Pippa Shaper, co-founder of Home from Home: ‘Difficult times have given me perspective’  |  Photo: Tonya Hester

Mother-of-four PIPPA SHAPER, 52, was born and educated in London, working as a buyer for UK retailer Marks & Spencer before coming to live in South Africa. She is married to Sean, a business owner, and they live in Wynberg, Cape Town, with Harry, her youngest son. Here she tells BRONWEN BOWMER how she has managed to push through the deaths of two of her children, her first husband, mother and sister to bring hope to others.

‘MY PHONE ALARM wakes me up in the morning, bright and early at 6:05. I always have a quiet time when I might meditate, read or pray. Sean and I often don’t see each other in the morning, due to our different routines and travel, but always catch up with an early morning message.

A couple of mornings a week I’ll meet a girlfriend to run, which I’ve been doing for years: it gives us plenty of opportunity to chat at the same time! Or I might go to a yoga class, a calm place on a mat which challenges me and is a great combination with running in terms of flexibility.

I have a short commute in my car to work and am usually at the Home from Home office in Plumstead by 8.30. I eat the breakfast I’ve brought from home at my desk: oats with yoghurt and fruit, delicious! Every Monday morning we have our staff meeting, a great opportunity for the team to connect, as our 33 foster homes are scattered across South Africa’s Western Cape. My working day is about managing over 40 employees caring for nearly 200 children in small, supervised homes rooted in their communities – plus fundraising and communication. I’m either in the office working on proposals and management challenges, visiting the foster homes or out meeting donors and new contacts.

it helps to keep a sense of humour

I got involved in working with vulnerable children 22 years ago, starting off by doing voluntary work with children with HIV/Aids. With three young children of my own at the time it turned out to be rather a ‘busman’s holiday’ so when I found I had a skill and huge interest in fundraising, I concentrated on that. Over the last 22 years I’ve been involved in a number of non-profit organisations, sitting on several boards including Elton John AIDS Foundation SA and Get On Skills Development Centre, whose work upskilling unemployed youth I’m also passionate about. My work with non-profits has afforded some amazing opportunities and one of my highlights has still got to be hearing Elton John singing from the Lion King to a small group of children in one of our homes. I think I was even more blown away than the children were!

On Fridays I don’t work at Home from Home and conduct workshops or individual coaching sessions using Strengths Finder, a fantastic tool that helps people find their talents in life, concentrating on what’s right with people rather than trying to fix what’s wrong. Home from Home is a strengths-based organisation, and we all have signs on our desks to remind each other of our top five strengths. It works really well, because if you and others work with your strengths, you’re happier at work, good at your job and your organisation gets the best out of you. I’m part way through a coaching course at the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business to complement this system.

precious time

I like to do my grocery shopping after work, grabbing whatever we need for the evening meal. Sean and I share the cooking between us. Monday night dinner has always been our precious family time. At these gatherings we dearly miss those in our family who aren’t with us, including our 24-year-old daughter, Pia, who’s making a life for herself in England. Pia was born with Crouzon Syndrome which means she’s had a lot of surgeries in her life and is visually impaired. She’s found there are a lot more study opportunities for her in the UK and can get around more independently there with public transport. Currently, she’s doing IT studies at a college in north-west London.

Pippa with her first husband, South African songwriter Hal Shaper, and their four children: Jack, Pia, Lucy and Harry

Our youngest, Harry, who’s doing a film degree in Cape Town, usually brings a buddy or two along to fill up empty spaces, and for the past few years we’ve also been joined weekly by close friends of Jack. Jack was our eldest son and he died in 2015, the day before my 50th birthday. He worked in the film industry and I received a phone call in the middle of a beautiful sunny day, saying he’d been in a serious accident driving between film locations near Stellenbosch. Sean and I rushed to the hospital, but Jack died soon after arriving there.

There are no words to describe the pain of losing a child. I can hardly believe some days that he’s not here any more. He was my firstborn with whom I had such a close relationship, a really deep thinker and spiritual person whose company I enjoyed hugely following his rather turbulent teenage years. Some days it’s absolutely extraordinary to realise Jack isn’t around any longer.

