A friend of mine lost her 7-month old son last weekend; he simply didn’t wake up. That morning she lived every mother’s worst nightmare. How can one respond to such overwhelming loss? There are no words. All week I’ve been haunted by the tragedy, imagining the grief facing my dear friend and her family across the country.
Why God gives as family the precious gift of a beloved baby, only to take him back infancy , is a mystery that I’ll never understand this side of eternity. About the death of a child- a sweet, innocent young one full of the promise of an unlived life – one can only cry out, “Why, God, why?” It is beyond comprehension.
Paul’s admonition to the contrary, I live by sight far more than by faith; a death like this rocks my faith. And surely my faith would be all the more rocked if my own family were living through the tragedy. I pondered this in the fall when I read Stepping Heavenward (1869), whose author Elizabeth Prentiss lost two young children in the space of three months. Prentiss writes with the wisdom and authority of one who was walked through this particular “valley of the shadow of death” and has found her Savior good and faithful even there. About her sick baby, the book’s protagonist Katie says: “If He should take her away I should still rejoice that this life was mingled with ours, and has influenced them… I have given this precious little one away to her Savior and to mine; living or dying, she is His.”
Later as she faces the death of her young son, Katie says, “Yes, we will give our children to Him if He asks for them. He shall never have to snatch them from us by force.” And when the child indeed dies she says: “I gave my darling to God, I gave him, I gave him! But, oh, with what anguish I saw those round, dimpled limbs wither and waste away, the glad smile forever fade from that beautiful face! What a fearful thing it is to be a mother! But I have given my child to God. I would not recall him if I could. I am thankful He has counted me to worthy to present Him so costly a gift…”
It is indeed a fearful thing to be a mother. Nothing better displays this fearfulness than the death of a child. What else can force us to examine, in the most practical and painful way, to Whom the child actually belongs? While I know theologically that my children are God’s and not mine, do I really believe it? Would I continue to trust God and his goodness if He allowed a child of mine to die young? To this Prentiss writes, “My comfort is in my perfect faith in the goodness and love of my Father, my certainty that He had a reason in thus afflicting me that I should admire and adore if I knew what it was.” Would that my trust in God would be as big as that,were I to find myself in that situation. May God make my friend’s trust that big today.
Another emotion, a strange one, has run through me in praying for my friend. I feel angry with our culture- with the distance we have put between ourselves and death, the distance that makes a death like my friend’s sweet son all the more unthinkable. Don’t get me wrong, I’m thankful for the medical advances that remedy illnesses and lengthen years. God works through medicine and science; we praise Him that health is pervasive and life is long in our country. But the downside? We expect good health and long life; we feel they’re our right. God, life, the world – they owe us. We become entitled and see God as wronging us when the curse that mankind’s true legacy on earth – that of death- comes to our family’s gates.
This outlook ironically gives death more of a hold on us than if we were exposed to it more regularly. We can’t handle hearing or thinking about it. The possibility of death frightens and overwhelms us; the grief that accompanies death threatens to undo us. I remember saying to a mom whose baby had died (the only one I knew till this week): “I don’t think I could live through what you went through .” She replied, “Yes you would. If you were in that situation you would get through it; you wouldn’t have choice.” I realized she was right – the notion of that death, the idea of it, had a larger-than-life power to it. I had almost made an idol of it, acting as though it was a situation that couldn’t co-exist with God.
This mindset is flawed and, at bottom, evil; death in our sin-marred world is as universal as it ever was. Yet I have allowed my society’s warped perspective to create in me an ungodly fear of disease and death. I have acted as if the realities of disease and death negate God’s sovereignty, grace, and goodness. And this perspective weakens me– causes me to put up walls so I don’t have to encounter or wrestle with death. I avert my eyes, sometimes from situations like my friend’s, but more often from the world beyond America’s (or at least my corner of America’s) borders where children’s illnesses and deaths are all-too-common occurrences. It would be too painful, too threatening to my fragile, death-fearing psyche to look these realities in the eye much less to consider intervening. So I “shrink back” instead of “living by faith.”
And what good does do this do me? It stunts my soul. What good does it do society? It keeps us mired in entitlement and fear. What good does it do the diseased and dying of the world? It leaves them alienated and lacking in help or hope. What good does it do my friend who lost her son? It leaves her, perhaps, more isolated in a culture unwilling to face and help her deal with her son’s death. What honor does it bring to the God who Himself died for our sake, bids us mourn with those who mourn, and calls us to to care for those whose loved ones have died?
Give, oh God, comfort and healing to families whose children have died… And give to us all, oh God, Your strength to embrace Your truth and live boldly, compassionately, and faithfully in this death-ridden world.