Tag Archives: death

Dear JJ

27 Nov

Dear JJ,

I can’t believe it’s over a year since you died. I think about you often.

This morning, I read a beautiful letter. It was written by my friend Chris Russell, following the tragic death of his almost-one-year-old nephew Tommy.  I read it in his book Ten Letters – and was particularly struck by these introductory words:

“As a way of dealing with grief, a friend of mine who is a psychologist suggested I write a letter to Tommy, expressing my thoughts and feelings”.

And so, as I read his letter (with tears in my eyes – for it is extraordinarily beautiful), I decided that I would write to you. One year on.

You see, JJ, I don’t feel like I have properly said goodbye yet. I couldn’t come to your funeral in South Africa. And I didn’t see you for over two years before then. I wanted to – so much. I wanted to visit you when you came off the streets and went into rehab – I was so proud of you and delighted that you were choosing a new way of life. And when the honeymoon period ended, and you ended up in prison – I really wanted to visit you there. I could have come actually, for I was visiting Durban when you were locked up – but I was advised not to, advised that it would be traumatising.

I really regret not coming then. Of course it would have been traumatic – but not seeing you, not taking that opportunity, has been worse. For I am left with the “what ifs” and an abiding sense of regret.

I didn’t – and this is probably my deepest regret – see you when you were dying. Oh – I wanted to come. Wanted to jump on a plane and visit you in hospital, and afterwards, when you were staying with your sister. But we didn’t have any money, we were totally broke at that point. So I didn’t come. I am sorry.

I wanted to see you with your brand new baby daughter, Thokzile – born only a few weeks before you died.

JJ, can you believe that I still haven’t met her? And she is over one year old now. I am hoping to remedy that very soon. She is a sign of hope, and – in her little body – I feel as though you live on. I want her to have a totally different life from you. And I plan to do all I can to make sure that happens! I am going to ask some of my friends to help me – to help me make sure that she goes to school, has a safe home and always knows – every single day – that she is loved.

You would be so proud of Thokzile’s mum (your girlfriend Thabsile), she is doing really well and working on the LIV village. Thokzile goes to the baby home each day so that Thabsile can work. They are both doing so well – and that makes me really happy.  I think that, if you could see it, you would be really happy too.

So, if I had seen you one more time, this is what I would have said to you, JJ:

“Don’t give up. Please don’t think that you have to live on the streets forever. That is not your destiny. Life away from the streets is hard (and not many people understand that). People usually think it is easy, and therefore better, but I know that the community you had there was so strong. They were your family, I get that now. But – and this is a big but – in the long run, you would have found a new family, a new community. Tich and Joan were always there for you – and they wanted to help you find a new life. Mike too, and myself. We all wanted you to truly thrive, not just survive. So choose life JJ, choose life.”

JJ, I tried to help you choose life and I feel like I failed. I am sorry. I didn’t know what I was doing. At all. I thought I was helping but in the end, I just let you down, like so many others.

Do you know how utterly charming you were? Do you really get that? I still miss you, and smile when I remember your charm. Calling me “mama Becca”. Feeding me stories (how you loved your stories!) about this, that and the other… I was so sucked in. And then I felt like a fool, for a while. For believing everything you said when your very survival depended on your ability to win over people like me (those with soft hearts who always believe the best in people – the suckers!). And yet, now, I don’t regret it – for, and this is my hope, maybe you knew you were loved. That someone believed in you. And that there was someone you could call in a crisis.

Oh my goodness, do you remember the time you and Nicky got stabbed? Do you know how squeamish I am? How much I hate hospitals? And there I was, the only white girl in the whole hospital, sitting with you both in A&E for a whole day. No wonder people gave me weird looks – you looked so rough with that gash on your face, and there I was acting like your mum, as though it was totally normal. But inside I felt so sick, I hate hospitals so much. And then you asked me to stay in the cubicle with you while they injected you and sewed your face up – I felt as though I was going to faint, but I managed to hold it together! The thing I loved about that awful day was this – I think that, by the end of it, you and Nicky knew I was on your side. And that was all I wanted really.

JJ, this is turning into a really long letter! I guess there is so much that was left unsaid. And I haven’t known how to say goodbye, being so far away. I have had a thought though – I want to “create” something in honour of your short life, so that you will never be forgotten. And not only you but all the other kids who die on the streets in Durban too. What do you think we should do? I like the idea of a public memorial – a public space, a public art project – so that the community of Durban can no longer pretend that kids like you never existed. Do you think that would work? Maybe I could write about your life too? You lived a thousand lives in your two decades here on earth and I want everyone to know how amazing you were – how you embraced life in spite of all you suffered, how you loved even though you knew so much rejection, how you taught some of us so much about living.

I miss you JJ. I wish you were still with us.