Since he died, his friends have kept up the tradition of coming round for Monday night dinners and their ongoing love and support has been a great comfort to Sean, Harry and me. It feels like part of him is still with us at those gatherings, living through his friends.

Pippa’s oldest child, Jack, who died in a car accident outside Stellenbosch the day before her 50th birthday: ‘He was a really deep thinker’, says Pippa

Burying your child is not something you can really ever imagine doing. And certainly not doing it twice. But incredibly this happened to me. Lucy, my younger daughter, died before Jack, when she was just four years old.

We were staying for the weekend in Scarborough, a seaside village outside Cape Town. Lucy had a bit of a fever but nothing that worried me. It turned out in fact to be a catastrophic virus not unlike meningitis. She died in my arms and our neighbour, a doctor, could not resuscitate her.

Lucy was my mini-me, the most wonderful, fun little girl who had a deep faith and was such a healthy child that she had only ever had the occasional ear infection. It’s amazing to think she would have been 22 this year. It’s bittersweet when I see her friends growing up and I try to imagine her at their age, going through the rites of passage like graduating or having a 21st birthday party. I can only imagine what she would be like now – the type of young woman she would have turned out to be.

The only way I’ve been able to deal with my grief over the years is through family, friends and faith. I’ve come to the undeniable conclusion that God is love. For me, his unconditional love manifests in relationships and I feel utterly blessed to have been surrounded by so much love in my life. To me, the life and words of Jesus sum up God’s love. If we’re unsure what God’s love looks like, we have only to look to Jesus.

Christmas 1997: Lucy Shaper, aged three. ‘She was a mini-me,’ says Pippa. Lucy died in Pippa’s arms at the age of four

In all honesty, God’s love has brought me through many difficult times. Four years after the death of Lucy, when I was 38, my first husband Hal was diagnosed with lymphoma and died soon after. Eight days later my sister Helen, my only sibling, died of a brain tumour. This was another horrendous period and I had no idea at the time how I’d get through it, but get through it I did, with God’s help and those He has put in my life. There have also been many, many times of joy, including meeting Sean, a wonderful man, who became a husband to me and a fantastic step-dad to my children.

I’ve put looking for answers and needing to explain it all behind me. You can’t, it would drive you mad. In fact it used to drive me mad thinking, ‘Why has this all happened to me?’ I let that all go after Jack died because it’s clear that often there are no explanations, life is a mystery and there doesn’t have to be an answer to the ‘why?’. Why are there so many people in the world living in such incredibly tough circumstances? Far from this shaking my faith in God, it makes me more certain than ever that God is mysterious, so much greater than any of us can fathom, so much more complex than we can ever try to put into words. What I’ve gained from the extraordinary experiences that I’ve been through is that I am just one tiny part of this incredible, mysterious world. I’m sincerely hoping that one day I’ll know more, but until then what I’ve got to hold onto is enough. This is best summed up for me in the last words of the passage of 1 Corinthians 13: 1-13 which is so often read at weddings:

‘For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three remain; faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.’

That passage was the reading at my sister’s funeral, my marriage to Sean and most recently, at my mum’s funeral. It is what we all believe to be central to our faith – that love is what it’s all about.

The beauty of the difficult times is the perspective they give during the joyful times that follow: it’s in the contrast that you can appreciate beauty and peace. I believe we have choices and becoming bitter because of what has happened to you is a choice, too.

Depression, on the other hand, isn’t a choice and I’m very fortunate that I don’t suffer from depression – I’ve been incredibly sad and low at times, but that has been really linked to grief. Of course I still get irritated by little things – I’m certainly not superhuman! But I now tend to let things go quite easily and don’t sweat the small stuff. If you haven’t had many difficult things to deal with in life it’s actually easier to get wrapped up in your own stuff. I also get a helpful perspective from my work – being with children who’ve been through unbelievable suffering in their lives. What, then, can I posssibly complain about?

