Welcome to this excerpt from our book
It’s a book about the events that took place when our daughter, Esther, died in 2009. While it is a story about sadness and grief, it’s also a tale of hope in the face of intense loss. We want to tell our story to help other people who may be going through their own losses. We hope you enjoy this first instalment.Print This Post
So let’s begin
“Are we nearly there, Daddy?”
Esther’s five-year-old voice rang out confidently from the back seat. We were heading off on our annual family holiday with the car loaded to the gunnels with clothes, toys, camping kit and even a small kitchen sink. Quite understandably our daughter was asking for a progress report on the journey. How much of it had we already driven and how much was still to come? In reality we had been driving for less than half a mile! What struck me about her curiosity was her childlike concept of the journey. In her young mind she had no comprehension of the distance or complexity of the journey. No idea about its twists and turns, no concept of its length or duration. All she knew was that something worth having lay at the end of it.
Grieving is like that journey. When we are thrown into grief’s whirlpool we have no idea how many twists and turns it may take, no awareness of the length of the journey or how difficult it may become along the way. This book is our experience of such a journey. You may be reading it out of curiosity or because you are on this journey yourself. But wherever you’re coming from, our hope is that you will find the retelling of our experience a source of help and hope.
When a child enters a family there is a long list of aspirations that arrive with them. Some of these longings are very obvious while others hover deep in the recesses of our minds where we may not even be aware of them. One of our own aspirations was to see our children successfully into adulthood and launched into independence as rounded and well-adjusted people. There were some things we really hoped and prayed our children would have, such as a deep love for God. As Christians that has always been high on our personal agenda and we hoped it would be on theirs too.
As parents, the two of us had slightly different emphases when it came to our hopes for our children, Christopher and Esther. Rosi saw creativity and people skills high on her list. She longed for them to be able to express themselves artistically and to forge deep relationships with the people in their world. Ian was keen that they developed a love for music and science. As a research scientist himself he was enthusiastic about helping his children to understand the world around them through a scientific lens.
Above all we sought to provide a safe and loving environment with lots of encouragement. Trying to force our children into a particular mould would have resulted in frustration and disappointment. In reality we were delighted to see their very different personalities emerge as time went on.
One subconscious expectation of most parents is that our children will outlive us and even look after us in our dotage! But as we were to discover, life doesn’t come with any guarantees. To the casual observer we had a perfect family. Two parents and 2.4 children (the .4 being our pet rabbit), good prospects and excellent health. There was a sense of privilege we felt about our situation and we were enormously grateful to God for it. We tried not to take life for granted.
Neither of us expected to be arranging Esther’s funeral.
This book is about our journey. We want to be honest with you about its twists and turns, the moments we triumphed and the moments we flopped. When five-year-old Esther asked about how long there was to travel before we reached our destination, we couldn’t give an answer her young mind would be able to comprehend. Our journey of grief is no different. Our heavenly Father doesn’t always give us the answers we desire and, even if he did, it is more than likely they would be beyond our human understanding. But he does travel with us on the journey and we trust there will be something worth having at the end of it.
We want this to be a story of hope, not only about our Christian hope of one day seeing Esther again, but also about hope in this life when we are faced with tragic loss. In the Bible, Paul wrote to some Christians experiencing a similar situation and said “… but we do not grieve as those who have no hope”.
By reading this story we hope that will be your experience too.
It was a Sunday which was both entirely normal and entirely abnormal. I was standing on a platform facing several hundred people, preaching about a passage from the Bible and doing my best to show its relevance for their lives. For me that is normality. But in the previous week something unexpected had happened which made this sermon entirely abnormal. One of the almost uncanny aspects of studying the Bible are the occasions when God gives a message to communicate that, while being related to the passage, is rather left-of-field. I recognise these moments as a prompting from God’s Holy Spirit and this one had happened on Thursday.
The text I was expounding was an incident when Christ came face to face with death (John11:1-45). Jesus had received a message that a close friend of His called Lazarus was seriously ill many miles away, and He was being asked to come and pray for him before the worst happened. Uncharacteristically, Jesus delayed setting out so by the time He arrived at the town, His friend had already died and been buried. The sadness of the occasion brought Jesus to tears and prompted one of His greatest sayings: “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies” (John11:25). My initial preparation was leading me to focus on this great “I am” statement of Jesus. But the more I prayed and studied, the more I had a hunch that I should take a different direction and focus on the grieving of Mary and Martha in the wake of losing their brother Lazarus. I ended up preparing to preach on “Grieving with hope – handling grief with heaven in view.’”
