BECOMING A MISSIONAL CHURCH FOR PARENTS WHO HAVE LOST A CHILD

The words of John 3:16, probably more truly than any other scripture, describe the immense amount of love that is displayed in the crucifixion of Christ.  “For God so loved… that He gave His only begotten Son.”  This is an unfathomable love that the finite minds of humans have never been able to completely grasp.  No true and loving parent that possesses any grain of sanity would ever consider offering his or her child to be murdered for any reason; especially not for the sins of others.  There are no words that can express the pain and unending emptiness that is left within parents when they lose a child.  I have heard it said that this is the most tragic loss that any human being could ever experience.

While I have never experienced such a loss, I have been around those who have not been as fortunate as I.  Thus, the focus of this paper will not be an attempt to relay what that pain feels like from a personal perspective, as I am not, and hope never to be, capable of such a discussion.  Instead, I will discuss how the church should respond to a member of its own body who is experiencing the loss of a child.  What are the responsibilities of the missional church and how can it effectively accomplish them?  What should the church do to refrain from overstepping its boundaries, and what are those boundaries?  The church has a responsibility to love and care for the hurting in every way possible.  Although it is difficult to create a standardized comforting process since every parent grieves differently, it remains the church’s responsibility to search for ways to appropriately care for and comfort such parents during one of the hardest and most painful struggles of their life.

Why the Church Must Respond

When discussing any ministry the question of “why” often comes up.  Why is there a need for a ministry targeting those who have lost a child and why must the church intervene on their behalf?  While the “why” in this case may be answered in a seemingly easy manner, the question of “what those needs are,” in regards to the hurting person, is a much more difficult one to resolve.  Taking a moment to look at the feelings of emotional despair that these particular people are experiencing can, without a doubt, aid in the church’s search for the answers to “why it must respond”, “what it must respond to”, and “how it should respond at all”.

            While discussing the early loss of his daughter, Sigmund Freud expressed, “Although we know that after such a loss the acute state of mourning will subside, we also know we shall remain inconsolable and will never find a substitute.  No matter what may fill the gap, even if it be filled completely, it nevertheless remains something else.”[1]  One bereaved mother elegantly described the path to acceptance for parents like herself: “We bereaved don’t reach acceptance.  We don’t recover from grief.  If we are lucky and if we are strong, we simply learn how to live with it.  We live to honor the memories of our loved ones.  They deserve no less from us.  To make our lives count is our penance for living.”[2]

            To lose a child is to lose something much more than a loved one.  Schiff states that “to bury a child is to see a part of yourself, your eye color, your dimple, your sense of humor, being placed in the ground.”[3]  Quezada describes this extraordinary loss as such:

When I lost my son, I also lost the need for concern for his welfare, vigilance for his safety, enthusiasm for his achievements, and joy when I saw him happy and smiling.  I needed to face reality.  My dreams for [my son] had also died… Never would I see him be graduated from high school or college; never would I witness his marriage or experience his manhood.  Never would I hold his child on my lap.[4]

            During my research for this paper, I sent out surveys to many families who had lost a child.  I received eight individual responses and many of them reflected similar expressions of loss as declared above.  One father expressed his grief over losses of certain dreams as such: “I would never have a son who would be a preacher, Bible quizzer, etc.  There would be no legacy from a child of my own.”[5]  Another mother recalled a friend of hers stating, “at least you know all is well [with your daughter].”  The friend’s remark was made because her own daughter was not living a godly life while the daughter of the bereaved mother had been living for God at the time of her passing.  Although the bereaved mother was grateful for this thought, it was not a comfort to her.  As she further expresses, “today she [the friend] has her daughter and has three grand boys by her.  My daughter is lost to me.  I know where she is, but I don’t have her.”

