When A Child Dies
by Melody Huffman
“Ja foi!” These are the Portuguese words for “he is already gone.” The Brazilian doctor spoke these words to us, August 9, 1991. Our seven-year-old son, Matthew had battled for fifty-two hours in the hospital with spinal meningitis. His heart could battle no more. The unthinkable was happening to us. Our son died before we did. Ja foi. He is gone. We had a funeral in Brazil thirty-six hours after he died. By the grace of God, many whom we will never know, helped cut through the beaurocratic red tape enabling us to bring Matthew to Happy, Texas for burial. The harsh reality is children die. In the last three weeks, I am aware of a seven-year-old boy falling from an amusement ride. A ten-year-old girl was killed when a drunk driver hit her family’s car. Recently, over two-dozen young people were gunned down at school.
How do you comfort someone who has lost a child? What do you do? What do you say? A child’s death leaves us with many unanswered questions. I’d like to share some things we experienced with our son’s death; things that brought comfort and others that poured vinegar on gaping wounds. It is my hope and prayer this article will in some way help you to comfort someone.
First, let me mention some things that bring comfort. The first and foremost thing you can do for your friend who loses a child is BE THERE! No matter how uncomfortable you are, you are needed. The closer your friendship, the greater the need to be there. If you are eighty or ninety years old with a heart condition, then it makes sense that you can’t be there. However, if you are healthy, be there. You will want to stay away because you feel guilty your child is alive and well. Your discomfort and heartache is nothing compared to the parents who are burying their child.
A dear friend sent a beautiful basket of kalanchoes with a note reading, “We do not grieve as those without hope. I love you.” How true I Thessalonians 4:13 is. Another sent ivy with a note saying, “We loved him, too.” The church in Happy sent an arrangement with a ribbon reading “our precious Matthew”.
I have saved every card, letter, and floral card we received. Each of those is very precious to me. Send a card. Send a note. Let the family know you are thinking of them. Send one now; send one in three months or later. Just let them know you remember too.
When a child dies and there are surviving siblings old enough to grasp death, they will wonder, “Would Mom and Dad be this upset if I died? Why does everyone think of Mom and Dad? Why don’t they think of me, too? I lost my brother, my best friend. How much longer can Mom cry? Why doesn’t Dad cry?” They need to be remembered, too. At the dinner for us in Happy, an older lady of the community made cupcakes with bluebonnets on them with an attached note to Micah, our nine-year-old son, making him feel special and loved in such a strained time. Before leaving for Brazil we had lived in Happy. This sweet lady hosted the school children in her home each Spring to view the Texas Bluebonnets. She chose to comfort us by remembering Micah. A friend of my parents sent a card to him with $10 for him to spend any way he wanted.
A stranger related to extended family hugged us just like she knew us. Two weeks later, we received ten small-embroidered frames with sayings taken from Matthew’s funeral. Four now hang in our home. The others hang in our parents’ homes. Such a precious, and unique way to offer comfort.
Another friend, who had lost a teen-age son suddenly to an aneurysm several years earlier, called us in Brazil. Carolyn, with tears, said, “If I could change one thing about Kyle’s funeral, I would be the one to close the casket and tuck him in one last time.” At the close of the Brazilian funeral, Monty and I together closed the little faceplate of the white wooden body-shaped coffin. We were the last to see his face, not total strangers. Some moments in life are bittersweet.
Many think they must say something to the bereaved family. A hug is all that is needed. I want to share some of the comments that were made to us which were not comforting. My reaction is in (parentheses). I will be responding as a mother with fresh, raw grief.
“You still have other children.” (“Excuse me! Which of your children would you rather bury?”)
“You’re young. You can have other children. You can always adopt.” (“Excuse me! One child does not replace another child. Which of your children are you willing to replace? And by the way, I had a hysterectomy in ’86. Our family will always have a hole that only Matthew can fill.”)
“Remember, you are not the only person to loose a child.” (“I know that’s true, but I am the one right now who will no longer hear the music of my child’s voice.”)
“It’ll be hard, but you will adjust to your house being empty. When my son went off to college…” (“STOP! Going off to college and death; there is NO comparision!”)
“God won’t give us more than we can bear.” (“Are you saying my son died because I am a strong person and God doesn’t give us more than we can bear? Are you saying because I am strong my son died? Are you saying you are weak and that is why your child is alive? I thought God was no respecter of persons.”)
“I don’t see how you are handling this. I know I couldn’t.” (“Hey, I didn’t ask to handle this. I didn’t ask for my child to die. I have no choice but to continue.”)
Don’t tell surviving siblings, “God knew he/she might not obey Him when they are older so He took them now.” (Please don’t say this to them. You are not God.)
A well-meaning friend, trying to empathize with us eight months after Matthew died said, “I didn’t know how you felt until my cat died. It’s awful to lose someone you love.” (“Your cat? My son!” For some reason, all I could do was laugh inside.)
On a more comforting note, a friend from high school wrote, “I think Satan attacked you in the only way he could find that might make your faith waver. I can’t imagine the ache you must be experiencing. We are all praying for you, not only for comfort in your time of grief, but also for strength to know that God still cares for you and loves you. He aches with you because He watched a son suffer, too. I hurt for you. I encourage you to lay the blame where it belongs, on Satan. We are praying.” (“Sharlen, I don’t know where you are, but if you read this, bless you dear friend. Your words still echo in my heart to this day and give me strength when I need it the most.”)
Another sweet family in Happy told us to pick out the memorial stone we wanted and they would pay for it.
So many are around when the death occurs and for the funeral. Then everyone, even extended family goes back to their routines. Life must go on. Call the family weekly or even daily. Just chitchat about the weather. Offer to take the children for ice cream. Offer to take Mom out for lunch. Offer to stay with the children so that Mom and Dad can go out together.
Pray for the family. Counselors say one of the greatest stresses a person can endure is the loss of a child under the age of ten. A mother’s grief is so different from a father’s grief, they often don’t know how to help each other. Proverbs 14:10, “Each heart knows its own bitterness and no one else can share its joy.” Take in meals. This always comes in handy, especially as reality sits in. The laundry is less. There is one less shoe to find, one less plate and glass to wash. It’s the little things that tear open the healing wound left by the death of a child and massages it with vinegar.
If the mother or father mentions their child, don’t change the subject. Just listen. If they ask questions, say, “I don’t know.” The truth is only God knows. Just be there. If they are angry with God, acknowledge it and tell them God understands. He is angry about death too. He only gives us every good and perfect gift, James 1:17.
In a similar way, many suffer a miscarriage. This type of grief is often ignored. After all there was no funeral. I have learned in the last several years, these mothers remember their estimated due date. They remember the day the baby stopped moving. They remember the day they cramped horribly and passed the baby. They remember and hurt. We need to be mindful of them, too.
The death of a child is unnatural, be it a miscarriage, a disease, an accident, or a violent death. It doesn’t matter if they were newborn or fifty. They still died before their time. When a child dies, it leaves us with unanswered questions. The truth is, there are no answers in this life. Just be there!
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