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When a Child Dies #3

2012 February 9
by Mike

A friend of mine saw an 84-year-old patient and asked her how she was doing. “I’m a bit sad today,” she said. “It’s the anniversary of my daughter’s death.” He immediately imagined what it must be have been like for her to lose her adult daughter. He wondered if this daughter had her own children and perhaps grandchildren.

“I’m so sorry. How long ago did she pass away?”

“Sixty-two years ago,” the woman replied.

used by permission

Yes, grief is like that. She’d never forgotten that precious three year old who’d been struck by a disease that today could have been treated routinely.

As I’ve spoken about grief and loss in many places, I’ve heard amazing stories of people who are now a decade, two decades—even many decades—down the road from their grief.

The pain is different. It isn’t as intense usually, thankfully. But it isn’t entirely gone, either. There is still a nagging sense that something is wrong, that something is missing.

David Wolpe describes well the process of healing:

“When we experience loss, a hole opens up inside of us. It is almost as if the loss itself plows right through us, leaving us gasping for air. We bleed through that opening, and sometimes old wounds are reopened. Things we thought were safely inside, patched over, healed, prove painful again in the wake of the new pain.

“Very slowly, the immediate agony subsides. Around the edges of that opening, things begin to heal. Scar tissue forms. The hole remains, but instead of allowing only a constant stream of emptying, it begins to permit things to enter. We receive some of the love and wisdom that loss has to give us. Now is when loss can have content beyond the ache. This is the time to create meaning. Pay attention to what comes in that open space. Nothing can make the pain go away. Making loss meaningful is not making loss disappear. The loss endures, and time will not change that truth.”

Slowly, slowly we begin to see ways in which our losses can be formative. If we don’t allow ourselves to become withdrawn and bitter (all too common), we can find ourselves becoming more compassionate and more centered. We realize that much of what occupies our time and worry just doesn’t matter all that much. We reach out to others. We learn the skills of friendship. We become more dependent on faith and our faith community.

But trust me on this: no parent who’s lost a child forgets. If you mention the child (a story, their birthday, the anniversary of the death), you will be a cherished friend. And if you have a new friend whose child you never knew, ask them to tell you everything about him or her. Ask to see pictures. Your friend will need you to know that child (in most cases) in order to let you into the deep places of their heart.

And trust me on this, if you’re a parent who’s recently lost a child: life and joy will re-emerge. One day you’ll realize, without warning, that you just laughed at something funny . . . that you were whistling a joyful tune . . . that you are looking forward to the day. You may be surprised and even feel guilty about it. “Does this mean I’m forgetting my child?” Oh, no. You won’t forget. And there will be plenty more sorrow-filled days ahead. (Grief has a way of looping back around for repeat visits.)

But time does help. You will, with the help of God and friends, survive!

27 Responses leave one →
  1. February 9, 2012

    Here in the comments section, I want to welcome those of you whom I’ve never met but who perhaps received this website in the last couple days from a friend. I’ve heard from several of you already.

    If you’ve lost a child, then I know you know. You’re part of “the club.” I’ve been in it 17 years. It seems like 50 years in some ways but only a few years in other ways. In this club, we hope there will be no more “members.” But we’ve also come to know how vulnerable and fragile life is, so we recognize that there are many others who will one day suffer such a great loss.

    I’m thinking especially of you with this morning’s post. I want you to know that you’ll live again. If your loss is recent, then I know this seems unlikely. But you will. It will be a sadder life, in many ways. You’ll never get “over it.”

    And yet . . . there will be another, different, joyful life ahead of you. There are many of us who once thought we’d never live again who can testify to this.

    But that doesn’t help much now, I know. So enter into your grief. Try to share your burden with friends. Pray through your sorrow if you can. (And if you can’t, don’t feel guilty about it.) Occasionally try to take a few deep breaths. Exercise a bit if you’re able to. Don’t over-drink. (Sorrow you avoid now will eventually have to emerge.) Get plenty of rest, but force yourself to get out of bed. (I love what Anne Lamott wrote: “Sometimes grief looks like narcolepsy.”)

    I hope some day, far down the road, we’ll be able to sit down and talk about what we’ve learned, peeking into the rearview mirror. Blessings!

