As we look to our annual celebration of Father’s Day this Sunday, I know there are many dads out there, like me, who may experience a fresh wave of grief on this occasion, as a result of no longer having one of our children here on earth to mark the day with us. The pain can seem as overwhelming as it ever was, so I wanted to share my heart with parents who may find themselves walking that path for the first time this year, in hopes that it will provide some measure of comfort.
When my son Christopher died unexpectedly five years ago, I have to say it was the worst day of my life. I was completely overcome with grief. I knew he was in heaven, not because he was my son, but because he put his faith in God’s Son, Jesus Christ.
But he was no longer here with me, and that hurt, much more than I could ever have imagined.
I know many parents in our country may find themselves on this journey with me as a result of the recent violence and tragedies our nation has suffered. I want to share some things that have helped me to endure what no parent should ever have to: outliving one’s own child.
People like to commiserate and say they know what you’re going through. Most likely, they don’t know. I don’t even necessarily know what my wife is going through, and we are together all the time. Her grieving process is different than mine.
Someone said to me, “I know what you’re going through; my grandmother just died.” With all due respect, though I am sorry for that person’s loss, the loss of a grandmother is not the same as the loss of a child. As hard as it may be, everyone’s grandparents, and even parents, will eventually die. Unfortunately, this is the way life and death work. But children are not supposed to die before their parents. That is not the natural order.
Some people seem to expect us to “recover” at some point. As someone who lost three family members in a car crash wrote, “We recover from broken limbs, not amputations. Catastrophic loss, by definition, precludes recovery. It will transform us or destroy us, but it will never leave us the same. There is no going back to the past, which is gone forever; only going ahead to the future, which is yet to be discovered.”
I will never “recover” or “go back to normal,” because that would imply going back to life the way it was before. Life will not be the same without my son.
So now, I am living a new kind of normal.
Others have asked if I am “at peace” with my son’s death. Of course not! We should never be at peace with anyone’s death. Death is an enemy. The Bible says that “the last enemy that will be defeated is death.” I am at peace with God, and I trust Him for the future, but we will never be at peace with this thing that we call death. Death is an enemy, but God is a friend.
While there are moments of laughter and joy in our lives today, as anyone who has lost a loved one knows, we have times of deep, deep sadness. But we know God is with us, and there is a blessedness in mourning. Jesus said in Matthew 5, “Blessed are those who mourn.”
Another way to translate the word blessed is “happy.” So, in effect, Jesus is saying, “Happy are the sad.” How is such a thing even possible?
It is possible when you realize that, as a follower of Jesus Christ, you will see again your loved ones who have passed on. That is, if they too have put their faith in Christ. Jesus said, “Whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.”
The Christian is never alone, no matter how deep their pain. David, in Psalm 23 said, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” There are things you learn in this valley that you will not learn anywhere else. Now, if we had our say in the matter, we wouldn’t be in the valley. But we are here, so we want to learn what we can.
So why does God take choice servants “before their time”? Why does He allow torment for some and triumph for others? No one can say, this side of heaven. The fact is, life just doesn’t make sense a great deal of the time. God’s purposes often remain a mystery to us.
When we say someone “died before his or her time,” we are making a false assumption. What we are assuming is that there’s an unwritten promise of a long life. We somehow think that everyone, in the words of Spock from Star Trek, is entitled to “live long and prosper”! But we have no such guarantees. We really have nothing to say about the date of our birth or death. But we should remember we do have a lot to say about the space in the middle, and we need to focus on making that time count. Here are my suggestions for this:
- Don’t take any of your loved ones for granted.
- If there’s someone who needs to hear you say, “I love you,” say it now!
- If there’s a change you need to make in your life, do it now!
In the final analysis, it’s not a matter of if you will die, but only when. So do what you need to do now, and then you can live with a clear conscience, ready to meet God at the time He appoints, whether it be today or 80 years from now. My son Christopher was walking with God when he was called home. I was proud of him then, and I am proud of him now.
