Through a glass darkly – 90

Joanna McDonald

Last Wednesday, one week ago today, on January 25th, we had the Committal service for our daughter, Joanna McDonald, and then in the afternoon a service of Thanksgiving at King’s Church, Wycombe. What follows is an edited version of what I said at that service.


Funerals are always difficult. As we come together in an unfamiliar place with a mix of strong emotions. And a powerful sense of loss.At funerals you meet people you don’t see very often, and sometimes you have difficulty remembering their names.

Children should not die before their parents. Not ever.

Nothing at theological college prepares you for the funeral of your own child. So I’ll say two important things first – in case I can’t continue.

First, Joanna was the best and the bravest and the most beautiful daughter in the world. Beautiful on the outside, as the photos we will see this afternoon will  attest. And beautiful on the inside too. If I can quote just one of the 150+ tributes on her Facebook page, Joanna Clare, from someone I don’t know:  “Those of us who were privileged to know Joanna and call her a friend will all agree that she undoubtedly was the kindest, gentlest, most giving human we’re ever likely to meet …


Secondly, I want to thank three people, or groups of people, for what they did for her:

Craig, was a rock [as his name indicates] these past months; coping tirelessly with the triple roles of husband, father, and medical doctor; and commuting daily from Wycombe to Florence House.

Florence Nightingale Hospice, Stoke Mandeville, to use their proper name, looked after Joanna wonderfully well during the last 4 weeks and 2 days of her life. Nothing was too much for them – nurses, doctors, craft assistants, and the lovely Thai chef. And Pete, the Stoke Mandeville lay chaplain was a great support. 

And thirdly, thank you to the community of Kings Church. Wycombe. who not only prayed their socks off for Joanna and the family many weeks; but who also supplied much practical support, a constant stream of food, lifts for children, drinks, dropping the children off, love, and more food for Craig and Amelia and Eloise when Joanna was not there.

Memories: 1

I knew Joanna for all of her all too short life on this earth,

In December, with her agreement, I went down to Paris for the day to inspect the building where she was born, Notre Dame du Bon Secours. And to see if there was a blue plaque on the building saying Joanna Martin est née ici le 10 mars, 1977.  As I reported to Joanna subsequently, not only was there no plaque, but there was no wall either ! The site no longer a Maternity Unit, but a psycho-geriatric hospital. Which will no doubt serve as a sermon illustration one day.

Although it sometimes pleased Joanna to think that she was ‘une vraie titie parisenne’, we moved back to England when she was nine months old. She spent the first ten years of her life not very far away from here, in Woodstock in Oxfordshire.

Before we left Paris, Joanna was baptised by Malcolm White in the Eglise Réformée in the rue de l’Ouest on a sunny day in 1977. It was Malcolm’s first baptism. And Joanna’s too ! [I think it is fair to say that in latter years we were not entirely sure that her baptism was kosher, as I had understood that Malcolm was not totally convinced about infant baptism. So when a dozen or more years later she wanted to be confirmed, she was conditionally re-baptised by full immersion in the Brethren chapel at Chirnside in the Scottish Borders. Which presumably satisfied even King’s Church Wycombe’s policy on initiation !]

She was a first child. And showed some of the attributes of first children. She was biddable, liking to please her parents;  she worked hard at learning new skills – walking, and reading; and was quite precocious with her vocabulary. Somewhere there is a tape of her aged about 18 months saying DAADDIE – CARR – BARCELONAH – SHOOTCASE. I remembered that when she was  ill … and walked up the road in Edinburgh with tears in my eyes. Which has been a regular occurrence these past few weeks and months.

Joanna was a bit late walking, preferring to be carried. But she was an early reader, taught by Susie from the backs of cereal packets.  Word is that she couldn’t at first tell SAINSBURY’S from WAITROSE But those were long words for a very little girl. She started school at Woodstock Primary School. Where she got what was to be a succession of extraordinarily good reports. Commenting as much on her attitude and her helpfulness as on her scholastic work.

Memories: 2

We moved to Scotland, to Edinburgh, when she was just 11; and to Duns in the Scottish Borders 2 years later. In consequence, she spent 4 school years running in 4 different schools; upper primary in Woodstock; upper primary in Edinburgh, at Gylemuir; first year secondary in Edinburgh, at Craigmount; second year secondary in Duns, at Berwickshire High School. It didn’t seem to phase her. She continued to get excellent reports, and sailed through standard grades and then highers. She played the flute and the piano. She played flute in the church music group. And with the Borders Schools band. She was part of Duns Crusader group. With the High School she went ski-ing in Italy; and on a school exchange to Saint-Brieuc in Brittany.  In 1995 she was happy to go to Edinburgh to do French and Italian and European Union studies. 

We missed her when she went off to uni in 1995. But at first she wasn’t that far away in Edinburgh. At uni she made a lot of good friends. Including Craig, with whom she sang in a Christian choir. Early in her student days she committed to ECF [Edinburgh Christian Fellowship] in Edinburgh, which later morphed into CCE [Community Church Edinburgh]. In 1997-98 she did an Erasmus year at Grenoble. Where she worshipped at St Marc’s as part of their Round Twenty group. 

