Ministering with Those Suffering the Loss of a Child
When told that his young son Wesley had died, Tafadzwa Mudambanuki fell to the floor right there in the airport and wailed. He recalls, “The death of Wesley was wrenching, unexpected, and incomprehensible. Children are supposed to live longer than their parents do. When they do not, the pain is unimaginable. I sobbed the entire three-and-a-half-hour drive from Harare to Mutare. I thought life was not worth living because of the intense pain I endured from losing Wesley.” Tafadzwa had hurried back to Zimbabwe from Dayton, Ohio, where he was working toward a degree in religious communication, when he learned that his son was seriously ill. By the time Tafadzwa landed in Zimbabwe, Wesley had already died; and the friends who came to meet him had to deliver the sad news.
In the days that followed, Tafadzwa remembers, some well-meaning people attempted to console him and his wife, but some said things that were not helpful: “It is all part of God’s plan; just accept it as believers.” “God wanted another flower in his garden; please be comforted that Wesley is in a better place.” “I know exactly how you feel.” “You can have other children.” “Put this behind you, for God has another plan for you.” “You have to get on with your life.” Some even said, “Since you are preachers, God is preparing you to be more empathetic to others.” Those who had lost children themselves, however, were more understanding – and helpful. “The Revs. Forbes and Nyaradzai Matonga checked on us daily by phone and made frequent visits to our home. When we talked about the death of our son with them, I felt better, and they observed a visible look of gratitude and relief on my face. ‘My fellow brother, cry hard when you feel like crying,’ Forbes said. ‘This is what helped me grieve when we lost our baby.’”
We found out that we could stand on Jesus Christ, the Rock that never fails. With a firm belief in Jesus, we started to climb out of the abyss of grief. I grieved intuitively and took solace in sharing pleasant memories of my son.
Tafadzwa continues, “Wesley was a healthy boy, and his sudden death made it hard to accept that his life was cut short. There was so much unfilled potential still ahead of him. The most painful part was when all family members, relatives, and friends went home, and we could only stare at an empty cot in our bedroom. The death of a child interrupts the natural order of life. Ever [my wife] and I had reached rock bottom – the lowest place we could go. And, yet, we found out that we could stand on Jesus Christ, the Rock that never fails. With a firm belief in Jesus, we started to climb out of the abyss of grief. I grieved intuitively and took solace in sharing pleasant memories of my son. I arrived back in Ohio a month later. Wanting to do something constructive, some bereaved couples established a garden of flowers in his memory. Wesley’s death forced us to find a new normal. I had to learn to let go of things I could not control.” 1
Near the first anniversary of her 33-year-old son’s suicide, a dear friend shared her reflections with me. While visiting her daughter and young grandson, Jasper, in New Zealand, she was wakened in the night by a breeze, so she closed a door she found open. An hour later she received the shattering phone call telling her that her son had taken his life. In the morning, her daughter told her that Jasper had jumped out of bed in the night as if someone was there, something he'd never done before. Dori wondered, “Could Patrick’s soul have come to say goodbye in the early hours of this day as it left this earth – through a warm breeze, a door closing? I don't know. I don't know a lot about suicide or death or the other side of the veil. But I have learned much in the last 365 days.”
I stood at this unwelcomed door, with a lifetime of faith behind me – shallow at times, searching at best. I did not know this God who would author such an event, but I needed to in order to survive this.
She continued, “I stood at this unwelcomed door, with a lifetime of faith behind me – shallow at times, searching at best. I did not know this God who would author such an event, but I needed to in order to survive this. His voice came to me through friends, through song, through Scripture and prayer. He comforted, loved, spoke to me. He prepared me. He carried me. He leads me in more ways ‘than we can imagine or even ask for.’ I cannot deny his presence and his guidance, his orchestration, in so many guises, voices, gestures, and his love. The very day before the news arrived, I had a strange conversation with someone I had just met. She spoke of a time in her life when she cried out to God, ‘What do you want me to do now?’ And he answered simply, ‘Just do the next thing.’ That sentence carried me through many situations in the months to follow. Overwhelmed, frightened, hurting – I would remember, “Just do the next thing.”
