with Him but to walk with Him.
Walk with me
So, this is my invitation to you to walk with me through winter. To begin with, I will share our story of walking through the loss of six children, five through miscarriage and the death in labour of our first child, Libby.
Then, using the metaphor of winter, I will talk about what our winter felt like, from the pain and heartbreak to the loneliness and isolation that it caused.
One of the realities of faith is how often God calls us to hold two seemingly opposite things together – things that, at first glance, look paradoxical.
This is the case when we walk through seasons of loss. As followers of Jesus, we are called to walk the path He walked. This means we will experience pain and loss, and rather than running from them or denying their reality, we must acquaint ourselves with infirmity (see Isaiah 53:3). To be acquainted with something or someone means to know them. In the Bible, the word translated ‘knowledge’ does not mean head knowledge; it means relational and experiential knowledge. It implies intimacy: Adam ‘knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain’ (Genesis 4:1). When seasons of pain and loss come in our lives, we need to allow ourselves to experience the reality of the pain and heartbreak they cause. We need to be able to brave the elements of winter, and rather than trying to escape winter in our rush to spring, we must learn how to walk with Jesus through these seasons with honesty and authenticity. We need to know that this ability to ‘face down the reality’ of our situations is a powerful act of faith.
However, as author William Brodrick movingly articulates, as people of faith we are called to be ‘candles burning between hope and despair, faith and doubt, life and death, all the opposites’. Faith requires that we hold heartbreak and hope together. At the same time as being realistic about the pain, we need to know how to hold on to hope. Just as we can use the practice of hygge to help us embrace the natural season of winter, I believe that we can create a form of hygge that will help us walk through our winter seasons of loss. I have called this ‘hygge for the heartbroken’. Essentially, this is a set of practices that I found hugely helpful when walking through my winter season. They helped me to create intimacy with God, to know His loving presence within all the heartache and pain. As a result, I was able to experience love, peace and joy in the bleakest of winters. Against all the odds, I witnessed God prepare the soil of my soul for new life. The new life of His Kingdom.
As we set out together, I want to say that this is not a journey I have finished; it is not a season I have forever left behind or moved on from. This is one of the myths about grief, the idea that you will get over it. It’s nearly nine years since our daughter Libby died and I am still on this journey of loss; grief is multilayered, and at different times along this journey I have found myself back in its raw depths.
My dad is a keen fell walker. Growing up, whenever I went walking with him, he would take his Wainwright guides with him. In these books, Alfred Wainwright would share his own experience of walking a particular fell as well as provide detailed guidance to others of the route to follow, including potential hazards and pitfalls. I would love it if this book were to become a ‘walkers guide’ of sorts, a guidebook for walking through winter seasons of loss. In the pages that follow, you’ll find not only our story but also, at the end of each chapter, ‘walk it out’ tips. These give suggestions of how you can put the contents of the chapter into practice in your winter journey. To make the most of these sections, you might like to have a journal beside you as you read so that you can engage with these practical suggestions.
I don’t know why you have picked up this book. Perhaps you are walking a very similar path to ours, one of baby loss or infertility. Or maybe you find yourself in the winter season for a different reason, perhaps the death of a loved one, the loss of a marriage through divorce, the loss of health through a chronic or terminal illness, or the loss of a job. Maybe your child has a severe learning disability, and you are coming to terms with the impact that this will have on all the ‘rites of passage’ in life that they (and you) might never get to experience.
Maybe you’re not in winter right now but, without wishing to depress you, one thing I do know is that as surely as winter follows autumn each year, loss is inevitable in our lives. None of us gets to escape it; eventually, we will all find ourselves walking our own winter journey. If this is where you find yourself, I hope this book will help you to prepare for winter.
As well as personally experiencing pain and loss, we will all know people who are in the middle of challenging times. The wise vicar who counselled us after the death of Libby very movingly reflected, ‘When I became a vicar I was ushered into other people’s pain, and I quickly learnt that behind every door is a person in pain.’ Supporting people in their suffering can be a daunting prospect. ‘What do I do? What can I say that will help?’ My prayer is that this book will give you an insight into what it feels like to walk through winter and so help you support and walk alongside friends who are walking this path.
Most importantly, though, I pray that this book is not just more information – another set of ideas or, worse still, an additional burden of things you feel you need to do. Instead, I hope that through the pages of what follows you will have a fresh revelation of the God who loves you more than any of my words could ever describe, whose love is not contingent on what we do or don’t do, or on the circumstances of our lives. This is so important because it is the revelation of God’s love that will transform our situations. As the Franciscan monk and teacher Richard Rohr says, ‘Ideas inform us, but love forms us.’ It is through accepting Jesus’ invitation to walk with Him and learn from Him that we will be able to experience God’s love in the midst of winter, and so dare to set out into the inhospitable conditions and to walk on through them, to find meaning and hope.