On All Hallows Eve we lost our daughter, Maya. I have felt a yearning to write something down about this season of loss, and it felt right to do it before the year turns to the new. I don’t know why, but somehow it feels important to keep a record of this time of deep grief, as it is something I don’t want to lose or forget. I also know that this new, unwelcome, unwanted reality is now a part of me and it can help those who know me, work with me, love me, to understand a little of what this feels like. So this is really about my own experiences of grief – I have photos and memories of Maya here for those who knew her and want to lose themselves in the joy, the exuberance, the fun, that was Maya, but the writing that follows is about the hurricane of loss, and how it feels to be caught up in the midst of it.
Yesterday would have been Maya’s 20th birthday. 20 years since we took a little bundle home from hospital, shell-shocked at this sudden change to our lives and wondering how to look after this new life, how to care for her.
And now we are gathered in the rain, in the early afternoon dusk of midwinter, to mark Maya’s 20th birthday without her. She would have hated this – standing in the rain, and the mud, with the cosiness of the kitchen only metres away. But we were only there for a few minutes – to plant a magnolia tree on our lawn, within view of her bedroom, the bedroom which is suspended in time, her belongings where she left them last time she was home from university.
Maya’s birthday marks the end of the most heart-breaking two months of our lives and the start of a new reality that we are feeling our way into.
On 29th October I was at Caerlaverock, just starting a weekend of goose watching and walks with friends, mainly out of phone signal, when I received a call from a police officer. I must get to the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary as quickly as I could, Maya had been taken ill at a music festival and was in an ambulance. When I checked my phone I had facebook messages from some of Maya’s friends who had also been trying to contact me.
As I drove through the dark on unfamiliar roads – I simultaneously wanted to be there as quickly as possible, and never to arrive. While I didn’t have any updates and couldn’t get any, then I could imagine all was well. I didn’t want to open Schrodinger’s box and look inside.
When I arrived my husband and younger daughter were still 20 minutes away. I arrived at A&E as instructed and was immediately whisked off through the long empty corridors of the nocturnal hospital to the Intensive Care Unit. I noted the hospital chaplaincy as we passed ‘available during office hours and, for urgent requests, out of hours’ and headed up to the wards.
The time we had in the hospital felt like an alternate reality – a deep calmness seemed to sit over the ICU ward and all who worked in it and visited it. We were allocated our own little waiting room – a place for hushed conversations with consultants and nurses, for weeping, comforting each other, and for sleeping. We sat with Maya – taking it in turns and together. The first night I took our other daughter home to sleep, Ruedi staying in the hospital, between Maya’s bedside and the sofa bed. When I returned, I brought duvets, cuddly toys, pillows, and I dismantled the sofa bed to make up a nest on the floor that all three of us could sleep in.
Maya had a dedicated team for her care and every time the shift changed or there was a change in Maya’s circumstance, we had a briefing. They were so calming, so serious, so knowledgeable. But at each briefing things looked more and more challenging. As the hours blurred into a day, I got ready to be there for the long haul, and then as the day went on, I started to prepare myself for worse.
I don’t know when it was that I started to think that Maya might die. When we first arrived it wasn’t anywhere near my thoughts – she’d be ok wouldn’t she? This was the daughter that was never ill, shrugged off colds and flu. But there was something in the way the team spoke to us and spoke about Maya’s condition that caused me to start thinking the worst.
Weirdly the form this took was thoughts about the banalities of life – if she died, what would happen to my Christmas newsletter/card which I had already printed and which sat, ready to be written, at home? What about the electricity bill she organised at her flat for her five flat-mates?
When I retired to my nest on the floor of the small room, they assured me they would wake us if Maya’s condition changed. At 1am Maya took a turn for the worse – Maya’s two best friends were going to visit the next day at around lunchtime. I asked if they should come sooner. “Yes” said the consultant. How soon? 7am? “as soon as they can get here” was the response.
I called them, they were awake and together, awaiting news. At 430am Julie, our Minister must have woken, seen my update and texted me – looking back at my phone I see the text I sent her read ‘‘the doctor says that she perhaps has an hour or two. mayas two best friends just came to say goodbye. we sit by her bedside”
Julie arrived an hour later, unbidden, unexpected and so very very welcome. We navigated Maya’s final hours together – the three of us, and Julie. It felt as if we were in another dimension utterly distant from reality and suspended between earth and eternity.