“I worried deeply about Patrick's salvation. Then a friend called and went right to the point: ‘There is no biblical justification for saying that suicide is wrong or unpardonable. God doesn't look at it as being any different than a diseased gall bladder. Your son was sick and died from his sickness.’ Another dear mother who suffered the same loss shared over lunch with me one day, ‘It's a mental illness that he died of.’ She assured me, ‘He would not have died alone. God would have been there right with him, crying over him.’ A counselor by profession sat with us quietly, answering questions, ‘It's like a black blanket over them – and they can't see or hear anything else or imagine that it could ever be any different again.’ Another friend said, ‘He didn't give any thought to the pain it would cause so many people. He was in such extreme pain himself.’ Another told me that she had learned in a workshop not to say ‘committed suicide.’ It sounds like a crime. And so it became, ‘He ended his life.’ Someone else said, ‘When it all gets overwhelming, picture yourself crawling up into the lap of Jesus and just sitting there while he holds you.’ I spent a lot of time on that lap, resting.”
“What was helpful?
* Messages of any type. It may be hard to know what to say, but say something. It helps.
* Friends who let me talk. I believe we heal by telling our stories – over and over and over until we are spent. I have friends who still let me talk, ask about Patrick, remember with me, call me when they are hurting.
* Friends who drove and even flew to the funeral. It was humbling.
* Friends who showed up and just sat with me – or held me when I cried, or fed me when I wasn't hungry.
* Exercise. I believe endorphins are one of God's special gifts to us.
* Something to look forward to – that was and is important.
* Time to sit with what I call my ‘Big Thoughts.’ I think of Mary who ‘kept all these things and pondered them in her heart.’ That describes how I felt when I learned something new or a sentence in something I was reading would stop me. I didn't share things with other people until I was comfortable with them and ready.
* It was helpful to me that Patrick didn't leave a note. I can't think of anything he could have said that would have made this easier.
* I turned frequently to friends who I thought could help. ‘I need an attorney.’ ‘Do you know anyone that can do a Massachusetts tax return?’ ‘How do I find his safe deposit box?’ People wanted to help and readily sought out the answers to my questions.
* Songs and their messages/words were very important to me. I would hear old favorites in a new light, and words from other songs would stop me in my tracks: ‘It Is Well,’2 ‘You Make Me Brave,’3 ‘King of my Heart,’4 ‘Even If,’5 ‘Blessings.’6
* A cover story in Time magazine, ‘“Life After Death” concerning Sheryl Sandberg’s loss of her husband’7
* Podcasts, especially a recent posting titled ‘Resilience After Unimaginable Loss’8 by Krista Tippet in ‘On Being’
* Books: No Time to Say Good-Bye: Surviving the Suicide of a Loved One by Carla Fine; The Way of Transition: Embracing Life's Most Difficult Moments, by William Bridges; Tear Soup: A Recipe for Healing After Loss by Pat Schwiebert and Chuck DeKlyen; A Place of Healing: Wrestling with the Mysteries of Suffering, Pain and God's Sovereignty by Joni Eareckson Tada9; and the Bible, which has led me one step at a time through the pain.
* The Legacy Project, a website sharing words from older people who have lived through loss and other topics.”10
“I sought out a new friend who had dealt with grief of another sort, and she told me adamantly that she wanted to wring as much good from it as she could. She didn't want it to define her. She wanted to grow from it in any way she good. I share those feelings and often ask this God who loves me: ‘What do you want me to do with all this that I've learned?’ And I wait for the answers as he continues to teach me. And I ‘just do the next thing.’”
Bob and Linda’s Story
When their son was born fifteen weeks prematurely, Bob and Linda began a month-long emotional roller coaster ride, during which Bob wrote almost daily letters to Geoffrey. These letters were later published in a little book by Centering Corporation, a non-profit organization dedicated to providing education and resources for the bereaved. Bob was deeply touched by the first card they received, grateful that someone had acknowledged Geoffrey’s birth, and deeply moved by the many ways their church, family, and friends rallied around them, providing support and care in tangible and intangible ways. Describing his fear, anxiety, depression, love, hope, anger, and frustration – all mixed together, he notes that their life seemed to rotate around Geoffrey’s every breath. He worried about their two daughters, with so much attention and energy focused on their tiny brother. When the end came, Geoffrey was finally released from his isolette and placed in his parents’ arms, where he died. “You are free at last,” wrote his father, “but turning you loose is the hardest thing I have ever had to do…. So many things remind me of you, Geoff, of all the things you and I will never do together. That is the hardest part…. I have a lot of questions for God. Why did you have to endure so much, only to die. …I don’t have any answers, I only have prayers for strength and the ability to accept those things I cannot understand. At your memorial service we sang some hymns, read some Psalms, and the passage from Romans about ‘neither life nor death….’ It was a good service, a simple one. We had refreshments afterwards and your sisters took great pride in showing our pictures of you to anyone who would look at them.”11
Six months later, Bob wrote another letter that was published in a booklet titled Dear Parents: Letters to Bereaved Parents.12 He affirmed, “We have discovered that our life as a family will never be ‘as it was’; but that we have a ‘new normal’ for our lives. In a very brief time, Geoffrey became very much a part of our lives; and as painful as some of those memories may be, it would be infinitely more painful to try to live without the memories of the joy, the anxiety, the hopes and the fears he brought into our lives.” Bob also described how helpful it was to participate in a bereaved parents support group, which gave them a place where they could share their sorrow, frustrations, and pain. Most importantly, it was a place to care and be cared for. Bob wrote, “We talk about Geoffrey often, and though we know the pain will linger forever, the time came when we could remember him and laugh and joke. We try to remember his birthday in some special way each year and emphasize our thanksgiving for the gift rather than our sorrow in the loss. We find that when someone else suffers a loss from death, we are much less inclined to respond with words and answers. We are more likely to simply want to be there and hold their hands or offer a shoulder to catch their tears.”