My study door opened and Rosi breezed in, brandishing a steaming mug of coffee.
“This should keep the brain cells going,” she quipped.
Next to my mouse was a mug mat Esther had made as a child, proudly bearing the initial D for Daddy. Rosi replaced an empty mug with the new drink.
“By the way, have you heard from Esther today?”
“Ah well,” she shrugged and turned to leave. “I just keep getting her voice-mail.”
Sunday came and I preached to the usual congregations but I had no idea that in reality I was preaching to myself.
Christmas presents from your children are always precious, even if they are small. It’s the love in which they are packaged that gives them a value that is often way beyond their cost. Esther, who was a university student in Glasgow, Scotland, had asked what I wanted for Christmas. But being so far away from each other, we weren’t able to meet up, go browsing in the local shops and find something that had meaning for us both. In the end, it was all done over the internet. I couldn’t think of anything I needed at the time so I suggested she bought me a book.
“But which book, Mum?” she said. “You’ll have to give me some idea.” I particularly enjoy remarkable stories about Christians who have overcome adversity. So it was while we were simultaneously surfing through the pages of Wesley Owen’s site from opposite ends of the country that I came across 90 Minutes in Heaven by Don Piper.
“That will do nicely” I said to her.
“OK, Mum,” and by Christmas the book had arrived.
By February I had absorbed its remarkable story and found its message hovering around in the back of my mind. Ian and I were enjoying an idle moment together one Saturday morning, I was tidying and he was fixing something. In a pile I came across the book.
“Ian, you must read this,” I urged, tossing it into the air for him to catch.
“Yeah, OK,” he said distractedly, his tone of voice telling me it probably wasn’t going to happen.
“It’s weird, but we haven’t heard from Esther again today.”
“Oh don’t worry! She’s probably forgotten to charge up her phone again. You know what she’s like!”
“Hmm. I hope you’re right.”
That book was to become my daughter’s final present to me before she entered the place the author was writing about, though neither of us realised it at the time. Her parting gift was a book about heaven.
Esther’s nightly phone calls usually came from her home in Glasgow. It was a rambling old house she shared with several other university students, and she had only been living there a few months. There was nothing unusual about her forgetting to charge her phone or just losing it somewhere in her belongings. So getting her voicemail only left me mildly curious. But when we hadn’t spoken for five days, my curiosity turned to concern. Late on the Monday evening 9th February I tried another route. In the house there was a landline the students used for their internet connection. The handset was elsewhere in the house. It was answered by Kit, one of Esther’s housemates, who had recently moved in.
“Hi Kit, I’m trying to get in touch with Esther. Could you find her for me please?”
“I don’t think she’s been in the house today.”
“Any idea where she’s gone?”
“I think she went away for the weekend and I don’t know if she’s got back.”
At this, my heart sank and my mind went into overdrive.
“Kit, I’m speaking from her home. She hasn’t been here and she would usually tell me if she was on a trip. Could you go and check she’s not in her room please – and don’t take silence as an answer. If there’s no response, just let yourself in to see if she’s sleeping.”
There was what seemed to be a long pause. In reality it was less than a minute but it felt like hours.
“Hello?” Even in that single word, Kit’s voice was laden with concern. “I’ve found her. She’s sleeping – snoring heavily in fact. She’s been sick in her sleep and she’s foaming at the mouth.”
It took me a moment to process the enormity of what I was hearing.
“Kit, did you know she’s diabetic?”
“No, I didn’t know that. Is there anything I can do?”
“Yes, just call 999 and get an ambulance.”
“OK – and I’ll ring you back.”
The line went dead.
The next hour was one of the longest of my life. I rang Ian, even though I knew he was in a church leaders’ meeting.
“Hi, it’s Ian White speaking. I’m sorry I can’t take your call at the moment but please leave me a message after this bleep …” It was the cheery message I’d become familiar with, but this time I didn’t appreciate its joviality.
