Tomorrow* marks two years since we said goodbye to our teenage son, Nathan, who went to be with Jesus. We were on holidays and we knew that the cancer would take him soon, but it’s hard to drive home with one less kid in your car.
When he died, I was relieved that he was with his Lord, but I still miss him so much. My temporary shepherding of him had finished, and he now is with the greater shepherd of his soul.
I still cry when I eat his favourite food, watch his favourite sport, or see a picture of him as a little child or young man enduring chemotherapy. Sometimes I weep uncontrollably, as I am doing right now. Other times, I just cry internally. It’s like the tears just fall down the inside of my face rather than the outside. No one sees them. The tears are mixed with joy, thankfulness, parental pride, gratitude and confidence that I will see him again. But they are still tears.
The New Testament gives us hope in Christ, for all who trust in him, but I also take great encouragement from the smallest of phrases, “sorrow upon sorrow”. The Apostle Paul, who taught us to grieve with hope, could also say about his dear friend and brother Epaphroditus:
Indeed he was ill, near to death. But God had mercy on him, and not only on him but on me also, lest I should have sorrow upon sorrow. (Phil 2:27 cf. 1 Thess 4:13)
While I have been strengthened by Jesus and his gospel, I wanted now to dig into the Old Testament, which portrays many generations of parents and children living outside the Garden of Eden. What does it reflect to us about the tragedy of a parent burying their son or daughter?
In my small search, here are six things I have found that I need to tell myself and others who have lost children.
Know that many others in God’s family have lost children
The roll call of God’s people who have lost children is longer than you might realise, but that doesn’t make it any easier to you add your name to the list. Some clubs you never want to join and this one has the worst entry fee. Parents who lost children before their time include: Adam and Eve (Gen 4:25), Judah, Aaron, Samuel, David, Job, not to mention in the New Testament: Jairus, the widow of Nain, and Mary. While there is no safety in numbers, I have found it good to know that I am not alone in this pain.
Know that the pain in the Bible is real and the responses varied
What unites the parents who lose children is overwhelming pain, physical anguish, and sorrow upon sorrow.
The Egyptians on the night of the Passover lost their firstborn sons. I remember reading this passage for the first time holding the hand with my little firstborn. In contrast to theirs, my tears were silent.
“There shall be a great cry throughout all the land of Egypt, such as there has never been, nor ever will be again.” (Exod 11:6 cf. 12:30)
I can imagine that in the multiplication of that agony, with everyone suffering simultaneously, there would not have been the backup of helpers and supporters. All Egyptian hope and confidence would have died with their boys; not unlike the Israelites whose boys they had previously ruthlessly slaughtered (Exod 1:22).
King David lost several children, but his reaction to the deaths of two of these sons is so different. His young unnamed child, from the adulterous affair with Bathsheba, was struck sick for six days and died on the seventh. His servants couldn’t understand why David was so visibly grieving while the boy was alive, but not when finally he died. David answered their astonishment:
“While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept, for I said, ‘Who knows whether the LORD will be gracious to me, that the child may live?’ But now he is dead. Why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me.” (2 Sam 12:22-23)
I can relate to David’s hope. He knew God’s goodness isn’t limited by death. He also held to the reality that nothing can change the fate of his son.
But in a deeper way I stand more comfortably with his servants. I don’t know anyone who has lost a baby who has acted this way. Normally the roles are reversed. Comforting friends tell the parents about hope and moving on, while the parents sit weeping next to the hospital bed. But we all react so differently.
David’s reaction to his adult son Absalom’s death almost undoes him as a king, and swings in the completely opposite direction. That the same man could grieve so completely differently for two of his sons, warns us that different situations will affect us quite differently.
In a well-planned revenge, Absalom had already killed David’s firstborn son, stolen the people’s hearts, taken the throne and had made his father an exile from Jerusalem. However, during a very bitter civil war, David’s men finally killed Absalom. The man who brought the report thought he was bringing news of peace. There was no peace in this father’s heart.
And the king was deeply moved and went up to the chamber over the gate and wept. And as he went, he said, “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!” (2 Sam 18:33)
Shock, anger, bargaining and depression are all seen in this bitter moment. At his death, Absalom was not an enemy, but a son. I could imagine a grief like this from a parent over an estranged daughter or son. It doesn’t matter how much you have seen them or how well you relate to them, if it is your flesh and blood, they should not die before you. Five times in two sentences, he calls him “my son”. If we were there, I would not be surprised to have heard him say it five hundred times.
