It was 9.05am (exactly) on Wednesday, March 17th (St Patrick’s Day) when my phone rang. I didn’t know then just how important that phone call would be.
On the Sunday before, I had gone shopping with my mum. One of mum’s great joys has always been buying clothes and PJs for her grandkids, so on this particular Sunday we whizzed out to a big supermarket nearby and as usual, mum was in her grandma element, picking out some nighttime wear and summery outfits for the little ones.
It’s fair to say at this point that I’ve always HATED shopping whereas my mum has always been an avid browser. On this day in particular, I was hungry, needed the loo and I could feel my frustration levels rising. I was GRUMPY. Mum and I rarely fell out and if we did, it would last for all of 2 minutes but as I followed mum around the store that day like Oscar the Grouch, I felt God say to me, ‘be thankful you’ve still got your mum’. I remember looking at her and thinking she looked a bit pale so I decided to listen to that ‘inner voice’. I gave myself a little mental shake and adjusted my bad attitude. I’m so glad I did.
Later, as mum and I drove home, my uncle rang. A few months prior, my uncle had been diagnosed with incurable cancer and had been told that if he was ‘lucky’ he’d have about 5 years to live. This was devastating news and he’d rung us that day to have a chat. He was feeling stressed and worried and as mum and I pulled up outside the house after our shopping marathon, mum suddenly said to my uncle, ‘RIGHT, I’m going to pray for you’. What followed was this hugely powerful prayer. She prayed LIFE into his body and she declared that because of the power of Jesus, he would NOT die, but he would LIVE.
When the call came to an end, there was a sort of stunned silence in the car. I said to mum, ‘I haven’t heard you pray like that in YEARS’. I couldn’t explain it but for a fleeting moment, as I listened to her pray and watched her point with passion at the phone screen in my car, it was like some kind of divine exchange had happened. Throughout many years of full time ministry with my dad, my mum had seen some real miracles after she’d prayed for people and different situations. I’d been encouraging her recently to pick that gift up again and for the briefest of moments while she prayed for my uncle, I knew that spiritually something had shifted. I just didn’t know what.
That night I travelled back to my own home but as I prepared to leave my parents’, mum said to me, ‘sit down for a few minutes and chat to me’. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but she didn’t seem quite like herself, a bit ‘out of sorts’. She’d been in hospital a few days prior to have a kidney stone removed and was having some residual pain, but she’d taken some drugs and assured me she was fine. I left later that night and the following evening, mum rang me to chat. She and I usually spoke a couple of times a day so this wasn’t unusual. After mum and I spoke, for some reason I suddenly felt compelled to send her an email. I didn’t even know what I was going to say but as I picked up my phone and started to tap out a short message, the words just seemed to flow and I told her how amazing she was and how much we all loved her. She replied briefly to say it had brought a tear to her eye (so I know she read it). I didn’t know then why I’d felt compelled to do that, but I do now.
At 5.38am the following morning, Tuesday, March 16th, I woke up early, picked up my phone to check the time and immediately saw some missed calls and a text from my dad to say that mum had unexpectedly been taken to hospital. She’d woken up in the wee hours with breathing difficulties and so dad had called an ambulance.
As I tried to clear my sleepy, fuzzy head and absorb this news, I first rang dad and then rang the hospital and spoke to the A&E doctor to get an update. He was treating Mum and said it was likely she had a chest infection, but she was sitting up in bed in A&E, had just had tea and toast and was responding well to treatment. In his words, she was ‘unwell but not seriously unwell’ and would likely be in hospital for ‘a day or two’. I rang dad, gave him the update and then told him I’d be over to stay with him later that evening.
That night after I finished work, I drove over to Mum and Dad’s house and on the way spoke briefly on the phone to Mum. She was on oxygen and was feeling unwell but she’d been through so much before, we had no reason to think this time was any different. She was obviously fed up but by the end of the call I assured her all would be well and I think she felt reassured. I stayed with dad that night and at 9.05am the following morning, ‘Mum mobile’ flashed up on my phone.
‘Morning’ said I. ‘How are you feeling today?’
‘Dreadful’, she said but she gave me a list of a few things she’d like me to bring up to the hospital. And then mum said, ‘the house is SO untidy’. I laughed and told her to stop worrying about the house and that I’d drop off her stuff later. I ended the call the way we always end phone calls in our family, ‘Loveyoubye’.
After I ended the call, I joked with my dad, ‘mum must be ok…she’s worried about the house being messy’. This had been a long running joke in our family. Over the years my mum has loved and fed armies of people and as result, always kept a well-organised and well-stocked house. She often said that if she stopped caring about the house, THAT was the time to worry about her.