But I know you are in a better place now. And you left your mark here in this world – you will never be forgotten.

Love you,

Mama Becca


Life before (certain) death

22 Jun

This blog post is really worth reading – a deeply challenging and very moving account of a man facing his mortality, unable to hide or pretend anymore.

Somehow these diagnoses – the bad news of cancer – seem to bring clarity as well as sadness.

My aunt was recently told she has cancer of the lining of the lung. If you are the praying kind, please say a prayer for her. She is so brave.

The bad news of cancer is a reminder that none of us are immortal. That life should not be taken for granted. And that the important things are often different from those we prioritise day-to-day. As Clive James – another man facing his own death – said this morning on Radio 4: “we can’t take anything with us anyway”.

The challenge – for those of us who are healthy today – is to remember that we are not immortal either. And that our time here on earth is limited too. How does this shape how we live our lives today?

Miraculous recovery?

25 Mar

It’s been quite a while since I wrote on here. I have surprised myself with my silence. The truth is – the quiet has been a combination of two facts-of-life: 1. Busyness 2. Complete dearth of inspiration.

Work has been busy – for which I am deeply grateful. Life as a freelancer is constantly unpredictable and I am very happy to have an influx of work, which will keep me busy and out of trouble for a few weeks.

Mostly – and this I suspect is the “real” reason – I just haven’t felt inspired. Haven’t known what to write about. Haven’t felt that I had anything to say. Fleeting thoughts have crossed my mind but nothing has taken root.

Until today.

This morning, I went to church. It was a lovely service. On the whole. A guest speaker and lots of happy faces. All was going swimmingly. And then the preacher mentioned Muamba. Muamba – the man who “died” (technically for 78 minutes) on a football pitch last week, and is now alive. Muamba – the sudden object of the nation’s prayers (or at least, the prayers of those on Twitter). Muamba – the “miracle”.

I must confess, however, that I did not join in with the Twitterati #prayformuamba – although I do pray quite often myself. I didn’t get overexcited about this seeming “answer to prayer”, this “miracle” – and it may well be one (or both) or these.

I couldn’t. I am not a cynic. Nor a pessimist. Quite the opposite in fact.

For me though, jumping on this bandwagon would have meant quelling the difficult questions, the deep agonising, soul-wrenching questions about unanswered prayer.

I have friends longing for a baby, who have prayed again and again for a baby, and who remain childless. And devastated.

I have experienced the darkness of  unanswered prayer in my own life. Where there are no answers to the question “why?”, no “happy endings”.

I am not the only one.

And this morning, I watched a young girl fall apart as the preacher ecstatically exclaimed the miracle of Muamba and the amazing answered prayers witnessed. She fell apart, devastated, because three years ago, she prayed – again and again – that her mum would be healed from cancer. And she wasn’t. Aged 14, she lost her mum. And now she struggles to believe in the God who didn’t hear her prayer.

For her, talk of the Muamba miracle only rubbed salt into the wound. Only compounded her question “why?” and her sense of God’s abandonment and lack of care.

Her pain – so visible and raw – was almost too much to witness. I love this girl deeply. I know how much she misses her Mum. Every day. And like everyone else, I don’t have an answer, a satisfying response.

Does this mean I don’t pray? No. Not at all. I continue to pray even when my prayers aren’t answered. At times like these, my prayers may not be very eloquent or “nice”. More rant-y and raving. At other times, more silent than spoken. At others, there are only tears.

I do believe in prayer. But I don’t like jumping on a bandwagon. A bandwagon that seems to create more questions than answers, more pain (for some) than comfort.

Is Muamba’s life a miracle? Maybe. But let’s not shove that in the face of the hurting and grieving, for like salt rubbed in a wound, the pain created runs too deep for words.


29 Feb

Death feels so unfair. It is so final. It is also, as I am learning, sometimes so unexpected.

I am not sure that I could write about anything else today apart from my grief at the loss of Thoko. So young. So unexpected. So unfair. Grief feels like a roller-coaster, but one where you are blindfolded and have no idea where you are heading. One where the sound is turned up so high that you end up blocking it out, unable to cope with any more sensory overload. It is a roller-coaster that makes you feel nauseous at times, and consumed by hunger at others. It is not really “food hunger”, I know that, but instead a longing to have someone back – a hunger for the one you have lost. It is a roller-coaster of happy memories, regrets, missed opportunities and emotional turbulence.

I cannot imagine how my dear friends Tom and Mandi (Thoko’s “adopted” parents) feel right now. How intense their grief. How deep their loss. I’ve just been looking through some old photos – of the four of us. We were always together – Tom, Mands, Thoko and I, rarely apart during 1999-2000. Since then, they have become all too acquainted with bereavement – this is what happens when you work with streetkids. Yet such loss never becomes “normal”; it can never be ok.