Death Before Birth
Recently, a mother described on Facebook her experience of her baby’s death before birth. A little more than seventeen weeks pregnant with a baby girl, she found out that the heart had stopped. She thought her own heart would stop as well. They named her, held her after the delivery, and told her how much she was loved. It seemed to be a cord accident, and it helped them to know why her heart stopped. They miss her every day, but they are comforted to know that she has no pain, that she is in heaven with God, and that they will see her again someday. About six months later, they found out they were expecting again. Their hearts filled with so many emotions: feelings of joy, but also sadness at the loss of their unborn daughter, along with feelings of anxiety about how this pregnancy would go. Complications during the first trimester were frightening, but they made it to the second trimester, and then made it past seventeen weeks. They felt relief and hope. On February 15, they had a doctor’s appointment, and everything looked good. The baby’s heart rate was 151 beats per minute. On February 19, they went in for a twenty-week anatomy scan, and the baby had no heartbeat. They knew the drill: head to the hospital, induce labor, hold their baby, name him, and create some memories; not the memories they had hoped for, but the only ones possible.
Now, over five weeks later, the mother wrote: “I don’t even know what to type. How can this be real? What could I have done differently? Could there be any other way? Why this reality? I believe these are the questions Jesus asked in the garden just before his death. He pleaded with God for another option. He asked if there was any other way for this to happen. And in the end, he knew that there was no other way. That he would have to suffer so that we could have life. He went through an awful death and he knows earthly pain. He mourns with me, holds our babies – including the one we lost early in a pregnancy years ago, and wishes that there could have been a different outcome for them. One of the biggest things I have learned in this year is how important it is to have community, to share life - with both its joys and sorrows - with each other. God wants that for us. He does not delight in our pain, but feels pain alongside us. When we reach out to others and share life with them, we are the hands of Jesus.”
Another father shared the following thoughts, three years after his son died at the age of 51, after five and a half years of surgeries, chemotherapy, and radiation. “Yes, we miss Mark’s physical presence, but at the same time he is with us every single day and night. He is there in songs that we listen to and sing. He is there when we read Scripture and other inspirational writings. He is there in the garden and by the sea. He is in the presence of his wife and their children. He is there when we meet his friends or someone who is curious about our family. He is there every time someone else shares their own personal concerns with us. Today, nearly three years after his passing, I read this passage in my daily devotions: ‘For I am convinced neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord’ (Romans 8:38-39). God’s love for us and love shared with our neighbors gets us through the low times.”
“The day before Mark died, I happened to be alone in the hospice room with him. He had not spoken or arisen from the bed for a couple of days. Suddenly he got up, and I asked him, ‘Where are you going, Mark?’ He responded, ‘I’ve got to get to the gathering.’ A little book of comforting notes that was given to us pointed out that when people are dying, they often move back and forth between this world and the next. During his years of treatment, Mark had done a great deal of genealogical research on our family. I believe strongly that Mark was looking forward to meeting family and friends in heaven. No other moment in my life and growth as a believer in Christ has been as strikingly meaningful as this was - and still is!”