Feeling reassured, I went back to my laptop to get on with some work and then at 10.31am (funny how you remember specific times and dates), the house phone rang.
My dad shouted for me and said, ‘it’s the hospital – they want to speak to you’.
I took the phone from dad, put it on speakerphone, fully expecting to hear that mum had been moved to another ward but suddenly the nurse who’d rung began to speak unbelievable words.
‘I’m going to have to break some very bad news to you – your mum has just passed away.’
I stood there, phone in hand, mouth open, speechless, like the world had just stopped. Passed away? That’s simply not possible. In slow motion I watched as my dad leaned forward in his chair, his eyes and mouth slack in shock.
‘But…what? I don’t understand…’ I remember saying. ‘I just spoke to her…she was fine…I don’t understand.’
The nurse told us that Mum had been fine, was responding well to treatment but when a nurse went in to take her observations, she’d noticed mum looked a funny colour. My mum was chatting and alert but the nurse called the doctor anyway. As he walked in, mum suddenly went into cardiac arrest and that was simply it. There was nothing more they could do.
There are no words to describe the feelings when you receive a phone call like this. You’re in shock, horror and disbelief. The world simply stops. Was it a weird, sick error and mum was going to ring again in a minute and tell us she was ok? There’s NO way a person who is central to your life can be SO alive one minute and so not, in the next. As a child, you always know this day will come. But not right now…not when there was so much more living to do.
I remember putting the phone back in its cradle, as though I’d just taken the most normal call in the world, sitting down in front of dad and grabbing hold of his hands. Could it be a mistake, he asked? Did they have the wrong person? What were we going to DO? She was fine! She was the centre of our whole family. She had a chest infection. No one dies from a chest infection, right?
At this point, I suddenly realised I needed to call my brother. Through the fog which was quickly enveloping my brain, I didn’t think about how I was going to tell him so when he answered I just blurted out, ‘The hospital just rang. Mum’s died’. There was a sharp intake of breath, a pause and then, ‘I’m on my way’.
Knowing how fast news travels, I started to numbly ring a handful of family and friends. I didn’t want those closest to Mum to find out secondhand. I rang 6 or 7 numbers and each time I was greeted with a sob and a gasp of horror. ‘No…it’s not possible. Surely not. What do you need me to do?’ The fog was too thick by this point so I didn’t really know what I needed or how to respond to others’ grief. I was numb. There were no words.
Having made phone calls to the essential people, I sat down in my parents’ living room and we waited for reinforcements to arrive. Dad started praying out loud. ‘Father, we do not know how this has happened but we thank you for Shirley’s life. We thank you that she’s with you now’. I joined dad in prayer and was vaguely aware of more people walking in the front door and joining us, as together we did the only thing our sorrow-filled hearts knew to do – talk to our Heavenly Father.
I was so grateful for the love and warmth we were being surrounded with and then my phone began to vibrate. News was spreading and one by one, texts, Facebook messages, WhatsApp messages all began to fly in. ‘I’m so sorry…’ they said. ‘We love you…we’re here for you’.
As the news travelled, my brother and I decided to go up to the hospital in person and talk to the doctor. We drove in stunned silence and as we walked into reception (a little like robots) we called up to the ward. Would the doctor come down and see us? We didn’t want to risk going up to the ward and seeing our mum’s body being whisked away by porters.
Eventually we were met in a relatives’ room by a young doctor who was with mum when she passed and he assured us she knew nothing and she’d simply closed her eyes. He said that test results now showed that when mum was admitted she’d actually had a big heart attack. It wasn’t a chest infection after all. The incredible thing is, due to a delay in test results, my mum was never actually told this news and oh my, I cannot tell you how grateful we are for that! Mum was a natural caregiver and the sort of person who was always ‘on the go’. If she’d have been told she was seriously ill, she would have immediately rung us and I know she would have worried desperately about my dad, about the future, about her recovery. But praise God, she believed right up until she went to heaven, that she just had a chest infection. That is the first of many things I am grateful for.
At the hospital, once we’d had opportunity to ask all our questions, a nurse came into the room and asked if we’d like to take mum’s hospital bag home.
My brother and I looked at each other, unsure of our answer. If we took it home, this was really real. She wasn’t coming back. Weirdly, there was part of me that wanted to go back the next day and pick up the bag then. To take it now just seemed too final.
However, in a daze, we agreed we’d take it home and the nurse slipped out of the room and then returned with mum’s bag, phone, her watch and wedding ring.
How on earth could this even be happening? It was now about lunchtime. At 9.05am, just a few hours before, I’d been chatting to mum about shower gel and the house being a mess and now we were being given the hospital bag she’d come in with and her mobile phone and being told she was (in physical terms) no longer alive. This was simply not possible.
