Vale of TearsFallout from the Death of Children
Fallout from the Death of Children
On this mountain He will destroy
the shroud that enfolds all peoples,
the sheet that covers all nations;
He will swallow up death forever.
The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces;
He will remove the disgrace of His people
from all the earth.
A remarkable couple who spent many years ministering in Indonesia, experienced great tragedy when they attempted to adopt a child. While they were still in the process of going through the adoption process, she was taken from them and subsequently died. The next baby Michael and Esther Ross Watson were going to adopt also suddenly died – which completely devastated them. God had provided the room, the clothes and all the necessary equipment to welcome this child, yet suddenly the baby was no longer there – and the pain was overwhelming.
The next forty-eight hours were the darkest Michael and Esther had ever experienced. It was the one and only time in their years of ministry when they found themselves doubting the love of God. How could He have provided everything yet still have let them down?
It was while they were recovering at another missionary couple’s house that a letter came from the orphanage, saying that they had another baby available for adoption. Did the missionaries think that the Ross-Watsons had sufficiently recovered to cope with such a thing? Amazed that this letter should arrive while they were staying there, Michael and Esther went straight round to the orphanage – and fell in love with the baby at first sight. Now middle aged herself, God has greatly blessed this lovely woman.
Looking back, Michael and Esther recall how, at the end of those dreadful forty-eight hours, a deep peace settled on them both. They are so glad God allowed them to go through this experience before they heard that the orphanage was trying to find a home to place the new-born baby.
Despite their earlier disappointment, God had been planning the very best for them – and all the baby things they had been given were soon put to good use!
In years gone by, virtually every family had children who failed to outlive childhood, and grief was considered a “normal” part of life in a way that we are no longer familiar with. Grieving together is an important way of acknowledging that hurtful things do happen on life’s journey, and that we can survive the storms together. This is what David Woodhouse wrote concerning the death of infants.
‘It was an occasional and sad ministry to offer comfort to parents whose child had died in a cot death, through miscarriage, abortion or still birth.5 I found it important and comforting to hold a short service in which we commend the baby to the Lord at a separate time before the funeral, with just the parents, or mother present. I used the passage from Isaiah 40:11 where the Lord gathers the lambs in His arms, and carries them in his bosom while gently leading the mother sheep.
‘Whether the baby is present or not, I talk through the option of the mother holding the baby in her arms and then symbolically lifting the baby to the Lord, handing him or her over to the Lord’s safe-keeping until we meet again. I have found this to be a very powerful healing and releasing pastoral event. We hand the child to Jesus for safe-keeping until we meet again in the Lord’s presence.’
The way we explain things to children when other children or a parent dies requires great care – not least because they interpret words and phrases very differently from adults. If we try to protect them from all exposure to grief, children may end up concluding that it is we, the grown-ups, who are unable to face what has happened.6 This places them under an enormous strain, because they feel obliged to comfort us – in which case who is available to help them talk about the loss that they have experienced?
Right from the outset, it is important to reassure the child that what has happened is not their fault. However obvious this may seem from an adult perspective, certain children (like some overly sensitive adults) easily take it upon themselves to assume that mountainous disasters may follow on as the consequences of minor acts of misbehaviour on their part. In other words, they so easily take it into their heads that they must somehow have been responsible for this terrible thing that has happened.
It is important for adults, to be prepared for an emotional backlash well beyond the 48 hours that Michael and Esther experienced. Grief is unpredictable and volatile, and it is only fair to warn that many couples come under extreme pressure and even pull apart from each other in the aftermath of a child developing a major disability, let alone dying. Since this is the last thing any surviving but now disabled children need, it is as well to be aware of the dangers, and to take extra care to compensate, and to do all they can to protect and strengthen ties of friendship.
Grandparents not infrequently suffer doubly. Not only do they have the loss of their own hopes and dreams for the loved one to cope with, but also the pain of seeing their own children enduring such terrible grief. This pain is all the more acute, of course, if it hooks into unresolved issues in their own lives – not least when they remember all the times they have not been as thoughtful, kind or as prayerful as they would have liked to have been.7
The truth is that almost all of us who have a sensitive conscience is likely to feel some measure of guilt when someone is either disabled, dies – or falls from grace. It is perilously easy for us to feel responsible –
As always, it helps if we are able to differentiate between “legitimate” guilt (when we really have done something wrong and need to get right with God and others) as opposed to “neurotic” guilt (which has no essential basis in reality). As surely as God forgives us when we confess real sins to Him, there is nothing to be gained by berating ourselves for things the Lord is not convicting us of. God can always forgive us for real shortcomings – but even He cannot give grace to cover imaginary ones!
Demonic tempters are quick to take advantage of such accusations. Their quest is simple: to turn our feelings of disappointment into a lingering resentment against God. C.S. Lewis exposes this strategy through his fictional mouthpiece, the master demon Screwtape:
‘Unexpected demands on someone who is already tired typically produces ‘good’ results. This means first feeding them with false hopes (presumption). Weaken their resolve to bear what they have to bear, make people doubt their happiness (it is so subjective after all) and live only in the “reality” – as if such happiness were not already reality!’8
I remember a church praying earnestly for a teenage boy who was suffering from Hodgkin’s Disease. Despite much heartfelt prayer, the boy died. There was no need for anyone to consider the boy’s home-going as a failure. Right to the end, the Lord’s presence had shone through him, touching many by his vibrant peace and witness.9 Yet the Church clearly – and quite unnecessarily – took this as a serious and shameful “set back.” in their faith that several years passed before people had confidence to pray again with any real conviction for the sick to be healed.
As always, it helps to remember that we are responsible for the process, and not the outcome. As surely as trying to live up to standards which the Lord is not asking of us is a recipe for disillusionment, we must also be prepared to acknowledge when we really have failed in some way, and be prepared to face the implications.
That said, it is essential that, having given all these matters to the Lord, we then proceed go on to receive His forgiveness by faith. What would be the point of confession if we did not actually believe that He is prepared to forgive us? It would be like someone who is seriously thirsty pleading for a glass of water but then not getting round to drinking it!
As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us (Psalm 103:12).
Reflect and Pray
as surely as You have guided countless millions
through the swirling vortex of loss,
guard and guide those who have lost loved ones
through these churning eddies of grief.
Bring each one out into a fullness of calling
rather than an endless desert of loss, we pray.
5 I would like to recommend Jack Hayford’s I’ll Hold You in Heaven. Healing and Hope for the Parent who has lost a child through miscarriage, stillbirth, abortion or early infant death. (1990). Regal Books
6 See Bright, R. (1998) Grief and Powerlessness, p.24. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
7 An article that highlights the grief that grandparents experience.
8 Lewis, C.S. (1965) Screwtape Proposes a Toast. Collins.
9 The whole issue of how we handle such disappointments is one we may need to give considerable attention to. You may find my article Dealing with Disappointment helpful.