    By the way, since you’re new to this website, you likely haven’t seen this story about a special pen a buddy gave to me to write about my daughter. The story eventually became, with some rewriting, a part of the acknowledgements of my book (Megan’s Secrets).

  2. Rick Ross permalink
    February 9, 2012

    Am am encouraged by these words from someone who is further down the road than I am. You have strengthened feeble knees. Thank you, Mike.

  3. Danna Townsdin permalink
    February 9, 2012

    Sending a hug this morning….for you, Mr. Ross, and all of the other grieving parents who will read this today. Blessings~

  4. February 9, 2012

    Last night I used your previous blog as the basis for a class. We were in a text where it seemed to fit. You are so right about the pain never really going away. After class a man around 70 came up to me and he had difficulty even starting to talk. This guy was a marine who was in the middle of the Cuban Missile Crisis. He had retired as a Captain in a metropolitan fire department. He finally started to talk about his son. He was killed an automobile accident 22 years ago just a few months before he was to be married. I was struck with the depth of his grief after so many years. His main reason for seeking me out was to tell about the experience of his late wife. One day not long after she lost her only son a she returned to work only be told by a coworker that she “understood” because she had recently lost her precious poodle. In my experience that little story took the cake for hurtful remarks. Hard to believe that a person would compare loosing a dog to the loss of a child. These posts have been very helpful and I have already encouraged others to read it. God bless.

  5. February 9, 2012

    Again, a great post. I remember having the fear of forgetting my son but I now know that I won’t ever forget.

    A few years back I listened to a man, who was a retired preacher, in his 90’s still cry for a son who was hit by a car and killed as a young boy. Between my own journey with such loss and listening to the stories of people like this man, yourself, and others in this “club”, I’ve come to realize that we never “get over” losing a child but we will learn how to live with it (and must if we’re to go on living).

    Grace and Peace,


  6. February 9, 2012

    Thanks so much, Rex, Rick, and Danna.

    LC, that is a powerful story. Yes, indeed. What can make an ex-Marine cry? The loss of his child two decades before!

    I wish I could say that the response to his wife is uncommon, but it’s not. I’ve heard everything:

    – banal comparisons (of the “I understand because I lost my dog” variety)
    – diminishing comments (“at least . . .”)
    – theological “insights” (God caused this . . . or Satan caused this . . . or this is fallout from spiritual warfare)

    That’s why I started this series by saying, Be prepared for the worst! People mean well, and they just don’t know how to keep their mouths shut. They’re trying to say something that will help.

  7. February 9, 2012

    I’ve appreciated all your words here too, Mike. I lost my daughter Kali an hour after her birth in 1993, but she’s just as much my daughter as my two remaining daughters that I see every day. Many don’t understand how I can still ache for a child I never got to bring home, so those who do get it are precious friends indeed.

    The loss doesn’t leave us, but neither does the love. We never forget.

  8. February 9, 2012

    Lisa – Thanks so much for that reminder. Yes, losses look different. But a child is a child is a child.

    It doesn’t matter . . .

    – if the death was sudden or expected

    – if the child was a role model of faith or living on the wild side

    – if the child was an hour old or middle aged (or not yet born)

    – if the child was brilliant or mentally disabled, healthy or physically challenged

    The circumstances are important. I do think, e.g., the journey of grief will be different for someone who loses a child suddenly. (Diane and I started our grieving of Megan’s death before she died; we could see her health declining.)

    But loss is loss.

  9. Bob Shoemaker permalink
    February 9, 2012

    Thanks, Mike. Your words are a great comfort to those of us who are members of ‘the club’. My son Trevor will never die in my heart.

  10. Jennie Kruse permalink
    February 9, 2012

    Your wise words of experience are such a gift to those of us who are on the same journey. Your sweet Mom gave me a copy of “Meagan’s Secrets”. I keep it in my night stand and refer to it often.

    We just passed the 3rd anniversary of the loss of our son, Will. We hunger to hear his name spoken and know that he is remembered by others. You are so right when you say that those who speak of him are cherished friends.

