Grief Without a Label

In the span of a little over a year, three friends of mine on both sides of the Atlantic have mourned the death of their infants either just before birth or just after. Late yesterday I learned that the son of one of my friends lived from 10:08am to 10:28am that morning, after which his young but eternal spirit entered the presence of his Creator to await a glorious resurrection, when the phrase “chromosomal abnormality” will have been conquered.

Words cannot adequately give voice to their grief—the silence of phantom cries, which should be there but aren’t, is too loud. Tears cannot adequately capture our own suffering with them—for though we can help bear the burden, we cannot take it away.

Few funerals have been harder for me than seeing a classmate bravely and brokenly deliver a eulogy for his son who died after only one 24-hr period of life. Few videos cause more tears than watching another friend hold his 3-yr old daughter’s hand as they delicately placed flowers on her deceased sister’s fresh grave.

Few things are more difficult than knowing what to say to a friend who has entered into such a period of suffering.

And, oddly, there isn’t even a set way to refer to such a person. A child whose parent(s) have died is called an orphan. An adult who has lost a spouse is called a widow/widower.

But there is no label for this kind of grief. Parents who have lost a child far too early. Families with a gaping hole torn into the family portrait that is invisible to everyone but those who still remember. Brothers and sisters with a sibling they will only know from vaguely recollected, tear-stained stories.

We all know that, should the Lord tarry, our children will ultimately die. But some parents are prematurely bereaved.

Hope for the prematurely bereaved

The Bible provides a mountain of promises to help us as we suffer, grieve, and mourn. God’s word is sufficient to sustain us through times in which the light seems dim and the darkness of our emotional pain seems to overwhelm us. This evening, however, I was struggling to think of where and how the Bible specifically addresses this particular issue: the death of an infant child.

It’s a bit surprising that we don’t actually find more examples of this in the Bible, given how difficult childbirth and early life was at the time. But while there are numerous passages dealing with the personhood of a baby in the womb and the work of God in initiating and sustaining, there are few examples wherein the child of believing parents dies.

In fact, I can only think of one: the death of David’s newborn son in 2 Sam 12:15–23.[1]

And the Lord afflicted the child that Uriah’s wife bore to David, and he became sick. 16 David therefore sought God on behalf of the child. And David fasted and went in and lay all night on the ground. 17 And the elders of his house stood beside him, to raise him from the ground, but he would not, nor did he eat food with them. 18 On the seventh day the child died. And the servants of David were afraid to tell him that the child was dead, for they said, “Behold, while the child was yet alive, we spoke to him, and he did not listen to us. How then can we say to him the child is dead? He may do himself some harm.” 19 But when David saw that his servants were whispering together, David understood that the child was dead. And David said to his servants, “Is the child dead?” They said, “He is dead.” 20 Then David arose from the earth and washed and anointed himself and changed his clothes. And he went into the house of the Lord and worshiped. He then went to his own house. And when he asked, they set food before him, and he ate. 21 Then his servants said to him, “What is this thing that you have done? You fasted and wept for the child while he was alive; but when the child died, you arose and ate food.” 22 He said, “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept, for I said, ‘Who knows whether the Lord will be gracious to me, that the child may live?’ 23 But now he is dead. Why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me.”

The passage is particularly encouraging in how it deals honestly with the emotional ups and downs of the entire traumatic experience of the death of a newborn. There is a serious period of mourning, fasting, and weeping. There is the attempt to clean one’s self up again and re-enter life again. And there is the awkwardness of those around the mourner who are not quite sure what to say and how to say it.

It is an intensely real scene. How is one supposed to mourn something like this? What does godly grief look like? How do I express sorrow while remaining hopeful? How do I deal with the reality that eventually life does inexorably go on—that there is a time for sorrow, but also a time to dry the tears? How do I engage in conversation with people who do not understand what I’m going through, who desperately want to be there for me, but who cannot help but stick their foot in their mouths?

I’m thankful that the Lord saw fit to provide such a passage for us. It shows us that we do not have to resort immediately to defending tidy doctrinal reaffirmations of the sovereignty of God, but we can simply embrace the reality of tearful, broken suffering over the death of one’s child. It shows us that sometimes grieving is all we can manage, and that questions about why God allows such things to happen are fine to leave hanging for another day. It demonstrates that we suffer in togetherness: that in God’s church no one mourns alone, and that no matter how inadequate someone feels, he can still comfort his bereaved friend. And it reminds us that the clouds eventually part, that there are great truths to cling to even in the depths of darkness, and that God’s grace, though perhaps hidden for  time, has been sustaining you all along.

Connecting to the pew

So what are these great truths that this short passage reveals?

