Pause for Hope address by the late Lady Grace Sheppard of Liverpool
Pause for Hope Service at Liverpool Cathedral
10 October 2010
I speak in the presence, and in the name, of the God of Hope.
When you are on a rollercoaster, you are taken up with the speed of the dips and rises of the ride. Hardly a glance is taken at the landscape while gripping on to the handrail. There is certainly no chance to pause besides the excitement - or the terror. And for those of us facing cancer, daily life can at times feel like an emotional and physical scary ride. So it is good to pause, and that is what we are here for - to pause for hope. Daniel O'Leary writes that, 'Stillness is a lost grace.' He puts a great emphasis on the importance of breathing. He says that 'breathing is universal and is the one connecting link that we all share. It cuts across all boundaries'. It reminds us of our belonging and connectedness to one another. So let's pause to breathe together now for a moment.
Thirty-five years ago in the prime of life, and robed as a bishop, a man walked alone along the centre aisle of this cathedral. He carried a shepherd's staff. He paused at the spot where the letters Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the Ending, are set in mosaic in the floor. He traced their outline with the point of his staff. That day he was installed as the new Bishop of Liverpool. It was the beginning of something new.
Six years ago to the day, that same man, retired now and living with advanced bowel cancer, walked back down the aisle, this time in procession, slowly and with support, having delivered this address to a cathedral full of people affected by the disease. Affectionate applause rippled around the building as a last farewell. Five months later he died, peacefully, at home. That man was my husband, David Sheppard.
I shall never forget either occasion, momentous as they were; a beginning and an ending; a coming and a going; a path in life we all must tread.
A year after David died I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I was treated and have enjoyed four years of living a full life since. When, some months ago, Professor Donnelly invited me to give the address today, I was moved with a sense of privilege and accepted enthusiastically. Little did I know then, that in July this year the cancer would return, and was to be diagnosed inoperable.
It is my turn now to experience the vulnerability that leads to the need to lean on others. I have been stripped down from a place of being pretty independent in widowhood, to a place of humility where I have had to put down my pride and acknowledge that I am not self-sufficient, and must find the grace to accept help when it is offered, without feeling guilty at being a nuisance or a bother to others. People want to help. They have gifts of love and practical things to offer. So who am I to push away those proffered hands? They are like the loving hands of God saying, 'I'm here when you need me", and 'You know where I am', and yes even, 'Do you need any shopping?'
Having completed a book this year describing my last journey with David, I have now been put into the position of living the book myself. I want to pass on the hope that has been given to me, to you, as we pause in this Great Space together.
Through the faithful love and sensitive companionship of family and friends, I am learning to live with dying. This is enabling me to see glimpses of heaven on my doorstep in amongst the hell that some aspects of cancer can bring. I speak as a life-long Christian, and believe that Christ led the way for us. He has shown that the answer to so many of life's questions lies in the way we relate to each other. We are each other's gifts. He also sends us angels to strengthen us - human angels. They will never force themselves on us. But we have to come down and admit our need.
By being given the grace to accept that I need help, to take those outstretched hands, I have discovered a world full of wonder and packed with the most amazing treasures: a world full of love. A world of kindness, gentleness, good listening, sacrificial love - spiritual treasures that cost nothing but time, love and understanding and a willingness to befriend. Joy then breaks through the pain and hope springs forth.
It has been daunting and frightening at times, but I'm so fortunate to have such wonderful, faithful support. My daughter Jenny has been my star, giving up her job and leaving her family in London for half of every week to care for me. When she is away, a rota of extraordinary and dear friends continue my care, helping me to keep track of the awesome routine of medications. They lighten my load and are helping me to live fully. I want to thank them for giving a morning, an afternoon or an evening, for preserving my dignity during some undignified situations, for their unfailing sensitivity, for their time and patience, and for their love and friendship.
Caring for David during the last four years of his life taught me so much about living with dying. I witnessed this strong, gentle, leader of men decline into a vulnerable human being, yet his spirit remained as dynamic as ever. Body and spirit were eventually to separate. His body was cremated but his spirit is with me even now. It is wherever I am, bringing courage and hope, inspiration and energy to face my own journey. He inspired me by the way he fought to survive his suffering, and also by his gracious acceptance of help, as his needs became greater. He loved life, yet on receiving his diagnosis, his first reaction was, ' Oh well! I've got to die of something. Let's get on with it!'
And so we did - together. But we were not alone. No wonder Christ emphasised that He would not leave his disciples alone just before he died. He knows that we need each other now. Our help doesn't come from just one person, but in many ways, and for me God is in all of those ways. He comes to us through creation, (for me through my beloved garden), through music, poetry and art, through children, and through each other. We were designed from the beginning to bear one another's burdens. Christ accepted help when his cross was too heavy to bear. He understands about burdens. He's been there - big time. All we have to do is to look for him.
We all need a little love and a helping hand. When we have to go to hospital, we feel vulnerable and weak, and the system and procedures can be overwhelming and bewildering. But there is hidden treasure to be discovered there. A friendly face, laughter and a little tenderness can transform the hospital experience, and enhance the healing process. When nursing or medical staff are able to make these human connections the healing experience is lifted onto another level. Yet understaffing often frustrates their instincts to care in this way. Alongside them there are the special people who offer their time as volunteers - and what a treasure they are.
Sometimes, the 'Do-Gooder' label means that some parts of society undervalue voluntary work.