“Ian, I need your voice, not your voicemail.”
The phone rang and I prepared to break the news to Ian.
“Erm. This is Mrs Cooper here. I need to talk to Dr White about my husband’s funeral.”
I could hardly believe my ears. With all that was going on in Glasgow, here was a lady who wanted Ian to do work for her, and at 10.30 in the evening. And she wasn’t the only incoming request that night. I found myself getting rid of people as quickly as I could for fear of missing Kit’s return call.
Ian arrived home and the phone rang again. This time it was Kit. Esther was deeply unconscious and it had taken four paramedics to bind her to a stretcher and manoeuvre her down the winding staircase and into the ambulance. She was being taken to the Western Infirmary and we were to ring them at 1.00am. Time again stretched out like an eternity.
One a.m. came and I called the hospital.
“Oh, I’m glad you’ve rung,” said the nurse. “All we know about this patient is her name, Esther. Do you have some connection with her?”
“Yes, I’m her father.”
Somehow the idea of ‘this patient’ being on a bed, alone and unconscious, in an Accident and Emergency department with only her first name to identify her, struck me as tragic. It was the kind of plot you might invent for a movie. But this was real life – Esther’s life.
“Her name is Esther Mary White, she’s 22, a student, and she’s an insulin dependent diabetic.”
A barrage of questions followed which allowed me to put her story into perspective for the medics.
“She’s very drowsy,” said the nurse, “so we’re transferring her to the ITU and doing a brain scan.”
Mention of the ITU (Intensive Treatment Unit) reinforced the seriousness of her plight, and when the call was over I shared the news with Rosi. At that moment we did the one thing that could make a difference – we prayed. Few of our prayer moments had been as urgent as this.
The need to think practically about booking the next flight to Glasgow now took over. This was not the first time we’d supported Esther in hospital with her diabetes. The previous year she had been admitted in a hurry and Rosi had flown up to help her. But there was something from that incident that haunted me. I could still hear my wife’s tears ringing in my ears as she had phoned from a park bench in Glasgow. “Ian … I wish you were here … I really need you … I feel so alone.”
She now looked me straight in the eyes with the kind of look that said “I am not going to take ‘no’ for an answer here” and said, “Ian, I just can’t face it alone this time.”
We snatched a few hours of fitful sleep before setting off to Scotland at the crack of dawn.
Ian and Rosi
Tuesday proved to be an extremely long and emotionally draining day. The Kit we had spoken with on the phone met us at the airport, his face ashen. Seeing a middle-aged couple emerge from the Gatwick flight with concern on their faces, he came over to greet us.
“Ian and Rosi White?”
“Yes. You must be Kit.”
We shook hands and he fixed his gaze on us.
“Now,” he said earnestly, his tone of voice indicating he wasn’t expecting a discussion, “I’ve taken the day off work so I can be your taxi driver. I’ll ferry you wherever you want to go, so you don’t have to worry about public transport. I’ll just sit in the car and wait for you.”
He had only known our daughter for a few weeks and this unexpected kindness touched us deeply. The potential gravity of Esther’s situation hadn’t really sunk in and we both found ourselves on our mobiles to our offices, clearly explaining what arrangements would need to be reorganised, as if it was happening to someone completely unrelated to us. At least, Mrs Cooper would now be satisfied.
On arriving at ITU, the nurse took us into a side room and explained that Esther was on a life support machine.
“When you go in to her,” she said, “you’ll see she’s all wired up. I want to tell you this now so it’s not too much of a shock.”
Esther had been sedated to prevent further pressure on the brain. The nurse indicated this was likely to be a temporary stage until they brought her round. An X-ray seemed to show she had suffered a brain haemorrhage but the consultant would give us more information when he visited the ward. This cushioned the blow a little because initially it didn’t appear to be related to Esther’s diabetes.
It was beginning to sink in how seriously ill Esther was. When the nurse came past, Rosi glanced at her and said, “This is serious, isn’t it?” (An inane comment for someone in an ITU!) But we needed to know how Esther’s condition rated with the nurse who was experienced at treating sedated patients.
“Yes it is,” she replied earnestly; and with that the reality dawned on us. If she thought it was serious, then it was grave indeed.
