“There is a tremendous desire for the parent to rejoin their child in heaven; the best thing you can do for a grieving friend is sit quietly with her in the waiting room. It’s not much, but with a burden they are carrying alone they need not be alone in their grief.”
When my older son was 11 years old, he lost his best friend to cancer. Sitting here at my laptop, exactly four years later, I still feel the sting of a mother’s grief as sharply as if it had happened yesterday.
His name was Josh. I am using actual names in this article, because they were real children. With real names. Who really mattered.
So many of my friends have gone through the unspeakable agony of losing a child—whether in utero, in infancy, or adolescence—but this is a lonely, solitary agony that even those closest to the parent cannot really shoulder. We want to enter into grief with a friend, and yet cannot fully. Empathy is the closest we can come.
There is something inherently selfish even in the most compassionate of us that stops us from really experiencing, even vicariously, what a parent is going through in this kind of loss. There is no real comfort we can provide; and we don’t even want to contemplate the full horror of their experience. Our human instinct is to detach. Emotional detachment is necessary in medical fields, and even to a certain extent in the counseling office; but it never feels quite right—especially when you are a parent.
Professional Detachment vs. Personal Involvement
As a medical interpreter in Boston, I occasionally see pediatric cases (which are rarely terminal). These children are usually flown here to receive medical treatment not available in Bulgaria. Two years ago, I had a late-afternoon pediatric assignment when I was a bit impatient to get home and make my 8-year-old daughter’s birthday cake for her party the next day. I had no idea that within a few minutes I would have to tell a woman, just like me, that her daughter was dying.
The little girl’s mother had come alone for a consult with the oncologist while the child, also 8 years old, received a blood transfusion at another hospital. She and Natalia might have been friends. It took nearly an hour just for Mom to give the medical history, and as I interpreted the painful details of the little girl’s neuroblastoma treatment, my heart broke. Her cancer was so advanced that there was nothing more that could be done. The oncologist advised Mom, with tears in her eyes, to take her back home to Bulgaria.
In 15 years as a medical interpreter, this was one of two times where I cried. (The other was a phone call. I had to tell an 18-year-old MIT student’s mother that her son had been killed in a motorcycle accident. His name was Georgi, by the way.) But the problem was, there was nothing I could do. I hugged her in the elevator, told her “I’m so sorry,” and drove home. I couldn’t even let myself dwell on this poor mother’s plight, because I wouldn’t have been emotionally available to my own children. It was an unpleasant feeling, and I felt mildly selfish for forcing myself to “detach.”
It’s different when the grieving parent is a personal friend. It may not be different “biblically,” but it’s still different. When a woman from church buried her 18-year-old son several years ago, I found it difficult to make eye contact at the funeral or casually ask “How are you?” afterwards. Stephen should have been a college student. Josh, my son’s buddy, passed unexpectedly just before Christmas. The grief that consumed the parents, siblings, and our church family was so raw and heartbreaking the natural instinct was to withdraw, even while wanting to offer comfort.
“I am a parent. I don’t want to feel this horror; I don’t want to go there in my mind. The Bible tells us there is comfort. Let’s remind each other of that. It is not ‘spiritual’ to feel this grief, especially when we know the child is in heaven. No pain. At all costs, stop the pain. We do not grieve as the pagans do; we have hope.”
As Kate, who lost her 1-year-old son Alex to a heart defect said, “It still tears you apart.”
‘Comfort’ is a relative word when we are talking about the loss of a child. There is no substitute love, no biblical promise, no futuristic hope of glory strong enough to wipe out the aching, relentless pain of emptiness when the child you carried, nursed and nurtured is suddenly gone. Sometimes all you can do as a friend is to be there–not run from the other parent’s pain, not deny it, not gloss over it with spiritual-sounding platitudes. Months after Josh died, after the cards stopped coming and the meals were no longer delivered, his mom and I cried together over the phone. “I just miss him so much…this wasn’t supposed to happen,” she said.
Never Minimize Grief
I have always been struck by the scene in John 11, where Jesus wept with the two sisters, Mary and Martha, over the death of their brother Lazarus. Even knowing He was going to raise Lazarus and the story was going to end “happily ever after,” so to speak, the Savior of mankind was moved so much by individual, human grief that He chose to fully enter into it. There is not a human emotion Jesus has not fully experienced, and this fact alone brings us a measure of comfort in our own pain. Notice He never minimizes their pain; our Redeemer is moved by His children’s suffering. God never says “pull yourself together” or “just get over it.” And neither should we–grieving is a long, lonely, and highly personal process.