The loss of someone we love is one of the most heart-wrenching experiences we can go through. The loss of a child, however, is the single most crushing blow a parent can ever suffer. And as Luke Veldt’s story shows, when it’s your child, everything changes! The world around you carries on, but the emptiness of a world without your son or daughter, with all its attendant sorrow and unanswered questions, engulfs the life you once knew.
Parents who suffer the death of a child, regardless of age or circumstances, often find themselves feeling completely lost and fragile. Nothing makes sense anymore. And help doesn’t seem to be coming anytime soon. The following thoughts are an attempt to help grieving parents begin to find their bearings in this wilderness of grief.
Be patient with yourself.
Grieving doesn’t end after the funeral. The death of a loved one triggers the start of an unwanted and slow-going journey. In today’s fast-paced world, you may sense pressure (from yourself or others) to hurry up, to get through your mourning and put on a happy face. But burying your child stirs up a swarm of unsettling thoughts and feelings that you can’t rush through—nor should you even try
You are not losing it.
Losing someone you love can make you feel like you’re going crazy. It’s a messy and fragmented process. Your jumbled thoughts and feelings bounce all over the place, especially during those early months and years.
One moment you may feel fairly stable, like you’re holding it together. You may even find yourself cracking a smile or enjoying a cup of coffee. But then the smallest thing—something you see or hear or smell, or maybe nothing in particular at all—can unleash an avalanche of emotions that pulls you under and leaves you gasping for air.
Your mind and emotions may wander in many directions. And there may be many hours and days when you won’t have a clue if you are coming or going, let alone what state you’re going to be in from one minute to the next. But you’re not going mad. You’re going through the throes of grief.
Grief has many aspects.
Shock and disbelief—this is the experience of many in the first weeks and months after their loss. Once the initial blow of losing your child passes, you may find yourself shaking your head and wondering, “No! There must be some mistake.” Or, “Is this really happening?”
These feelings of disbelief eventually yield to the awful realization that death plays for keeps. As reality snaps its fingers, you may awaken to gut-wrenching sorrow that permeates every fiber of your being.Overwhelming surges of sadness strike out of nowhere and at the most unexpected times. Just about anything grieving parents do or see or hear or touch can take them back to the pain of their child’s absence, triggering another outburst that leaves them emotionally depleted. Pain-filled days dissolve into tear-filled, sleepless nights spent missing and remembering your child. The lingering question is no longer, “Is this really happening?” It is more like “How will I make it through?”
It’s not uncommon for grieving parents to go through profound seasons of guilt or regret for something they did or didn’t do. Hours and days might be spent second-guessing or blaming yourself: “If only I had done something different the day of the accident”; or, “I should have insisted that the doctors try this treatment.” Moments when you were impatient or preoccupied can also hijack your memories. Guilt over missed opportunities with your child can hold your soul hostage and haunt your waking thoughts as well as your dreams.
Some grieving parents may feel anxious and become increasingly protective with their remaining children. They may find themselves hovering over their kids or insisting on knowing where they are on a minute-to-minute basis.
Don’t be surprised if you have days when you fall into a pit of depression. These can be very dark times when it seems like you will never smile or laugh again, let alone begin to pick up the shattered pieces of the life you once knew. As Luke Veldt and his wife experienced it, “We didn’t wish we were dead, but we didn’t really care if we kept on living either.”
Expect to have times when you feel so angry that all you want to do is rant and rail. Don’t be shocked if you find yourself directing your rage at doctors or blaming medical help for not doing enough. You may despise the illness or the person or the war that snatched your son or daughter away. You may become irritated with family members and friends who don’t seem to care about the agony you are going through. You may feel annoyed with other parents who still have their children. You may even find yourself mad at your own child for “leaving” you.
Serious questions about God are likely to surface in those who are overcome with grief. You may have poured your heart out to heaven to save your child. Why did God let this happen? Does He really care? One Christian parent lamented, “God raised His son from the dead. Why won’t He raise mine?” As was the case for Luke and Jodi Veldt, you may even have instances where you find yourself wondering, “Is there really a God?”
Grief has no rules.
Grieving is neither neat nor orderly. There are no set rules or clearly defined paths to follow.Different aspects of grief fade in and out with no discernible pattern. And there is no way of knowing how many times you will experience any particular aspect or so-called “stage” of grief.
Just because you’ve felt or wrestled with something once doesn’t mean you will never do so again. Most experience several recurring feelings and questions as they grieve, sometimes as if it were for the first time. So don’t be alarmed if you do. As C. S. Lewis discovered out of his own grief experience, “In grief nothing ‘stays put.’ One keeps on emerging from a phase, but it always recurs. Round and round. Everything repeats” (A Grief Observed).
It’s okay to grieve.
It may be difficult for some people of faith to give themselves permission to grieve deeply if they have been exposed to the idea that sadness and faith don’t mix. If you have been told, or made to think, that tears reveal a lack of faith, please take to heart these words from the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes: there is “a time for everything,” including “a time to weep” and “a time to mourn” (3:1, 4).
In the New Testament, Jesus tied faith and tears together when He publicly declared, “Blessed are those who mourn” (matt. 5:4). He went on to personally demonstrate that tears and faith are compatible when He wept at the tomb of His friend Lazarus (john 11:35). Years later, the apostle Paul wrote that even though we as Christians do not grieve like those who have no hope of a reunion when Jesus returns (1 thess. 4:13-17), we still grieve the loss of those we love.
Weeping for your child and missing him or her in countless ways is normal. It’s common to replay those last hours and moments before he or she drew a final breath. It’s normal to feel like you are drowning in a sea of emotions, to be worn out by questions that seem to have no good answers. Nor is it unusual to feel like your prayers are falling on deaf ears or to wonder if life could ever be good again. You’re not doing something wrong. You’re not being unspiritual. You are reeling from a devastating blow and desperately trying to figure out what it means to go on living in a world without your son or daughter.
