Hazel McHaffie


The swirl of insanity that is grief and loss

I’ve returned to my roots for this one … pregnancy, birth, babies, grief, loss. … even NICU! … and my own experience as a mum of a seriously sick baby; hearing words that no mother ever wants to hear.

Still is the poignant story, a memoir, of one woman’s experience of tragedy and the search for meaning. The woman is Emma Hansen, model, writer, full-spectrum doula, whose blog about the stillbirth of her first son went viral.

On a spring morning, Friday 3 April 2015, Good Friday, the day before Reid is due to be born, Emma wakes up, acutely aware that something is wrong … there is no movement from the baby.

Hoping against hope, she waits as staff listen, search …
‘I’m so sorry, but your baby is dead.’
The worst words Emma will ever hear, and each time they are confirmed, breaking her heart into a million pieces.
One day before his scheduled date of birth. Why didn’t he hang on just one more day?

And now she must go through labour knowing that her longed-for baby will never take a breath, never open his eyes to see her, never suckle from her breast, never reach a milestone, never grow up. Somehow it must be done.

‘It is an inexplicable feeling to carry death inside you when the very concept of pregnancy is so explicitly connected to life.’

‘I want it to be finished, but I also don’t want it to start.’

As a midwife in a former life, I could totally empathise with this. I’ve never forgotten the atmosphere in labour ward when this particular tragedy unfolded. All the usual processes going on, but an eerie hush pervading the room. Footsteps, voices, movements, all softened respectfully. No fussing, no panic, no rush. No small talk. Just a sombre quiet. A sense of awed suspension; no one wanting the moment to arrive when the devastating truth will be irrevocably pronounced, confirmed, beyond doubt. What is there to say? How can you comfort in the face of such a nightmarish outcome?

Emma bravely addresses the unique heartbreak of mourning for a child born in such circumstances, the endless questions, the lurking sense of guilt.

there is no presence to link to the absence

loss becomes part of the story

fears can be debilitating and paralysing – they can own you

I am a mother, but what kind of a mother am I?

I don’t think people realise how relentless grief can be.

And then the fluctuating emotions for both her and husband, Aaron, around contemplating, living through, a subsequent pregnancy. Even I – someone who has walked alongside countless mothers in similar circumstances; someone who should have known better – even I felt a slight gathering of impatience with this mother’s paranoia with baby number 2. I was lulled into a false sense of security when another boy, Everett, is born safely. But tension soon escalated when things started to go seriously wrong again. And if bad things could happen the first time with a perfectly normal pregnancy, why not this time when there had been so many complications in conceiving and carrying this child? I was feeling the acute anxiety too, but nevertheless on the side of the rational voices calming her down. Fortunately for Everett, Emma’s maternal instinct overrides them all: her obsessive vigilance saves his life.

So, by the time the author reaches her conclusion, I am much more receptive to listening to her; to her analysis of the way in which events and their outcomes changed her, how she eventually found peace and a way of understanding how good could come from tragedy. For her, there will never be a reason good enough to warrant the death of Reid, and she certainly doesn’t believe that God ordained it.  But she finds comfort in numerous inexplicable moments and revelations and connections that say to her: though terrible things happen, we are not left alone in them. And good things can come out of loss and through suffering. She no longer prays for changed outcomes, but for the grace and strength and comfort to let these outcomes change her.

The healing journey has no end, it is always evolving. The scars of the past will still open back up and weep sometimes. But the grief grows and softens with everything that life after loss presents. I am writing this blog post on the day a mum I know is to attend the funeral of her only son: it resonates powerfully in the face of yet another tragedy.

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The Longest Week

As it’s Easter week it seems appropriate to reference a seasonally apposite book I’ve just finished reading: The Longest Week by Nick Page.

It was a routine execution. A humble peasant became a political pawn in an unseemly power struggle and was accorded the kind of death reserved for slaves. It happened a couple of thousand years ago. And yet this death has become the lynchpin for our civilisation. We measure our calendar from it. Macabre as it may seem, the instrument of torture upon which this young man was brutally nailed and asphyxiated has become an ornament in buildings and around necks. And perhaps more incongruous still, today, shops and children’s nurseries are full of symbols associated with this story. We all know the bare bones, but few will have probed beneath the surface.

So, after hundreds of years of retelling, is there any room for another book on the subject? Well, yes, if it’s a book like The Longest Week which does so much more than recount. It recreates the events moment by moment, describing the settings, the people, the happenings yet again, but in vivid detail, fleshing them out with fascinating little-known facts, explanations, interpretations, significances, that cut through layers of myth and misrepresentation, to provide meaning and impact and challenge.

