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When a Child Dies #5

2012 February 13
by Mike

I boarded the last flight to Abilene last night and saw a good friend of ours. She was beaming, having just spent the weekend with her granddaughter in DC. She asked if I’d like to see pictures. Well, of course! Because as a proud grandpa, every time I look at pictures of YOUR grandchild, I assure a future audience for looking at pictures of MY grandkids!

There are just no words. Grandparenting is one of life’s greatest joys. (I love the old saying that grandparents and their grandchildren are so close because they share a common enemy!)

But the fact that it’s one of life’s greatest joys means that it has the potential to crush us with sorrow.

I write this thinking of my parents who have had to endure their children losing children.

used by permission


My observation is that people rally around grieving parents. They know the loss must be unimaginable. But they do not often recognize the devastating loss the grandparents (and other family members) suffer.

Grandparents suffer a double blow. First, they lose a precious grandson or granddaughter. But they also have to see their own son or daughter enter the dark cave of suffocating grief. So they hurt for their loss; and they suffer for their own child.

What do you say to a grandparent who has just lost a grandchild? Return to #2 in this series. The same advice would apply. Be aware that their suffering is real, deep, and persistent. They will need you for the following few weeks. But they’ll also need you for the long haul.

Hold them up as they try to help bear the sorrow of their son or daughter, worrying whether they’ll ever have their child back again as they knew him or her. And support them as they continue the long journey of mourning the loss of their precious grandchild.

This is a reminder that the loss of a child sends shock waves that could almost be measured by the Richter Scale. An emotional seismograph could chart wave after wave, aftershock after aftershock, of loss. It will extend to grandparents, to siblings, to cousins, to uncles and aunts, and to friends.

Be prepared to weep with those who weep, to remember with those who need to relive cherished memories, to sit in silence with those who are exhausted, and to pray for those who for the moment seem too sad to pray.

We’ve already heard from grieving grandparents in the comments sections of the past four posts. But I would love to hear from others who have lost grandchildren. Can you help us understand more? Or perhaps there are others who can help us understand the loss of a brother or sister.

Megan and my dad

30 Responses leave one →
  1. jerry permalink
    February 13, 2012

    Thank you. Maybe some day I can speak about it. But not now. After two years, the grief is still too raw. You are right: good people don’t know how deep this sorrow goes. They can’t imagine what it’s like to see that in addition to losing a granddaughter, we feel like we’ve lost our daughter. Her eyes are sad and sunken. She’s rail thin. Her smile is plastic. We wait.

  2. bill permalink
    February 13, 2012

    Thank you for the kind thoughts in this much needed post. From the age of nine I lived with the knowledge that my little brother was going to pass away in his late teens or early twenties. No matter how much you think you prepare for the inevitable – it still knocks you down when it happens. My brother died almost ten years ago. I still miss him, and I still find myself thinking about him at unexpected times. Sometimes I laugh at the good memories – other times I weep, even now, though the pain is only a dim shadow of what it once was, for it once was actually physically painful. It is tempting to wonder if there is something wrong with me when tears well up in my eyes – shouldn’t the grieving be gone by now? Especially as he was a child of God?

    I was blessed to have known him, and we were very close – best friends in fact. My last words to him were those of love, and for that I am deeply thankful.

    He didn’t get a chance to meet my three beautiful children – he would have loved that, and I would have loved to see him interact with them as he did with my older brother’s daughters.

  3. Coping permalink
    February 13, 2012

    Ok, here it is.
    For Pete’s sakes, who cries when the kids sing “I May Never March in the Infantry” at church? But sometimes I laugh. It depends on the day. Or your husband says, “You remind me of Megan, when she stomped all over the house yelling, ‘I mad!'”

    Or when – after all these years -your daughter-in-law, sitting on your bed, sees the baseball on your dresser and asks, “Where did you get that?” And you have to say, “Jantsen left it here the weekend before he died.” And she grants you a little grace, just nodding, and lets you keep it.