When the nurse returned mum’s still-switched on phone to me, there were still texts coming in from friends asking how she was feeling. There was even a text from the bank letting mum know that one of her accounts was overdrawn. All just ordinary, everyday stuff. And here I was standing in a hospital corridor reading them, knowing she had gone to heaven.
Once we arrived back to the house, we didn’t quite know what to do. Mum, the centre to our family universe had just passed away. What do those words even mean?? We didn’t know what to think or do so we drank tea, we prayed, we cried and we sat in the numbest of numb shock. There isn’t a handbook of instructions for sudden death and the weirdest thing of all is that while our world had just stopped spinning, the universe around us hadn’t. Buses were still running, Amazon parcels were still arriving, people were still walking their dogs and watering their gardens, as though nothing had happened. Didn’t they know the world had stopped? Couldn’t they feel it too? I guess not.
That night, as the household settled down to sleep, I realised I didn’t want to sleep in my old childhood bed. There’s a line from the CS Lewis book, A Grief Observed, where he says simply, ‘no one told me that grief felt so like fear’. And for that first night, though I’m not normally a fearful person, I was inexplicably afraid to sleep in my own childhood bed in the dark. Instead, I got into my PJs, wrapped myself in an old, rubbed-up dressing gown that my mum had bought me, dragged a duvet downstairs and I laid on the sofa. I FaceTimed a couple of trusted friends and then finally at around 3am, I knew I would have to sleep. The only problem was, my mind was racing.
I knew we’d need to do all sorts of things the next day. Like most people I’ve never organised a funeral before and although I didn’t know what I’d need to do, I knew it would be a busy day. Sleep was therefore important but of course my grief-stricken brain wasn’t going to let me have any peace or sleep.
As I lay there on the sofa, staring across the room at my mum’s empty armchair (with her slippers placed so neatly beside it), my heart folded in two and I cried out to God. ‘Lord, I need you, I need sleep. Please help me sleep’.
I had my eyes shut but as I prayed, I could ‘see’ this warm orangey glow start to fill the room and I was suddenly aware of two figures stood in front of me. They were tall, calming and reassuring and though I couldn’t see them with my physical eyes, I knew they were there. In their safe presence, I quickly dropped off to sleep.
The following days were an inexplicable combination of shock, tears, moments of memories and laughing, apathy and then, repeat. None of us had ever gone through anything quite like it. The grandbabies were told and we had to witness their palpable grief, a funeral director was ‘employed’ and we began the strangest of tasks, talking about coffins and flowers and cremation. It was all underpinned with this weird sense of disbelief and yet, the presence of God was also so incredibly real in our parents’ house. When things got too overwhelming, I’d sit in a chair in the living room and I’d allow myself to lean into this presence. I knew (and still know) that no matter how difficult this is, it’s the presence of God which is preventing us from completely falling apart. Because of this we have real, genuine, lasting HOPE.
The day before the funeral service, we had some extraordinary news. I was out doing a little shopping when the phone rang – it was my uncle, the one who had been diagnosed with incurable cancer. I knew he’d been to see his consultant that morning for updates on his treatment plan and he was completely astounded at what he’d been told. He had received the results of a further in-depth test and it seemed that the hospital was now changing their prognosis. The further tests had shown the cancer had NOT spread in the way he’d originally been told and they now believed it WAS actually curable. He’d need to go through treatment but they couldn’t see any reason why they couldn’t get rid of it completely.
I burst into loud, snotty tears. I KNEW something had happened the day mum had prayed for him. All of a sudden, as much as I desperately missed mum, I could see little bits of hope and life bursting and shooting up all around us. God used mum’s last hours and days on earth to pray life and healing into someone else. What an utterly incredible gift. This gave us so much hope.
This hope was reflected in the funeral service. We asked people to come dressed as they were most comfortable (we didn’t want black/mourning clothes) and the afternoon was filled with beautiful worship, tributes and a gospel message. Several people told us it was the best funeral they’d ever been to…high praise indeed.
But of course as everyone will tell you, the real trial comes after the funeral. By this point, everyone has gone back to ‘normal’ and that’s when reality often hits. Hearing all this, I was anxiously awaiting the day after the funeral, worried that I’d be hit by this utter tsunami of grief, but you know what, God is so very kind and gracious.
The days that followed were difficult for sure. My sleep was disrupted and I often dreamt of being in a room with my mum, me telling her how much I loved her but she couldn’t see or hear me. I’d wake up in a cold sweat in the morning, hit afresh with this relentless sense of, ‘she’s not coming back’.
