Wednesday, June 27, 2012

letting go

Last night I dreamed of Matt. The first time I've done this since he died. Which, if you think about it, is strange. I mean - given my waking thoughts are filled with the weight of his absence, it's to be expected that my sleeping thoughts would have room to reflect this.

Maybe my brain has been allowing me respite. Time off at night in order to better handle the days.

This break away has been good. Time off at distance in order to better handle the reality of home, when I get back in the next few days.

I had a wonderfully kind email today, and replying brought out the tears again. They aren't far away. But I am reminded of that verse from that other dream I recorded a couple of posts back - because of the Lord's compassion, we aren't consumed. As I used to hold Matt's beautiful paw, my hand is being held by One who loves me. Words I spoke over my beloved are being spoken over me - I am loved, and I am safe.

It's hard to think forwards. To think of doing things, and of Matt not being there, of Matt not knowing, of Matt not seeing. Even something ridiculous like buying a shirt - I think, he wouldn't know it. I guess it doesn't matter.

I guess it reflects the depth of his presence in my heart. And I begin to realise I need to let go a little of my boy who has already gone.

My sister has pets, two cats and a dog. I can barely touch them. They are lovely creatures. I can barely touch them. One of the cats will only respond to Gill, only be with her, only trust her. There is something in its character I recognise from my Matt who so stuck by me. I can barely look at these animals. I need to get past this.

And yet -

And yet some things are getting better. I am now able to look more at my photos of Matt. I am able more to tell stories of who he was and what he did. These blog posts reflect the selfish side of grief, the way it impacts me, and that's less than half the tale.

Because my life is better for Matt. Better for his presence. Better for his love. Better for his remarkable ways. Better for the way he pushed me put of myself. Better for the care of another I had to take. Better for the care I received. Better for the friendship and companionship and laughter.

My life is better because being with my dog would teach me so much - about myself, my reactions, my thought processes, and my relationship with God. We sat and went through pretty much everything together. He put up with I don't know how many bum notes as I sang new songs & first drafts of roughly preached sermons. He put up with my mood swings - my deep darknesses and my whoops of joy.

And still I am learning.

Learning the depth of love. The value of sorrow. The presence of Jesus and how to access it and fail to notice it during these days.

Learning slowly also to trust God with what happens now. What happens to Matt. What happens to me. And to be grateful anyway. I have quite someways to go on this. But I am learning.

It's hard to think forwards because my life with Matt is in the past. I want to hold on to everything I know. But if I want to live, and if I actually want to live a life that suggests I trust God, then I have to let go of what I know and choose to have faith. Faith in the promises of the One who is faithful every new day. I have to let Matt rest in His arms, and not keep on trying to wrestle him back into my arms. I so want him back. There is a time for profundity and a time for cliche: now, I have to let go and let God.

For Matt. For me. For what lies ahead. For the sake of what is past and always letting that be a blessing and never letting it become a burden.

Because letting go is loving too.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

a certain lack of grace

Yesterday I made a mistake. It's best to be honest about these things. When you get things wrong - say it up front and centre. I got involved in a conversation, in which I put a point of view across inadequately, was pushed, was shouted down, and then I lost it a bit.

And it all happened on Twitter.

Which is, frankly, a poor place for a nuanced conversation anyway. 140 characters is a tricky limit when trying to say everything without being misinterpreted.

What really got my goat, in the midst of (badly) trying to make a point that a valid viewpoint in a debate was being foisted as the only viewpoint, the solitary Anglican line, and that this represented a very un-Anglican coup, and the denial of the breadth and depth of Christian experience and practice which lies at the core of Anglican ecclesiology - a bishop (well-known for terse & unfortunate social media interventions) intervened.

"Get over it," was his pastoral advice.

Those of you who know me well are picturing the words "red", "rag" and "bull". I believe I may have exhibited a certain lack of grace.

I fired off a round of tweets; it felt like I was being told by a bishop that I had backed the wrong horse and I needed to face facts, back the right horse and move on. Actually, I'm pretty sure that's exactly what he was saying. But it isn't a question of backing horses. It's a question of people and God and raising folk up to their full humanity in the best place possible - the worshipping fellowship of Christ's church. Or being told - yeah, forget that.