    The philosophy is hard. The grief, unbearable. And I cry again.

    There are so many funny Megan and Jantsen stories to tell. Perhaps another day.

  4. February 13, 2012

    Thanks, jerry and bill.

    And Mom — thanks.

    I actually asked Mom if she’d write something for this article, and she said it’s still too hard. This from a woman who is an Erma Bombeck kinda writer.

    So thanks for this note!

  5. Anna Butler Hill permalink
    February 13, 2012

    My granddaughter died September 4, 2011 of cancer. It is hard for me to believe the truth of it. I want to believe she has just gone away on a trip. I know it is futile to keeping on asking why but
    it is a question that will remain throughout my years. I love and appreciate all the consoling words from friends and family but real consolation will probably not happen here on earth. I will miss her until I get to see her again.

  6. Bill Bradley permalink
    February 13, 2012

    My daughter would have been 36 today, and I still think of her often. What would she be like, who would she have married, how many kids would she have, … Why did she have to die? She was only 2! Surely we didn’t adopt her just to see her die. Then I think of the next 2 kids we adopted; if she had lived, what would have become of them? God is in control, but why do we have to go through so much pain?

  7. Ruth permalink
    February 13, 2012

    Thank you so much for writing this series you have answered questions I have been asking for 21 months. My daughter Stephanie’s life was taken by someone who was supposed to love her. Adding to the pain of losing my daughter I have friends and family that no longer talk to me. I know it is because they don’t know what to say. Sometimes a hug would help get you through the day. Thank you

  8. Kari permalink
    February 13, 2012

    January 8, 2007 I gave birth to and lost my son all in the same day. I can relive that day as if it happened yesterday. You don’t forget. It’s traumatic. No one or nothing could have prepared me for this. I witnessed my aunts and uncles lose a child but NEVER in my wildest dreams would I have thought I would experience this for myself. I knew the pain & heartache of losing my cousins. I remember the phone calls, the flight or the drive, I remember the sadness in everyone’s eyes when we arrived. I still see that sadness when we all get together for the holidays. I see that sadness in my own mother’s eyes and sometimes when I look in the mirror I see it staring back at me. This Christmas I saw it in my sister’s eyes. My mother grieved with me & for me. This year wasnt any easier. He would have been 5. 5 years seems like a a good ways out but it isn’t. I think of the things he should be doing or getting to do. Especially when you see children the same age. My due date was suppose to be my mother’s 40th birthday. Her birthday hasn’t been the same for us, she knows she should have a grandson. She should be getting to keep him for a week or take him to the zoo, but instead she spent 5 years helping her daughter pick up her life. It’s heartbreaking. On his birthday this year my mom had just as a bad day as I had. We could hardly talk on the phone to each other. we just cried. Her tears said it all. The pain & sadness doesn’t go away; we just learn to live with it & go on with the day. My mom would have made a wonderful grandmother. Everytime we pack our bags to go to my mother’s I wish there was one more bag I was packing. The backseat of my car feels empty. I know that will change one day but it will never replace the emptiness we still have.

  9. Kari permalink
    February 13, 2012

    One more thing I want to say. If it wasn’t for you & Aunt Diane and Uncle Randy & Aunt Pam I wouldn’t have known I could survive my own child’s death. It’s a curse & a blessing. The curse watching you all bury your own child. The blessing see you all be survivors. Because there where days I didn’t think I could be a survivor. But you all give me strength & watching you all live gave me hope.

  10. February 13, 2012

    Amazing words, my dear.

  11. February 13, 2012

    Mike – My little brother, Mark Alan, died of brain cancer when he was eight years old, on May 27, 1959 just three days after my junior high graduation. At seven, he went to second grade only one day, riding the bus with my brother Neil and I. But the severe headaches that had begun plaguing him returned, he went in the hospital, had brain surgery, radiation, a few months of relief, went blind, became incontinent, went back in the hospital and seven weeks later was gone.