            It is important to recognize that when these parents have lost a child they have also lost a part of themselves.  Their dreams, plans for the future, and self-identity are all wrapped up in the existence of their child(ren).  When such a loss arises, these parents no longer know who they are or what they must do to return to normality.  In addition to the loss of personal identity, the married couple loses their conjoined identity.  While matrimony joins two lovers into one flesh, as Schiff points out, the death of a child returns them once more to being two separate individuals.  “Each must bear his or her own pain and a mate cannot bear it for you.  Nor can a mate shield you from it.  The couple… suddenly finds at the time of their greatest need – that each is an individual.  They must mourn as individuals.  Separately.”[6]

            Isaiah 40:1 declares, “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.”[7]  James declares that the only religion that God accepts as “pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”[8]  While James does not specifically include bereaved parents in his list of those to be cared for by the church, it is obvious that his reference is to comfort those who are “in their distress.”  Since both orphans and widows are descriptions of people who have lost someone very dear to their self-identity and survival, it seems reasonable to also include bereaved parents in this list.  Furthermore, most Christians would be in opposition of divorce.  Thus, since the strain of losing a child often results in a divided marriage (“some studies estimate that as high as 90 percent of all bereaved couples are in serious marital difficulty within months after the death of their child”[9]) the responsibility of ensuring that this family remains united should fall squarely on the shoulders of the church.  Returning unity, peace, and sense to such a family is as much a part of the mission of the church as helping the widows and orphans; and it is as much a part of the social gospel as anything mentioned in Matt 25.

What Not to Do

Before proceeding in a discussion of how the church should appropriately respond in a caring and missional fashion to these hurting parents, it is important to take a brief excursus to discuss how the church should not respond.  One of the worst things that a community can do to a person during their loss is to prohibit them from grieving.  American culture has proven to be detrimental in this area and often times has imposed itself on the suppositions of the Church.

            “Very early on, society teaches us that feelings and the showing of feelings are somehow not appropriate.”[10]  The chimes of “crybaby, crybaby” on the playground demonstrate that children learn this at a very young age.  Often times, I’ve heard it said “let’s change the subject before I cry.”  Culture has engrained in us that it is inappropriate to display feelings in a public setting.  James and Cherry list several clichés that people say to those in grieving in an attempt to divert a public state of grief:

            “Get a hold of yourself.”

            “You can’t fall apart.”

            “Keep a stiff upper lip.”

            “Be strong for the children.”

One surveyed responder mentioned a typical cliché that someone said to her just before her daughter’s funeral: “this is her [the daughter’s] show, not yours [the mother’s].  Keep it together.”

            The ability to show emotion is “one of humanity’s great gifts”, yet “society seems to place negative value on this gift.”[11]  James and Cherry point out that in an attempt to eliminate the opportunity for grief, our culture says, “You must keep busy.”[12]  However, as they point out, all this does is prolong the pain, bottle up the grief, and never allow the person to come to terms with their situation.  Instead, the bereaved lives year after year believing that if they can “just hang on for a while longer, then something [will] happen” to make them feel better[13].  Miller affirms, “No matter how long it takes, grief will come out.  The bereaved person has the choice of undergoing ‘good grief’ now or ‘bad grief’ later.”[14]  If the person is not allowed to grieve initially, then that grief will come out later, which will be much worse for the bereaved.  As Kolf points out, “One of the biggest disadvantages to delayed grief is that very little support is being offered after a time lapse.”[15]  The church should never discourage grief from its hurting.  Christ declared in His Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”[16]  Sufficient time should be allowed for every bereaved person to grieve for their lost one.

            The thing that should be obvious for us, as the church, to refrain from doing is speaking without thinking.  During a time of grief, friends of the bereaved often want to help; however, they are unsure of what to say.  When they do say something, it is usually not well-thought through and lacks in sensitivity.[17]  The easy key to solving this problem is in thinking before speaking.  If you are unsure of what to say, it is better to not say anything at all.  One surveyed couple lists several hurtful remarks made to them during their initial time of loss:

            “Pretend he [the deceased son] is on vacation.”

            “This is what I did when my grandmother died.”

            “I know how you feel.” (Said by someone who had never lost a child.)

Miller lists in his book several statements that should never be said to those in a state of grief:

            “It was God’s will.”

            “Your/his/her faith wasn’t strong enough.”

            “Don’t talk about it now.”