  • Grieving is necessary. Christianity clings to the hope of eternal life. To live is Christ, and to die is gain. But it is still right to mourn. There is nothing un-Christian about grieving the death of one’s child.
  • The necessity of godly grief. But the grieving of a Christian is not like that of the world. The world grieves by despairing of all hope. The world grieves by shaking a fist at God and demanding immediate answers. The world grieves by rejecting God, by chewing on bitterness, by allowing resentment to fester. The Christian grieves, however, by running to God. David therefore sought the Lord.
  • Worshipping in our sorrow. Perhaps the most shocking thing about David’s grief is how he responds immediately after the child dies: He went into the house of the Lord and worshiped. That may be the very last thing anyone wants to do. But what else can you do? In tears, in sorrow, we worship God, for he is good. We can cling to nothing else. There is no better place to be than among the people of God worshipping the one who is Lord over life and death—even that of a baby.
  • Nothing is premature. David’s answer to his well-intentioned servants is indescribably profound: “Who knows whether the Lord will be gracious to me, that the child may live? But now he is dead.” David held out the hope that God would sustain the child, but he knew it was in God’s hands. This is an immeasurably difficult truth: in the mystery of God’s decree of all things, no death is actually premature. God alone is Lord over life. He has allocated to each person the days they will live on earth. It may be 25 minutes. It may be less. But he has also allocated to each of his redeemed the time they will spend in his heavenly presence, and the time they will spend in eternally resurrected bodies in the new heavens and new earth. No one dies early.
  • Washing up is hard but necessary. For a while, perhaps a long while, the raw wound of a deceased child makes all the above truths (and especially the immediately preceding one) completely unpalatable. But in time, one must wash himself, anoint his head, and change clothes. In time, one must go back to the grocery store, where the checkout person knows nothing about your loss. In time, one must get the car’s oil changed, visit the bank, return emails, and get a haircut. In time, one must face the harsh reality that you must now re-enter the world, gaping wound and all, and press on. There is a time for grieving. But there is a time for washing away the tears.
  • A certain future reunion. If nothing else, David is entirely clear on one thing in this episode: the child is with the Lord, and eventually when David dies, too, he will meet him there. As Christians, we have a sure, indubitable hope that our children who are born in the family of God are not cast out when they die in infancy, but rather that they are received with immeasurable joy by the heavenly host. They are citizens of heaven, and they will receive resurrected bodies that will no longer be subject to whatever it is that cut their lives short.
  • Awkwardness is normal. Finally, the interactions of the servants confirms that there is something absolutely normal about the awkwardness one feels as a friend of someone whose child has died. It is OK to be unsure what to say. No one is up to the task; no one is clever enough or compassionate enough to say the perfect thing. But our grieving friends know this, and they just want to know that you care for them. They know you cannot completely understand what they’re suffering. They know you are unsure whether to bring it up when you see them a month later or whether to avoid the subject. In fact, they probably don’t know what you should do, either. But amid the awkwardness, we can always say, “God is good. He loves you. I love you. I’m here for you. I’m praying for you.”

 

For Micah, Nick, and Michael.

________________

[1] In John 4:49, the child of a parent almost dies, but Jesus intervenes. Another possible example is 1 Kgs 3:19, but it is an quite different scenario.

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7 thoughts on “Grief Without a Label”

  1. Greg, thank you for a very thoughtful post. I appreciate the honesty and the way you avoid simplistic responses. Too often the death of the very young is passed over silently and never really dealt with. You give good, biblical counsel. In my own pastoral ministry I have found a very helpful book, *Little One Lost*, by Glenda Mathes. I wish it had been available much earlier. I have passed on copies to a number of people, and make sure that our local hospital has copies on hand for families dealing with peri-natal loss. An excellent review can be found here: http://www.opc.org/os.html?article_id=353&cur_iss=Y and my own comments are at: http://mahaffynet.net/?page_id=41

    May our gracious Lord, who knows our sorrows, comfort your friends in their loss. Your post is a help in that.

    John

  2. Powerful! We saw Rick and Elaine Armsworthy (her father was my scoutmaster) at Pete’s -breakfast. They lost their one and only son (1 or 1 1/2 yrs) due to congenital heart defect. He would be in his forties now. I’m sure they often wonder what would he be like (personality wise), job, wife, children, and on and on. You’re right, you really do not know what to say – when it happens and later. I’m assuming these three parents receive your blog. If so, I know it is a real blessing to them. Great job. d

  3. An outstanding, thoughtful, tender, sensitive, godly, biblically-based devotional study, Greg. Not only has the Lord gifted you with special insights, but He has gifted the Vickery’s and others with a friend whose love and concern will be used to establish, ground, and strengthen those passing through such sorrow–the likes of which I have never tasted. God’s blessing upon you and your ministry wherever the Lord leads–although you have already demonstrated a significant ministry in the hands of the Great and Good Shepherd.

    In His love,
    Bruce Fiol

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