As Page himself puts it:
The streets of this story are paved with reality. The people who tread these streets are real historical characters who lived and breathed and worked and sweated, who inhabited a society about which much is unknown. And, as we delve into history, as we strip away the layers of pious iconography and theological interpretation, we discover a tale that, for all its spiritual significance, is characterised by some very real human passions. This is a story of fear and anger, of non-violent resistance and state brutality. It’s a story of the outcasts and the powerful, of processions and perfume, of feasts and festivals, of death and darkness and, ultimately, of triumph.

And through it’s pages, we feel the claustrophobic atmosphere of the seething streets of Jerusalem as the crowds amass for Passover, the brooding tension of the arrest and illegal trial as the battered prisoner staggers from ‘court’ to ‘court’, the sad bewilderment of the man’s followers and a faithful little band of women watching from a distance as their dreams and hopes disintegrate. And using writings from the time, as well as biblical references, the author helps us delve into the reasons why. Why Pilate gave consent to the humiliation and brutality, knowing the man Jesus son of Joseph the carpenter to be innocent. Why the soldiers put such venom into their beatings and mockery. Why the prisoner endured it all without protest. Why Peter managed to inveigle his way into the courtyard of the High Priest’s house but lost courage before dawn. Why the empty tomb caused such consternation and elation. Why any of it matters today.

Page’s own conclusion is:
‘This, then, is the message of the Longest Week. It’s not really about facts and dates and theories. It’s about one man and our response to his life. The real truth is that no one has ever been able to control Christ. He storms down the hills of our theories, wild and triumphant; he marches into the heart of our lives and starts overturning the received ideas that we have carefully organised into neat little piles. The historical Jesus who challenged the oppressive religious and political systems, who was passionately concerned with the plight of the poorest of society, who became, literally, one of the outcasts, who ridiculed authority and made their wisdom look foolish, who walked the road of love to its triumphant conclusion – he’s still there. He has slipped off the purple robe and climbed down from his throne and Is giving out bread and wine to all those who need it. He’s alive and he’s kicking: the great rebel, the leader of the upside down kingdom – Jesus Christ, Joshua ben Joseph – the Son of God.

Nick Page is an unofficial historian and self-styled information-monger, and author of 80 books. He loves to research subjects and bring them alive, to be provocative and challenging. His stated aim: ‘to write interesting stuff about things that matter’. It is interesting; it does matter. And this book has prompted me to think differently this Easter-time.

Isn’t that what books are all about?

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Changes and developments

Good news to report this week.

My latest novel, Saving Sebastian, is now available in Kindle form. Wahey! Within weeks of its publication in paperback form too, and entirely down to my publisher, no effort on my part. Way to go!Saving SebastianAnd my new improved website is now live, looking fresh and bright. The folk at Creative Infusion were busy transferring it as I tanked down to the Westcountry. I’m indebted to Keren and Tim for their work on this. And to Ben, my personal technical guru.

I hope you like the changes. Do have a wander through the pages and if you encounter any glitches, or have suggestions for improvements, let me know. It’s for you (at the moment I still know who I am and what I’m up to!), so I want it to meet your requirements.

Travelling at Easter time can be horrendous but we managed to avoid the worst mayhem on the M5 and to enjoy the fabulous scenery of the lesser roads and the gorgeous sunsets on our way.

As I’ve said before, writing often takes a back seat when I’m away, but this weekend I actually managed to use travelling time effectively to develop that additional elusive story line for the current novel – I’ve been furiously scribbling in notebooks to capture the thoughts before they are lost forever.

Oh, and I managed to slot in reading two more novellas about organ transplantation. Odd how many short stories I’ve found on this subject (most I have to admit, not well written). Is it a feature of the subject appealing to writers, or the ease of downloading electronic books, I wonder?

Waiting for me on my return was a comment from a lady who’d just read three of my novels, saying that the ending of Double Trouble was just too heartbreaking. It is too. I’ve wept over it many times myself – and I know what happens! I tried my best to change it but the characters just wouldn’t let me. I saw the tragedy happen; I had to record it faithfully. At the time when I sent it out to a raft of critics for comment before submitting it to the publisher, one of them (a professor of medical ethics) said it took him a week to recover enough to talk to me about it. But what these reactions tell me is that these readers really cared about the characters – enough to be upset; and I like to think that means I’m doing that part of my job effectively at least. Feel free to disabuse me of this notion if you consider I’m deluding myself.

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