We were spared the sight of Esther’s state when she had arrived at the hospital. The staff on the ward had washed her hair and brushed its entire length. In an act of tenderness, some unknown hand had plaited it, tied a tiny white bow near its end and laid it as if flowing down her pillow. It was a sign of compassion beneath the tangle of tubes and wires. It was the kind of hairstyle we remembered from years ago when she was a carefree child playing with her friends.
“Ian,” Rosi whispered when the nurse was out of earshot, “when was the last time you saw her with a bow like that in her hair?”
Looking on, powerless, at her sleeping form there was a rising sense of relief that she showed no signs of pain or distress. We waited anxiously for the consultant’s ward round and time seemed to take on a different perspective as we sat by her side. Minutes seemed to repeat themselves. An hour felt like three. Eventually we were called in to see the consultant who told us there was significant swelling on her brain.
“And what might that mean?” Ian asked.
“In truth,” he said, looking intently at us both, “the outcome could be anywhere on a spectrum from complete recovery to not waking up. And we won’t know for a while.”
There was a gravity in his tone of voice and facial expression that told us that this man, with all his ITU experience, was worried. Clearly we were into unknown territory.
I had never wanted to hear this. During the previous week, as part of my work as a social worker, I had encountered a client who had an acquired brain injury. It had left him with significant behavioural and physical problems that were having a huge impact on his life and the rest of his family. He was now utterly dependent on the people caring for him and could do almost nothing for himself. We both knew that Esther was so private and so independent a woman that she would find a life like this almost unbearable. She would not want to impose this kind of burden on anyone. That conversation with my client was very clear in my mind and I realised that recovery with severe disability was starting to feel unthinkable.
Sitting at her bedside had a surreal quality to it. Esther was having one-on-one nursing and was completely unable to communicate. I found myself having the same banter with the young nurse that we would otherwise have had with Esther herself. At the same time, we spoke to Esther as normally as we could under the presupposition that, even though she was heavily sedated, she might be able to hear us. It was curious that sitting at Esther’s bedside was stressful but not distressing. We both felt that if there was any place that could nurse her back to health, it was this one. We stroked her and kissed her, told her we loved her and that whatever the outcome we would stick by her. We prayed with her and held her hand. The dignity with which the nursing staff handled her was very moving. Even though she was deeply unconscious they would still explain everything they were about to do – change a tube, move her from one side to the other – and they always addressed her by name. In the midst of the vast array of medical technology, there was tenderness.
Ian and Rosi
Our natural instinct was to stay in the ward, just to be with her. Leaving her felt like abandonment in her time of deepest need, but we were eventually exhausted and needed to rest. The duty nurse assured us she would phone immediately if there was any change in her condition, but they were not expecting a deterioration.
Rosi remembered she had stayed with Esther in a cheap bed and breakfast hotel near to the Infirmary some years before. So we decided to track it down and book in, if there was space. When we arrived, we discovered it had been given an extensive makeover and gone upmarket – both in décor and price. We were in no position to debate what to do, so we booked in and were shown to a basement room with a small window overlooking a cemetery. The room was pleasant, equipped with luxurious fittings, and boasted a state-of-the-art wet room.
It was the next day before Rosi realised the significance of the room itself. It had been so extensively modified that she had not noticed it was the very room she had stayed in with Esther previously. At that moment a conversation they had had came flooding back. It was Esther’s 19th birthday and she was completing her gap year activities. Even though she had been offered a place at Strathclyde University, she was going through a tunnel of doubt about whether studying at university was God’s will for her. Rosi talked through her sense of being guided by God when she was applying to university and explored what other options Esther might have. “But Mum, I’ve got no Plan B,” was her instinctive response. Being anxious for reassurance, Esther rang her Dad to get his view on the dilemma. Thankfully he gave the same advice as Rosi! Mother and daughter prayed together and thereafter Esther had much more peace that studying here was in God’s plan for that phase of her life. It felt curiously comforting to be staying in the room where her final decision to come to Glasgow had been taken.
Our prayer time that evening was one that we will never forget. We were confident that God could heal Esther and we both had a strong sense that we needed to hand her life over completely to Him so that His will for her could be realised. As our voices tried to reflect our hearts, we found ourselves praying that if God wanted to receive her into His presence, then we were willing to let her go. These were tough words to pray about our daughter.
