Sam and I have been very busy in the garden the last week or so. When we moved into our house last Summer there were lots of beautiful plants in the garden that we had no idea what to do with! We did a bit of pruning, weeding and admiring and then over the Autumn and Winter slowly let it get overgrown.
But with Springtime arriving with some much needed sunshine (although maybe not this week 🥶🥶🥶) we cracked on to try and get the garden back to its former glory- albeit in a much more low-maintenance way!!
This is the first time we know we’ll be in a house for a long time so can invest in its future. It got me to thinking about how gardening really does feel like a metaphor for living with grief.
I spent hours on my hands and knees last weekend pulling out weed after weed, in the same way that I feel I have spent months trying to remove the negative thoughts that surround Etta’s life. Because that’s the thing with weeds- if left unchallenged they can suffocate the beautiful blooms that are trying hard to grow and reach the light.
Firstly, I’ve tried to get rid of the weeds of guilt that surround Etta’s life. Did I spend enough time with her? Should we have put her through all of those surgeries? Should we have refused to stop life support? Would things have been different if we were there on the morning of her cardiac arrest? I have to remember that she was so loved and my guilt is only because of all this love I have for her.
I’ve tried to get rid of the weeds of feeling like a victim and focussing on all that’s gone wrong rather than all that’s gone right. I started counselling last week and we were discussing whether I had experienced any trauma or grief before losing Etta and my miscarriages and I answered that no I hadn’t. How fortunate am I to be able to say that? It remains that life is unfair- so much of it is outside of our control and terrible things happen to so many people. However, when I look at my life I feel beyond lucky.
I’ve been pulling out the weeds of resentment or jealousy for those who seemingly breeze through conceiving, growing and birthing healthy babies. I don’t know their stories or their struggles- they’ve probably got weeds of their own, even if they’re not child related. Because the thing about gardens, is there will always be weeds at some point!
And I suppose the hardest weed for me is the ‘What if’ weed. I suppose this one isn’t always a weed, sometimes it’s a beautiful flower that offers me glimpses of a possible future in which Etta lived. But most of the time, it’s a weed that drags me into the past- reliving and obsessing over what went so wrong. I can’t say that I’ve eradicated this weed completely- I think this will be a stubborn weed that keeps reappearing (like my nemesis bind weed). I’ll always feel it’s unfair that Etta died because it is unfair. No child should die.
And weeds do grow back. I noticed this morning that some weeds were already growing back again in the beds that I painstakingly removed them from last weekend. You can’t just expect these feelings to be dealt with and put in a neat little box- they will always reoccur and I suppose that is just a fact of life. But I always think it’s worth working at- so those beautiful flowers in your life are what get to flourish, rather than weeds.
And in some respects we get to choose what grows in our own garden- we can sow the seeds that we want to see in our lives. At the weekend, I planted some sunflowers seeds for Etta and some ‘bee bombs‘ in memory of bumblebee and now it’s just a waiting game.
I look at the brown soil and can’t imagine what the ground will look like in the Summer- sometimes it is hard to imagine a patch of land that will be filled with colour and beauty but we sow the seeds regardless. Even though we don’t really know what we’re doing, we hold onto hope that these little seeds we plant faithfully turn into something we can get great joy from.
As a family, I feel like we are really focussing this year on sowing those seeds of hope and trying to imagine a life full of beauty and colour for ourselves. Not one where the weeds are blocking out the sunlight. And we are not striving for a wonderful garden in spite of losing Etta. Her seeds are sown into every corner of this garden. The garden is not in spite of her but because of her.
I never thought I’d be one to believe in signs but I can’t help but be reminded of her everywhere we look in the garden. Whenever I weed the front garden, a brazen little robin always comes right up to me and sits in the bed I’m working in. I can’t help but laugh at how close it gets and how much it stares! And every time Ezzie and I speak about Etta together in the garden (or up on Etta’s hill) we always spot a single bumblebee buzzing nearby even when it’s cold outside! It’s very strange but it always makes me smile anyway.