  11. February 9, 2012

    As a member of the club I really struggle to find others who have had a similar experience to mine. My daughter Maggie lived 26 days, all in the hospital. She never opened her eyes and I never heard her cry. She didn’t kick around in my belly for 8 months like she did for my wife, and no one got to know her. There really aren’t people out there who can talk about her and remember her out loud, and my memories are of a sick baby girl. This makes the grieving process even harder. It’s as if she never existed to the rest of our world. Any suggestions on ways to connect to this grief?

  12. February 9, 2012

    Thank you, thank you, Bob, Jennie, and Stephen for sharing from your buckets of sorrow.

    Stephen – Thanks for helping us understand the extra complications in keeping a child’s memory alive when no one really knew her. And yet—I say this out of the deepest places of faith—her life was significant and profound. E.g., look—here many of us are reading about Maggie. Please come back later. I’m going to invite parents (near the end of this series) to tell us about their kids. I want to know more about her. Some lives are 90 years and empty; some are 26 days and significant.

  13. February 9, 2012

    It’s odd what causes the grief to resurface. It’s been almost 25 years since you walked into a hospital room to acknowledge the loss of our stillborn daughter. 25 years, and yet this week as I prepare to teach Psalm 137 this coming Sunday, I’m struck with how evil it is that the psalmist asks God to kill the babies of his enemy. Why? Because I know what it’s like to lose a baby. I know what it’s like to anticipate life and receive death instead. I know what it’s like to face the next Mother’s Day knowing that you carried and gave birth to a child but do not have one with you at church when all the moms are asked to stand.

    That hurt is still there, even though I now have five beautiful children. I still wonder, though. Should I tell people I have six? Because I do. I’ve never referred to our oldest child as our first child. She’s our oldest, but she was not our first.

    Twenty-five years. In those years, we’ve wept and rejoiced and lived and loved and faced other challenges and had many beautiful experiences, but October 10th cannot come around without a piece of memory and twinge of sadness.

  14. Dennis Rine permalink
    February 9, 2012

    I find your 3 blogs true having lived the process. I would add that comparing tragedies does not help. Satan attacks everyone, but in different ways. Comparing does not bring healing.

  15. Carol Kelly permalink
    February 9, 2012

    As a member of the club for 12 years now, thank you for your words. I am not able to express myself very well with words, but yours are right on. We were blessed to be in your support group here in Abilene after our son’s death. Thank you.

    God bless you.

  16. Sandi (Wright) Haustein permalink
    February 9, 2012

    Mike, I walked closely through grief with two of my good friends when they lost their children — one a few hours old and another as a stillborn. Even then, nothing could prepare me for the grief I experienced when I lost a baby in August. I know — believe me, I KNOW — that a miscarriage cannot even be compared to losing a living child, and yet this is part of what hurt so bad. I felt guilty for the grief when others have experienced so much more pain. I am in that place that David Wolpe described, where, through my counseling, I’m beginning to make some meaning out of my loss as I allow God to reach in and to heal the exposed places of my heart that were first ripped open in the loss of my sister when I was young. I appreciate so much your words and your voice as many will listen and feel understood. Thank you.

  17. February 9, 2012

    I am not a member of the club, but I am still grieving the loss of my Dad. Many of your words apply to grief whether it is a child that was lost or a parent or a friend, etc. Thank you for sharing these thoughts with all of us.

  18. February 9, 2012

    Mike, once again, thank you for sharing with such compassion and truth. The part about joy returning, is so hard for me. We call it the 2 rails of grief, one sorrow and one joy, neither one negates the other. After my youngest this fall scored his first touchdown, (and I was the mama screeming at the top of her lungs,go DUKE) I got in my car to drive home and cried the whole way. Connor missed it. Our oldest will be graduating high school in May, same thing. The new normal, well what’s normal after the loss of a child. Our counselor called it repositioning Connor, that he was still in our hearts our lives but just in a different place. It helps, I still don’t like it, but it helps.
    Also thank you for being so real with the God stuff, it took me 2 years to pray and sing, and at times still hard.
    One question will you be addressing the siblings?

