Facing the Death of a Child

I stood in line at a wake last week, watching the parents of a young man in his 30s try to cope with his death. He had struggled with drugs for a good number of years during his young life. And finally, he just couldn’t manage it. People always say children should bury their parents, not the other way around.

These were good, loving parents, not a couple who were uninvolved in their child’s life. They are church-going people who must, like other parents continue their journey with a particular kind of sadness that they would not wish on anyone else.

It makes me think of the biblical, long-suffering Job, who, at the beginning of the Book of Job, was described as “blameless and upright,” someone who feared God. If church had been available, we would probably have seen Job on his knees every weekend. He was the kind of man that fortune smiled upon — until it didn’t.
Job lost his wealth, his children, his health. In short, he lost everything but God. People told him this was a punishment because he had done something wrong, but he rejected that argument. Parents who lose children suffer that loss in many ways over long periods of time. They never really “get over” the loss, but they learn to live with it, experience a “new normal” in their daily lives.

It’s difficult to console anyone when someone close and much loved dies. In fact, we stand in a line like I did to offer our condolences, knowing full well that parents are inconsolable and find it so hard to deal with this kind of pain. And they too stand, sometimes for hours, and wait for those they know to speak to them, sharing their grief with them.

And the next day, when the funeral is over and that child, so loved, will never speak to us again, never smile that special way we love, life does not become easier. But eventually, as life becomes manageable, people who have suffered this kind of loss have an especially keen sense about them: They know how important every life is, the value of family gatherings, the spiritual depth they can now reach because of the excruciating pain.

Faith can be deepened because of or in spite of loss, as can that of those parents, and wisdom may come with age. However, it most certainly arrives in the way pain has been carved into hearts. We need to embrace those who experience that pain because they can’t escape it. Somehow, the pain can be cleansing, potentially freeing.
God walks with all of us wherever we find ourselves on this journey, if we but look around. Some people are uncomfortable crying in public. I have the opposite problem: I can’t stop crying — for the child who has died before his time, for the parents who must shoulder this loss and for all those who have had to face similar situations. At every stage, we need God to hold us in loving arms until we can find a way forward.