I’m praying that this Springtime can be filled with hope and happiness for you and your family too. Even if choosing hope and optimism feels impossible after all that has happened because I understand that sometimes it really does. I hope the symbol of the garden can be a reminder that sometimes hope can triumph over experience and that the very act of planting those seeds of hope can be a very courageous act indeed.
It’s hard to not compare this year with last year… the last week before lockdown began and here we are still inside our houses. A year since we scattered Etta’s ashes and have hardly had chance to go back to visit. I don’t think I would have believed anyone if they had told me what I, my family or people round the world had in store for the following year. So many individuals struggling in so many ways.
It’s painful to look back at the pure misery we were still experiencing in March last year but it’s also painful to be a year further away from holding Etta. I suppose the ‘new normal’ for us is a reality without Etta in it and a sense of normality will never really return. I really feel for the bereaved (especially those having lost ones to coronavirus) after the latest lockdown information in the UK. Seeing all the celebrations, memes, news stories about getting life back on June 21st may have been tough. Because of course it will be wonderful for so many people, but for those who have lost somebody they don’t just get to slip back into life as they knew it in March last year.
Mothers’ Day has sort of crept up on me this year. I remember that first Mothers’ Day being etched into my mind as another possibly very difficult day and yet this year, I just want it to pass me by. Maybe it’s a bit of fatigue with not being able to do much to mark any celebration at the moment. Maybe it’s because I expected to have a third child in my arms by now. Maybe it’s the realisation that I’m going to have so many more Mothers’ Days without Etta here and that will always hurt. It could just be a date to add to the pile of ‘no longer wish to really celebrate.’ (Don’t worry- I’ll still expect a cup of tea in bed and a card though!)!
I’m happy to focus more on my own wonderful mum and remember that I am so lucky to have her. (What would I do for childcare for a start?! 🤣) I think there’s enough love there for the both of us to celebrate. ❤️
I’m trying to just accept any of my feelings without guilt at the moment- whatever they might be. So if I want to bury my head in the sand and not think about the significance of Mothers’ Day too much, I’m ok with that. I heard someone say on a podcast this week that ‘Grief is patient’. Of course it’s not healthy to bury all your feelings but if you can’t deal with them all at once, grief will always wait. I have no idea if I’ve dealt with the trauma of the last 18 months but I have a feeling there will be a lot of people with trauma to deal with over the last year- from working on the frontline to seeing loved ones suffering. So at least I’m not alone in that… Hopefully trauma is patient too.
I’ll be thinking of those grieving mums whose first Mothers’ Day isn’t at all what they imagined. I hope they know that they will always be mothers whether their child is still living or not because the love for their child will always remain.
And maybe on Sunday, if there’s a break in the rain, I’ll start planting some flowers close to Etta’s bench so they can bloom in the Summer. And if there are breaks in the sadness, I can let a little hope and joy bloom too.
Wishing everybody a Mothers’ Day filled with love whatever that looks like for them.
A year ago today, we celebrated Etta’s life in Cheltenham surrounded by family and friends. I don’t take that for granted now. Sam’s brother Tom led the service for us and there will never be the words to thank him. Finding the words at a child’s funeral must be so difficult, let alone your own niece’s but he did an amazing job. Here are his words spoken that day. The first sentence will stay with me forever.
Well, this is shit.
We didn’t expect to be here. We hoped, we prayed, we trusted, we waited.
Things like this aren’t supposed to happen to us, are they? They happen to other people. To the friend of a friend. To a celebrity. To someone you read about in a book or magazine. Not to us. I remember thinking that 10 years’ ago, when my, Kim, and Sam’s mum died. And we think it again today, gathered around this tiny coffin. This shouldn’t happen to us. To our dear Emily, Sam, and Ezra.
And yet, here we are.
Why? Why has this tragedy happened? Couldn’t God have prevented it? Didn’t he want Etta to live? If he’s all good and all powerful, why did he allow it?