Why do some die young, while others live long lives? We can come up with all of our fanciful ideas as to why God lets one live and takes another. I’ve heard them all, regarding my own son. People will say things like, “Maybe God was saving him from something bad,” or “It’s just that God wanted another angel in heaven,” or “flower in His garden,” etc.
I simply fall back on the fact that I will probably never know why. And even if I did, I seriously doubt I would understand. I look forward to the fact that one day, however, I will know.
How does a person get through such a dark and difficult time? I’ll tell you what helps me: thinking about heaven. The more I think about heaven, the better things often are.
Christopher and I were both runners in school. I was a sprinter while he was a long-distance runner. So every now and then, I would challenge him to a short race. We did this a number of times through the years, and though he got faster as he grew older, I could still beat him every time. I have to admit, it always felt good. Old Dad can still beat his son. I guess I’m not over the hill yet!
Then one day we were on the beach and I challenged Christopher to another short-distance race. We got to that point where I would put on my last burst of speed, and this time, it wasn’t there. Christopher went cruising on by me and won the race. I couldn’t believe it. Actually, I was proud of him and crestfallen at the same time. “Way to go, son; you finally beat old Dad.”
I had always assumed I would finish my race before my sons, and that I would pass the baton on to them, but my son Christopher beat me again — beat me to heaven! And now, in effect, he has passed the baton to me, and I have to finish my race. We all have a course marked out for us and a race to run to the finish. We don’t know how long this race is going to be; we never know when our lives will end. So we need to be ready, and we need to run our race well.
Pastor Greg Laurie serves as senior pastor of Harvest Christian Fellowship in Riverside, Calif., which oversees Harvest Crusade Ministries, with Harvest America 2013 to be simulcast live from Philadelphia Sept. 28-29
It’s been several years since a young boy in our town lost his life because another young man made the tragic choice to get behind the wheel of his car and drive drunk. Two families’ lives shattered because of a horribly bad decision. The young people in our town all knew the boy killed and they were asking “Why?” Why did God allow this to happen? At the time, they wanted justice, not mercy for the accused drunk driver. Both mothers were grieving for their sons…one gone forever, and another who would have life-long consequences for his actions.
Grief is a multifaceted response to loss, particularly to the loss of someone or something to which a bond was formed. Although conventionally focused on the emotional response to loss, it also has physical, cognitive, behavioral, social, spiritual, and philosophical dimensions. While the terms are often used interchangeably, bereavement refers to the state of loss, and grief is the reaction to loss.
Grief is a natural response to loss. It is the emotional suffering one feels when something or someone the individual loves is taken away. Grief is also a reaction to any loss. The grief associated with death is familiar to most people, but individuals grieve in connection with a variety of losses throughout their lives, such as unemployment, ill health or the end of a relationship. Loss can be categorized as either physical or abstract, the physical loss being related to something that the individual can touch or measure, such as losing a spouse through death, while other types of loss are abstract, and relate to aspects of a person’s social interactions.
Every step of the process is natural and healthy. It is only when a person gets stuck in one step for a long period of time that the grieving can become unhealthy, destructive and even dangerous. Going through the grieving process is not the same for everyone, but everyone does have a common goal; acceptance of the loss and to keep moving forward. This process is different for every person but can be understood in four or more stages, depending upon the theory that is being used. In the four step model there are:
Shock and Denial
Shock is the initial reaction to loss. Shock is the person’s emotional protection from being too suddenly overwhelmed by the loss. The person may not yet be willing or able to believe what their mind knows to be true. This stage normally lasts two or three months.
Intense concern often manifests by being unable to think of anything else. Even during daily tasks, thoughts of the loss keep coming to mind. Conversations with one at this stage always turn to the loss as well. This period may last from six months to a year.
Despair and Depression
Despair and depression is a long period of grief, the most painful and protracted stage for the griever (during which the person gradually comes to terms with the reality of the loss). The process typically involves a wide range of feelings, thoughts, and behaviors. Many behaviors may be irrational. Depression can include feelings of anger, guilt, sadness and anxiety.
