Heartache of Lowestoft mum’s double loss
There will be two empty places around the dining table as the Stoddart family gather for Christmas in Lowestoft this year. There will also be two empty places in their hearts. Sandie Shirley reports.
For the last six years the festivities have been overshadowed by sorrow since Phil and Heather lost two teenage daughters in an horrific road crash.
For Heather, the heartache of a mother's loss will never go away but even during the most difficult times of the year there is a deep peace, born out of her Christian faith.
"My soul is at peace despite the sadness. I am aware of God's amazing love that has grown ever deeper. Despite pain and the inability to eat when our daughters died there was calmness, knowing that God was there throughout everything. Although I used to struggle with fear and worry I do not any more. I realise there is no fear in what is ahead since I know God will be there because he has proved it," says Heather.
Death came quickly and without warning when the lives of Claire and Jenny and their friend Carla were cut short after a drunk driver crashed into their car on a summer's night in 2006.
The news was heralded by a telephone call and soon the couple stood helpless and numb amid the sirens and flashing lights at the accident scene on the A12 in Suffolk.
"I can remember being physically sick," says Heather, when she first knew something was wrong.
"But both Phil and I later heard God tell us independently that our daughters were with Him when they died and I realised God was crying with us."
The Stoddart family were an integral part of community life – the couple were teachers at Lowestoft
schools near their home and they were members of a local church. As the news unfolded they shared their sorrow with a grieving public as the press recounted the story that spanned long days and months until the court case finally ended with the offending driver behind bars.
"It has been important to forgive – I did not want to get revenge because justice is not my problem. Nothing can change what has happened but refusing to forgive means a hard and twisted heart," says Heather.
The strong arms of love and support from a grieving church and community were wrapped around the family amid tears and prayers. Together with their remaining children, Tom and Amy, they walked arm-in-arm through the fires of adversity and loss with courage and hope.
Raw with emotion, the Divine hand enabled Heather to help at a Christian youth convention shortly after the accident. "At the time of deepest need God opened heaven just a little bit more," says Heather who believes she was catapulted into a spiritual realm of rolling hills, bright colours and wonderful warmth as she prayed and sang hymns.
"After a time of grieving I knew I had to get stuck into life again. Time is short and you never know what is around the corner. It is important to make the most of life and for parents to make the most of their children's lives," says Heather.
Psalm 118 has been part of her testimony. Suffering may have torn at her heart but her Saviour has given her rest, assurance and a new life chapter. "He has opened doors for us in Cyprus, America and South Africa to do things we have never done before. In Cape Town we visited the townships and met other Christians who have endured countless atrocities compared to us but their faces are full of the love of Jesus.
"By focussing on Jesus he gives you even more of himself when you have nothing. It is not something you can manufacture but as you walk through the hard times, God will walk with you through them. Everyone is going to have a time that is going to be hard but you can find Jesus there."
Phil Stoddart's book - A12 to Heaven is a compelling account of terrible loss being surpassed by an extraordinary encounter with the risen Christ and insights into the wonders of heaven.
Pictured top is Heather Stoddart and below daughters Claire and Jenny.