    That was SO long ago, and yet I sit here with a heavy lump in my heart over him. Our mom is now 90, has Alzheimer’s, but still grieves over her little child she lost so long ago, for whom she could do nothing more than love and care for him, praying he would live long enough for a cure to be found. Even today, there is no cure.

    I was closest to Mark, was 5 1/2 when he was born. He was MINE! My little sister, Laura, came 18 months later, but Mark continued to be mine.

    Years later, when I had my second and youngest son, I named him Mark, after my brother. He had his own bout with death after he was born, which is a story within itself, but is, and always has been, the greatest joy of my life as a special gift from God! He was here yesterday with his three little girls and we were looking at old family photos. He asked me about one of a little toddler sitting in diapers on the grass, wanting to know if that was his granddad – my late dad. I told him, no, that was your uncle Mark, for whom you’re named.

    I only learned about three months ago that my sister, Laura, who had just started first grade the day Mark started second, was never able to process her own feelings and grief. I was seven years older and not aware, nor were our parents, plus in 1959, there was no such thing as grief counseling, and my entire family suffered greatly. After Mark died, she says she went around all day every day at school and everywhere with her hands over her mouth and nose, afraid she would get sick and die, like her brother did. She was barely seven. How tragic for her. For all of us. She has never recovered more than 50 years later, and I urged her to seek counseling, which she has. Yet . . .

    God help me. God help us all. We have NO hope otherwise. Thanks be to God for His loving kindness in sending HIS son, Jesus, to be our advocate and redeemer. Our souls long to break the tragic chains of this temporal life and attain the blessings that await us.

  12. February 13, 2012

    Dee – Thank you so much for these eloquent and poignant words. So glad to know a little about the Marks!

  13. February 13, 2012

    I didn’t mean to leave my comment on such a somber note. Our family has suffered a number of “untimely” deaths and grievous happenings in the past few years, some of which are ongoing, and these have colored my world gray in recent months, I’m afraid, because of the enormity of the tasks that I have been involved in, along with my husband, in trying to care for several family members directly while a long distance from our home, and also help more indirectly with several more. It has been taxing and has worn us down physically, mentally and emotionally, even at times, spiritually.

    God has worked in His providence to grant us – me – a measure of grace, wisdom and faith in dealing with theses, has brought my siblings and I closer together and has worked out several situations for the best for family members in ways we could, and did not, foresee. My husband, Tom, and I have been able to come back home after more than six months away some 750 to 1,000 miles from home, and we are being refreshed in our spirits.

    Bright colors are returning to our world, here in a peaceful place – our home – God has so graciously blessed us with. May He ever continue with us, strengthening us for our tasks ahead. We have grown more compassionate and loving towards those around us in having been through some very difficult times and are thankful for that. We are thankful for our respite, until we must engage again.

  14. Rob Mossack permalink
    February 13, 2012

    Your words resonate so completely with me, Mike. I love both of my kids so deeply, so completely. And I’ve done so from the moment of their birth, and I always expected that to be the way a parent’s love would be. But I never began to comprehend the love I would find within myself for my grandson. It’s just as deep and complete as the love for my own two children. He has my heart, and his sibling who’s on the way will steal it as well, I’m sure. I cannot even imagine the sense of loss, of emptiness that would be there should something happen to take him away from us. And what you said about the double pain–you own loss magnified by watching your own child in pain—is right on the money.

  15. Leslie Ferguson permalink
    February 13, 2012

    I know my parents are really struggling… after the murder of my wife and son in October by a church member where I preached, everything has changed… This is in many ways a life sentence for those left behind… and as for me and my surviving boys, we may very well pay a financial price we never are able to recover from… Resigned from preaching yesterday. Can’t do it; don’t want to do it ever again.