Pippa with her mother and father, Pat and Peter Marsh, during a visit by them to Cape Town in 2014: ‘I had the amazing privilege of talking with her about her impending death,’ says Pippa

My mum’s death in early January 2017 came six short weeks after she was diagnosed with cancer. I was incredibly fortunate to have been with her for her last few weeks in London, and wouldn’t have missed that time for anything. It gave us the opportunity to have deep talks and spend quiet time together, just Mum, Dad and me.

Being able to talk to Mum about her impending death was, however, the most amazing privilege. As you can imagine, in our family, death has almost become a part of life and it has meant that we’ve all been able to talk about death, what we’d like our funerals to be like, and the practical arrangements such as making sure we have up-to-date wills. It’s helpful, real and incredibly bonding to have these conversations with those we love. We often think that we’ll have time to prepare, but so often we don’t. As I’ve seen with Jack and Lucy, sometimes death comes out of nowhere, with no preparation. I feel people could talk about death more and stop acting as if it’s something that isn’t going to happen. I would encourage families to have those conversations – they don’t even have to be gloomy affairs, they can spark some wonderful, enlightening moments, even with a few laughs! When Hal was very sick and knew he was dying, we were discussing the funeral he wanted. As Hal was a songwriter, the music we played was obviously going to be of huge importance and I thought that Hal would have really strong views about what he wanted. Far from it, he said, ‘You choose. Go on Pip, surprise me!’

you never know how the pain of loss is going to get you

Though life is filled with trials and tragedies, my faith has helped me realise I’m a precious and much-loved piece of an infinitely big picture. My ‘church’ for now is a five-woman forum, who meet and talk and pray – that’s the vital element. We Whatsapp each other in between times, especially if there’s a crisis. When I got the phone call about Jack and was on my way to Stellenbosch with Sean, not knowing if Jack was going to live or die, my ‘forum girls’ were the first ones I sent a message to, to ask them to pray.

Grief is a funny thing – we all grieve differently and there’s no set formula. You never know how the pain of losing people you love is going to get you. I once had to abandon a shopping trolley in a supermarket because they started playing the song ‘Softly As I Leave You’, a song written by Hal. I still have moments when I am driving and see a young guy driving a silver Polo and, just for one brief nano-second think, ‘Oh, there’s Jack!’ before remembering that it can’t be him.

friends keep you going

People ask me how I deal with my pain on a daily basis and certainly one of the things that helps is keeping a sense of humour, which has always been a big part of my life, and having friends you can really laugh with – as well as cry with. Friends keep you going: with laughter, conversations, funny little text messages, a glass of wine after work on a Friday – it’s the little things that really count. Family is so important too: people who truly know you – and love you anyway! I’ve also been incredibly privileged to have therapy which, for me, is a totally safe space to talk, explore and dig deep.

Pippa and her second husband, Sean Wiblin, on their wedding day in 2009: ‘A wonderful man and fantastic step-dad to my children’

I find such joy, too, working for an organisation committed to bettering the lives of orphaned and vulnerable children. Before, living in London, I had a promising career ahead of me and by 25 I was working as a buyer for Marks and Spencer, an amazing job filled with the glitz and glamour of fashion. I got to travel to Paris, Italy, all over the world. These days, I get to travel to Khayelitsha township! Do I miss the corporate world and the glamour of fashion? Not in the least! What I do now, devoting my time to Home from Home and ensuring the future of children who’d otherwise not have secure, loving homes, gives me such a profound sense of purpose and satisfaction.

A precious family moment in time: Pippa with (from left to right) Pia, Jack, Sean and Harry not long before Jack’s car accident

My day rounds off in various ways. Sean and I like going out or having friends over, and if we’re in for an evening alone, we might both work at our desks for a bit after dinner, then watch part of a TV series. We go to sleep around 10.30pm and always in each other’s arms, giving me a great sense of peace and contentment. It’s the best part of my day! My last thought of the day is usually one of absolute gratitude – for the incredible life I am living, for the relationships I have and the love which surrounds me at all times.’

Click here for info more about Home From Home, the organisation Pippa co-founded that provides a home for many orphaned and vulnerable children
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