Grieving Parents

Welcome May 30, 2011
If you are a parent who has lost a child, someone who is in the depths of grief or someone learning how to live the "new normal," I hope that the following will be of some help.
When the Waters are Deep May 30, 2011
Howard Edington, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Orlando, FL preached this sermon after his twenty-two year old son John David died after accidentally driving his car into a tree during a rainstorm.
A Random Act of Violence May 9, 2011
This article is about how a church in Illinois is healing following the murder of their pastor during a Sunday service. There are interviews with the murdered pastor's wife, the worship pastor and the minister of pastoral care.
Where the Children Can Dance May 2, 2011
Philip Turner, a former dean of the Berkeley Divinity School at Yale wrote the following meditation and read it at his son, Brendan's funeral. Brendan, was delivered after his death, with spina bifida, a cleft palate, and club feet.
Anne Elizabeth Kuzee March 18, 2011
Anne Kuzee died of cancer when she was thirteen. Jack Roeda, her pastor, responded first by acknowledging the abyss of despair and unbelief that could surround the moment. Like biblical lament, he does not soften despair with sentimentality, but also does not let despair be the final word.
Alex's Death March 9, 2011
William Sloane Coffin preached this sermon less than two weeks after his son drove his car into Boston Harbour.
When I Endure Grief February 14, 2011
This is an excerpt from Lloyd John Ogilve's book "Praying Through the Tough Times."
Casey William Alley January 20, 2011
The following is Craig Barnes's funeral sermon for Casey William Alley, a three-week old baby boy.
Giving Birth to Grief January 18, 2011
"Like a mother's pangs, the death of a child brings painful contractions and release." Jack Rehill is a pastor in Pennsylvania and this is his story of the last days of his son's life.

Alex's Death

I will bless the Lord at all times;
his praise shall continually be in my mouth.
My soul makes its boast in the Lord;
Let the afflicted hear and be glad.
Psalm 34:1-2

For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 8:38-39

As almost all of you know, a week ago last Monday night, driving in a terrible storm, my son Alexander –who to his friends was a real day-brightener, and to his family, “fair as a star when only one is shining in the sky” —my twenty-four-year-old Alexander, who enjoyed beating his old man at every game and in every race, beat his father to the grave.

Among the healing flood of letters that followed his death was one carrying this wonderful quote form the end of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms: “The world breaks everyone, then some become strong at the broken places.” My own broken heart is mending, and largely thanks to so many of you, my dear parishioners; for if in the last week I have relearned one lesson, it is that love not only begets love, it transmits strength.

Because so many of you have cared so deeply and because obviously I’ve been able to think of little else, I want this morning to talk of Alex’s death, I hope in a way helpful to all.

When a person dies, there are many things that can be said, and there is at least one thing that should never be said. The night after Alex dies I was sitting in the living room of my sister’s house outside of Boston, when the front door opened and in came a nice-looking middle-aged woman, carrying about eighteen quiches. When she saw me she shook her head, then headed for the kitchen, saying sadly over her shoulder, “I just don’t understand the will of God.” Instantly I was up and in pursuit, swarming all over her. “I’ll say you don’t, lady!” I said. (I knew the anger would do me good, and the instruction to her was long overdue.) I continued, “Do you think it was the will of God that Alex never fixed that lousy windshield wiper of his, that he was probably driving too fast in such a storm, that he probably had a couple of ‘frosties’ too many? Do you think it is God’s will that there are no streetlights along that stretch of road, and no guardrail separating the road and Boston Harbor?”

For some reason, nothing so infuriates me as the incapacity of seemingly intelligent people to get it through their head that God doesn’t go around this world with his finger on triggers, his fist around knives, his hands on steering wheels. God is death set against all unnatural deaths. And Christ spent an inordinate amount of time delivering people from paralysis, insanity, leprosy, and muteness. Which is not to say that there are no nature-caused deaths that are untimely and slow and pain-ridden (I can think of many right here in this parish in the five years I’ve been here), and which for that reason raise unanswerable questions, and even the specter of a Cosmic Sadist—yes, even an Eternal Vivisector. But violent deaths, such as the one Alex dies—to understand those is a piece of cake. As his younger brother put it simply, standing at the head of the casket at the Boston funeral, “You blew it, buddy. You blew it.” The one thing that should never be said when someone dies is, “It is the will of God.” Never do we know enough to say that. My own consolation lies in knowing that it was not the will of God that Alex die; that when the waves closed over the sinking car, God’s heart was the first of all our hearts to break.