  19. Pam permalink
    February 9, 2012

    Thanks Mike for your wise words.
    We lost our son 5 years ago, and I miss him desperately every day. I have a dear dear friend that has helped me more than she will ever know, by letting me talk about my son. As you have said, so many don’t know what to say, or they say the wrong thing, but my friend allows me to bring his name up without becoming uncomfortable. My son was only here for 20 years, and very ill part of that, but he “attacked life” as if he knew he needed to. I am so thankful that my friend loved him like a Mom, and wants to hear about my memories of him.

  20. Jan Osborn permalink
    February 9, 2012

    Well said, Mike. We became a part of the club 17 years ago, too. Thank you for sharing this valuable information. Folks like you and Pam inspire me and keep me going.

  21. McKay Murray permalink
    February 10, 2012

    We lost our baby son, Landon, after having him only 11 days. That was in 1984. I can truly say that the gift God gave me from Landon’s life was a better understanding of how very special each human being is. I try to keep Landon’s memory and God’s gift alive by remembering and treasuring the specialness of each person that comes my way.

  22. Vicky Swanson-Starke permalink
    February 11, 2012

    My son Robert died in 07 at the age of 26. He had a kidney transplant when he was 6. He started being dillusional, seeing things hearing things. He was on quite a bit of medication for his tranplant. Im not sure if that had an impact or not. Me just thinking that this was just another obstacle in his long term medical care, had no vision of this even leading to death. BUT IT DID. Due to lack of judgment and care in a mental facility (they let him dehydrate–only looked at his mental state and not his medical state)he died. I was the one that had to have the machine turned off. I know that he is not suffering, but I am. I do want you to know that he fell to his knees in prayer while waiting to be transported to the mental facility. We prayed the Lord’s Prayer together. He at one time before going to the hospital looked out my patio and said, do you see the people in the trees? I have to believe it was Angels. My heart is broken forever. I have good days and better days……..but never a day that I dont remember my son. Thanks for letting me share. And a big thanks for my Friend Dee who put this page on her facebook. She is a constant source of help thru my grief.

  23. bea zapata permalink
    February 11, 2012

    Mike: I am in Guatemala, Central America. I heard of you through one of John Piper’s tweets. 3 of my girlfriends lost a son in a matter of four years. Through walking with them in their suffering God gave me the passion to help other mothers as well. Two years ago I started a support group for grieving mothers, “Comforted Mothers, because God is sufficient” (sound better in Spanish!). That we know, this is the only ministry in Guatemala to this end. Thank you for your testimony of love and pain, for sharing it with us so that we may help other. I am still learning and learned much through your words. May God keep on using you as you and your family (and extended family) continue to heal and learn to live again.

  24. Loretta Lemons permalink
    February 12, 2012

    Thank you so much for this article. Several years ago my brother-in-law gave me a few of your tapes on grief. They were very helpful and I know you have ministered to so many, just as you have to me. It has been 15 years since we lost our oldest son, and yet the love I feel for him is as powerful as the day we said good-bye as he drove back to college. I am so thankful for the time God blessed us with his life. I still miss him. There is a chamber of my heart that belongs to him, no time can ever take that away – it is forever and always. The article of the 83 year old lady really touched me and encouraged me. Sometimes its is hard to know what to do with all of this love I have for him, and when I feel this way I try and do something to encourage someone else, as that is what he would have done. Then I feel as though we are united once again by love and its beautiful power. Thank you once again for your ministry. .

  25. Kathleen permalink
    September 14, 2014

    This thread is a couple of years old so I don’t know if anyone will see this. But how do you make this kind of loss meaningful? I had a son when I was still a child and had to place him for adoption when he was 19 months old. Several years ago I found out that he had killed himself when he was 18. The grief and feelings of guilt where overwhelming and for several weeks I had a hard time functioning. All I could do was remember, cry, and attempt to pray when there were no words I could form and say to God. So my tears, grief, and brokenness were the only prayers I could offer. I still struggle several years later in trying to understand, make sense of, and find meaning in this double loss that both he and I experienced…

  26. October 6, 2014

    Hi there! I could have sworn I’ve been to this blog before
    but after looking at many of the posts I reealized it’s new to me.
    Anyways, I’m certainly happy I found it annd I’ll be book-marking it and checking back often!

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