*warning – includes references to suicide and abuse.*
My Grandma grew up on a farm in Italy, between the world wars. During her teens, she looked after chickens and her younger siblings, she saw the British Army arrive, German artillery (embedded in nearby mountains) obliterated her pregnant cousin with a shell. Later, she arrived in the UK with hardly any English, married my granddad and became a housewife in Kent.
Grandma is an incredibly brave woman, but I knew little of this until recently. My consistently present, usually hilarious grandma was actually a mystery, which annoys me because I believe that people’s stories are worth hearing. It’s in the telling of my own story that I’ve really seen redemption in action.
My early memories of Grandma revolve around Christmas and the friendly smell of her hugs. But her daughter, my mum, died before Grandma could strictly be considered old and before my mum had left her twenties, so I also remember Grandma as an old lady in panic.
Bereaved families often find themselves struggling to fight off chaos. My dad’s faith in Jesus kept my brother, my sister and I rooted in the hope of God’s care, within our church family. I know that Grandma found the same in her church.
I don’t know how much my grandma understands about my story through the following years of my life. I know that she’ll have been pleased to see me growing in relationship with God and being baptised, but I’m not sure what she knows about the struggles of a bereaved child or what she feels about my dad’s remarriage.
I know that Grandma didn’t know that I was being abused by a distant family member for years following. My depression and experience of the world as a dangerous place led me deeper into the safety of relationship with God, but also further into isolation from the people around me. I’m not sure what Grandma thought when she saw all the joy fall away from me.
By the age of eleven, I knew that the world was a scary place. Life was a long list of traumatic situations. But in the middle of my isolation, Jesus remained consistently present.
One Monday morning, I found myself praying in a bathroom before school. Suicide felt like the only way that I could escape isolation, so I turned this into a prayer for escape.
Then I drank a dose of bleach and waited.
The whole experience was disappointing. I belched. My brother hammered on the door, annoyed at the delay.
I’m not sure what was going on in my stomach, but life changed quickly. My school seemed to see that something was wrong and sent me off to a new school, with excellent, new friendships. I spoke about abuse with my brother and sister, creating Famous Five-style camaraderie (if the Famous Five were a group of three who chased baddies). My dad eventually got involved, making us feel safer.
I shouldn’t paint this as ‘happily ever after…’. I continued to struggle throughout my teens and depression continued to be normal for me. In my late teens, I found myself forgiving characters from my own story and in friendships where I could discuss all this. I spent lots of time in therapy during my twenties trying to undo the knot of my own story – aided by medication, as well as friends and my wife.
Finally, what I thought I could only give myself in the form of death on a Monday morning toilet seat was offered to me far more miraculously. Jesus, who had made Himself known to me so intimately, allowed me to know Him through relationships with the people around me. These opportunities to have my story heard have allowed me to see redemption for what it is: not a pie-in-the-sky hope that this will all end, but an opportunity to love God in relationship with people around me.
I’m still not sure what Grandma knows about my story. I wonder what she’s perceived in all of this – what parts of my story she’s been able to read from the margins. I wonder if it’s time for me to schedule some regular story-telling sessions for Grandma and I.
This post was written by Jon Piper. Jon has spent most of his career hanging around in youth, community and social work but recently finished an MA in Integrative Theology with London School of Theology. He’s now helping to run a church in Hampshire.