I mentioned the healing flood of letters. Some of the very best, and easily the worst, came from fellow reverends, a few of whom proved they knew their Bibles better than human condition. I know all the “right” biblical passages, including, “Blessed are those who mourn,” and my faith is no house of cards; these passages are true, I know. But the point is this: While the words of the Bible are true, grief renders them unreal. The reality of gried is the absenve of God—“My God, my God, why has though forsaken me?” The reality of grief is the solitude of pain, the feeling that your heart’s in pieces, your mind’s blank, that, in the words of Lord Byron, “there is no joy the world can give like that it takes away.”

That’s why immediately after such a tragedy people must come to your rescue, people who only want to hold your hand, not to quote anybody or even say anything, people who simply bring food and flowers—the basics of beauty and life—people who sign letters simply, “Your broken-hearted sister.” In other words, in my intense grief I felt some of my fellow reverends—no many, and none of you, thank God—were using comforting words of Scripture for self-protection, to pretty up a situation whose bleakness they simply couldn’t face. But like God herself, Scripture is not around for anyone’s protection, just for everyone’s unending support.

And that what hundreds of you understood so beautifully. You gave me what God gives all of us—minimum protection, maximum support. I swear to you, I wouldn’t be standing her were I not upheld.

After the death of his wife, C.S. Lewis wrote, “They say, ‘the coward dies many time’; so does the beloved. Didn’t the eagle find fresh liver to teat in Prometheus every time it dined?”

When parents die, as did my mother last month, they take with them a large portion of the past. But when children die, they take away the future as well. That is what makes the valley of the shadow of death seem so incredibly dark and unending. In a prideful way it would be easier to walk the valley alone, nobly, head high, instead of—as we must—marching as the latest recruit in the world’s army of the bereaved.

Still there is much by way of consolation. Because there are no rankling unanswered questions, and because Alex and I simply adored each other, the wound for my is deep, but clean. I know how lucky I am! I also know that this day-brightener of a son wouldn’t wish to be held close by grief (nor, for that matter, would any but the meanest of our beloved departed), and that, interestingly enough, when I mourn Alex least I see him best.

Another consolation, of course, will be the learning—which had better be good, given the price. But it’s a fact: few of us are naturally profound; we have to be forced down. So while trite, Robert Browning Hamilton’s lines are true:

I walked a mile with Pleasure,
She chattered all the way;
But left me none the wiser
For all she had to say.

I walked a mile with Sorrow
And ne’er a word said she;
But oh, the things I learned from her
When Sorrow walked with me.

Or, in Emily Dickenson’s verse,

By a departing light
we see acuter quite
Than by wick that stays.
There’s something in the flight
That clarifies the sight
And decks the rays.

And of course I know, even when pain is deep, that God is good. “My God, My God, why hast though forsaken me?” Yes, but at least, “My God, My God”; and the psalm only begins that way, it doesn’t end that way. As the grief that once seemed unbearable begins to turn now to bearable sorrow, the truths in the “right” biblical passages are beginning, once again, to take hold: “Cast thy burden upon the Lord and He shall strengthen thee”; “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning”; “Lord, by thy favour thou hast made my mountain to stand strong”; “for though hast delivered my soul from death, mine eyes from tears, and my feet from falling.” “In this world ye shall have tribulation, but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.” “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

And finally I know that when Alex beat me to the grave, the finish line was not Boston Harbor in the middle of the night. If a week ago last Monday a lamp went out, it was because, for him at least, the Dawn had come.

So I shall—so let us all—seek consolation in that love which never dies, and find peace in the dazzling grace that always is.

This posting a chapter in "This Incomplete One: Words Occasioned by the Death of a Young Person," a book edited by Michael D. Bush. You can purchase it on Amazon.