Why do some people sneer at so-called 'do-gooders'? The perception of helping and volunteering has become skewed. You may have heard of a character called Little Miss Helpful. Let me remind you.
Mr Happy got measles, so on doctor's orders he went to bed hoping for some peace and quiet. And the doorbell went. 'Oh dear' sighed Mr Happy as he staggered out of bed to answer the door. There on the doorstep was Little Miss Helpful. He began to say that he wanted to be left alone. 'Nonsense', she said, 'Leave it to me', She had her own ideas. She decided the house needed a good clean. Mr Happy acquiesced, returned to bed and fell asleep. But he was rudely awoken by Little Miss Helpful knocking on his door saying she couldn't find the scrubbing brush. Wearily Mr Happy got out of bed once more to show her, and then went back to try to sleep. The floor was scrubbed: but standing back to admire her handiwork, Little Miss Helpful stepped on the slippery soap and crashed into a shelf of saucepans which cascaded down on top of her... then she bumped into the fridge and all the contents fell out. Oh dear! What a palaver! Poor Mr Happy hadn't been helped at all.
Our society has found it all too easy to dismiss working voluntarily as something worth less than paid work. But Mr Happy's experience is not my experience. I have found the reverse to be true. I am inspired by the respect, the time and energy so freely given by volunteers. The right person in the right place with proper support can make a world of difference to a patient. With a sensitive attitude and good training they become a crucial part of a real healing team. The hospital and hospice volunteers I encounter are thoughtful and professional; many of them having had personal experience relevant to cancer care, which deepens their understanding. We should never take them for granted. They are part of the healing resource that make a measurable difference when we are feeling alone and weary in our fight for life. They help us to tread a peaceful and dignified pathway in our final stages. Thank you - for the difference you are making to my journey.
The Volunteers Co-ordinator of the Oncology Unit at our wonderful Clatterbridge Hospital tells me that a great many of her volunteers say they get more out of giving, than what they put in. This is the essence of friendship. For God is Friendship. It is in giving that we receive, and in gratitude that we find healing.
There is power to heal in gratitude.
Some years ago I was sent a postcard from a friend. It had on it this quotation:
Gratitude never faileth.
For gratitude is the herald of faith, and
Faith the harbinger of hope.
There is a link between gratitude and hope. Just saying thank you politely is not what I am talking about. It is having such an awareness of God's gifts that a feeling of thankfulness wells up causing us to express that gratitude in heartfelt ways. Once this awareness of what we have been given is allowed room, then real gratitude can begin to take root. Then it becomes a habit. And then you can't stop and despair is sent packing and hope moves in. I have tried this and now I can't help seeing so much by way of gift. I am convinced that this has helped me through some tough times recently, and strengthened my faith too. I recommend Gratitude as a tool for healing. For whingeing and self-pity only lead to despair.There is a choice.
One of the most powerful images that has influenced me is to be found in a sculpture by Stephen Broadbent, set in the grounds of Chester Cathedral. It is called The Water of Life and depicts the meeting of Christ with a Samaritan woman. Jews and Samaritans didn't speak. Jesus had been walking for a long time in the blistering midday sun and was thirsty. He came across a well, but had nothing with which to draw water. A woman appeared with a water jar, so he broke the taboo, and spoke to her, asking for a drink of water. He drank the water and his thirst was quenched. After some moments of conversation, he discovered that her private life had seen some disappointment. He then asked her if He could give her a gift: the gift of eternal life. She accepted His gift and was transformed. They had exchanged gifts. Christ, the embodiment of both humanity and divinity, had accepted her gift out of genuine human thirst. She in turn, felt the vacuum of a parched spirit and was ready to receive His offer of a different life-giving gift: eternal life. She found a glimpse of heaven at her feet. This can be true for us too. Sometimes it is in the little things that God shows himself, and very often through other people.
It is in the tenderness of an elderly man that I saw in hospital patiently tending his dying wife day after day: in the way the light falls on the plants in my garden: in my little next door neighbour jumping on the trampoline, with arms outstretched, shouting 'I can reach the sky!': in the robin puffing out his chest in the early morning sun: it can be found in the way food is prepared and presented on a plate: - and yes, even in the company of a close friend enjoying 'Strictly' on a Saturday night.
We are each other's gifts. I'm thankful for every life-giving encounter. Today I stand here out of sheer gratitude:gratitude for Life; to God; to my family and friends and neighbours; to everyone who has sent cards and messages and flowers and offers of help; to all in the NHS: doctors, consultants, nurses, Macmillan nurses, district nurses, researchers, administrators, chaplains, secretaries, maintenance engineers, phlebotomists, radiologists, dinner staff, tea ladies, auxiliary staff, porters and volunteers. They are part of us and we are part of them. Thank you too to all who have been praying - I can feel it every day. There is healing power in Gratitude.
Pausing, breathing in the love of God, in this great stillness together will give inspiration - oxygen - to our spiritual wellbeing. It will touch people in our homes and hospitals, in our streets and workplaces, in our communities and across the world; it will contribute to the common good. I hope it will touch you as it has touched me.
Breathing out is as important as breathing in: it is creative, calming us in the face of fear. Here we are enfolded in the safety of God's love. It reminds us of our belonging and connectedness to one another. Pausing, breathing and giving thanks together is life giving, and makes room for mutual respect and hope to flourish. It is something we can all do, wherever we are, on the path between living and dying.
So let's get on with living - in hope!
© Grace Sheppard
Grace died peacefully on 11th November 2010