Maya died at 710am and we sat silent and stunned in our little room as they removed all the equipment and tubes so that we could say a final goodbye to our daughter and sister. We left her with one of the cuddly toys that sat by her bed at home and which we had fetched to comfort us.
Julie drove us home. As I stood alone for a minute in the hospital car-park waiting for Ruedi to gather stuff from our car, I had a powerful feeling that I was standing outside the Queen Mother’s hospital where Maya was born waiting for Ruedi to come out with our baby. Then a shattering. We were leaving Maya at the hospital and, this time, we couldn’t take her home.
The next three weeks was a time separated from time. I was numb to start with but that evolved gradually and miraculously into a feeling of being held inside a bubble of calm, in the midst of a raging whirlwind. My parents arrived the day we got home, my sister arrived direct from a work trip to the Comores. Between Maya’s death and her funeral we received visitors, casseroles, cards, messages, flowers. We talked and hugged and remembered. We had family or friends staying with us every night of those three weeks: I was never alone.
It was an intensely practical time: days were filled with jobs, my family made sure of that – that is how they are. It helps that we live somewhere there are always jobs to do: finishing off a hut I’d been building in the summer, clearing up the garden and the sheds, tidying, getting stuck into mounds of laundry, reading the hundreds of cards, texts, emails that kept arriving, the phone calls from friends. This felt like sacred work – all of it, even the laundry – but particularly the work of reading cards, receiving visitors, talking, hugging and fulfilling our solemn duty of eating the gifts of home-cooked food that had been allocated to be eaten that day. It was the only thing there was. The world was at bay, beyond the horizon and the trees.
When it all got too much, we three retreated to a hammock just behind the house in the woods – taking sleeping bags and wearing all our warmest clothes we would swing there and look up at the twigs and listen to the wind and the burn and the birds. Sometimes it rained and we sheltered under a huge picnic blanket and stayed there until the water started to trickle down the hammock and pool below our sleeping bags.
During those weeks I felt a strange sensation of dislocation, but with a profound connectedness to my immediate surroundings and the moment – the woodland, the burn, my husband and daughter, friends and family, as they visited us or messaged me. It felt like we were inside a bubble made of love and prayer tethered at Upper Woodburn. We didn’t go anywhere for the first week but over time we felt we could venture out still connected to that bubble by a surface tension which got stretchier and stretchier the more we ventured away. At first, a little way seemed quite hard but then it got easier and somehow, what would have felt like an insurmountable effort, started to feel a little bit possible.
Julie came to speak to us about a funeral for Maya. We all retreated to the hammock in the woods, Julie and Ruedi on camp chairs in multiple coats and blankets. In that sacred space, surrounded and supported by oaks and with the burn in its little gorge beneath us rushing by, we talked about the impossible thing – that we would be saying goodbye to our darling daughter.
Over three difficult and deeply affecting discussions at our hammock camp, the shape of two services: a tiny committal at the crematorium for close family and Maya’s closest friends, and then an open-to-all welcoming service at our church for everyone who loved Maya and loves us, came together. We decided that we wanted to share our special place of peace at Upper Woodburn, this calm in the storm, with everyone, so we would hold the reception here. My sister took charge and the activity levels multiplied – visitors were assigned to tasks, work parties were arranged: clearing the old byre from accumulated detritus, sorting out corners and my ‘office’ that had been piled with boxes since we had moved 18 months before, hanging lights, bunting, arranging friends into rotas, making fire pits and paths, speaking with caterers, coordinating shuttle drivers. All this work felt like an investment in love for us, for Maya, for everyone who loved Maya.
It was a profound experience to be able to dedicate these weeks to mourning, to being with people who love us, to take time to accept and assimilate the wishes, the words, the hugs, the casseroles, the cakes, the prayers. To spend this sacred time in a place of safety, held in a cradle gently swinging on threads of prayer. We didn’t know it then, but all this was building a strength and a well to protect and provision the return to something resembling our lives before Maya died – work, school, cooking, shopping, organising. With Advent, season of waiting in darkness for the light to come, following on the heels of Maya’s funeral, and then Christmas we still feel gathered within this season of holding friends and family close.
We are now heading into the unknown of 2023, leaving the year where such a terrible thing happened but also leaving behind the last year which had Maya in our lives. We don’t know what is ahead, but we know that the love of friends and family, and our faith will bring us through to the other side. Faith, hope and love.