These personal stories illustrate important points about ministering with those who have lost a child, as well as with those suffering a loss of any kind. Grieving parents need to be encouraged to talk freely about what they are experiencing and feeling and to be assured that they are not alone or abnormal for reacting as they do. Author Kim Kruger-Bell notes that losing a child causes an identity crisis and disorientation, much like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the official name given to the intense psychological distress that may follow traumatic events. PTSD typically involves initial numbness, followed by increased anxiety, fear, flashbacks, nightmares, and distress. Recovery seems to require reintegrating the experience through reflection and emotional processing, which can only happen if the person feels safe enough to do so.13
Author Nisha Zenoff states that although parents never “get over” the loss of a child, they can learn to live with it in time. At first, it will be all they can do to get through the day, to make the decisions that need to be made. Parents are likely to feel worse at three months and again at two years after the loss, as the numbness wears off and the reality sinks in; and “shadow grief” may suddenly and intensely sweep over them. It is helpful for them to know this is normal. The author tells us not to worry about reminding the parents of their loss, as they never forget, and encourages us to share good memories, affirm the child’s uniqueness and impact on others, and even remember birthdays and other special occasions long after the loss.14
Such wisdom also applies to the loss of an unborn child. Kim Kluger-Bell, in Unspeakable Losses: Understanding the Experience of Pregnancy Loss, Miscarriage, and Abortion, notes that “A heavy shroud of silence surrounds pregnancy losses of any kind… [possibly because] there are no memories to hold on to, no life to recall outside of the womb, only fantasies of who these babies might have been.” In the case of abortion, guilt and fear of condemnation may keep both women and men from talking about their feelings. Silence exacerbates the pain and prevents those suffering this loss from understanding its personal significance. Depending on life experiences and other individual factors, pregnancy brings some people great joy and a happy promise for the future; for others, however, pregnancy triggers enormous fears. When pregnancies terminate, for whatever reason, the women – and the men involved as well – need to process many layers of emotion. Burying or denying their feelings may result in physical ailments and lingering psychological, emotional, and spiritual effects. The author provides many illustrations of the healing power of expressing and exploring feelings related to such losses with a skilled therapist.15
Because couples often find that they grieve differently, they may need individual support as well as couples’ counseling to help them accept their differences and find ways to connect. Grieving parents may need encouragement to let their surviving children see them grieve and also to listen to and empathize with – not try to fix – the children’s feelings. Parents and other significant adults should be alert to signs of guilt and reassure surviving children that they are still important and beloved, even during this time of intense stress. Grandparents, suffering not only the loss of a grandchild, but also the intense pain of seeing their child or children in pain and being unable to fix it, need to be embraced by a healing community. The support of a strong circle of friends and of a faith community can make a huge difference in how a family survives through such a loss. As we have seen in the stories above, a foundation of faith - with Scripture, hymns, and prayers etched firmly in our minds, can help us through the most difficult times, but we should never assume this would be without intense pain. In the words of Helen Keller, quoted in the front of The Unspeakable Loss: How do you live after a child dies?, “The struggle of life is one of our greatest blessings. It makes us patient, sensitive, and Godlike. It teaches us that although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it.”
1 Tafadzwa Mudambanuki, “Son’s Death Plunges Bereaved Couple into Abyss of Grief,
The Interpreter (July-August 2015), http://read.nxtbook.com/unitedmethodist/interpreter/julyaugust2015/sonsdeathplungesbereavedcouple.html)
2“It Is Well,” YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YNqo4Un2uZI&list=RDYNqo4Un2uZI
3 Amanda Cook, “You Make Me Brave,” YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Hi-VMxT6fc
4 Sarah McMillan, “King of My Heart,” YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EpqSbKYxd9Y&index=12&list=PLtfhJySKmAbcRheho 43YyHqrSrDdnE_9p
5 Mercy Me, “Even If,” YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B6fA35Ved-Y
6 Laura Story, “Blessings,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XQan9L3yXjc
7 Belinda Luscombe, “Life After Death,” Time Magazine, http://time.com/sheryl-sandberg-option-b/
8 Krista Tippit, Sheryl Sandburg, Adam Grant, “Resilience After Unimaginable Loss,” On Being, April 24, 2017, https://onbeing.org/programs/sheryl-sandberg-and-adam-grant-resilience-after-unimaginable-loss-apr2017/
9 See annotated listings under Resources
10 The Legacy Project: Lessons on Living from the Wisest Americans, http://legacyproject.human.cornell.edu/category/living-with-loss/
11 Robert Webster, Letters to Geoffrey: A Father’s Letters to His Premature Son from Birth to Death (Centering Corporation, 1988)
12 Joy Johnson, editor, Dear Parents: Letters to Bereaved Parents (Centering Corporation, 1989)
13Kim Kluger-Bell, Unspeakable Losses: Understanding the Experience of Pregnancy Loss, Miscarriage, and Abortion (W.W. Norton & Company, 1998), 64
14 Nisha Zenoff, PhD, The Unspeakable Loss: How Do You Live After a Child Dies? (Da Capo Lifelong Press, 2017)
15 Kim Kluger-Bell, 20
Resources for Ministry with Those Who Have Suffered the Loss of a Child
(Note: This list provides only a brief sample of resources available. See especially the appendices in The Unspeakable Loss: How Do You Live After a Child Dies? and the websites listed below for expanded lists. You might also find the following articles helpful:
“Ministry in the Valley of the Shadow of Death,” https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/ministry-in-the-valley-of-the-shadow-of-death;
“When the Storms of Life Are Raging,” https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/when-the-storms-of-life-are-raging
A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows Through Loss by Gerald L. Sittser (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1996) The author, who lost his wife, a daughter, and his mother in a tragic accident, describes his journey through loss and despair and his learnings along the way. Coming to terms with the reality that suffering is common to all human beings, he also experienced grace and learned how to live faithfully, even in the midst of great sorrow.