I cannot imagine how we will recover from Thoko’s death. I know we will, for people do – all around the world, every day, every week, every year. Millions of people in the throes of grief get up one more day, head off to work, go to the shops. Do “normal” stuff while feeling so disconnected from normality. Wandering around in a daze, looking “there” from the outside but so “not there” inside. Emotionally and physically exhausted. Wrung dry.

In grief there is no logic, nothing anyone can say to make it better. There are no time constraints. No rules for grieving and saying goodbye. No “normal”.

Grief is to be experienced, a tunnel from which we will one day emerge. It cannot be circumvented. There is no fast-forward button. This is what makes it so painful. Yet so important. We miss the ones we have lost – that is why it hurts. We miss them and the ache does not go away.

I wish I had five minutes with Thoko, for I know what I would tell her. How loved she was. How beautiful and brave. How wanted and cherished. How the future without her would be a darker, sadder place. I would tell her that I love her – for now I can’t. Now it is too late.

And I would walk away, wondering who else I should find and tell of my love and respect, of how they are cherished and lovely and unique. For we don’t know how long we have on this earth. We don’t when “the last time” is. So maybe, I would tell myself, I should stop assuming immortality and start telling those I love that I want/need/appreciate/enjoy/treasure them. Stop being shy and start being more bold. I would rather regret this than regret never having said anything. Now that is the worst. It really is.

Death unexplained (gone too soon part II)

25 Feb

I heard today that a friend from South Africa died, suddenly and unexpectedly, leaving all who knew her reeling and disoriented. Thoko was only 17 years old. I met her when she was 3 years old – a cheeky, tiny little girl who spoke hardly any English. At the time, her mum was really unwell and unable to look after her, so good friends of mine (Tom and Mandi) were caring for her full-time. A few weeks later, Mandi and I moved into a flat together – with Thoko, who now spoke English fluently. She was adorable, all who met her seemed to fall for her smile, charms and dance moves instantly.

Mandi and I became “mum” to Thoko. She slept on a little mat by my bed. I woke her up in the mornings, got her dressed, took her to nursery school, picked her up at the end of the day. Once I forgot to pick her up – and felt terrible for days. I managed to teach her to have a lie-in at the weekends! She was beautiful.

She celebrated her first ever Christmas with my family in South Africa – she didn’t know what Christmas was until the age of four. She kept telling everyone what we had bought them, prefixing this with “It’s a secret but…”. She made us all laugh. Once, in a restaurant, Thoko and I told the waiter it was Mandi’s birthday. He bought out a pudding with a candle in it and made everyone sing “Happy Birthday”. It wasn’t Mandi’s birthday at all – we just thought it would be funny if everyone sang to her!

I remember taking Thoko to see the animals at Tala wildlife park, we went many times. I especially remember our trip to Tala with my good friends form England Liza and Beki, and another trip with Suzi. Happy memories.

Thoko never went back to her mum’s. Tom and Mandi took her in, she also lived with her aunt for years. She was loved. Deeply. And now she has gone.

Last time I was in Durban, I could have seen Thoko but I didn’t. I thought there would be another time, many more chances. That makes me feel unutterably sad – for now it is too late. I can’t remake that decision. But I can learn from my assumption. Life is uncertain. Love and show love to those you love while you can.

I  feel like death is all around me at the moment. I don’t know what this means. But I know it is excruciatingly sad. And mostly senseless. I do know, however, that it is making me reassess life. I am alive. I want to choose life. Not just survival, but life – in all its fulness. I want to live – because I can. I want to choose adventure and risk, embracing life – because I can. Not everyone can. But I can, right now, and I don’t want it to pass me by.

RIP Thoko. You were loved. Deeply. You will be missed. Always.

Dying to tell the truth

22 Feb

Syria. What a mess. The tragedy unfolding on our TV screens is becoming more bloody and horrific every day – each story more horrific than the last. I can hardly bear to watch the latest updates on the news. This is a country desecrated, human lives discarded. Hope is, it seems, being strategically and systematically eliminated.

Marie Colvin died in Syria today. A Western journalist, she worked for the Sunday Times and was completely committed to reporting from the front line of conflicts worldwide. She died so that we could know the truth, so that we could not plead ignorance, so that we could not ignore the horrors of war. She died telling the truth. Only yesterday, she witnessed the death of an two year old child injured in the shelling. Only yesterday, she was alive and telling us all a story. A story we desperately need to hear.

Marie Colvin was incredibly brave. In 2001, she lost an eye, having been hit by shrapnel in Sri Lanka. Yet she stood fast in her determination to tell the truth about brutal regimes, to inform the international community about wartime horror. She knew that someone had to shine light in the darkness, to tell the stories of ordinary lives destroyed by hatred, greed, and pride. Simply stated, in her own words, “our mission is to speak the truth to power”.