And then...

And then I remember something vital.

I am nobody and I don't matter. My words are futile and my arguments irrelevant. The only thing that matters is that I live honestly, faithfully, truthfully and with the love of Jesus as my guide. If I can do this, then although I will never change the world, I may change my small corner of it for the better.

Anger and disappointment are like walking through treacle, they grab at your feet like quicksand. We are called to rise, not to sink. Grace and kindness are the stuff that fill the winds under eagles' wings.

So I acknowledge my failings. I face them head on. And I give thanks that I may never have the chance to play any important role in any important decisions; but like everyone else I pray I might live the better life of grace and kindness and love. That all my unimportant words might bless and not curse.  And that when I fail, I might be forgiven and try again.

I think that sometimes, you get what you give. So here's to giving the good stuff. Surely that's the way we all win?

Friday, June 15, 2012


Several times during the last ten days or so I have tried to add to my previous post about grief. I have failed.

My failure has not been because of the lack of emotion, or even the lack of words. Perhaps a lack of courage, a lack of ability to publish quite honestly how I have been feeling.

The truth is, I have discovered a new word: heartbroken.

I think at first I was simply unaware of how deep the loss of Matt ran. The first few days were a blur. Then I went away, and saw friends and did things and kept busy and only began to face reality when I got home.

To an empty house. To being alone. To the void. Heartbroken.

I went back to work, and thought it would help. Doing something. I don't understand why it was so awful. Why my head just switched off. Maybe it was simply the timing - I moved from feeling nothing to feeling overwhelmed in an instant. For no reason. I couldn't respond to basic requests. I welled up and found myself crying with embarrassing regularity.

And in the evening, I picked up Matt's ashes.

I used to have the best dog in the world. Now I had a box. Heartbroken.

In the past, I have observed strange behaviour in bereaved people. Now I was engaged in every last trait. I held the box. I took it with me from room to room. I talked to it. I resented it, and depended on it. I placed it where Matt would lie when I went to work as I left the house the next day.

And my boss was kind to me. I realised I couldn't go on. I asked for help, and she suggested I took the remainder of my holiday time and went away immediately. I decided to take two days to tidy up my work, and to prepare for meetings when I return, and I booked a flight to go visit my sister in Florida.

In the midst of this, it was my aunty's funeral. I did my best. I hope it was OK. I wanted to support my cousin Howard. Rarely have I felt so empty of any ability to help. I guess the important thing is to be there, right?

John, the vicar in Calverley, agreed to bury Matt's ashes in the churchyard here. We'd find a corner somewhere - it's an enormous churchyard. We'd dig a hole. Just the two of us. We'd pray, and sing a resurrection song, and lay my boy to rest before I went away.

And we did it tonight.

As dusk drained the light from the evening, we met at the church gates and found a place where the graves meet the meadow beyond. It's a good open space, just what Matt would want. John dug the hole. We prayed. As John gave thanks, a deer appeared in the fields across from us, a gentle creature bobbing in the long grass, hidden from the cattle further away and half hidden from us in the fading twilight.

There will be a new creation. And all will be well. And God will restore all things. And my beloved Matt is safe, and loved still, and at rest.

And my broken heart found, amidst its flowing tears, a strange sense of peace. I can remember no words we used. I managed to sing so little of the song I had chosen. I wanted to pray and don't think I did. Yet God was there and held me and helped me and for the first time in my life (unusual, this, for one who has taken so many of these occasions) I felt the real power of a funeral.

A proclamation of resurrection, a declaration of thanksgiving, a trusting my beloved into God's hands, these simple acts of faith - they have added to my brokenness the beginnings of a peace that wasn't there before. Is this what people normally get? Do I manage to convey this to others? Did my cousin feel anything of this yesterday? I hope so.

There are still tears. This journey has some mileage in it yet. And yet, perhaps, something strangely profound has changed.

"Blessed are those who mourn; for they shall be comforted." It seems so. I hope so. I think I ought to seek this further.

Perhaps, perhaps - when we trust God and lay those we love to rest, the rest is not just for them, but a little spills over to us for a while too.