The goal of grieving is not the elimination of all the pain or the memories of the loss. In this stage, one shows a new interest in daily activities and begins to function normally day to day. The goal is to reorganize one’s life, so the loss is an important part of life rather than its center. (Wikipedia)
There is not a right or a wrong way to grieve. Everyone grieves differently. As a believer, I turn to God’s Word to find strength and comfort while I grieve.
Matthew 5:4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”
2 Corinthians 1:3-4 “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.”
Isaiah 41:10 “So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”
Isaiah 43:2 “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.”
Psalm 18:28 “You, Lord, keep my lamp burning; my God turns my darkness into light.”
Psalm 46:1-2 “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea.”
Revelation 21:4 “ ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
Psalm 119:50 “My comfort in my suffering is this: Your promise preserves my life.”
Romans 8:18 “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.”
2 Corinthians 7:10 “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.”
Psalm 18:2 “The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer; my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.”
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 “Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.”
1 Peter 5:6-7 “Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.”
Psalm 23:4 “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”
Psalm 73:26 “My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”
Psalm 22:24 “For he has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help.”
Psalm 27:4-5 “One thing I ask from the Lord, this only do I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze on the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple. For in the day of trouble he will keep me safe in his dwelling; he will hide me in the shelter of his sacred tent and set me high upon a rock.”
Psalm 30:5 “For his anger lasts only a moment, but his favor lasts a lifetime; weeping may stay for the night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.”
Psalm 34:18 “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.”
Matthew 11:28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”
Lamentations 3:31-33 “For no one is cast off by the Lord forever. Though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love. For he does not willingly bring affliction or grief to anyone.”
Romans 8:31-39 “What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that 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.”
1 Corinthians 15:52-57 “in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
“Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
1 Peter 1:3-9 “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls.”
John 14:1-4 “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going.”
All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™
No parent is prepared for a child’s death. Parents are simply not supposed to outlive their children. It is important to remember that how long your child lived does not determine the size of your loss. The loss of a child is profound at every age.
Parents of young children are intimately involved in their daily lives. Death changes every aspect of family life, often leaving an enormous emptiness.
The death of an older child or adolescent is difficult because children at this age are beginning to reach their potential and become independent individuals.
When an adult child dies, you lose not only a child but often a close friend, a link to grandchildren, and an irreplaceable source of emotional and practical support.
You may find that you also grieve for the hopes and dreams you had for your child, the potential that will never be realized, and the experiences you will never share. If you lost your only child, you may also feel that you have lost your identity as a parent and perhaps the possibility of grandchildren. The pain of these losses will always be a part of you. Yet with time, most parents find a way forward and begin to experience happiness and meaning in life once again.
Common grief reactions
Grief reactions after the death of a child are similar to those after other losses. But, they are often more intense and last longer. You may experience the following grief reactions:
Intense shock, confusion, disbelief, and denial, even if your child’s death was expected
Overwhelming sadness and despair, such that facing daily tasks or even getting out of bed can seem impossible
Extreme guilt or a feeling that you have failed as your child’s protector and could have done something differently
Intense anger and feelings of bitterness and unfairness at a life left unfulfilled
Fear or dread of being alone and overprotecting your surviving children
Resentment toward parents with healthy children
Feeling that life has no meaning and wishing to be released from the pain or to join your child
Questioning or losing faith or spiritual beliefs
Dreaming about your child or feeling your child’s presence nearby
Intense loneliness and isolation, even when around other people, and feeling that no one can truly understand how you feel
Although grief is always profound when a child dies, some parents have an especially difficult time. Even as time passes, their grief remains intense, and they feel it is impossible to return to normal life. Some parents may even think about hurting themselves to escape from the pain. If you are having these feelings, talk with a professional such as a doctor or counselor right away. You can find help to move past this intense grief.
Timing of your grief reactions
Some people expect that grief should be resolved over a specific time, such as a year. But this is not true. The initial severe and intense grief you feel will not be continuous. Periods of intense grief often come and go over 18 months or longer. Over time, your grief may come in waves that are gradually less intense and less frequent. But you will likely always have some feelings of sadness and loss.
