Death is an inevitable part of life. Every death hurts. Seldom does one occur without pain and unhappiness, without changing our lives.
It is not wise to compare one death to another or to rank losses on a scale of which is most difficult. For one thing, each loss is different. No one knows how a death will affect the survivors. The death of a brother may be more devastating to one person than the death of a mother is to another. Grief is hard. We should avoid comparisons.
There is one exception to that rule: the death of one’s child is in a league by itself.
When Shauna Stuewe died several years ago on Valentine’s Day, something awakened in me that is not likely to change. An articulate, beautiful young Christian cheerleader, she slipped to the floor in the practice gym and could not be revived. What awakened in me was the realization that such a death stands alone on the scale of heartbreak.
I had been close to other such tragedies where children had died—car accidents, suicide, drunk drivers, even murder by a father. All were tragic beyond words. But Shauna’s death, for some reason, opened my eyes. I regret that I didn’t realize years earlier the enormity of the death of someone’s child. I saw so much more clearly that those deaths were much more tragic than I had previously realized. I am deeply apologetic for my lack of sympathy and empathy.
The death of a child is so wrong. Children are not supposed to predecease their parents. They are supposed to grow up, enjoy life, laugh, learn, love—live. Someday they are supposed to “lay their parents to rest,” not the other way around. Every father and mother carries that timetable deep in their heart, and when a child dies there is no capacity to fit in such a reversal. It is not the way life is supposed to be. It is wrong. Hopes, dreams, plans, and joys lie shattered with no hope of revival. They are ended.
But when Christians experience such tragedies, they are in a different place than others. On the one hand there is usually the strong assurance of their young one’s being safe in the arms of Jesus. But that is not where they want their child. They want their child in their own arms. Still, there is profound comfort in Jesus’ promise. This comfort is more of a valued belief than a true anesthesia for parents’ broken hearts. The pain is not lessened. It will never be gone.
Sometimes the death of a child is harder for Christians than for others. It can be spiritually very confusing, even enraging, if God is seen to have allowed or been the author of this terrible, untimely death. Some people, when a child dies, turn their backs on God and never return. Others find it possible to accept the death as God’s will, as heartbroken as they are. And there are a few for whom the only comfort they can find is the conviction that this unwanted disaster is in the plan of God.
Leaving Healing to God
At our church cemetery there is a steady trickle of people coming to visit gravesites. Most of them, by far, are parents who have lost a child. That underscores the main point here, that the death of a child stands alone and far beyond other deaths.
My observations are limited, but the truth seems to be that most who lose a child survive, regain their strength and spirit, and live again as productive and even life-enjoying people. The pain never goes away. The loss is always felt, but a meaningful life can go on.
That, I believe is the healing of God. God does restore the crushed, but the pain endures forever.
Believing that God heals is essential for those who love and care for those who have lost a child. Embracing that conviction allows, and declares, that caring people are not expected to try to make this incredible heartache less awful. Caring people will leave the healing to God and concentrate on love and compassion. They will not endeavor to fix things when they put their arms around the brokenhearted. They will shelve their remedies and answers and concentrate on lovingkindness.
I have spent many hours with grieving parents. I am convinced there is nothing I have said, other than a prayer, that has ever made a difference. I am also certain that my time with them has been appreciated and helpful. My presence is love. Love contributes to the healing process.
When someone loses a loved one, people respond with calls, visits, messages, help, food, prayers—for a few weeks in most cases. But when a parent loses a child that help should be multiplied many times, and instead of lasting for a few weeks it should go on for a few years.
Another theological perspective, other than the traditional, is to believe that God’s heart breaks with those parents whose child has died. What Jesus says, slightly paraphrased, is this: “Inasmuch as it happens to the least of these my children, it happens to me.” What an amazing help it is to see Jesus weeping with us in our sorrows.
The family of God can adopt the same posture, surrounding the brokenhearted and being brokenhearted with those who have lost a child. “Weep with those who weep,” says the apostle Paul. That is where Jesus is, and more than anything else, that helps.