Anyway. Now I have finished work for a couple of weeks. And I look for this other new to me word: rest. And hopefully also comfort.

Oh my.

Sunday, June 03, 2012

the third day

When I was a vicar, my dog died. Within days, two church members had family members die. The wife of one. The mother of another.

Feeling unable to cope I rationalised the situation. These people had lost a spouse, a parent. My grief was just over a dog. So I put my feelings to one side. I pushed the grief under. I kept professional and carried on.

It was a mistake.

Now, a friend has died and his family are in mourning. My aunty has died, and my cousin has no mother, my father no sister. But my dog has died and I am bereft. And I have learned that grief is not a competition. There's no need to compare griefs. And it's pointless trying to deny the power of what I am facing.

It won't go away.

I'm no longer the professional spiritual carer, there on 24 hour call for everyone. I think that's a pretty poor understanding of what a vicar is, anyway, though it's overwhelmingly common. But I remain a human being who does care about those around him. I don't come just now with too many answers and with comfort in a briefcase; I come rather with my own brokenness and tears, to share with the brokenness and tears of my friends and family.

So I thought I'd write a bit about the grief. Put it out there. It may or may not help anybody else, but I hope it will help me.

Grief is bizarre and makes you think and say bizarre things. Or maybe, it allows you to say things that exist on the edges of normal life. It allows you to say things which the day-to-day round of living prevents you from looking at - never mind even thinking about turning into words. In this state, you can't take your eyes off those things. And the words find a vocabulary you didn't know you had.

I mean (and this is a great example) I do not believe in ghosts. But for the first time in my life I understand why some people would. Sure, there was a curious time when I lived in Ponty vicarage when the lights went through a phase of turning themselves on & off and that was just plain weird. But it was just plain weird. I never for one moment thought, "There must be a ghost; perhaps someone murdered a former curate?"

Now, the sense of Matt's presence at times is tangible. I understand he's not here. I know it's a psychological trick. I realise it's the grief and the letting go and the not being able to let go. But there are moments when the sense of him lying on the sofa, walking through to the next room, wagging his tail, smiling, curling up beside me, standing at the door waiting for me to open it - the sense of him doing these things is overpowering.

I've started using a different chair in the front room. Matt & I used to curl up on the sofa, and I've moved to a different chair because the feeling of him at my side was too strong.

And I want it to stop. And I want it to never stop. And I want it to be even realer than it is.

It's not real. He's gone.

Here's another thing.

I wrote in my last piece that Matt re-defined the term 'creature of habit'. But of course, what I didn't get was that he did that for me too. My routine was based around his routine.

My alarm clock goes off. We get up, he goes out. He has a tablet & a treat. I put his lead on him, we go for a walk. He has his breakfast. Then I can carry on with my day. My work day ends bang on time so I get back to him as soon as I can. When I get home, he goes out; then we walk, then he eats, then other things happen. Before we go to bed, he goes out, we go to the kitchen, decide on his late night treat, and head upstairs. When you have a dog where you put food, washing, clothes, anything is guided by what the dog will do and how much this matters.

And now... My whole life is shattered. It's not just the Matt part of it. He was in every part of it. He shaped it. I suddenly have no routine. I don't know what to do when I get up. I still want to go for a walk; but why? I sit in the car outside Sainsburys and wonder why I'm going home. I go out of the house, and come home, and there's no-one here. Matt is a photo on the wall. And I ache for him to be here, to be able to wind the clock back and to know his love again.

I simply miss him. I can feel fine for a while and then I simply miss him. The tears come unbidden and flow freely. I feel embarrassed about going out because I don't know when I'll just cry. And I don't want to talk about it. Except when I do.

I had a dream last night.

It's about the whole turning the clock back thing. This was the dream:

A famous singer realised a moment when they could have helped someone out but didn't. Realising this, they went back in time. Only, the whole 'turning the clock back' thing went wrong, and as a result of going back, they were involved in an accident. Not only did the person they meant to help end up worse, but the singer was in an accident and couldn't sing. Ever. They were never famous. No-one knew who they were.

We presume that knowledge means we can improve life. But life is life. A gift and from a good and loving God. Gifts are precious. But they are gifts.

