Recently, two couples we know have lost a young son - one through an auto accident and another through suicide. I wish with all my heart that I could ease the horrible nightmare that these families are going through. But, there is one humble truth - I cannot. I can pray. I can send expressions of love but I cannot rip that pain from their hearts. This new pain will forever be part of the fabric of their lives.
I remember over twenty-five years ago receiving the phone call that would forever change my life, challenge my faith, cause me to question truth, and bring an anguish so intense to my soul that breathing was a excruciating experience. Our phone call was from our attorney who coldly stated to my husband, "Mark, that thing you said could happen, has happened. Marvin and Sandra have kidnapped your children."
Disbelief. After battling my parents for a year on horrible allegations of abuse and neglect, with all being disproved in court, we had been told that the following Friday our children would come home. Unknown to us or the court, the guardian ad litem had given my parents permission to take our beloved children out of school for a week for a vacation from which they never returned. We were already beaten up by the slander and thought that at last this horrible period was coming to an end. Instead, we were informed, "They have been stolen."
When Mark hung up the phone and told me, I fell to the floor and became violently ill. Mark was able to get me up and we stood clinging to each other. No language has words to describe the unfathomable emotion we were feeling. Yet, we had to continue. We had to pack a suitcase, find a seminary friend to keep Michael, and drive to Tennessee so we could press charges and appear in court to be told that we were wonderful, self-sacrificing parents. I remember little of those days except the pain. I prayed to wake up from what had been the hell on earth we had lived through for the past year. I prayed to wake up to hear the sound of my three children's voices talking or singing. But, I never woke up from the nightmare because the nightmare had become our lives.
At first I thought that surely the FBI or the TBI would find them any day. I believed that God would restore what the enemy had stolen but as the hours turned to days, the days to weeks, the weeks to months, and the months of years my faith faltered and grief, mourning, pain, anger, and hatred began to grow in my heart.
People had no clue as to what to say. Most folks (even to this day) want to minimize the pain. Folks said things to us like, "Well, at least it was your parents who did this. You know that they love your children." Really, that was supposed to give me comfort? I thought that my parents loved me and yet they slandered me and stole my children. We had those who wanted to spiritualize everything and advised me to thank God for allowing me the opportunity to walk through this tragedy. And, of course there were questions. Questions that could not be answered: "So, why did they do this?" "How are you doing?" And my all time favorite, "So, where are they?"
A friend once told me that I did not act like someone with kidnapped children. I remember wondering where the rulebook was on how to act when one loses the loves of her life. I had no idea that I was supposed to act in a certain way. There was no script to follow. My response as best I can recall was, "If I acted how I felt, I would never stop screaming. No one would be able to stand to be in the same room with me. My thoughts, my sorrow, my pain is only between my God and me. I can only go to Him with these feelings because only He already knows."
Only God was able to comfort me during those early days and years. Yet, most of the time I did not recognize that it was His strength and love that was carrying me. While I instinctively knew that only God could understand, I was also very upset with Him. I wrote a song that I defiantly sang throughout our seminary apartment about I how I was no longer going to praise an invisible God who had abandoned my children and me. Finally, after weeks or months (I do not remember the time frame), Mark asked me why I was singing this song to God if He did not exist. Without pausing to think about my answer I responded, "I am singing it loudly to make sure He hears me." Mark remained silent for a moment, looking at his aching wife for which he had no comfort. Finally he quietly stated, "So, you really just want God to know you are hurting." I never sang that song again. Even at my blackest moment, I knew that God was real. However, I felt like his forgotten stepchild.
Most people, even well intentioned folks, attempts at comfort only brought more pain. Blessedly, I can recall a few souls that God put in my path that seemed to have an understanding that I needed time to grieve. They were the ones that gently embraced me and cried with me. I remember Jack and Carol Davis. They were fellow seminarians and the first people I told. Jack was getting his PhD in counseling. As I stood wailing in their living room, Jack made this statement, "I am so angry." He did not try to counsel me. He voiced an emotion that was real. I could recognize that I too was angry. Carol grabbed me and we stood crying. I know God led me to them because nothing reckless or insensitive came out of their mouths. They let me cry, grieve, and scream. They did not quote Bible verses; instead they stood as the reflection of Christ and wept with my husband and me.
While at a meeting at church, Debbie Thomas came up to me and said, "I wish I could bear your pain one day for you." Later, I found out from another friend that she thought that was a thoughtless thing to say. It was not. I knew she meant it. If there had been anyway for her to carry my pain for that day, she would have gladly endured it. Knowing that she was willing to do this actually relieved some of my sorrow that day. Without realizing it, she was reminding me that Christ was carrying my sorrow.
On another occasion, Denise Tillman showed up at our house one day with bags of groceries. She stood in my kitchen with red-rimmed eyes appearing very unsure of her actions. "I wanted to do something for you. But, there is nothing that I do about this situation. So, I bought you groceries. I hope this doesn't offend you." She recognized my pain and gave me groceries. I do not remember one thing in those many bags, but I remember her act of kindness. Groceries have nothing in common with the loss of a child; but she gave of herself and her time. She did not offend me; she loved me by helping to care for my family’s needs.
God revealed a truth to me in the people who came to us as consolers over the years. There are two kinds of people - those who literally ache with you and those who try to sympathize but are really there hoping for information.
The only questions that should be asked of grieving parents are, "What can I do?" "How can I assist you?" Never ask them how they are feeling. Never ask them how they are doing.
Let me tell you, they are hurting beyond human expression. They are trying to function when in reality they want to sleep and never wake up until that child is back in their arms. That's how they are doing.
Do not tell them that God is in control. Because honestly, when you lose a child it does not "feel" like He is even in the room let alone in control. Later, I realized the God was not only in the room but it was He holding me up from the inside. I could not see Him in the room because He had planted himself in the deepest places of my soul. It was He who was giving me the courage to face each day. But, at the beginning of the sorrow I was unaware of His presence.
Also, do not tell them to thank God for viewing them worthy to walk through this fire! People said, “God choose you and Mark to walk through this because He knew your faith was strong.” My faith may have appeared strong but it was only hanging on by a thread. I assure you as a person who has physically been on fire and also stumbled through the emotional fire of losing two of her children, no one thanks God for the fire when they are still burning and the flesh is falling off their body. That is an insensitive thing to say. I did not want to be His chosen vessel if losing my children was the cost.
Often, the best expression of empathy is a hug. Hold them. Listen to them. Do not correct their feelings. Do not minimize their pain. Clean their house. Wash their clothing. Cut their yard. And, keep your mouth closed. I found those were the people that I poured my heart out to when I was ready.
Most importantly, let them grieve. Accept their grief. Grieve with them.
Later, much later, God may give you words of comfort for them. But at this moment, there are no words.