Even a lie can cause the same pain. The patriarch Jacob spent many years thinking that his favourite son Joseph was dead, killed by wild animals. His first reaction was mourning and his plan was to mourn for the rest of his life, until his dying day. I have spoken to elderly mothers who lost their children sixty years ago, who still shed tears. We cry together.
Then Jacob tore his garments and put sackcloth on his loins and mourned for his son many days. All his sons and all his daughters rose up to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted and said, “No, I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning.” Thus his father wept for him. (Gen 37:34-35)
Many years later, when Joseph, who had been living in Egypt, had risen meteorically to the role of prime minister, his father was still mourning and it greatly affected his parenting. Joseph only had one full brother, Benjamin. Jacob would not let Benjamin join the others journeying to Egypt:
But he said, “My son shall not go down with you, for his brother is dead, and he is the only one left. If harm should happen to him on the journey that you are to make, you would bring down my grey hairs with sorrow to Sheol.” (Gen 42:38)
In Genesis we do not know as much about Jacob’s wife, Rachel’s, tears, but they are prophetically used later in the Bible:
“Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more.” (Jer 31:15)
Mothers and fathers who lose children react differently, but there is always deep pain involved.
Know that there is more than one way to lose a child
Let me just draw aside to underline an important truth. Death is not the only cause of sorrow for parents. Some readers can relate deeply to this truth. Cancer, motor-vehicle accidents and birth complications are not the only things that rob us of hope and cause ongoing mourning and tears. Completely wasting away a life on addictive online computer games, drinking away life savings, and turning away from God the saviour and redeemer, all bring pain to parents.
The proverbs of Solomon. A wise son makes a glad father, but a foolish son is a sorrowto his mother. (Prov 10:1)
He who sires a fool gets himself sorrow, and the father of a fool has no joy. (Prov 17:21)
An older man I greatly respect was at an inner-city church full of young families. They had one of those sharing questions about what brings joy in life. Person after person answered that their children do. My friend told me that he had to stand up and balance the answers. Children do not just bring joy; they can also bring so much pain. Ask any parent of a teenage or adult child. Nothing hurts more than a child who hates you. Many prodigals do not return. In Jesus’ parable, if the younger son had not returned to this father, in this father’s experience, he would have remained lost and dead (Luke 15:32).
I know this aside has broken the flow of the argument, but as a parent of a child who has died far too young, but still trusted in Jesus, I find encouragement. Some of us can take comfort in the short lives that we had with our children – that during the time they lived with us they brought us joy, honour and happiness. This is a gift from God.
But I also mourn and am reminded to pray for parents who have lost their children in this other way where there was no funeral. For many it is not too late. May God listen to our prayers mixed with tears. While many prodigals never return, some do.
Know that the loss of children may lie behind some of the deepest prayers and songs in the Bible
One is for sure. Job was a godly man who suffered greatly. He loved his children tremendously and went far beyond the normal love and spiritual protection of their souls (Job 1:5). On one day, all of his ten children were killed in a windstorm (Job 1:18-19).
Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshipped. And he said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.” In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong. (Job 1:20-22)
This prayer drips with pathos. He mourns and then he worships. Before my son died, this prayer seemed so far removed from reality, a two-dimensional cartoon of what someone should do – but I see it far closer to my experience. When they are taken, so is our earthly hope and our future plans. When we are laid bare, if we had the Lord to begin with, all we have left with us is him. We trust him because who else can we turn to?
But I acknowledge that not everyone reacts this way. Two of my good friends who have lost children find it hard to pray and sing. We all react differently.
As I’ve mentioned already, David was a man who had buried at least three of his children by his middle age. Surprisingly there is no single Psalm about child loss, but his experience must have coloured everything he wrote.
Last year, I found myself drawn to sermons and books written by people who had been through the pain of child-loss. I didn’t want to read their books on grief. I just wanted to hear their normal teaching, prayers and hope in the gospel. I could hear their loss affecting their pastoral care and urgency.