A Place of Healing: Wrestling with the Mysteries of Suffering, Pain and God's Sovereignty by Joni Eareckson Tada (Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2010) More than forty years ago, a diving accident left the author a quadriplegic with chronic pain. Sharing both her struggles and her faith, she has become a beloved writer and speaker and inspiration to many.
Grief Works: Stories of Life, Death, and Surviving by Julia Samuel (New York: Scribner, 2017)
The author, a grief psychotherapist with over 25 years of experience, shares insights and tools for healing through grief. Separate chapters address dealing with the death of a spouse, a parent, a sibling, and a child; facing one’s own death; and understanding the work we need to do in order to grieve and survive. “Death steals the future we anticipated and hoped for, but it can’t take away the relationship we had” (xx).
The Unspeakable Loss: How Do You Live After a Child Dies? by Nisha Zenoff, PhD (Da Capo Lifelong Press, 2017) The author, a therapist and grief counselor, confesses that her psychological knowledge and clinical experience did little to ease her devastation and pain following the death of her seventeen-year-old son, Victor, in a hiking accident. Weaving together her own story and the stories of others, she compassionately describes a wide range of normal reactions to the initial shock and the ongoing adjustment to the loss of a child, the impact on the family, and what to expect as years go by. Helpful appendices explain how family and friends can be most supportive. The author includes both a reading list and a list of resources and support groups, including those focusing on a wide variety of specific kinds of child loss.
The Way of Transition: Embracing Life’s Most Difficult Moments by William Bridges (Cambridge, MA: Perseus Publishing, 2001) William Bridges wrote an iconic book in 1979 called Transitions: Making Sense of Life's Changes, but when his wife died eighteen years later, he experienced the loss so deeply that he questioned whether he could ever speak or write on the subject again. Later, he wrote this open and honest book about his struggle, exploring the loss of identity and the disorientation he experienced. He explores the pain we experience because we resist letting go of what was, resist accepting the confusion of the space between what was and a new reality, or resist taking the risk of starting anew. He also describes the growth that may occur when we stop resisting and accept what is, painful though it may be. (Dori notes, “I'm not sure I would have benefited from this book initially. I needed to have some distance and perspective to understand what he was saying. Transition is about more than endings and beginnings, shut and open doors. It is about the space in between that you have to visit and dwell in, in order to understand what the ending and the closed doors offer you. It's like jumping from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday. You have to walk through Holy Week to understand the time span and the richness it offers. I would not have understood the fertile ground in the valley for quite some time.”)
Unspeakable Losses: Understanding the Experience of Pregnancy Loss, Miscarriage, and Abortion by Kim Kluger-Bell (W.W. Norton & Company, 1998). By sharing her own story and the personal stories of others, the author explores the variety of emotions that may accompany the loss of a child who has not even been born.
Organizations and Websites
American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (www.afsp.org) - See especially “Practical Information for Immediately after a Loss,” “Resources for Loss Survivors,” and “Taking Care of Yourself.”
Centering Corporation and Grief Digest Magazine (https://centering.org/) - Articles, books, events, support groups, and other supportive services for the bereaved.
Compassionate Friends (www.compassionatefriends.com) - The largest and oldest nondenominational international bereavement organization in the United States, Compassionate Friends encourages bereaved parents, grandparents, and siblings to speak openly and frequently about their children who have died and offers support groups throughout USA and abroad. Speaking the names of our loved ones keeps them alive in memory and celebrates their lives.
Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep (NILMDTS) (https://www.nowilaymedowntosleep.org/) - NILMDTS trains, educates, and mobilizes professional quality photographers to provide free beautiful heirloom portraits to families facing the untimely death of an infant.
Jane P. Ives, United Methodist Marriage and Family Ministries Consultant ,10 Quaker Lane, Portland, ME 04103, 207-797-8930, [email protected]