The Christian faith doesn’t pretend to have an easy, neat, logical answer to such questions – whether posed in terms of an abstract ‘problem of evil’ philosophical conundrum, or posed in the raw terms of a personal tragedy such as that which has afflicted Sam and Emily and, to a lesser extent, all of us here today.
The Bible is realistic – brutally honest – about the sufferings, injustices, and tragedies of life. In its pages, inspired prophets and apostles wrestle with these issues – wrestle with God over these issues – with all their pain, confusion, and frustration with the world and with its Maker plain to see.
God does not expect us to put a brave face on it today. He does not expect us to ‘move on.’ He is neither fooled nor honoured by our exchanging pious-sounding platitudes, sentimental nonsense, empty euphemisms.
This is shit. You know it, I know it, he knows it. There are no easy answers that make philosophical sense and which Sam and Emily are going to find emotionally satisfying.
And yet. And yet Scripture does put a few stakes in the ground – does put down a few markers that, while not a complete answer to the raging questions we might be asking, do both provide some solace, some comfort, some notes of hope; and do indicate that there may be a good answer, even though it remains clouded to us and known only to God.
As Sam, Emily, Ezra, and other members of Etta’s family and network of friends start now to rebuilt their lives, to adjust to this sad reality, these ‘stakes in the ground’ may be enough – not to recover, not to move on – but may be enough to tether their hurting hearts to, to tie threads of their lives back to together with, to weave a new way of seeing the world with.
Some of those ‘stakes’ are alluded to in the liturgy and prayers of the funeral service. A stake like ‘Jesus Christ knows the pain of bitter loss first hand.’ He experienced the full measure of human sorrow, the full range and extent of emotional, physical, and spiritual pain. He knows and identifies with your grief and comes alongside you in it. He is, Scripture says, full of compassion, able to sympathise with us in our weakness.
A stake like, ‘the Holy Spirit is called the Comforter, the Encourager: he promises to be with you and to be in you to strengthen you in your Christian faith and to equip you to live out your callings in a God-honouring way: your calling as husband and wife, your calling as parents to Ezra and maybe more children, your calling to your careers.’
A stake like, ‘God is robust enough and thick-skinned enough to be yelled at.’ He can take it. Just read the Psalms of lament and the book of Job. With a personal God in sovereign control of the universe, including the details of our lives, we don’t need to ‘rage against the machine.’ We can – we should – rage against God; or, better, to God. In Scripture, you have divinely-inspired permission to tell God exactly what you feel, who you think is responsible, and what you think should be done about it. Talk to him. He wants you to, and he can take it.
But a couple more of the ‘stakes’ that the Bible puts in the ground in connection with the tragedy of loss, the suffering of the innocent, are brought out in the two Scripture readings Sam and Emily selected for this sad occasion.
Consider the Psalm Ally read a few moments’ ago, ‘The LORD is my shepherd.’ It contains that famous verse which to most is more familiar in the Authorised Version: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for thou art with me.” Here is the promise that with the LORD being our shepherd, we need not fear the darkness even of death, because he walks with us through it. Jesus Christ is the Good Shepherd; who by his death and resurrection, has walked through the valley of the shadow of death to the sunlit uplands of eternal life in the new creation beyond. Because of his victory over the grave, he is able to walk through that valley with each member of his people. On the 23rd December, he was able to walk though that valley with little Etta as she died in her parents’ arms.
Finally, consider the short reading from Jeremiah chapter 1. Of course, it’s not addressed to Etta directly; it’s not about her specifically. It is about Jeremiah’s calling to be a prophet. But the precious stake in the ground which the passage provides is this: an infant, a tiny baby, even a baby in the womb, is known to God.
Perhaps the saddest aspect of the tragedy of having little Etta with us for only a month is that we hardly got to know her. We got to know one or two little things about her: she was born at a minute past midnight on the 26th November 2019, weighing 7lb 8oz (exactly the same as her elder brother); she was beautiful, even despite all the major procedures she endured every day; she was stubborn and perplexing (like certain other Woolford girls) as she confounded the doctors with her struggle to stay alive; and in her short life she achieved as many university degrees as her father has.