Over the next week or so, there were some real lows. I’ve laid on my mum’s bed hugging her dressing gown, weeping for all I’ve lost. I’ve gone through her drawers, marvelling at how organised she was, pausing to inhale the lovely smell of Sarah Jessica Parker perfume that made mum, ‘mum’. I’ve held her Bible and read through the notes and I’ve just sat there in utter bewilderment. How could she be so here? And then so not? Those lows are really, really bad, but because of the hope we have, they are also quickly followed by sparks of joy and gratitude.
I’m grateful for the fact that God told me to ‘check my attitude’ that day in the supermarket.
I’m grateful that the last email I ever sent to my mum was the one where I told her how much I loved her.
I’m grateful for the way she prayed for my uncle.
I’m grateful for the angels who showed up in the living room on the night she went to heaven (and oh yes, they were definitely angels!!)
I’m grateful for how much my wonderful, funny, godly mum taught me, instilled into me, how she taught me to make ‘proper gravy’ and how she and I never avoided difficult conversations about death. Although none of us were expecting it, when it came, I knew exactly what my mum wanted. She didn’t want people looking at her body (she was adamant about that) and she wanted her funeral to not be a ‘funeral’ but to be a celebration of her life.
I’m grateful for the night when I thought I couldn’t take any more, so I cried out to God and asked him to show me heaven. That night I had the most amazing dream…but more on this another time!
Weirdly, I’m also grateful for the fact that my mum went to heaven on St Patrick’s day. When my mum was 16, her own mum died very suddenly and every year on the anniversary my mum would say, ‘my mum died on this day…I know I’ll see her again one day in heaven’. By ‘coincidence’ both the grandma I never met and my mum died on the same day – St Patrick’s day. I’d like to think that was a pretty awesome reunion in eternity.
I’m grateful that we knew exactly what she wanted but above all, as I said in my tribute at church, I am beyond grateful that she is with Jesus, who she served for most of her adult life. As much as she loved us, she would not want to come back.
And throughout this journey so far (and I’m acknowledging it’s only just beginning), here’s a few things I’m learning.
1. Joy really does come in the morning. We’ve had a lot of ‘dark nights of the soul’ where the sadness has felt overwhelming but then the next day, almost without fail, there has been something which has renewed our strength. It might be a note someone’s pushed through the door, meals delivered, finding a letter mum had written…the list goes on. I know too that in time, the joys will be greater than the sorrows.
2. Bereavement shows you very quickly who your real-to-be-trusted friends are. I have been SO blessed to have a gang of pals who’ve truly stuck by ‘closer than a brother’. They have stayed ‘on call’ throughout the night so that I could ring in the wee hours if I needed to. They’ve listened to me cry, rant about the perceived unfairness and they’ve laughed too at our family’s slightly black sense of humour. I have also been really surprised to discover that others (for whatever reason) just weren’t available. They sent a few texts early on but it quickly stopped after that. Of course people have lives and they quickly forget (I totally understand that!!). But it’s ok.
3. Language is important. I’ve had (very well-meaning) people say to me, ‘you won’t ever recover from this’ or ‘the scars last a lifetime’. They’re right to say that of course I will always love and miss my mum, but I don’t believe that God wants me to live with lifelong scars. Not only that, but my mum wouldn’t have wanted that either. She would want us to move forward, to live lives of wholeness. In fact, she told us that often! So yes, this event and the suddenness of it is undoubtedly a life-defining moment but with God’s grace, I will walk through it. We will be ok.
4. God gives you the grace you need when you need it. I’ve always loved the story about a young Corrie Ten Boom who, upon discovering that people could actually die, asked her Papa what would happen to her if he died. Papa Ten Boom who was a watchmaker reminded Corrie how once a year they would travel to Amsterdam to get the time from the main clock, so that they could set all the clocks in the shop to the correct time. ‘When do I give you your train ticket for this journey?’ Papa asked Corrie. ‘When I get on the train, Papa’.
‘And so it is with our Heavenly Father, he gives us the strength we need, when we need it. Not before’.
And so it is with us right now. I know it’s a winding road ahead, adjusting, fixing and possibly at times despairing. There’s no quick fixes but at the same time, 1 Thessalonians 4:13 sums it up perfectly:
Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope.
We miss her more than words can say, but just like the first buds of spring, pushing up through the earth, we also have hope.
We have hope because we can see mum’s legacy living on through us, her grandkids, her church. We have hope because we’ve received probably hundreds of messages in cards, emails and texts from people whose lives have been impacted in big and small ways through things mum and dad did.
We have hope because we know that one day we will see her again.