Even years after your child’s death, important events and milestones in the lives of other children can trigger grief. Significant days such as graduations, weddings, or the first day of a new school year are common triggers. At these times, you may find yourself thinking about how old your child would be or what he or she would look like or be doing if still alive.
Differences in how parents grieve
Parents may grieve in different ways depending on their gender and their daily role in a child’s life. One parent may find that talking helps, while the other may need quiet time to grieve alone. Cultural expectations and role differences also affect how parents grieve. Men are often expected to control their emotions, be strong, and take charge of the family. Women may be expected to cry openly and want to talk about their grief.
If you are a working parent, you may become more involved in your job to escape the sadness and daily reminders at home. A stay-at-home parent may be surrounded by constant reminders and may feel a lack of purpose now that his or her job as caregiver has abruptly ended. This is especially true for a parent who spent months or even years caring for a child with cancer.
Differences in grieving can cause relationship difficulties at a time when parents need each other’s support the most. One parent may believe that the other is not grieving properly or that a lack of open grief means he or she loved the child less. Talk openly about your grief with your partner. Work to understand and accept each other’s coping styles.
Helping siblings who are grieving
Parents are the focus of attention when a child dies, and the grief of siblings is sometimes overlooked. The death of a sibling is a tremendous loss for a child. They lose a family member, a confidant, and a life-long friend.
When your child developed cancer, you were likely completely focused on the needs of your sick child. You now may be overwhelmed with your own grief. Your surviving children may misinterpret your grief as a message that they are not as valued as much as the sibling who died.
You can help your children during this time of grief in several ways:
Make grief a shared family experience. Include children in discussions about memorial plans.
Spend as much time as possible with your children, talking about their sibling or playing together.
Make sure children understand that they are not responsible for a sibling’s death, and help them let go of regrets and guilt.
Never compare siblings to your child who died. Make sure your child knows that you don’t expect them to “fill in” for him or her.
Set reasonable limits on their behavior. But try not to be either overprotective or overly permissive. It is normal to feel protective of surviving children.
Ask a close family member or friend to spend extra time with siblings if your own grief prevents you from giving them the attention they need.
Learn more about how to help a child or teenager who is grieving and how to cope with losing a sibling to cancer.
Helping yourself grieve
As much as it hurts, it is natural and normal to grieve. You may find the following suggestions helpful while grieving:
Talk about your child often and use his or her name.
Ask family and friends for help with housework, errands, and caring for other children. This will give you important time to think, remember, and grieve.
Take time deciding what to do with your child’s belongings. Don’t rush to pack up your child’s room or to give away toys and clothes.
Prepare ahead of time for how to respond to difficult questions like, “How many children do you have?” or comments like, “At least you have other children.” Remember that people aren’t trying to hurt you; they just don’t know what to say.
Prepare for how you want to spend significant days, such as your child’s birthday or the anniversary of your child’s death. You may want to spend the day looking at photos and sharing memories or start a family tradition, such as planting flowers.
Because of the intensity and isolation of parental grief, parents may especially benefit from a support group where they can share their experiences with other parents who understand their grief and can offer hope.
Learn more about coping strategies for when you are grieving.
Finding meaning in life
You should expect that you will never really “get over” the death of your child. But you will learn to live with the loss, making it a part of who you are. Your child’s death may make you rethink your priorities and the meaning of life. It may seem impossible, but you can find happiness and purpose in life again.
For some parents, an important step may be creating a legacy for your child. You may choose to honor your child by volunteering at a local hospital or a cancer support organization. Or you may work to support interests your child once had, start a memorial fund, or plant trees in your child’s memory. It is important to remember that it is never disloyal to your child to reengage in life and to enjoy new experiences.
Each of your children changes your life. They show you new ways to love, new things to find joy in, and new ways to look at the world. A part of each child’s legacy is that the changes he or she brings to your family continue after death. The memories of joyful moments you spent with your child and the love you shared will live on and always be part of you.