Yet what of the other lives lost today in Syria, the ones we will never hear about. The locals. The “unimportant” people. Those with ordinary lives. Lives disrupted forever by carnage and the abuse of power. Is one life ever worth more than another? As Marie herself said,

“For my part, the next war I cover, I’ll be more awed than ever by the quiet bravery of civilians who endure far more than I ever will. They must stay where they are; I can come home to London.”

She knew, I think, that every life is infinitely precious. Is this something the rest of us often forget? Many of us find it far-too-easy to walk past the homeless alcoholic, passed out on the street. We have far less compassion for those we deem the “deserving poor” – the man who gambled away all his money and now has no food to eat, the pregnant teenager in an abusive relationship, the street kid who steals to survive. We seem them as “different” and end up having a sense-of-empathy failure.

We judge, before we know the whole story. We fail to really hear the stories of those different from us, those whose lives are blighted by poverty, pain and bad choices. We see the mistakes, yet fail to understand the brokenness that fuels such choices. We write people off before we have shown them the dignity each human being deserves. We write them off and fail to listen.

Each of us has a story to tell. The West delights in the mundanity of the lives of “celebrities”, stories of the rich, powerful and successful. Yet our shared humanity requires us to truly listen to those whose voices are obscured too. Such a belief led Marie Colvin to incredibly dangerous places, so that she could listen and tell us what she had heard. She died telling the truth. What an extraordinary, brave woman.

Goodbye (gone too soon)

16 Feb

This morning was a very sad one. One of the saddest I have ever known. It was the funeral of a baby – a baby who died two weeks before he was due to meet us all. He died before he had a chance to live. His arrival on earth was greatly anticipated, surrounded by the usual excitement of new life and the joy that a much-wanted baby brings. I cannot fathom or imagine the suffering of his dear parents at this time.

The service was beautiful. Poignant. Full of tears yet full of hope too. Hope that comes from a belief in a God who comforts those who mourn and weeps with those who weep. As I sat there, tears streaming down my cheeks, I realised that – at these times – we mourn both the present loss and our other losses too. Whether the loss of other loved ones or the loss of hope, the loss of certainty, the loss of control, the loss of an easy-to-understand life. We often fail to take time to grieve that which we have lost.

Our hearts may be aching – sore and battered by loneliness, disappointment, disillusionment – yet we “soldier on”, “putting on a brave face” and “keep going”. We tell ourselves this is for the best. We listen to our heads and ignore our hearts. We do not take time to say goodbye to the hopes and dreams that once stirred our hearts and now linger in a rarely opened box. We do not like going to funerals and so we fail to mourn these losses.

A few years ago, I spent some time at an orphanage in Maputo, Mozambique. One of the projects run by the orphanage was in a local rubbish dump – a huge expanse of smouldering, stinking rubbish. A huge expanse around which homes were built, where many of the poorest people I have ever seen struggled to make a living out of other people’s rubbish – children, adults, mothers with babies strapped to their backs, teenagers. The day before I went to visit this project, one of my fellow volunteers spoke to me, “I hear you are going to the boccaria (rubbish dump) Becca. Tomorrow you will need to hold a funeral for yourself”. I didn’t really understand what he meant, I just knew it would be a heart-wrenching, life-defining experience.

And it was. Filthy, smiling children jumped on me and wouldn’t let go. Mothers with hungry children sorted through the mountain of steaming rubbish, trying to feed their hungry children, now immune to the horrendous smell. I met a teenager who had lived on the boccaria his whole life who told me that he loved reading books, especially Shakespeare (incredible). I came back to the orphanage different to when I left that morning. I understood now – I had seen and experienced something that no human being should ever see, people so poor that the crap and refuse of others had become their daily bread. Children playing in the rubbish, children who know no different.

I had seen the whites of the eyes of those living in this hellhole and I would never forget. Part of me died that day – that was why I had to hold a funeral. Innocence was lost. I felt both privileged – to have been given access to this world – and, understandably, devastated at what I now knew.

Since that time, in 2006, I haven’t held any more funerals for myself. It feels weird even writing that last sentence – perhaps the concept is so at odds with the way we live that it just sounds plain odd to make such a statement. I hate saying goodbye. I get upset watching others have to say goodbye in their grief. Yet would we inhabit a deeper, richer experience if we took some time to say goodbye to all that we have lost? Would being encouraged to say goodbye, to mourn, lead to less estrangement, depression and unhappiness in our society?

As those of us at the funeral today continue to mourn the loss of this precious child, we join countless others around the world in the shared experience of gone-too-soon bereavement. These earth-shattering deaths sit in the foreground amidst the backdrop of little deaths we face far more regularly. If we learn to mourn both the great losses and the smaller ones too, we will, I think, become those who know how to really live.

%d bloggers like this: