Michael and Esther Ross Watson, a
remarkable couple who spent many years ministering in Indonesia,
experienced great tragedy when they attempted to adopt a child.
While they were still in the process of going through the adoption
process, she was taken from them and subsequently died. The next
baby they were going to adopt also suddenly died – which completely
devastated them. God had provided the room, the clothes and all the
necessary equipment to welcome this child – yet suddenly the baby
was no longer there – and the pain was overwhelming.
The next forty-eight hours were the
darkest Michael and Esther had ever experienced. It was the one time
in their life when they doubted the love of God. How could He have
provided everything yet still have let them down?
It was while they were recovering at
another missionary couple’s house that a letter came from the
orphanage, saying that they had another baby available for adoption.
Did the missionaries think that the Ross-Watsons had sufficiently
recovered to cope with such a thing? Amazed that this letter should
arrive while they were staying there, Michael and Esther went
straight round to the orphanage – and fell in love with the baby at
first sight. Angela is now twenty-seven-years old, and God has
blessed her greatly.
I was talking to Michael and Esther
recently about this episode, and they recalled how, at the end of
those dreadful forty-eight hours, a deep peace settled on them both.
They are so glad God gave them this experience before they heard
that the orphanage was trying to find a home to place the newborn
Despite their earlier disappointment,
God had been planning the very best for them – and all the baby
things they had been given were soon put to good use!
In years gone by, virtually every
family had children who failed to outlive childhood, and grief was
considered a “normal” part of life in a way that we are no longer
familiar with. Grieving together is an important way of
acknowledging that hurtful things do happen on life’s journey, and
that we can survive the storms together. This is what David
Woodhouse wrote concerning the death of infants.
||It was an occasional and
sad ministry to offer comfort to parents whose child had
died in a cot death, through miscarriage, abortion or still
birth.5 I found it important and comforting to hold a short
service in which we commend the baby to the Lord at a
separate time before the funeral, with just the parents, or
mother present. I used the passage from Isaiah 40:11 where
the Lord gathers the lambs in His arms, and carries them in
his bosom while gently leading the mother sheep.
Whether the baby is present or not, I talk through the
option of the mother holding the baby in her arms and then
symbolically lifting the baby to the Lord, handing him or
her over to the Lord’s safe-keeping until we meet again. I
have found this to be a very powerful healing and releasing
pastoral event. We hand the child to Jesus for safe-keeping
until we meet again in the Lord’s presence.
The way we explain things to
children when other children or a parent dies requires great
care – not least because they interpret words and phrases
very differently from adults. If we try to protect them from
all exposure to grief, children may end up concluding that
it is we, the grown-ups, who are unable to face what has
happened.6 This places them under an enormous strain,
because they feel obliged to comfort us – and who is
available then to help them talk about the loss that they
Right from the outset, it is
important to reassure the child that what has happened is not their
fault. However obvious this may seem from an adult perspective,
certain children (like some overly sensitive adults) easily project
mountainous consequences onto molehill acts of misbehaviour. In
other words, they somehow take it into their heads that they must
somehow have been responsible for this terrible thing that has
It is important for adults, too, to be prepared for an emotional
backlash. Grief is unpredictable and volatile, and many couples pull
apart emotionally in the aftermath of a child developing a major
disability, let alone dying. Since this is the last thing any
surviving children need, it is as well to be aware of the dangers,
and to take extra care to protect and strengthen ties of friendship.
Grandparents suffer doubly. Not only
do they have the loss of their own hopes and dreams for the loved
one to cope with, but also the pain of seeing their own children
enduring such terrible grief. This pain is all the more acute if it
hooks into unresolved issues in their own lives.7
The truth is that almost anyone with
a sensitive conscience is likely to feel some measure of guilt when
someone either falls from grace or dies. It is perilously easy for
us to feel responsible – especially when we remember all the times
we have not been as thoughtful, kind or as prayerful as we should
It will help if we are able to
differentiate between “legitimate” guilt (when we really have done
something wrong) as opposed to “neurotic” guilt (which has no basis
in reality). As surely as God forgives us when we confess real sins
to Him, it is far less helpful when we berate ourselves for things
the Lord is not convicting us of.
Demonic tempters are quick to take
advantage of such accusations. Their quest is simple: to turn our
feelings of disappointment into a lingering resentment against God.
C.S. Lewis exposes this strategy through his fictional mouthpiece,
the master demon Screwtape:
||Unexpected demands for a
man who is already tired tends to produce good results. This
means first feeding him with false hopes (presumption).
Weaken their resolve to bear what they have to bear, make
people doubt their happiness (it is too subjective after
all) and live only in the “reality” – as if such happiness
were not already reality.8
Many years ago I was part of
a church that prayed earnestly for a teenage boy who was
suffering from Hodgkin’s Disease. Despite much heartfelt
prayer, the boy died. There was no need for anyone to
consider the boy’s home-going as a failure. Right to the
end, the Lord’s presence had shone through him, touching
many by his vibrant peace and witness.9 Yet the Church was
so “set back” in their faith that several years passed
before people felt free to pray again with any real
conviction for the sick to be healed.
As always, we are responsible for the
process, not the outcome. As surely as trying to live up to
standards which the Lord is not asking of us is a recipe for
disillusionment, at the same time we must be prepared to acknowledge
when we really have failed, and be prepared to face the
There is one other important thing to
note in this context. When we do go to God in this way, we must be
sure to receive His forgiveness by faith. What would be the point of
confession if we did not actually believe that He is prepared to
forgive us? It would be like pleading for a glass of water but then
not drinking it. As far as the east is from the west, so far has He
removed our transgressions from us (Psalm 103:12).