Faith struggles during grief and child loss are not new. When King David’s son Absalom was murdered David was inconsolable.
David was deeply moved and wept as he bent over the gate of the chamber. He cried out, “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!” (2 Samuel 18:33 ESV). Parents often plea with God, begging God to take them instead of their child.
I remember well when my brother Mike died. My youngest, Isaac, was only nine days old. We were celebrating the joy of a brand new life when we got news that my oldest brother suddenly died. My sister Mandy and I were the first to arrive at Mom’s house. We could hear audible wailing from the driveway. When we walked into Mom’s bedroom her faith struggles were evident. She screamed, “Why did you take my son from me, God?” This was an appropriate response to losing her eldest son who left a wife and three young children behind.
As a pastor, I sit with a lot of families when they grieve. I buried more close friends then I care to imagine. Several times children attempted to climb into the caskets of their fathers because they didn’t know how to say goodbye. I listened to people curse God, renounce God, and beg God to take them so they could be reunited with their loved one. And all of this is perfectly okay. It’s called grief.
What’s troublesome, though, are the common responses immediately following the death of a loved one. Here are some common responses that people shared with us:
- God won’t give you more than you can handle
- At least you have other children
- You can always have more children
- God needed another rose for his garden
- I know what you’re going through because I lost my dog last week
- He’s in a better place
- You should be joyful because you still have your other children
- You need to be strong for your children
- You need to move on
- Time heals all wounds
- God has a plan
The list goes on. In addition to feeling sad and angry at these responses, I also feel embarrassed that Christians use these phrases so often. Death is common. So common, in fact, that all of us will experience it. We all experienced tremendous losses in our lifetime too. Why, then, are these responses so typical of Christians? Why is this the best we can come up with to comfort grieving people who just had their worlds turned upside-down?
I know many pastors who refuse to talk about “heavy stuff” from the pulpit. But why? Why not instead teach people that we should enter into grief with others? Why not teach that chronic depression and suicidal thoughts are common? Why not teach them that it’s perfectly acceptable to sit with someone and not say a word? That it’s comforting to just be present and to weep with people.
When we tell people to “move on” or to suck it up and be strong, we essentially tell them that their feelings of loss and desperation don’t matter. Instead, we should gently remind our friends about people like Job who cursed his birth and realized that sadness was his new companion: “. . . my eye will never again see good. I loathe my life; I would not live forever. Leave me alone, for my days are a breath” (Job 7:7, 16).
It’s good to remember Jeremiah (nicknamed “The Weeping Prophet”), who spent most of his adult life living with depression over the deaths he witnessed. When will we begin validating the sufferer’s pain and sorrow instead of shouting at them to cheer up and move on?
Faith struggles during grief and child loss are perfectly normal. Jesus himself wept when his friend Lazarus died. Weeping, wailing, anger, and depression are all part of how we process trauma. These feelings mean that we cared so much about our loved one that we can’t possibly imagine our world without them. If you’d like more help, Clara and Alex developed a course to guide people through the pain of loss.