Feel and share your grief.
No matter what aspect of grief wells up inside you, it’s important to give yourself permission to feel it. Don’t sanitize what you’re going through with pat answers. Don’t let yourself or someone else talk you out of what you are feeling or the experiences you are having. Let the feelings and thoughts come—raw and unfiltered—and try to express them. As one parent learned, “If I pushed it down it would stick in my soul and emerge as something else: depression, bitterness, exhaustion” (Gregory Floyd, Grief Unveiled).
And don’t keep your grief completely to yourself when someone shows you genuine concern. Though there will be many times when you will grieve alone in the privacy of your own thoughts, you also need to open up and share your grief with others who will listen.
Talk with other parents who have experienced the unbearable loss of a child. Seek them out. Read their books. Interact with them on their blogs. You will likely find some of your greatest understanding and comfort in the company and words of those whose hearts pound with the agony of losing a child of their own.
Tell others what you need.
According to Jesus, those who grieve “will be comforted” (matt. 5:4). Telling others what you need in your sorrow creates a bridge between your mourning and their care and consolation.
This is what Jesus did the night death stared Him in the face. After spilling His heart out to His heavenly Father, Jesus shared with His disciples the grief that was tearing Him up: “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.” He then told them what He needed. “Stay here and keep watch with me” (26:38). Jesus knew what was about to happen. A mob, led by one of His closest followers, was on its way, and He was going to be arrested, tortured, and killed. On this night, Jesus needed His friends to stay with Him. Apparently the comfort of their presence and vigilance would make what was coming next more bearable.
Grieving parents can do the same. In the midst of your sorrow, start asking yourself what you need. And as you feel comfortable, make your needs known to those around you. Whether that is simply having someone quietly sit with you or listen to you vent, give you a hug, or help you run an errand, allow others the opportunity to target their care for you.
No one can fix you or make the pain of your child’s absence go away. But as you open up and let others (even those who may sometimes unknowingly make insensitive comments) reach out and love you in the way you need, you can begin to discover that what is shareable slowly becomes more bearable.
Your grief is your grief.
Mourning naturally follows loss, but there is no textbook way to grieve. Grief is “intensely personal.” Every parent mourns the loss of a child in different ways and at different paces.
Some struggle with anger or guilt more than others. Some immediately talk about their deceased child or the agony they are going through. Others are more private and take longer to open up. Faith in God remains solid for some and shaky for others. Visiting the gravesite is comforting for some and unbearable for others. Some will find it difficult to sleep. For others, sleep may be their only comfort. Some will lose their appetite. Others won’t experience any disruption in their eating patterns. For some parents, the first year is the most intense. For others, it’s the second.
At a time when a couple needs each other the most, tensions over differences in grieving can drive them apart. One can mistakenly think the other is calloused and not feeling the same depth of loss. This is why it’s important to share and accept each other’s personal manner of grief. Parents who have a hard time putting words to their grief or communicating with each other may need to seek the assistance of a counselor or other grieving couples who are further down the path of grief.
Early grief is different from later grief.
Most parents discover that there are differences between the early grief they encounter in the first year or so and the grief that will accompany them throughout the rest of their days. The pain of early grief is sharp and intense. Some have said, “It feels like you’ve been run over by a bus.” Emotions erupt often and without warning. And some of life’s biggest questions won’t stop screaming for answers.
Early grief feels like a kick in the teeth. Later grief is more like a glancing blow. Early grief crushes the heart. Later grief is gentler. In early grief, memories tend to elicit mostly sadness and tears. In later grief, memories may bring more smiles and laughter. As one grieving mother described it: “It is fair to say that we staggered, struggled, and almost drowned the first year. Our feet were on the ground in two years, but it was six years before I could laugh with the happy memories of Lee [her daughter]” (Elizabeth Brown, Surviving the Loss of a Child).
Grief changes over time, but it does not go away. Parents don’t “get over” the loss of their child. They don’t stop thinking about or talking about (and sometimes to) their son or daughter. In many ways, they will always be grieving and missing their child, but not like in those early months and years. Tears and questions still remain, but their fierceness and frequency diminishes.
Grief can enlarge the soul.
We never get over the death of someone we love. It’s never okay that they are gone. It’s a hole in our heart that we slowly learn to live with, no matter how painful it is. But somewhere along the way, grief can turn into a lifelong “companion” that, as one mourning parent discovered, “has the capacity to enlarge the soul” (Jerry Sittser, A Grace Disguised).
With loss comes the surprising opportunity to discover new levels of concern for the suffering of others. It takes time, but you can emerge from your great loss a more caring and compassionate person with a capacity for the kind of gentle, yet powerful self-giving love Jesus taught and radically lived out.
Grieving also makes room for us to more clearly see that our heavenly Father grieves too. Nicholas Wolterstorff, whose son died in a climbing accident, came to the realization that “instead of explaining our suffering, God shares it.” And as Luke Veldt discovered, our Creator God is a Father who knows firsthand what it’s like to experience the death of a child. Out of His great love and desire to save and restore mankind, He willingly did the unthinkable and turned His face away as His Son suffered and died alone screaming, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (matt. 27:46).
In the shadow of the cross, you can begin to see that you are never alone in your pain. Your loss is God’s loss too. And at any moment you can open up to your Father in heaven and pour out all that is going on inside of you—the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly—seeking to be comforted in return.
At times your cries will be met with absolute silence, or at least no discernible answer. Other times with an answer that soothes and reminds you again that “the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort” is still, and always has been, with you and for you in your loss (2 cor. 1:3-4).