  16. February 13, 2012

    Before Thanksgiving last year my childhood best friend died. We had long ago drifted apart, but he reentered my world about 12 years ago when his oldest son was killed in the most freakish car accident I have ever known about. Right now I feel so helpless in my feeble efforts to reach out to his parents. They lost a beloved grandson the week after he graduated from high school and now their oldest son is gone. I was struck by her comment to my at her son’s funeral. She said that her son began a slow death the day his son was killed. He tried to drown his pain with a bottle. We had so much fun growing up and I think about him almost every day, and can only imagine the grief of his elderly parents. Thank you so much for writing about this.

  17. February 13, 2012

    My Mother lost my brother when he had just turned 20 and she lived to be 89, she never got over the fact that she had lost him. It was really painful to see the sorrow that she did live with.
    Bless her heart and bless all the ones that have had this happen to them.
    Thanks for letting me say this.

  18. February 13, 2012

    Thank you all for these stories. Again, these are holy ground for me.

    And Leslie . . . no words fit. I’m so sorry. I hope someday our trails connect and we can sit down for a couple hours. Today you’re in my prayers again. Mike

  19. Joan VanRheenen permalink
    February 13, 2012

    Thank you for writing this blog. It’s such a blessing. It’s so good to read the words of others who have been there. It’s been 3 years now since our little granddaughter died after losing her battle with cancer. And it’s painful to see our daughter and son-in-law struggle and try to survive their (and our) heartbreaking loss. So much of them left with Jenna, and we grieve that loss every day. Some day I may be able to write more about all of this…it just hasn’t been nearly long enough.

  20. February 13, 2012

    From minister, John Dobbs, on FB. He & his wife lost their only son, 18, in a tragic accident not that long ago, as years after a child’s death go:

    “Heaven?
    “ Death … is no more than passing from one room into another. But there’s a difference for me, you know. Because in that other room I shall be able to see. ~Helen Keller

    It is expected when we talk about the death of a loved one to assume… ”

    God go with us all!

  21. Sandi (Wright) Haustein permalink
    February 14, 2012

    I was 9 year old when my 21-year-old sister and her husband died in a car accident, leaving behind their 9-month-old daughter. My parents were overcome — what parents wouldn’t be? I put on a brave face, grieved in my private world, not even knowing how to deal with death as a young girl. I spent the majority of my 4th grade year in a little school sick room with an upset stomach. As I grew up, my sister’s death just became part of my story, something that I tried to smile about so others wouldn’t feel sad or awkward when they found out.

    My grief has been in stages. When I turned 21, then 22 and was now older than my sister would ever be. When I began having children who would never know their aunt. When my husband and I tried to create a will and decide who would take care of our children if we were to die. And most recently, when I had a miscarriage. Loss has a way of opening up all of your previous loss scars, and I have only begun to actually ask the hard questions of God as an adult. Where were You when….? Why would You…? Can I trust You? Does prayer matter?

    But out of these hard questions and the pain in looking back, He is showing me that He saw me in my pain when others didn’t. He is showing me that He cares, that He loves, and that He walks closely with me in both times of joy and times of pain.

  22. February 14, 2012

    Sandi – This is a profound line: “Loss has a way of opening up all of your previous loss scars.” That is so true. After Chris’s wreck, I fell apart. All previous losses were amplified. I was crippled.

    What year was your sister’s death? (I know it well, but I’m trying to locate the time in my mind in terms of my preaching at College Church [’84-’91]). I wish I had known as a young minister how to be with people who suffer such great loss.

  23. Sandi (Wright) Haustein permalink
    February 14, 2012

    Mike, it was in 1985.

  24. Robin permalink
    February 14, 2012

    I was 7 years old when my oldest brother, Randy, passed away. He was 15 years old and had suffered multiple maladies from birth. Yet, his death was unexpected. My parents and paternal grandparents seemed to suffer the worst. I was too young to feel the full impact of grief. He had lived in an institution for most of my memorable life at that time, though we visited him often. For the 20 years my grandmother lived afterward and for the 28 years my grandfather lived afterward, my brother was a regular topic of conversation. My observation of their grief response(s) is consistent with your observation of the impact such a death has on parents and grandparents.

