“But now thus says the LORD, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you…” (Isaiah 43:1-2)
Within the Order of Service of Baptism we hear these words: “Child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.” What a gift it is to know that God calls each child by name. Baptism is a time of promise and hope in the promises of God. In the unspeakable moment when parents face the death of a child, these baptismal promises can seem distant and sometimes even absent. As pastors and leaders of faith, how do we affirm, accompany, and proclaim God’s promises when a parent cries out in grief?
As people of faith we are called to be present with one another in seasons of birth and welcome but also in the midst of grief and confusion.
As a hospital chaplain, I offer support and care grounded in the fact that we have received the gift of being called by name as children of God. It is difficult to meet a family for the first time in the midst of great agony, loss, and grief. As I introduce myself to families I share that in the midst of their time in the hospital I am here to help them remember who they were as a family before they came to the hospital, how they will be family while they are in the hospital, and how they will be family as they return home. When a child dies, there is possibly no greater moment for the need for families to remember their place and identity in the family of God. For many families their faith is a guide in the midst of facing illness, injury, or grief. Other families struggle to see how their faith will assist them in the midst of some of the hardest days of their lives. And others yet do not know if they have the letters to form the words of prayers for the unthinkable loss of a child. As people of faith we are called to be present with one another in seasons of birth and welcome but also in the midst of grief and confusion.
Many of the thoughts shared in this issue of Let’s Talk reflect on the active parenting of a child. The reflections that I share below come from a place of honoring and supporting the identity of mothers and fathers who may not visibly be known as parents because their child has died, yet who continue to embody their identity as parents within their hearts.
The English language does not have a name for parents who have experienced the death of a child.
As a new mother, I could not fully comprehend my identity as a parent until I felt my daughter kick in the womb; take her first breath of air; call me mama for the first time; or cry out in the middle of the night. Throughout my pregnancy I sought out wisdom from friends and family on how to care for my baby. The wisdom and insights I received, although appreciated, could not be fully understood until I lived into my own identity as a parent. I hesitate in sharing ways that we can accompany and support parents who are grieving, because I do not fully know the grief that I try to support. When someone loses a spouse, he or she becomes a widow or widower. The English language does not have a name for parents who have experienced the death of a child. And so we, as people of faith, journey with parents in a place that is full of raw emotion and thoughts, yet absent of words adequate to speak of such grief. What I share below comes from the hearts of many parents who came to know firsthand what they needed from friends, family, and their faith community after their child died.
There is a great tension for bereaved parents when people forget to recognize them as parents. At the same time, these parents struggle to name and identify themselves to people who do not know that their child died. How does a bereaved parent answer the innocent question of the person sitting next to them on the airplane: “How many children do you have?” Many parents share with me that friends, family, and coworkers stop mentioning their child’s name, as if hearing their child’s name said out loud will be too painful for them to hear. Yet, so many parents tell me that not a moment goes by that they aren’t thinking of their child. One mother told me, “When someone says my son’s name, the sound is more valuable to me than gold.” Saying a child’s name out loud acknowledges what parents hold for an eternity within their hearts. It is within these two silences — in the absence of conversations about their child and in trying to determine how to share their identity as bereaved parents — that parents seem to lose their outward identity as parents of a child who has died.
The Eucharist gives us permission to name the brokenness in our lives, experience God’s grace infused into the present moment, and live into the hopeful promises of God’s presence in the future.
Just as much as bereaved parents share their needs for support, I also regularly hear from physicians, grandparents, friends, and pastors of bereaved parents that they don’t know what to say to parents. Afraid of saying the wrong thing, they say nothing at all. I encourage them to take the risk of saying out loud, “I don’t know what to say right now, but I am thinking of you,” or “I thought of Sarah yesterday when I made her favorite meal.” We cannot take away the pain of grief, but as Christians who receive the gift of grace in the sacrament of communion, we share the story again and again of Christ bringing people together for the Last Supper. As siblings in Christ, we too can re-member our identity as family by sharing stories and memories with one another. The Eucharist gives us permission to name the brokenness in our lives, experience God’s grace infused into the present moment, and live into the hopeful promises of God’s presence in the future.
Friends and family often offer support in the weeks soon after the death of a child, but that the support and connection quickly dwindles as people return to their regular schedules and busy lives. Grief can be predictable on some days and catch one by surprise on another day. Navigating between the moments where grief can freely be expressed without becoming paralyzed and isolated by the grief can be a lifelong quest. A family’s home congregation can play an important role in accompanying the grieving in this journey.
Many parents share with me their mixture of emotions about returning to worship and participating in the life of their church. One mother said she was ready to return to worship after the death of her son, yet her husband said his anger at God prevented him from attending church for many months. The mother could not bear the thought of sitting alone in the pew. Months had gone by and they had not attended worship, yet the presence and love of the congregation was known in their home by the hand-made sympathy cards from their son’s Sunday school class and by the pastor and youth director stopping by for a cup of coffee. Years later, this same mother now offers a support group at the church for grieving parents. When we don’t see families at church on Sunday, we can reach out and offer to be the faithful community that literally and figuratively meets them where they are at in the midst of their grief.
Our worship liturgies and rhythms can also provide a framework and safe place to be in the midst of grief. Many congregations offer a worship service during Advent for those who journey with grief, create rituals of remembrance on All Saint’s Day, or include prayers and recognition of grieving parents on Mother’s or Father’s Day. It is within these liturgies, prayers, and ritual acts that we can provide a space once again to call these parents by name and support them in their identity and grief as parents.
Amidst the anguish, pain, and cries of lament of a grieving parent, God calls out with a louder voice of promise. As leaders in the Church and siblings in Christ, we too are empowered to speak of the now and not yet, the ever-ancient yet ever-new promise that God has called us by name once and for all. As people of God we can reach out with hands wetted by the font, brows blessed with oil, and faces anointed with salty tears and affirm the calling of parents whose hearts have been shattered by grief. As we affirm and lift up the parents who walk the path of grief, we are held by the promise of the prophet Isaiah: when the tears seem to become a river we will not be overwhelmed.
Join the Conversation:
What kinds of ritual practices might your church develop to name the deceased, affirm their baptismal identity, and recognize those who mourn?