I feel like my story is very boring. I went to a kid’s club outreach by a local Baptist Church. I grew with them and decided to take my faith seriously when I was a teenager. I left school and spent about 3 years working with a missions organisation overseas and in the UK.
I went to university, began work as a teacher, moved to London, met my husband, had our children and here I am. I am happy, sometimes quite funny (although my teenager might deny this), busy and occasionally creative.
This is what it looks like on paper and to those who know me. I am very content and grateful for everything I have.
While no more or less bereaved than most people my age, this story maps a few deaths that, in their own ways, shaped me.
As a teenager I was bullied – much like many teenagers were. One incident took place on a school bus that went from the town to the villages. A boy on the bus thought it would be funny to stop me getting off the bus in my village and keep me on until the next village. I couldn’t be late home and I decided to fight my way off the bus. With the help of my unkempt fingernails I made it off just in time. The next day, the boy came up to me at school and accused me of scratching him. He told me that if I was ever on the same bus as him again, he would make sure I never got off.
For months, I would hang back and make sure he got on a bus first so I could decide to get on a different bus.
One evening, this boy was trying to get high by inhaling the fumes from an aerosol can. He died. He was fourteen. Our school went into shock. He had been popular. I felt sad because I knew that it was sad My life would go on and his would not. There were 600 kids from my school at his funeral. I was not one of them. At the age of 14 I knew I was not going to pretend to be someone I was not. I learned that I couldn’t claim to be the friend of someone that had caused me anxiety but at the same time I did not need to wish them ill or glory in their death. I struggled with the sense of relief I felt at his absence though and never shared that with anyone.
There was a man I had hoped I would marry. We were together in a long-distance capacity for a couple of years and had decided to finally meet again for a make-or-break trip together. A month before we were to meet up, he took his own life quite violently.
I worked really hard to make Romans 8:28 fit this particular situation but I was fooling myself and everyone else. Accepting this and not trying to find any holy meaning behind it was very liberating. My experience of Christianity so far had everything wrapped up into neat little ‘God’s will’ packages and this did not fit any of them. And I learned that this was okay.
My dad died about 8 years later. It happened fast – he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and told he had months to live but he spent those months just dying. He had never fitted into the evangelical mould that I had adopted and watching him die made me rethink what I believed. I knew he had sincerely searched for God, for meaning in life. He hadn’t found it in the ‘evangelical’ way – did this condemn him to hell? I increasingly began to think not. I wrote him a letter to tell him about all the times he had made me happy. We had not been particularly close but he had been a good dad. This was a cathartic activity for me. I never regretted telling him how much I loved him. No one deserves to die without knowing how much they are loved.
Between the births of my two children were the two I never got a chance to meet. They lived briefly inside me and were clothed in hope. This was the death of my hope, the plans I had for my family and the shape I wanted it to take. This was such a private grief as the friends around me grew their families and I wanted to be happy for them. Every morning I go into my little garden where there, among clutter are two pots, each planted with a tree to remember them. The world is cluttered with private grief and unfulfilled hopes. Mine might look like they are brushed neatly under a rug – I want to be mindful that so do those of many others.
My mum died the day before my family and I were due to go to Greenbelt. We still went. It was a surreal experience walking around this festival where everyone was mixing happily – oblivious to the fact my mum had just died. I remember sitting watching the band ‘Why.’ They sang ‘Old Time Religion’ – a song my parents used to sing together. I dropped my phone on the ground just at that moment. It smashed and I started to cry. My husband put his arm around me and said, “It’s ok, you can get the screen fixed.” I was sobbing too much to explain the real reason for my tears. But the powerful surge of memories at that moment was a gift to me. Now, when I see a sad person in a happy place, I tell myself, “Maybe their mum just died.”
As a teacher, I now work in a service that provides education for children in hospital and those ill at home. Most of my students do recover. But I have the privilege of drawing alongside families who fear and face the worst. Every day, especially in these strange times, I am acutely aware of the anxiety the parents of these children must be going through.
At work I get the chance to bring a bit of joy, normality and distraction into the lives of children who otherwise get poked and prodded, who feel pain and fear. I get to tell their parents, “Take a break, have a cuppa, have a moment.” Or I get to just sit and let them sound off at me about everything they are going through.
I love life I love life more for the moments I have shared in death. Knowing that agonising separation cannot be brushed away with a platitude. Grateful for the warmth and support of those who have drawn alongside me and pulled me powerfully through to the next stage. I want to be that for others too.
I love life.
– Ailsa Betts