About seventeen years ago, I was attending one of those infamous Southern Baptist committee meetings at our church in Fort Smith, Arkansas. We were engaging in some informal conversation around the table before the meeting actually began, and the pastor asked one attendee a question. She was an older lady, who had been a member of the church for a long time...the pastor knew her quite well. He said, "As a pastor, there's something I've always wondered...What is the most painful type of loss someone can endure? I know that in your lifetime, you have lost your parents, your husband, some of your brothers and sisters, and a daughter. Which loss was the most difficult for you?" The dear woman replied with shining eyes, "Oh, Pastor...the loss of my daughter was by far the greatest loss I ever experienced. The others were painful, but I still grieve the loss of my daughter every day in my heart." And our pastor answered, "That is exactly what I've heard over and over again in all the years of my ministry...that the loss of a child is the most painful loss there is."
I was about 27 years old at that time, with one young daughter and another on the way, and as I heard her response, I thought to myself, "Wow...I hope I never have to face that!" For some reason, that conversation has stuck with me all these years. And from time to time, it comes to my mind, and I wonder about it. Since I haven't experienced any of those other types of losses, I've wondered if what I heard that day is really true.
Last weekend, we spent hours listening to bereaved parents pour out their hearts, both in group meetings, and with us privately. We did our own share of pouring, as well! As I shared in my previous post, we twelve couples came from ten different states and Canada, and our stories of loss were, for the most part, very different. But here are some things that, over the course of the weekend, we discovered we had in common:
--The pain we share is deep, and it is very real. There were parents there whose son lived for only two heartbeats after birth, and parents whose daughter lived to be an adult with a child of her own. There were parents whose child had suffered months or years of illness, and parents whose child's life was gone in one earth-shattering moment. Two couples had lost two children. I still don't know if the conversation I overheard 17 years ago was completely accurate...I really think there are things that could be worse than death when it comes to your children...but the pain and grief I heard and felt last weekend was immense. It didn't matter how old our children were or how we lost them...the pain was deep, and it was real.
--Most of us who were there had come to terms with God's sovereignty in taking our children to Heaven sooner than we would have liked, but as one dad put it, "We reserve the right to protest." While we all agreed that our faith has gotten us through our experiences, nearly all of us have experienced some real spiritual struggles.
--All of us have struggled with feeling "different" or "out of place" like I mentioned a couple of posts back. Our thoughts are different, our outlook is different, our conversation is different. One mom said, "Everyone around us is talking about kindergarten and we want to talk about calculus!" Who has time for small talk and chit-chat, when there are issues of such great importance to discuss? I think that's one reason we enjoyed visiting so much...we spent all our time talking about issues and experiences we felt so passionately about.
--All of us have struggled with getting back into "real life" after the death of our children. People usually don't know what to say to us, or if they should say anything at all. And we're no help...sometimes we want them to talk to us and sometimes we don't! One mom said that they felt like they carried death with them everywhere they went, and it had deeply affected their relationships with others. Oddly enough, the place we all agreed was the most difficult to go back to was church! I think part of that is just the emotion inherent in attending a worship service, but I suspect some of it may be that we seem to feel it necessary to keep up a "front" in church...so that others will think we are just as perfect inside as we appear to be on the outside. I don't know...I'm still pondering that one.
--Strange as it may sound, we've all experienced some degree of memory loss or "brain fog" related to our child's death and the time that's past since then. I thought it was just me, or the fact that I'll be turning 45 in a couple of months, but I guess not. Maybe it's because our thoughts are so consumed with "calculus" all the time...I don't know. I'm just glad to know that I'm not the only one!
--All of the moms felt like they had aged rapidly since the death of their child. All of us described the experience of looking in the mirror and wondering what had happened to us! And not just in appearance...it seems that that extra weight of grief has taken a toll on our bodies as well.
--This may be surprising, but when one dad described their experience of losing their 3 month old baby as 100% terrible and 100% wonderful at the same time, we all murmured in agreement. We all agreed that as awful as losing our children has been, so much good has come from our experiences as well.
--All of us had a strong desire for our children to not be forgotten. Every one of us, in different ways, have sought ways to memorialize our children. I had never thought this would be a big deal for us...we truly believe Hannah's storm was more about God than it ever was about Hannah...but as time goes by, I do find myself wanting to make sure that Hannah's life is not forgotten.
--Finally, we all agreed that we could never survive these experiences without our faith in God. I often heard people at the retreat wondering aloud how people got through things like this without Him. I've said that many, many times myself. And as difficult emotionally as last weekend was, we all left there uplifted, because we all knew we would be seeing our children again. Best of all, we all left knowing that the time we've spent without them here will be redeemed in Heaven someday...every minute will be made up for. And how amazing is that?