  25. Shannon permalink
    February 15, 2012

    This is so true, the grief is unbearable. I lost my nephew to a violent crime on 6/29/11 and it still hurts to my core. He was only 18 and every day I see my sister and mother suffer from his loss, and I do too! One day he was here, life seemed like it couldn’t be any better and the next day I get a text message in the middle of the night asking me if I was awake. I knew something was horribly wrong and I started crying as I made the phone call to my mother at 3:24 am. I will never, ever forget. Our lives are forever changed. We are very spiritual people and we know that he is here with us, we see signs of him almost on a daily basis and we connect through mediums. But it isn’t enough, we want him back. Thank you for writing these truthful words.

  26. February 15, 2012

    Mike, I discovered your blog today. Thank you for this series. Our seventh grandchild, Sully, was born on May 1, 2007. In July, 2007 he was diagnosed with leukemia. For thirteen months he fought a valiant struggle with the help of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis. On August 2, 2008, Sully died. Sully was the second child of our youngest child. I have written much during the past three years about Sully’s journey and the grief of our family. I have nothing to write tonight. Simply I wanted to say thank you for sharing. I am familiar with your ministry over the years but did not know the story of Megan and your nephew. As a minister myself, I have been with the grieving often. Nothing, nothing, prepared me for what happened to Sully. His suffering and death continue to challenge my faith. If you will permit me I would like to share these posts with the readers of my CaringBridge site in memory of my grandson. God’s blessings to you and your family and to all who are traveling this difficult journey. I’m Sully’s Paw, forever.

  27. Liz permalink
    March 3, 2012

    In 1995, my brother and my dad (half my immediate family) both died…10 months and 25 days apart. So, although I cannot relate to the pain of losing a child, I do have experience with the grieving process. And from reading your blog posts (through my tears), I can say that I agree with the things you are saying…what to say/not to say…grief being a private club to which we don’t recruit…all these things are so true.

    The pain of losing my brother was unbelievable. 17 years, 1 month, and 2 days later…it still hurts. I don’t grieve in the same way I used to, but I still grieve. I don’t hurt every single minute of every single day, but I still hurt.

    I was 13 when my brother died, he was 15. I am now married with 2 children of my own. And I have a wonderful life–God has blessed my family in so many ways. And yet there are still days I question things I’ll never know the answer to. There are days when seeing baseball cards (my brother collected them) in a store or hearing “Lean on me” will bring me to uncontrollable tears. There are days when I imagine what might have been. I am sad for all the things my brother never did…graduated high school, went to college, had a job, got married, had kids, met his nephews. I get jealous of my husband b/c he has siblings–all of whom are alive and part of our sons’ lives. I get jealous b/c my children will never know their uncle on my side of the family. I am an aunt through marriage…but I’ll never be an aunt by blood b/c my brother was/is my only sibling. I get jealous of people who are.

    Going through school, I hated answering the question “do you have any brothers or sisters?” Because yes, I have a brother…but if I say that, then there are other questions and I always had to say “he died” and then deal with either an uncomfortable silence, an awkward “I’m sorry” or a lame comment: “wow, that must suck.” But if I had said no, I had no siblings, then it would have felt like saying my brother never existed.

    Just as I barely began to get used to life without my brother and stop expecting him to walk through the door after school, my dad died. And the few pieces of my life that were beginning to be put back together shattered all over again. My dad died on Christmas, which has forever altered my view of that holiday. Having children has helped b/c their joy and excitement is contagious for me, but at the same time, while the rest of the world is rejoicing and celebrating, I am privately grieving inside. And it’s very difficult for other people (who want to rejoice and celebrate) to be able to deal with my grief…so I keep it inside.