We both received a deep sense of peace as we prayed, and at that moment Ian saw a picture in his mind’s eye. In this picture, Ian visualised the two of us handing Esther over to the Lord and saw her floating away from the bed where she was lying in the ITU. As she went into the distance, there was an intense sense that she was at peace and going home. Is it possible that her spirit left as we handed her over to God in those moments? We will never know this side of eternity but we are both confident that strong subjective impressions like these are sometimes our heavenly Father communicating with us.
Surprisingly we both went soundly to sleep but were wakened within the hour by the ringtone of Ian’s mobile phone. It was Joan, the ITU nurse. In her gentle Scots brogue, she let us know that Esther had deteriorated rapidly and we needed to go to the hospital. Her tone of voice was calm but insistent. “Haste ye in!” she said with a quiet urgency that jolted us into action. Instantly our minds were on full alert once again and, after throwing on some clothes, we let ourselves out of the heavy front door of the hotel, and headed into the night.
As we walked to the hospital, we did not talk to each other. Neither of us could find words to convey what we were going through but there was a deep comfort in each other’s presence. It was bitterly cold; a clear still night with a dusting of snow covering the ground. As we walked along we heard loud voices from the opposite side of the road. Guests from the restaurant where we had eaten a few hours earlier were pouring out onto the street, laughing and joking. The triviality of their raucous banter and the weight we were carrying seemed to collide across the road, and I wanted to call out to them, “My daughter’s dying! My daughter’s dying! It’s not funny!” But what was it to them anyway?
Having reached the hospital, it did not take long for us to realise that Esther was not likely to live for much longer. The need to have the family together seemed paramount, so I rang our son Chris in Cheltenham. He knew Esther was ill and that we had travelled to see her, but he wasn’t expecting a call after midnight.
“What’s wrong, Dad?” he asked blearily.
“Erm,” I couldn’t think of a tender phrase to use, so I blurted out the first thing that came into my head, “Esther is dying.”
It was probably a rather curt way of answering him but they were the only words I could find on the spur of the moment. At least it was the truth. Immediately his tone of voice changed and I heard an anguished Chris call out to his wife, “Polly, Esther is dying – get up, get up!”
Within minutes they had set off for Glasgow.
Ian and Rosi
We suddenly felt a wave of loneliness. Eastbourne was a plane journey away and our son and daughter-in-law were out of contact somewhere on a motorway. Everyone else was a stranger. Agnes, the student pastoral worker from Esther’s church, had visited her in the afternoon and asked us to let her know if there were developments. She had been very kind to Esther in the past and, even though it was now 1.00am, we called her. Within a few minutes, her reassuring face emerged through the ITU’s swing doors and we were at last able to have a sympathetic person with whom we could share these moments.
Not long afterwards Paul, a gentle doctor in a crumpled shirt, explained the situation without mincing his words.
“I’m sorry,” he said, “but Esther is dying. Her heartbeat and blood pressure are excessive and her body will not be able to sustain this for much longer.”
He appeared nervous as he explained that he would be removing the ventilator and some of the other tubes. It felt as if the decision had already been made, and he was seeking reassurance that we agreed with him. This was a deep dilemma for us as Chris and Polly were still travelling, and Paul’s best guess was that Esther would die within the hour.
Although we knew that this might be God’s best for Esther, we were very concerned that Chris and Polly should be able to say goodbye to her before the end. We asked if he could delay disconnection until Chris and Polly arrived. To our great relief, he agreed. When the doctor and nurse left the room, we prayed together. We prayed for Chris and Polly’s safety on the roads and that Esther would be spared until they arrived. The motorway had been closed earlier in the day because of snow and ice, and the weather was foul. It was a crazy thought but we both had the same thing going through our minds. With our son driving along icy motorways and Esther approaching the end, we said, “Lord, You can take one child if it’s Your will but please, not both!” Agnes took words out of John’s gospel to pray on our behalf. “Jesus,” she said, “You are the resurrection and the life.” And the truth of those words was burned more intensely on our minds to help us face what was to come.