            “You wouldn’t want him/her back as he/she was, would you?[18]

            The final statement in his list of “What not to say” is one that we should pay extra attention to: “If there’s anything I can do, let me know.”[19]  This statement is often times just something that people say in order “to escape the bereaved.”[20]  What this type of statement actually does is places “the ball in the grieving person’s court – right where it doesn’t belong.”[21]  The bereaved parent is in a state of instability and would not call someone for help even if they needed it.  Instead, members of the church need to be specific in their offer of assistance.  One can usually figure out what the needs of the bereaved are and should offer assistance in those areas rather than waiting for them to come asking.

How the Church Should Respond

Miller declares that the “gift of presence is perhaps the most important element in helping people in grief” and it “is where healing begins in the grief process.”[22]  When discussing the church’s responsibilities for parents in a time of bereavement, often times it only encompasses being there and letting those parents know people care about them.  Miller further elaborates, “Sometimes there seemed to be nothing helpful to say, so I would just sit with the family, maybe just holding a hand, feeling helpless and inadequate in the silence.”[23]  When the church can do or say nothing else, it can always stand by and strengthen the hurting with their presence and support.

            Kolf states, “It is of utmost importance to make contact as soon as possible.  Human contact in the early hours of grief seems to be the most important factor.”[24]  The church should make its primary effort to bind together in unison and show up to support the family during these initial stages of grief.  Attendance and support at the wake, funeral, and graveside are all of extreme importance for this family.  All eight of the surveys I received back shared common responses in regards to how they would describe a church that effectively “shows Jesus” to a bereaved parent.  All of them made mention, in some manner or another, of the importance of support and presence from the church people.

            That being said, it is also important to allow the bereaved time to be alone.  As one surveyed responder says, “Sometimes being present is helpful and sometimes your presence is not needed.  Sensitivity to the different times of grief is essential.”  As stated earlier, it is of utmost importance that the parents are allowed to grieve.  Constant human contact and busy activities can prevent them from this opportunity.  This will only make it worse for them in the long run.

            Another thing the church should do is provide a support group.  “Research has uncovered that one of the best ways to recover from grief is to talk about it.”[25]  Many times people are uncomfortable talking about the dead, so they feel that changing the subject will make it better for the bereaved.  However, this assumption usually proves to be incorrect.  As one surveyed responder mentioned, “A lot of people think that if they talk about your loved one it will bring more hurt, [but] this is not true… So for me to be silent about her [the deceased daughter] would hurt [more].”  Williams declares, “A group of travelers who share human losses can make the journey a supportive and integrative experience.  The church is not only a place in which to thank and praise, but also to share sorrow.”[26]  McGoldrick affirms that “[q]uestions are the most powerful tool” for gaining an understanding of the needs of the hurting family and prompting them to open up and speak about their loss.[27]

            James and Cherry further add to the necessity of support groups: “You cannot recover alone… You’re going to have to find and establish a grief recovery partnership.”[28]  As they further point out, these partners within such a support group do not necessarily have to be other parents of deceased children.  The only qualification should be that they have experienced some sort of grief.  The purpose of such a support system is not to have people who can say “I have experienced exactly what you are going through.”  Rather, it is to allow people the opportunity to open up about their pain and their beautiful memories which they cherish so much.  Furthermore, these partners hold the bereaved accountable and support them with their presence, daily encouragement, and continued prayers.

            A commonality that I saw amongst several of the surveys as well as in many of the books referenced in this paper was that the written word likewise carries much power.  Some people may not feel strong in their verbal or communicative abilities.  If this is the case, they should attempt to relay their words of strength through pen and paper.  Quezada,[29] Kolf,[30] and McGoldrick[31] all agree that written letters on a routine basis in the immediate months following the death are powerful methods of strength and support for the bereaved.  Three of the eight responders to my survey made mention of one or multiple persons who sent them cards on a regular basis for months or years following the death of their child.  All three stated that this was an immense amount of comfort to them during their grief because it reminded them that they were not forgotten.

            Another thing the church can do for the bereaved is provide aid for them around the house.  Maybe cleaning up, mowing the lawn, providing food, balancing the checkbook, etc. could all be of benefit to these hurting parents.  The church must remember that these are all things that must continue to happen around the house and that these parents, during their current state of grief, are not physically or emotionally able to perform such daily duties in the immediate weeks and months following the departure of their beloved child. 