For someone who had been quite cautious as a little girl [seeking the reassurance of her brother], she was very brave. At uni she flew off to Grenoble, to be met by a friend of her god-mothers’s daughter. In autumn 2000, a year after graduating, Joanna flew off by herself to Nepal, to work for 8 months as a science teacher in a Mission School in Katmandu. [Word is that she was at least one chapter ahead of her pupils.] Happily Craig was not far away, and they returned at the end of the year having got engaged at Annapurna Base Camp. 

Memories: 3

Their wedding in August 2002 at CCE was a splendid occasion. Joanna was a radiant bride. My mother said Joanna was ‘the happiest bride” she’d ever seen.  Music in the service was excellent. the bridal couple zoomed off in red, white, and blue Minis. Followed by the Reception at Carberry Tower: men in kilts, speeches, good food, plenty of wine, a high class ceilidh band.

What followed is for others to tell. Joanna and Craig were very happily married for 20 years last year. She worked first in Edinburgh for the Scottish Office. She said that she’d always wanted to be a civil servant. Which may sound odd. But which would have delighted her paternal grandmother. After she and Craig moved south, she worked for DFiD, the Department for International Development. This included a brief spell in Dhaka in Bangladesh. [I remember saying to her, as an anxious father, ‘I’m concerned about how you will get around in Dhaka, on public transport and so on’. She sought to reassure me, ’Don’t worry, I have a car and a driver’. And when I asked her about food shopping and cooking, she told me: ‘Don’t worry, I have a cook who will do that sort of thing !’Later on she and Craig spent a year in Pretoria in South Africa. We were fortunate enough to be able to visit them there; living in that beautiful country in a gated community behind razor wire and a security fence. Susie and I travelled with Joanna down to Cape Town, one of the world’s great cities. And caught a 50th anniversary tour of Cliff Richard and the Shadows in Kirstenbosch botanical gardens. When she finally left DFiD, she was involved in setting up AZALEA, the women’s charity associated with this church.

Although she hadn’t lived with us at home for twenty five years we were always pleased to meet up. In Scotland, in France, in South Africa; on holidays in Wales and in Somerset and most recently in Normandy. And I remember with pleasure her coming to Paris for the day with a very young Amelia; and again overnight to Brussels with a very young Eloise.

Where is God in all this ?

Why has Joanna died so young ? Dozens, if not hundreds, of people were praying for her ? Did God not hear our prayers ? It is a question that echoes down the years. The problem is classically formulated by David Hume: “Is God willing to prevent evil but not able ? … Is he able to prevent evil but not willing ? … Is he both able and willing ?

I have been a Church of England vicar for the past thirty years,  and I don’t have the answer to these questions. But we acknowledge that in scripture there is as much lament s there is thanksgiving. And we may want to reflect on the lament contained in Psalm 22:

My God, my God why have you forsaken me ?

The words of my groaning do nothing to save me.

My God I call by day but you do not answer;

at night, but I find no respite.”

The Psalmist’s strength is ebbing away; he is surrounded by enemies. As many of you know, these are words quoted by Jesus on the Cross.

It is not my job to justify God’s actions or his inaction. But I think the Christian response to this cry comes in the next Psalm:

The Lord’s my shepherd; therefore I lack nothing …

By tranquil streams he leads me to restore my spirit …

Even were I to walk in a ravine as dark as death,

I should fear no danger; for you are by my side.”

We are going to sing Stuart Townend’s version of that psalm, Psalm 23, in a few minutes time

I want to believe that the Lord is very close to Joanna today.

And that, while we here are bereft, she is safely enfolded in his arms; comforted by his presence; and assured of his love. Someone sent Susie an image they had: of Joanna with a group of other women, sitting on a sofa with her legs folded under here, bathed in warm sun light, drinking tea and talking to Jesus. 


I’m not a great Kenneth Branagh fan, but there is a moving scene in the film Belfast. Young Buddy’s much loved grandfather [played by Ciaran Hinds] dies, and at his graveside the really not-very-attractive [Protestant] priest says: “Do not mourn for this man today. Mourn instead for yourselves,  for your loss.. And give thanks rather for having known him.”

So today, here this morning and in a different setting this afternoon, we pray for Craig and for Amelia and for Eloise and for all who mourn.

And we give thanks for Joanna, the person we knew and loved; the best and the bravest and the most beautiful daughter in the world.

I will miss her every day for the rest of my life.

February 2023

Published by europhilevicar

I am a retired vicar living on the south side of Edinburgh. I am a historian manqué, I worked in educational publishing for 20 years, and after ordination worked in churches in the Scottish Borders and then in Lyon in the Rhône-Alpes. I have a lovely and long-suffering wife, two children, and four delightful grand-children

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