Understanding Grief and Loss
Making a Difference
The Compassionate Friends
In my experience, people who have never lost a child have the false impression that a child with a disability dying is somehow a loss that is “less” than when a parent loses a child from a car accident, murder, suicide, addiction, or accident in general. Our loss is no less and no more. We all have lost children. We all have to deal with the circumstances in different ways. Some people think it’s easier to lose a child living with disabilities because parents have to know that child may not live as long.
Some people seem to think parents of kids with disabilities should get over the loss within a few months, and feel the old cliche of, “She is in a better place,” or “God needed another angel.” Our heads might already tell us this, but our hearts are broken and gaping. Just be there for us. Be there to listen. You can never understand, and I don’t want you to have to ever understand. I will never get over the loss. Not in days, months or years. It will always be a part of who I am. We will move on and the pain will change, but we will never get over the loss of not having our child in our arms. Walking past their bedroom and knowing I will never get to walk in there to give her morning hugs or night time kisses.
These misconceptions are so far from the brutal truth.
Our daughter, Megan, had a significant brain injury. She was not expected to live but a few hours. My life was devoted to her 24/7 365 days a year for 20 years to ensure her life was the best life she deserved. Imagine caring for your child every single minute of every single day, then after 20 years, that is stripped away. No, her death was not easier because she was sick. Her death was no less traumatic than any other parent who has lost a child. In our society, many people see a child who is in a wheelchair and can’t speak and assume their lives are somehow less than that of a child without limitations.
As the parent of a child with a disability, you can live with the fear that your child will die, maybe sooner than other children, maybe not. It is in the back of your mind. We don’t dwell on it, but it is there. Just because we live with that added stressful thought, it doesn’t mean it is easy when our child does pass away. We are dealing with not only losing a part of our soul, we are also trying to figure out who we are now.
I was always referred to as “Megan’s mom.” Our life was much different than most of the “typical households.” My friends were doctors and therapists. My weeks consisted of numerous doctor appointments and trips to medical supply places, daily home therapy and homeschooling, giving medication and making sure all medical aspects were in place. Vacations were few and far between. When we did go on a vacation, I had to plan extensively and I felt I had t pack my entire house. I had to make sure we had wheelchairs, joggers, oxygen machines, feeding equipment, medications, special bedding supplies, monitors, etc. When that was all ripped away, I found myself at a complete and utter loss. A part of me doesn’t know how to function in the world. I was not able to be in the social circle. My heart is not only broken in two, but I truly don’t know how to function in a world that I have not really been a part of.
A few months after our daughter passed away, a well intentioned person asked, “ So are you living life now?”
Truly, I was at a loss for words.
I get it. I get the whole thought process behind the comment. My daughter was in a wheelchair, nonverbal, had seizures and fought every day of her life. So, because she is “in a better place,” some people think I should be able to move on. After all, it’s been a few months.
I’m still in a state of “this can’t be real.” I am just now beginning to feel the real pain of her being gone forever. The first months, I was still in a state of disbelief. It didn’t seem real even though I knew it was real. I would walk every day out to the cemetery and stand there. But it was like I wasn’t really there. It was like I was standing there, but in a nightmare. This can’t be real. But it is. As each day passes the realization settles in.
I feel I have two choices. I can keep living in the past, or I can move forward with the present. I still wake up and go to sleep every day with my heart broken. For me, I had to make sure our daughters memory would never be forgotten. We started a “giving back” program in her memory. We donated all her equipment to other children with disabilities. Every year we donate a sum to a family in our daughter’s memory. I believe our daughter would want us to be living and helping others. She would want laughter and joy in our lives. Our Megan was the poster child for unconditional love, strength, joy, courage and overall perfection. I was blessed to be her mother. Because of her, I was able to see what so many never do. I witnessed real miracles. When I looked in her eyes, I saw God’s pure and most innocent creation. I may have only got to love her on earth for 20 years, but her legacy and love will continue on forever. This mamma will see to that.
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