    The same feelings of jealousy and sometimes anger that I have about my husband’s family come into play here also…both his parents are alive and involved with our children’s lives. My dad is not. He never got to meet his grandchildren. They never got to sit on their grampa’s lap and listen to his funny stories. I am sometimes so sad for things that never got to happen.

    My wedding was a beautiful, special event. And at the end of the day, I had what I had wanted for so long–to be married to the man I love and want to spend my life with. And yet there was a grief that was in my heart…b/c I didn’t have my dad to walk me down the aisle. I didn’t even have my brother as a “back-up.” There was no “daddy-daughter” dance at the reception. My dad never even met the man I’m married to, the father of our children.

    After both deaths, people rallied around us–offered us a place to stay, brought more food than we could eat, sent cards and flowers and letters–but after the funerals, many people slowly started trickling away. Their lives continued while mine felt like it was at a stand still. Society expects our lives to go on after the funeral, but it took a lot longer than that for my mom and me. There were a few people who continued to be there…to give hugs, offer prayers for and with us…and those people are forever in my heart b/c those people were the ones who were there for the long haul and who allowed us to continue to grieve, even after society said we should be moving on.

    Just last month, on the 17th anniversary of my brother’s death, a friend I’ve know for 25 years sent me a message saying she was remember my brother’s smile and how it could light up a room. I read the message as I was walking into a store, and while I’m sure the people at Big Lots probably thought I was a candidate for the loony bin as I walked through the aisles crying, that message meant the world to me b/c she was letting me know that my brother will not be forgotten.

    This is probably a lot more than you were asking for when you mentioned helping people to understand what it’s like to lose a sibling…but I hope that the comments made here will touch somebody in some way.

    For all those who are grieving…be gentle with yourselves. Be gentle with other people. You will never “get over” the grief…but you will learn to live with it. Do things that honor the memory of your loved one. Allow yourself to grieve–cry, talk, be silent, scream, whatever you need to do–but allow yourself to grieve. And please know, you are not alone.

  28. March 7, 2012

    What do you say when a grandchild (or child) dies? Here’s a touching story from Stephen Mansfield, author of The Faith of George W. Bush. He says about the story: “Obama’s critics may deny it. His supporters may exploit it. The cynical may doubt it. Yet, the tale is true and it belongs to us.”

    My interest is in the words the President spoke to his friend, Pastor Joel Hunter, just after Hunter’s six-year-old granddaughter died from cancer:

    That same day the phone rang. “Dr. Hunter, will you stand by for a call from the president.” The pastor was surprised. He was sure the president could not already know.

    “Yes, I will stand by,” he told the operator.

    Soon, the president came on the line, obviously brokenhearted. “Joel, this is Barack. I’ve just heard. I’m so sorry. You will be in my prayers. Michelle and I are with you. We are trusting God to go through this with you.”

    “You are so kind, Mr. President. Thank you. This means a great deal to me.”

    Then, as before — as Hunter’s words failed him — the president began to encourage. Again, the bits of scripture and assurances of God’s grace. Again, the faith of a president offered to his friend.

    Finally, “Your concern touches me, Mr. President. Thank you for calling.”

    “We are praying for you, Joel,” Obama said before hanging up. “I am with you in this. You are not alone.”

    Hunter was grateful for what had been said, grateful that it helped to lift the pain. He would never forget how a president became, for a moment, a pastor and a grieving pastor could only receive and the lines between the political left and right were dissolved by the greater force of faith.

  29. peggy nelson permalink
    November 7, 2015

    My grandson, 26 years old committed suicide 3 weeks ago. My heart is broken and I need strength to carry on, please pray for me and my family.

  30. Tracy permalink
    February 22, 2016

    My premie grandson died nov 26 after being born a nicu baby hecwas 6 weeks old and accudently sufficated by oarents vo sleeping . The pain from my girls guilt from the accident to my own grief since I took care of him the first month in nicu cayse my daughter the mom was in icu. It’s been so sad 3 months niw it’s just sad sad,

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