Christmas will be painful for Heather Stoddart as she recalls the loss of her two daughters – but she has found peace and healing from God
For the last seven years Christmas festivities have been overshadowed by sorrow since Phil and Heather Stoddard lost their two teenager daughters in a horrific road crash in July 2006.
Phil's reaction made national headlines in the UK when, in a TV interview, journalists were astonished as he quickly and gently forgave the driver who killed his daughters.
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 from 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 in knowing that God was there throughout everything. Although I used to struggle with fear and worry, I don't anymore. 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 her daughters, Claire and Jenny, and their friend, Carla, were cut short after a drunk driver crashed into their car on a that summer's night.
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 nearby schools in Lowestoft and 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.
Like Phil, Heather has found God's strength to forgive the driver.
"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, God's love enabled Heather to help at a Christian youth event shortly after the accident.
"At the time of deepest need God opened heaven just a little bit more," says Heather, who had a comforting vision 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 particularly precious to Heather, with its reassurance that the Lord is her strength and that his love endures forever.
Suffering may have torn at her heart but her Saviour has given her rest, assurance and a new chapter in life: "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 focusing 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."?