IT IS a dark, cold, wet Friday night. In our country churchyard, figures are moving quietly around in the darkness, bringing pinpricks of light as they place candles in small lanterns to illuminate the path to the old wooden door. Gradually, people begin to arrive, making their way — often silently — along the path; some are alone, some in twos or threes, some in families. Once they are inside, the quiet peace of this simple rural church embraces those who wait for the annual Footprints service to start.
It is a service for anyone who has lost a child during pregnancy, or at any age or stage of life, or has been affected by such a loss. It is held in a small church in Buckinghamshire during the week before Mothering Sunday weekend.
Mothering Sunday can be, quite rightly, a joyous celebration — an opportunity for families to gather together: restaurants offer special meals; shops overflow with flowers; and cards are bought or made. But, for many, it can also be a challenging time. For anyone who has lost a child, it can be one of the most painful times of the year.
FOOTPRINTS grew out of my first Mothering Sunday as a curate. I had prepared carefully for the service: the posies were ready, the hymns had been chosen, and the sermon had been lovingly honed. But, as I stood at the front of church, what I had not prepared for were the gaps — the empty pews where people would not sit because of the heart-breaking gap left by the loss of a child.
At about this time, my adult cousin died, and my aunt and uncle and our wider family were bereft. Where could we go with that pain?
And so the Footprints service is about offering a safe space to remember before God a beloved child; a place where people can sit united in grief, acknowledging that the path can be dark and difficult, and yet gathered in hope.
Hope and God’s love are woven through the service. From the welcoming lanterns along the path to the lighting of the paschal candle, we trust God to shine his light in the darkest of places; for God understands bereavement — the raw pain and sorrow of Good Friday, the silent grief of Holy Saturday, the hope brought by the dawn of Easter Day.
As people arrive at the service and take what is for some the courageous step of walking through the church door, a small but sensitive team of welcomers (with name badges) are on hand. Each person is given a printed order of service which they may take away at the end of the service if they wish, and a footprint-shaped piece of paper on which they can write a name or names, or leave blank — known to God.
Music is played quietly and sensitively by our small band as people arrive and depart, and as each person comes forward to light a candle in memory of their lost child or children. The footprint-shaped paper can then be placed in a basket on the altar. Three well-known hymns or songs are sung during the service with the support of a small choir; our soloist sings a piece by John Rutter; and there are readings, prayers, and a short address.
The theme of the address connects with a small symbol or gift of hope and remembrance, which is offered to everyone at the end of the service. In past years, we have given out snowdrop bulbs and miniature coloured windows of light. This year, we used olive beads — each one with its own unique pattern — threaded on different coloured ribbons and hung on our tree of hope.
A choice of styles and colours often prompts conversations about what reminds families of their child. It becomes a healing way of remembering — something to hold on to, and a reminder of Christ’s light on even the darkest days.
IN ADDITION to the service, Footprints also offers the gift of time. There is pain in losing a child, but bereaved families can lose much more. The future has to be re-imagined and a new “normal” sought: there are events that will not now take place: the first day at school, the first driving lesson, a wedding, a longed-for grandchild. Sadly, sometimes, friends are lost, too; people cross the road to avoid a difficult conversation, or simply because they do not know what to say.
And so, after the service, plates full of home-baked cakes and savouries are circulated, and plenty of time is given for refreshments. A few people, understandably, slip out of the door immediately, but most want to stay and talk. One mother, who lost her eight-year-old son, said: “The bereaved need time; they need you to sit and listen. They want to talk about their child.”
Often, bereaved families support one another over refreshments, and, since we began Footprints six years ago, some bereaved parents have joined the Footprints team, or contributed readings or artwork to the service. Parents who lost a child 50 years ago are able to sit and talk to a family who lost an adult son just that week.
MANY who join us are not regular churchgoers — or even churchgoers at all — but will come from across the Oxford diocese for the service. Footprints has been gradually developing a regular congregation of its own; and, as it has become more established, other groups of bereaved people have joined us, too: teachers from the school, after the death of one of their pupils, and a member of the emergency services remembering children who could not be saved.
For some families linked with Footprints, there has been the gift of a new baby, followed by the unexpected joy of a baptism and new additions to our Toddler Group.
We call the service “Footprints” because we never forget the children we have lost: their footprints are always imprinted on our hearts, just as their names — and ours — are carved on the palm of God’s hand.
The Revd Sue Morton is an Associate Priest in the Hambleden Valley, currently on secondment with the South Chiltern Team, in the diocese of Oxford. www.wycombedeanery.com/events
- Build a team of people who have a commitment to this ministry, who will offer help, prayer, and sensitive support.
- Think about music: we recently discovered John Bell’s The Last Journey: Reflections for the time of grieving (SPCK); and have also used Nick Ball’s New Resources for Children’s Funerals and Memorials (available for £5 from firstname.lastname@example.org); Jan Brind and Tessa Wilkinson’s Creative Ideas for Pastoral Liturgy: Funeral, memorial and thanksgiving services (Canterbury Press).
- Consider dates: too close to Mothering Sunday can be distressing for some people as they prepare to celebrate with other children.
- Organise plenty of home-made refreshments, and take them to people in their pews, as some will want to sit quietly.
- Make it easy for people to find your church on dark nights, and have someone on car-park duty with a torch.
- Publicity is critical: contact hospitals, hospices, bereavement charities, schools, etc.; use social media.
- Have boxes of tissues available.
- Put together a service booklet or sheet that people can follow easily and take away with them.