In a similar way, when we read and sing the Psalms, we step into a world where many who wrote them had lost children and the community that sung them was full of families with empty spots at their Sabbath meals. I find there is a depth to all the Psalms of David as I read of his pain, loss, love and joy in the Lord his God. Little wonder then that most of the people I know who have lost kids are drawn to the Psalms. Psalm 61:1-2 spoke for me.
Hear my cry, O God, listen to my prayer; from the end of the earth I call to you when my heart is faint. Lead me to the rock that is higher than I… (Psalm 61:1-2)
I not only needed the Lord in my cries, but I needed God to lead me to himself.
Know the stories of children returned
In the Old Testament and the New Testament, there are stories of children being returned to their parents. Each portrays interesting responses of the mothers and fathers involved, but even more, each shows the hand of God reaching into this world of brokenness and sin.
- Elijah raises the Widow of Zarephath’s son (1 Kgs 17:17-24)
- Elisha revives the Shunammite woman’s son (2 Kgs 4:18-37)
- Jesus raises the dead son of the widow of Nain (Luke 7:11-15)
- Jesus wakes the dead daughter of Jairus, the synagogue ruler (Mark 5:22-24,35-43; Luke 8:41-42, 49-55)
Reading these stories can be like joining a prayer group for childless couples. With the sharing of each set of wonderful news, joy is born internally for those others, but there can be an extra pain for the mother and father whose little one has not yet been returned. I still love these stories and will always volunteer to teach on them. I hope that others also in my club would not avoid them either. Each is a picture of God’s kingdom to come and a promise of things God has planned. The book of Hebrews which says that “Women received back their dead by resurrection”, also says that God has promised something better even for his own people now in Christ (Heb 11:35, 39-40). It’s hard to think of what could be even better than that.
Know the eternal promises for God’s people of children returned
The story of Joseph returning to his father is a picture of a dead child being returned to his father. But it is his mother, Rachel, whom we now turn to. She never saw her son again. Rachel is a such tragic figure since she died giving birth to her second son. She was buried in Bethlehem (Gen 48:7). But the prophets used her tears as a picture of God’s salvation:
Thus says the LORD: “A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more.” (Jer 31:15)
The matriarch is figuratively crying out from her tomb in Bethlehem because her descendants looked like they would die or go into exile. But God tells Rachel to stop weeping over Israel, because the children will come home:
Thus says the LORD: “Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears, for there is a reward for your work, declares the LORD, and they shall come back from the land of the enemy. There is hope for your future, declares the LORD, and your children shall come back to their own country. (Jer 31:16-17)
When the New Testament uses this quote of Jesus and the slaughter of the Bethehemite children, we resonate with the pain and agony, but sometimes forget the second half of what God was saying. They will return. And the one who brings life, even though he was taken to Egypt, was returning home to save all God’s children.
This promise reminds us of the hope that is found embryonically in the Old Testament and is shown to be completely fulfilled in the New. God will “create new heavens and a new earth” (Isa 65:17). One of the focal points will be God’s rejoicing in the New Jerusalem:
I will rejoice in Jerusalem and be glad in my people; no more shall be heard in it the sound of weeping and the cry of distress. No more shall there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not fill out his days, for the young man shall die a hundred years old, and the sinner a hundred years old shall be accursed. … They shall not labor in vain or bear children for calamity, for they shall be the offspring of the blessed of the LORD, and their descendants with them. (Isa 65:19-20, 23)
The promise is ramped up through Jesus, who promises more:
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Rev 21:3-4)
I find great encouragement in the promises of God that address one of the most horrific tragedies that can affect anyone. When loud voices call out that there will be no mourning or crying or death, from reading Isaiah, I am convinced that front and centre is the weeping of parents over a casket that is far too little or crying over a body far too young (Isa 65:19).
God is not far from broken-hearted parents who trust him. The foundational event of the Old Testament was the salvation of the firstborn sons, and the reality of the New Testament atonement involved the self-giving of God’s only Son for the sake of his people. God the Father saw his Son die, before he received him back again with joy.
But while we wait for all things being made new, I also find deep encouragement in the men and women who have walked before me, men and women who have also trusted in God and have had to bury their own children. Fathers who have mourned, mothers who cried their whole lives, but who still worshipped the Lord in hope.
Sorrow may come upon sorrow while we wait, but Jesus said to us: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” (Matt 5:4)
* Originally published on Andrew Barry’s blog, TheBibleAtoZ, written on 11 January 2019.