But that’s about all we knew about her. We don’t know the girl and woman she would have become. And that’s painful. That’s a profound loss that is now and always will be keenly felt. Etta had a hole in her heart, and her death has left a hole in our hearts. We hardly got to know her.
But the LORD said of Jeremiah, and by implication says of Etta, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you.”
Etta was known of God. More than that, she is known of God. We barely knew her, and for the rest of our lives we will not know her any better – but that doesn’t mean she is unknown. She is known; and known to the only Person who ultimately counts: she is known to God. God knew her in her brief earthly life, and knows her now in her heavenly life. He does know the girl and woman she would have become, and he does know the woman she will be in the new creation.
As it happens, there are two other things we do know about Etta. One is that she was baptised. In the small hours, about a week before she died, when she wasn’t expected to survive the night, she was baptised, with specially sterilised water, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Now, her baptism didn’t automatically bring about a change in her spiritual state. It wasn’t so much for her benefit at all. Instead, her baptism was for our benefit – chiefly of course for her parents’ benefit – as it was an outward and tangible sign and seal of the precious inward and spiritual truth we have just described: that Etta Grace Libi Woolford is known to God, and adopted – by grace – into his family forever.
And the one other thing we know about Etta is this: she was loved. Her parents attended her cot for between 14 and 20 hours every day (and sometimes more). They could do nothing for her; they just wanted to be with her, because they loved her. Etta was visited by scores of family members and friends who loved her; many more wanted the chance to visit. She became loved by even the doctors and nurses who cared for her.
Hers was a short life, but it was a loved life.
And so this tribute to Etta’s life, about which we have so little to say, actually says everything that I would want said in the eulogy at my funeral, with maybe 80 or 90 years’ more material potentially to go into it: here lies someone who was dearly loved by their family and friends, and who was – and is – known and loved by the LORD. Amen.
Thank you for helping us make the world better for Etta ❤️🌍
In a year where fundraising has been difficult, you’ve really dug deep and supported 2 charities that are very close to our hearts: The Grand Appeal and Sands United FC Salisbury. We are very grateful- your donations will make a huge difference to both sick children and their families in the South West and bereaved fathers in the Salisbury area.
We couldn’t just thank you for your kind donations, I needed to thank you for all the wonderful kind acts you did too!
I made this mosaic (I think 158 pictures) to show all the kind acts that you carried out over the campaign.
I wish I could list all of the kind deeds but here are a few:
⭐️Lots of you did litter picks/ recycled more/ planted flowers or trees 🌳🌺
⭐️Lots of you gave blood/ signed up to give blood or go on stem cell register 💉
⭐️Lots of you donated food to your local food bank 🥫🍞
⭐️Lots of you donated toys to local Christmas present appeals 🎁🧸
⭐️ Some of you have signed up to volunteer 👏🏻
⭐️Lots of you donated to money to a cause that was important to you 💰💵
⭐️Lots of you bought presents for key workers, domestic workers and those you might not usually buy for 🛍
⭐️ 2 children in developing countries will receive cleft palate surgery and heart surgery 👶👶
⭐️ And a whole load of you smiled more, said kind things and spoke the names of Etta and other children who have died ❤️
A special shout out to my beautiful cousin Verity who ran 28 miles for Etta (a mile a day) to raise money for The Grand Appeal. 💖🏃🏼♀️
And my gorgeous friend Emily over in Florida who managed a kind act every day for Etta with her 2 little girls 👶🏼👧🏼
And last but not least my amazing Sister-in-Law @kimberley_alice_strickland who publicly thanked a different person each day for their kindness and drummed up lots of donations whilst doing it! ❤️💬
We are SO lucky to have you all.
And as Winnie the Pooh says… “How lucky am I to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.”
We are so lucky that Etta’s life continues to be our driving force every day- even over a year on.
Today is our last kind act to mark Etta’s last day on Earth with us. We wanted to do something special to honour our little girl and this seems a fitting tribute.
