Penelope Swithinbank describes herself as "...an Anglican priest and an Ignatian- trained Spiritual Director; an author, blogger and Pilgrim; and a wife, mother and grandmother. All in no particular order!" After her mother died in tragic circumstances, Penelope wrote 'Scent of Water', subtitling it 'Words of Comfort in Times of Grief'.
Here we ask Penelope several questions about how the book came to be and her thoughts and feelings since then:
Scent of Water is the result of your mother's tragic death. You mention a state of depression for the two years that follow. What eventually persuaded you to start writing daily devotions?
I suffered from PTSD following the accident, and one of the symptoms for me was not being able to read. I couldn’t concentrate, couldn’t remember what I’d read. And reading has always been my go-to pastime of choice! So it was doubly distressing. I longed for something to help me reach out to the Lord in those days of deep grief, something that would express how I was feeling, yet was easy to read, not too demanding, and still comforting. I couldn’t find anything like that and eventually felt the Spirit’s prompting to write something myself. It took several years to write, and I posted it week by week on my blog as I hoped and prayed it would be helpful for others too.
Was this a case of by helping others it was therapeutic for yourself as well?
The initial writing of the ideas on the blog was somewhat therapeutic; but also painful as it was reminding me of the grief, and of the traumatic death I’d witnessed, and of all that I had been through, because I was reading and using the journals I had kept at the time. And yet the original writing of the journals helped me to express emotions that I hadn’t realised needed expressing. The act of pen to paper, which is how I write in my journal, enabled me to give voice to some of what I was feeling and going through.
Did you ever get angry with God or question why?
In the early stages of my grief, I was too numb to feel very much at all, not even anger. But I did begin to wonder why my mother should have had to die in such a distressing and traumatic and painful way. The writings of Philip Yancey came to mind, where he talks about how ‘Why me?’ is the wrong question to ask. Instead, we should be asking, ‘Why not me?’ and ‘What does God want me to learn from this? What is God teaching me though this?’
Now, I don’t think the accident was God trying to teach me something; it was an awful, horrible, devastating event. But I do believe that God took that dreadful end to her life and turned it around – my mother was 90 and still living independently and driving and so on. She would have hated to have become incapacitated in any way and so I can be thankful that she was spared that; I can also be thankful that out of it all has come a book that I pray will be of comfort to others who are bereaved. However, I’m sure we all ask at different times, WHY? Why did God let this happen? I certainly have and one day I shall hopefully ask him face-to-face. Or perhaps by then it won’t matter and we’ll be so caught up in wonder, love and praise that the sadness and grief of now will be forgotten as he wipes away the tears from our eyes.
Did you have help from your church/other Christians around you? What would your message be to those seeking to help those bereaved?
Do you know, I almost didn’t want help from others! I was so wrapped up in my grief, and feeling so raw, that any touch from others felt like a raw wound being rubbed and was itself painful. But my friends were praying for me, and that was an enormous help although I’m not sure how much I realised it at the time. I wasn’t eating and then one friend baked and brought me THE most delicious cake that I hadn’t even know I needed – I demolished it in one sitting, I think!
I wrote a blog post recently about 5 ways to help those who grieve:
Don't ask, 'what can I do to help?' Just do something
Often, they won't know what they need; or don't like to ask; or just can't think straight. You might cook a meal and take it round. Something simple, delicious and easy to reheat. Or you might order a home delivery to their address with some simple, lovely things in it. Could be a food order; could be a tartan blanket; or some gorgeous bath smellies, or something equally spoiling. Nothing that needs attention though - flowers are nice, it's true but they have to be arranged and then attended to when they go limp.
Make a memory book
If you have photos, memories, quotes, of the person who died, make up a little scrap book - it doesn't have to be lengthy or professional (although it could be if that's your thing!). Lots of people told me their lovely memories of my mother but I found it hard to take in and even harder to remember. A couple of friends and a daughter independently made little memory books to give me, and I still have them. Those simple little books of photos or words or memories were precious at the time and soothing and comforting to look at; and still are very special to look at occasionally.
Sit and Be There
Sometimes, we just need a friend to sit alongside us, not saying anything necessarily, just to be there - for friendship and companionship. Take your knitting or your notebook and be the Fellowship of The Mat (see Scent of Water p179) And while you sit, hold your friend who mourns in love to the Lord; pray blessings on them, ask for them to know the love and comfort of the One who will wipe away all tears from our eyes. (Revelation 21:4)
'Mourn with those who mourn,' wrote St Paul to the Roman Christians (Ros 12:15) He didn't say to give them lots of good advice or tell them it will end, or point out that others have it worse. He said very simply to mourn WITH them. Maybe that's the gift of presence, just being with someone in their grief, with little need for words. Job's friends did that with him - for seven whole days they were with him, sitting alongside him and sharing his suffering. Their words were rubbish but their presence was a gift." - from Scent of Water, p179, The Fellowship of The Mat
Scent of Water
(Well, of course, you knew I'd say that!) Give them this little gift book; my prayer very much is that it will be a comfort and blessing to those who mourn.
Never underestimate the power of prayer! (sadly, I often do - you too?!) And if you're not sure what to pray, (again, me too!) then there's great power in praying blessings on someone.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. (Matthew 5:4)
Can you see how God has shaped you and helped you grow as the result of what's happened?
I think, hope, pray that it has made me more empathetic towards those who suffer, in whatever way. I’m learning to remind myself to be kind to everyone I meet, because everyone I meet is carrying a burden I know nothing about. Instead of immediately judging someone, I’m learning to grant grace and recognise that they are probably carrying something heavy, and need bringing to the Lord in prayer.