Sometimes, the saying "All good things come to an end," is simply true. I don't fight this. I'm grateful to have had the good thing. And I'm left better for having had it. Better, but empty and gently devastated.

There were days Matt seemed to fret, especially early on, but I guess it happened all through his life. I would hold Matt in my arms on those days and tell him, "You are loved, and you are safe," and he would visibly calm down and relax.

I wouldn't go back. I wouldn't change anything. How could I know what to do to make anything better? I could touch one moment and make so much worse instead. To think otherwise is just pride.

My dream continued. For God spoke to the famous singer, who now was no longer famous, and pointed her to two places in the Old Testament, to Lamentations 3.19-33, and to Isaiah 40.21-28. (And yes, I do apologise, my dreams are that Biblically literate...) Here's a couple of headline verses that were picked out:

Because of the Lord's great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.
Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles: they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint. 

The overwhelming emotion I have is loss.

Life can never be the same again.

Yet I will live.

This is the third day. There are words here that speak of compassion. For me. For Matt. And hope. And if I can look to the One who is all compassion and all strength and all mercy, then loss and despair will have their time in my heart. But it won't be for ever.

I will hold on to this.

Friday, June 01, 2012


As Roger the vet drove away from the house, carrying Matt's lifeless form in the back of his car, a solitary Magpie flew down the path behind him. "One for sorrow."

Let's start in the right place. Which might be Blackpool, which is where Matt & I met just over ten years ago, but actually I mean  - with gratitude through the tears.

Matt has been the most wonderful gift in my life. When I lost Charlie, I knew I had to fill that space and find someone else immediately. I couldn't cope without. And then came Matty - and others said he was scatty, nervy, I should take him back. He wasn't Charlie, I was told. Well, they were right about the last bit.

He wasn't Charlie, and that was good. He was, however, perfect. Perfect for me. And as I loved him he transformed into the most affectionate dog. Never a boisterous, off-the-wall Springer, he could turn the energy on. But then he'd be as happy to potter as to jump.

Though he had a great jump. I think it was those enormous paws of his. Really huge paws for a dog his size. And when he jumped, all four paws off the ground, you knew why they call them 'Springers'!

Some dogs love company. Matt would acknowledge the door bell (never by barking, just by going to the door to see who was there) and then get really excited when people left. Hooray! They're going! As if life began when it was just him & me.

In a way, it did. Him & me in the car. Him & me as I worked from home. Him & me as he slept. Him and me as I slept. Him & me as he ate - he wouldn't eat if I walked away, he wanted me there. He never caught a ball in his life; he didn't take his eyes off me long enough to see the ball existed.

And he re-defined the term "creature of habit", which gave us one or two challenges when we moved. We went back to Ponty, six months after leaving, and Matt went round Ponty park & stopped in every one of his old spots. When you take him somewhere new, his tail stays down, his confidence low. When he is somewhere he knows, his tail goes high, his confidence higher. That day, so many months after leaving, his tail was up and wagging.

I need to thank his vets, principally Simon & latterly Roger. He was a pedigree showdog; his health was complex. He had excellent care. When his kidney disease was diagnosed nearly two and a half years ago, I didn't dare dream we'd have all this time. I thought I'd lost him at Christmas. The more-than five months since then have been a wonderful bonus.

I need to thank his friends, the many people who welcomed him into home & heart. He loved you all.

I need to say that at the end he had stopped eating. One or two very special things still persuaded him, but they caused him great pain, and I had to make a choice. I did not let him suffer. Charlie suffered too much. Matt was spared that. I took him last night so that my Mum might see him one last time, and this morning he got to be in the crowd as the Olympic torch passed by. Then I drove home. Roger came to the house, and Matt slipped quietly away.

Let's end in the right place. Matt & I used to live next to a church. Yesterday we walked to the churchyard across the road and together gave thanks for the life we have shared. Gratitude through the tears. He was my heart, my life, my constant shadow and ceaseless companion. He was the most wonderful gift; and today I had to give him back.  

Matt. Matty. Matthew, when I was being strict. Jonobar the Matchmaker on his pedigree certificate.

My sweet, sweet boy.