Above all of these things, continued prayer is a must.  Kolf states, “Many people have told me that they can feel the withdrawal of prayers at the one-week point [after the funeral].”[32]  The church must not cease to be fervent in its prayers for these hurting parents in the months or even years after the funeral.  The church must remember that this is a long grieving process, and, as such, its prayers must be continued for long periods of time.  Often times, simply letting the bereaved know your prayers have not ceased is enough to give them renewed strength to carry on with their day.  One surveyed mother told the story of an encounter she had at a grocery store after some time had passed since her son’s death.  “I saw a lady at the store one day; it was a particularly bad day for me.  She told me, ‘I pray for you every day because I know you need strength every [day].’  She gave me some hope that day.”

Conclusion

In conclusion, it is pertinent that the church recognizes the importance of continued care for parents during the initial time and succeeding months after the passing of their child.  While this is a difficult ministry to standardize because of the various experiences that can be had with each individual parent, the church should strive to the best of its ability to accomplish the same missional comfort and ministry for every hurting parent.  Often times, presence, prayer, and support in every facet of life are the only things the church can do.  While these responses seem limited, they are of utmost importance and can make a tremendous difference in the bereavement experience for the parent.

            The church must allow the parent time to grieve and should never discourage or deny them from this opportunity.  All members of the church should be taught to think before speaking.  Likewise, all should bind together in community to support and help these parents during their time of loss.  The bereaved should be reminded that they are not alone or forgotten.  Communication should be encouraged and the parents should be allowed to talk about their loss and their memories if so desired.  As James and Cherry assert, “we know that people just want to love and be loved.  This means improving our ability to communicate the truth about our feelings.  Never will our skill to communicate the truth be perfected, yet the better we get at it, the better we feel.”[33]  Prayer should be fervently and steadfastly offered up on their behalf.  Together, with the help of the community of a loving church and the power and grace of God, the bereaved will survive this tremendous loss with their faith and love in God remaining unwavering and intact.

[1] Pat McNees, ed., Dying: A Book of Comfort (New York: Warner Books, 1996), 223-4.

[2] Ibid., 221.

[3] Harriet Sarnoff Schiff, The Bereaved Parent (New York: Penguin Books, 1978), 23.

[4] Adolfo Quezada, Good-bye My Son, Hello (St. Meinrad, IN: Abbey Press, 1985), 37.

[5] These surveys were sent out with the protection of anonymity since many parents would prefer not to have their feelings displayed publicly.  Further references from these surveys will not have a footnote.

[6] Schiff, Bereaved, 58.

[7] NIV. All future scriptures referenced in this paper will be NIV, unless otherwise noted.

[8] Jam 1:27.

[9] Schiff, Bereaved, 57.

[10] John W. James and Frank Cherry, The Grief Recovery Handbook (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1988), 29.

[11] Ibid., 32.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Roger F. Miller, What Can I Say? How to Talk to People in Grief (St. Louis, MO: CBP Press, 1987), 56.

[15] June Cerza Kolf, How Can I Help? Reaching Out to Someone Who Is Grieving (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1989), 62.

[16] Matt 5:4.

[17] Miller, What Can I Say?, 39-40.

[18] Ibid., 43-8.

[19] Ibid., 50.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid., 51.

[22] Miller, What Can I Say?, 32-3.

[23] Ibid., 30.

[24] Kolf, How Can I Help?, 21.

[25] Kolf, How Can I Help?, 62.

[26] Philip W. Williams, When a Loved One Dies (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House, 1976), 86-7.

[27] Monica McGoldrick, “Echoes From the Past: Helping Families Mourn Their Losses,” in Living Beyond Loss: Death in the Family (ed. Froma Walsh and Monica McGoldrick; New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1991), 60.

[28] James and Cherry, Recovery Handbook, 58.

[29] Quezada, Good-bye, 33.

[30] Kolf, How Can I Help?, 58.

[31] McGoldrick, “Echoes,” 58.

[32] Kolf, How Can I Help?, 60.

[33] James and Cherry, Recovery Handbook, 39.