Written by Steven Liechty
My toddler died just over two years ago, and my heart is in constant pain. Though many members of my congregation initially stepped up to offer support, the pastors, who I actually worked in the office with, did very little. Another family, who encountered a similar experience just before my own, has been given far more support. Not only did I lose my child, but I feel I lost my church, too. I still believe in God, and I know s/he didn't "do" this to me...that life happens, and God is there to walk with us and comfort us during our worst, best, and mediocre moments, but my heart aches, and I am seeking any comfort I can find. I have a lot of fears, and cannot bear the thought of losing more than I already have. I would appreciate any prayers, comfort, suggestions, advice you are able/willing to provide.
Dear Bereaved Mother,
What a terrible loss! It's not surprising that your heart is in constant pain. A child's death is not something you just get over with time. But I sense that you aren't looking to get over it. You just want to be helped to heal, which is different. You expect your church to be a help in your healing, and I don't think that's an unreasonable expectation. No one heals alone. Healing happens best when we are together.
So first of all, let me say I'm sorry that your church seems not to have been there for you when you needed them most, and hasn't seemed to know how to stay with you as your grieving process unfolds. It's no wonder you fear that in addition to losing your child, you may also lose your church—or it has let you get lost. It's particularly hard to be carrying around such an immense grief and feel that your pastors don't seem to be paying attention. It's a great testament to your strong faith that you are still hoping for the connection that would comfort and support you.
But sometimes it's hard for people in a church to understand that healing from grief is a lifetime's work. Church communities tend to "move on" after a tragic event happens to someone in the church, and they unconsciously expect the grieving person to move on too. When you don't, because you can't, it makes some people nervous. They don't know if they should talk to you about your loss, speak about your child, or even ask how you are doing. (Some newer folks may not even know your child died.) They don't know what to say to you, and so they don't say anything at all. And that makes the atmosphere feel strange to you, and you conclude that people are a little unfeeling.
Chances are they are not really unfeeling. They may just need some prodding. This may be hard for you to do, but sometimes a grieving person needs to be specific about what she needs. People do better when they get direct requests—Will you have coffee with me tomorrow? I need a sympathetic ear for an hour or so. Could you say a prayer for me? I'm struggling with sad memories this week and need the comfort of knowing someone is praying for me. Next month is the anniversary of my child's death. I will be bringing flowers to church on the first Sunday. Will you please be sure there's a mention in the bulletin?
If you want more direct support from your pastors than you have been receiving, I think you need to ask for that too. It's true that pastors "should" be on top of the needs of the people in their congregations, especially in a case of prolonged grief after the death of a child. But they are human imperfect beings like the rest of us, and sometimes unless they get a request, they may not be aware of the need—or they may be aware and mean well, and want to call you or visit, but they get distracted by more immediate things.
So please tell your pastors that you would appreciate some time to talk about how you are doing, even if it's just to refer you to a grief support group (such as one you can find through the Compassionate Friends organization at their website, http://www.compassionatefriends.org) or to some other resources that can help you live into your situation and deal with all you are experiencing. And if you don't have the strength to make a call to your pastors yourself, have someone else do it for you.
It's hard when you notice that the attention you received from your church is different from the attention another family got in a similar tragedy, but it might be best not to dwell on that perceived difference, hurtful as it may be. It could create some bitterness in you that will make your grief more acute and make it even harder for you to reach for the help you need. So see if you can resist fostering an inner sense of blame towards your pastors and church. That's asking a lot of you, I know, but God will help you.
There's also an outside chance that the constant pain you're feeling needs more than pastoral attention. Sometimes people grieve in self-undermining ways that keep them truly stuck in the grief, and they need professional support. This may not be your case, but if you have the resources or insurance that would make it possible for you, it might be good to have an initial conversation with a therapist who specializes in grief issues, just in case.
You didn't mention a partner or spouse. I hope that if there's another parent in this picture, you're able to share your grief and carry it together in ways that are helpful for you both. Sometimes a loss like this can insert a sad wedge between parents, since people grieve differently, and that difference can increase a sense of isolation. I hope this isn't happening with you, but if that's part of the loss you're experiencing, or a loss you fear you'll experience, you may need counseling support for your relationship as well as for the grief you are carrying for the death of your child.
In the meanwhile, many grief-stricken Christians find ongoing comfort and support in the biblical psalms, which don't mince words about how hard it is to make it through a world full of troubles; and how sometimes we feel as afraid and afflicted as if we were being attacked by an army of enemies, or drowning in a sea of sorrow. The psalms teach us how important it is to address ourselves frankly to God about the way we're feeling, relying always on God's faithful ear, understanding heart, and open arms. They also show us that in the midst of grief and fear of further loss we can still be thankful, still find ways to be alive, and even find ways to be full of praise.
Here are a few you might want to use as starting points for your own prayer: Psalm 27, Psalm 31, Psalm 40, Psalm 42, Psalm 46, Psalm 56, Psalm 61, Psalm 84, Psalm 85, Psalm 91, Psalm 102, psalm 103, Psalm 121, and of course, the well-loved (for good reasons!) Psalm 23, "The Lord is my shepherd…"
May God bless, comfort, and strengthen you,
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