17 December 2017

Beauty for Ashes

I decided to write a book nearly two years ago now and have been working on it with Northern Irish journalist Ivan Little. It has been such a journey and a challenge to put into words the thoughts, feelings and events of my life so far. But I hope in doing so that other people can find some encouragement in the pages of the book and can, in turn, find strength in themselves and from God.

My story starts on a warm spring day in April 1988 when my Mum stopped at a local shop to get milk. Mum left my sister and I in the car while she quickly went into the shop. In that short space of time our car caught fire. The cause of the fire remains a mystery and it is difficult knowing we will never fully understand the events of that day. I was only two years old and was rescued from the car by a passer-by called Oliver Quinn. Just an ordinary man, with extraordinary bravery. He also tried to save my sister but the fire was too intense and he was unable to get her out from the car. She was only eight days away from her third birthday when her little life was cut short.

Mercifully the hospital was close by and I was taken to casualty with my Mum. They were able to stabilise me and provide pain relief. No doubt the early intervention from doctors played a key role in my survival. Our local hospital does not specialise in the treatment of burns so I had to be transferred to the Royal Victoria Hospital for Sick Children in Belfast. I spent many weeks in hospital initially and the following months and years were spent rebuilding my damaged hands and face.

Following the car fire our lives were turned upside-down. In the early days it was my parents who had to adjust the most. However, from the beginning Mum and Dad were determined that I would live a normal life. One newspaper headline read, “We are not ashamed of her, we will not hide her away.” It certainly would have been easier for them to keep me indoors and not take me to places where people would look at me and ask questions. But they faced it with me and together we learned how to deal with people’s reactions to my burns.

I owe so much to my parents for their strength and determination. They have taught me that I don’t need to hide away and I can be myself.

As I got older and became more aware of my ‘disfigurement’ I became angrier about what had happened to me and longed to be like everyone else. I was brought up in a Christian home and I knew in my head that God cared for us and loved us. But I did not feel this in my heart. I felt that the car fire was proof that God had abandoned us.

During my early teenage years I turned away from God, disappointed and angry. Then one day I was approached by a stranger who told me that God loved me. I started to walk away from him; I didn’t want to hear what he had to say, but he stopped me and said, “No. God loves you and I just felt moved to come and tell you that He still loves you.” In that moment I realised he was not handing out leaflets or speaking to everyone, he just had a message for me, a message from God.

That encounter started a turnaround in my thinking. I had given up on God but He was not giving up on me.

I slowly began to see God in my situation instead of outside of it. I realised that although God did not stop our car fire, He was there with us through it. God watched as I was rescued, knowing that Oliver would be there to help me. God gave my body the ability and my heart the determination to survive.

As my sister could not be reached I believe God Himself lifted her from the fire and into His arms. Rather than thinking God allowed her to die, I realised that in His mercy He did not leave her here to suffer.

It has taken me a long time to say that, and of course I still miss her, but I know one day we will be together again and I rest in the knowledge that she is at peace.

Although the road has not been easy I have been richly blessed with people in my life who have helped me along the way. I am now married to my childhood sweetheart Brian and have two beautiful boys, Will and Leo.

My story is one that shows how God can bring us through the toughest trials in life and yet through it all God can raise us up once more. (Psalm 71: 20-23). The title of my book is ‘Beauty For Ashes’ from Isaiah 61:3 because this verse means a lot to me. You may not have literal ashes in your life, as I did, but we all have something broken and damaged that we can bring to God. In return He can give you something more beautiful than you ever imagined.

Melanie Grimsley


Bishop Ken Clarke, Church of Ireland Bishop of Kilmore Elphin and Ardagh.

Melanie’s story is one of the most remarkable I have read in a very long time. It is profoundly moving, totally gripping and genuinely inspirational. It is a story of deep pain, sudden shock, sustained resilience and raw faith. Here you will find disarming honesty and amazing courage. In a culture obsessed with appearance and trivia here is a story of true beauty and real depth. All I can say is this…What a girl! What a story! What a God! This is a must read!