To our surprise Esther’s heart rate reduced and her condition became more stable. Her nurse rustled up bed linen for us so we could snatch some sleep on the chairs in the relatives’ room. Sleep didn’t come easily and we had just dropped off when Chris and Polly arrived. It was now about 6.00am. What an enormous relief it was to see them! But as we explained what the medical team had said to us, their distress began to show.
As we gathered as a family at her bedside, Esther appeared peaceful. We gently stroked her hands and forehead. The ventilator had been removed and she was breathing on her own. But the monitors told us her heart rate was unsustainably fast.
Chris prayed for her healing and we were very moved by the faith his persistent praying showed. Here was a young man taking Jesus’ words at their face value and claiming His power in his sister’s life. Here was urgent, believing prayer in action and it thrilled our hearts to hear him praying so earnestly. But healing? It didn’t resonate with us, possibly because we had already started to come to terms with the inevitable and had begun to receive God’s peace about it.
There was no response, so we went to find some breakfast. That may sound callous in the circumstances but we found our minds oscillating between the intensely emotional and the mundanely practical, with each feeding the other. The medical team assured us that we’d get a call if there was any change, so back at the guest house we tucked into bacon, eggs and oatcakes as dawn broke.
Chris and Polly became very upset. Understandably, Chris felt that we should be praying more for Esther’s healing, in line with scripture. We explained that we had complete confidence that God was capable of healing her but we weren’t convinced He wanted us to pray for complete recovery. Ian’s picture had given us a sense of peace that God was in command of the situation, even though it was harrowing for us. The realisation that Esther was not going to recover was now dawning on Chris and Polly, as it had earlier dawned on us.
Back in the hospital, we had a precious time when we were all able to tell Esther how much she had meant to us. Ian read from the Bible, inserting her name:
Jesus said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you, Esther Mary White. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.” (John 14:1-4)
As her condition remained stable, Chris realised how resilient his sister was. Recalling her exceptional physical stamina, he joked, “A girl who trots up a hill with an 18 kilo rucksack on her back isn’t going to give up easily!” It was a moment of light relief while it felt as if time was standing still. But we could see the strain on Chris’s face.
I left the room for a while and found myself asking the Lord to take her sooner rather than later. Was that prayer for my comfort, or for hers, or for Chris’s? It’s hard to tell. When I returned to the ward, her breathing was laboured and less regular. Her head was flopped to one side and her finger tips were beginning to turn blue.
So this is what death looks like.
The person we had seen grow, mature, run, laugh, cry and bring such joy, now lay in a bed, her life ebbing away with her head resting on my arm. By God’s grace we were all there when she took her last breath. It happened almost imperceptibly. There was one breath and the next simply didn’t come. I looked at the attending nurse and whispered, “I think it’s all over.” But to my surprise she shook her head, pointing to the monitor. The heart that had been so strong through our daughter’s life was still beating. Weakly, but it was still beating. We gazed at the monitor and, as we held her hand, we watched the trace gradually sink to a thin continuous line. There was no high pitched bleep that you see in the movies, no crash team coming to revive her, just some hospital staff and a grief-wrenched family standing in quiet reverence, as their loved one slipped out of this life, her head still in my arms.
Ian and Rosi
It was a profound and peaceful moment. We were instinctively aware that Esther’s spirit had left her failed body. Ian asked for a lock of her hair to take as a keepsake and her nurse agreed to cut it when they had removed all the tubes. We felt we needed to keep something of her, something tangible, something physical, something that was actually a part of her.
Esther died at 1.45pm on Wednesday 11th February 2009. We were ushered to another part of the ward while the nurses prepared her body. Our heads told us that we wouldn’t see her alive ever again, but our hearts couldn’t grasp the magnitude of what had just happened. It was some minutes later that we were called to say our final goodbyes. She looked very different. Her body was still warm but her skin colour was changing to a grey pallor. Her plaited hair with its girlish white ribbon bow was still lying across the pillow.
It was my final act of love, the only way I could think a grieving father could honour the daughter he so loved and admired. Standing in awe of her body that had now finished its purpose, I leaned over and gave her a single kiss on her forehead.
“Goodbye darling,” I whispered.
And together we left the room.
© Copyright Ian and Rosalyn White 2015. No part of this document may be copied or reproduced in any form (including digital) without the written permission of Ian and Ros White. If you want to refer to it a link to this page is preferred.