We have decided to sponsor a child from a developing country to receive paediatric heart surgery via the Healing Little Hearts charity.
Just this morning, we were wondering whether we would have the money to fund this but some of our friends kindly made a generous donation for us to choose to spend on ourselves or a charity that is important to us so this felt like perfect timing.
We are so unbelievably lucky to have the NHS- Etta had 3 major open heart surgeries in her little life, as well as countless procedures and it didn’t cost us a penny. However, for children in developing countries, 90% of babies and children won’t receive the life-saving surgery that they need.
HLH sends out specialist medical volunteers who then set up ‘camp’ for a week in a local hospital in a developing country. They then perform lifesaving surgery for free to save local children’s lives.
If you would like to donate towards this amazing charity then you can do so on their website. Or if you would also like to contribute towards our sponsored child, then let me know.
Our hearts were broken after Etta died and I know they can never be fixed. But there are babies and children around the world right now whose hearts can be. And if we can contribute to fixing just one (and spare a parent the heartbreak of losing a child) then why wouldn’t we? And make the world better for Etta 💔❤️🌻
Today we went to Bristol to drop off some care packages for the families who are staying in Paul’s House (the family accommodation provided by The Grand Appeal charity) over the Christmas holidays.
We know exactly how surreal it feels to be in hospital over the festive period and there must be even more challenges this year. Although we were probably the only family last year who were desperate not to be home for Christmas!
We tried to include a few essentials like cereal bars, coffee and hand cream, as well as treats like chocolates too. My lovely friend Leona also made Christmas decorations for each room. Hopefully these will be a keepsake for Christmas 2020 at BCH.
We also got to see some of Etta’s doctors and nurses too. Of course discussing her death and post-mortem was very emotional but it is hard not to smile when we think of all the staff in NICU, PICU and the cardiology department who treated her with such care. Although being in Bristol brought back lots of sad memories today, there were lots of happy ones too. Bristol was the only home that Etta ever had so we’ll keep returning and we hope we’ll feel a little stronger with each visit.
Today’s kind act was simply to smile and say hello to as many people as possible today. I think after yesterday’s news a lot of people aren’t feeling cheerful.
We are not in tier 4 here but I know lots of plans have been ruined regardless of what tier you’re in. I didn’t particularly feel like smiling but we set off on a bike ride this morning to make the most of the beautiful weather and smiled and said hello to everyone we met. Ezra knows nothing of tiers or bubbles (or social distancing 🙈) so smiled and waved at everyone he saw- even the people in their cars. I couldn’t take a picture while we were cycling (obv) but he was still waving even when we had arrived home 🥰
My mum said she smiled and spoke to an old man at the park who is now on his own for Christmas after BJ’s announcement. I think a smile/ compliment/ chat can go a long way at the moment. And if you don’t feel like smiling, that’s ok. I’m wishing you a gentle Christmas, if a merry one isn’t possible.❤️🎄
Today’s kind act began this morning in our pyjamas! Ezzie and I decorated some Christmas cards for the residents of the care home that is a few doors down from our house.
I am really thinking of those that are living and working in care homes this Christmas- it must have been a frightening year for them so here’s hoping the vaccinations will be administered for them soon.
Ezzie posted his cards through the letterbox and the manager waved and said thank you to Ezzie who was very proud of his creations!
Today’s kind act is for two very deserving mums who both lost their little boys recently. It’s heartbreaking enough for your child to die, let alone during a global pandemic so I wanted to give them a few little gifts to show they’re not alone.
I read ‘The Baby Loss Guide’ while on holiday after Etta’s funeral and I found it really helped. Zoe Clarke-Coates has a way of validating your own thoughts with her beautiful words. I hope they find it as helpful.
My friend Vicky from ‘Cute Bits’ kindly made them each a bookmark with their baby’s initial on it. She even made me a beautiful one for Etta which I can’t wait to use ⭐️💖
Thinking of you both in the run up to Christmas- I wish your boys were in your arms as well as your hearts ❤️