Part of the 'abundance' of life our family has been given has been the experience of having had our firstborn child die when she was fifteen weeks old. Yesterday was the seventh anniversary of her death, and I have found it interesting to observe how grief goes in cycles. At first, it was simply a question of taking each day at a time. I remember the first time I found myself laughing really hard about something, or the first time I did not think of her as soon as I awoke; at those times there was a strange mixture of guilt but also awareness that life was moving on in a way which was right, normal and healthy. Now, seven years later, it is more random. Every year I find the six week period from when she suddenly became ill (unexplained out of hospital asystolic cardiac arrest for those who like detail) to her death hard. There are many anniversaries and triggers. But at other times, there are days when it just hits you afresh for no obvious reason.
Years ago, I came across this 'bereaved parents' wish list'; there are certain points which I find a bit irritating, but most of it is helpful. The items I would really emphasise are those about wanting to hear our child's name spoken, wanting her to be remembered, wanting people to share their memories too. Occasionally (and it does seem so occasional now) people ask me about her and I get a little emotional. I need to explain that I am emotional because they have said the right thing, not because they have said the wrong thing.
Seven years later, not everything on that list seems immediately relevant. But some of it seems more so! Today my list might read like this:
1) When you remember our daughter, speak her name and tell us you remember her. She lived for such a short time, and her life was divided between three countries (three weeks in the UK, six healthy weeks in sub-Saharan Africa and finally six weeks in a South African hospital). Not all that many people met her. We move frequently, and our work colleagues do likewise. Therefore many people don't even know we had a daughter. If your do, and you have memories of her, these are precious treasure to us.
2) If you want to know how we are, how things feel after this time, how having several other children since might change things (or not), then ask! It is not a taboo topic!
3) Similarly, if you want to know how to support another family through the death of a child, and think we might be helpful, then ask! You can ask us direct questions, and there is nothing we would not be happy to answer (all I would ask here is that you don't just see us as a 'resource' but do remember that even when we speak pragmatically about things, there is still sadness there which will never really go away. Please remember that we also continue to grieve).
4) Don't feel afraid to be in touch on her birthday or the day that she died. Let me reassure you, we will not have forgotten, and you will not suddenly cause our day to become sad. Rather, we will be grateful that you have remembered, perhaps more so as the years pass
5) As the years pass, many people face grief and loss in different ways. Rather than hiding from it, let's learn from one another. We can 'comfort one another with the comfort we ourselves have received from God' (2 Corinthians Chapter 1). As the Apostle Peter wrote: 'Beloved, do not think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you; but rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ’s sufferings, that when His glory is revealed, you may also be glad with exceeding joy' (1 Peter 4:12-13). I have found it sad to observe how others isolate themselves in their grief, rather than drawing comfort and wisdom from those around them
6) Please don't say, 'I can't imagine what you went through'. I honestly think that you can, but that you don't really want to. You might not be entirely correct, but you can certainly imagine.
7) Please don't feel you can't talk to us about things because you haven't been through the same trial. Actually sometimes it is harder with somebody who has been through something similar, but has a different worldview, set of relationships, social support structure etc. It can be easy to assume that a shared experience is helpful (and it can be, and that is how support groups tend to work); don't be afraid that you have nothing to give. And conversely, we haven't had the experiences you have. Please don't see see some trials as somehow 'greater' than others - we are all living together in a world that is fallen and broken, and in which there is much pain. Let's encourage one another!
8) Don't worry about saying the wrong thing. From my experience, some people did say some awful things (in one week, two people said to me, 'I'm glad it was your daughter who died and not hers, because she would not have coped so well' - thanks, I'm glad you feel that way!). But I also knew even at the time that nobody meant to say anything offensive. In fact, these people were trying to build me up and bring encouragement. Back then, and perhaps even more so now, I don't think you can say the 'wrong thing', whereas saying nothing at all, and ignoring the 'elephant in the corner of the room' hurts much more
9) Ask to see photos of her. I have 'first year of life' photobooks for all my children (and two of them are less than one year long, as my daughter only had 15 weeks of life, and my second son did not join our family until he was about 16 weeks old). We often look at these with our children, but they are also helpful to show people who want to know the story. Don't worry about upsetting us. It would be a pleasure to share her story with you.
10) Don't feel that your problems are trivial and so distance yourselves from us. We were sustained by a supernatural 'peace that surpasses understanding' (Philippians 4:7), and we have often read missionary biographies where people are given amazing strength and courage to face persecutions, imprisonments, torture and other extreme hardships. It can often be more difficult to 'conduct yourself in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ' (Philippians 1:27) in the face of more sustained, mundane pressures of life. I have felt less at peace during trivial workplace squabbles than during our daughter's illness. It is difficult when we feel people put us on some kind of pedestal because we did not fall apart seven years ago. It was purely through the strength and hope that we have in Christ that we were able to walk that path. We want to share your life, and encourage you in trials. Just because something is not 'life or death' does not mean it does not matter.
I would also add one or two things to the bereaved!
1) Be gracious to others. There are reasons why some people might not be able to draw alongside you in the way that you would prefer - it is not simply that people don't care or can't be bothered. In recent years, with two babies and a toddler, and now three lively young boys aged five and under, I have had times when I would love to have been able to sit with people, talk things through, really try and be a strong support for others (as indeed others were for us). It just hasn't always been possible in the way I would like. Now, from the other side, I realise that there were some people who seemed to distance themselves from us but perhaps it was circumstance as much as choice.
2) Don't think your grief makes you unique. It may be that you have known an extreme trial and a heartbreaking loss. But it is almost universal that people experience grief and loss, disappointment, sadness and pain during their lives. It is part of living in a world which is fallen, and where there is much chaos and disorder. Rather, seek to use what you have learnt and experienced to show compassion to others (cf 2 Corinthians Chapter 1)
3) Don't think that your grief gives you a license for sin. We struggled with people who expected us to 'curse God and die' (in the words of Job's wife!) or to go wild with reckless spending or drinking or some other form of escapism. It might be that you would never do such a thing. But sin can be subtle. Watch your attitude. Beware particularly of bitterness, self-pity, covetousness and pride. All these things can keep you from living a life which gives God glory.
I hope you find these thoughts helpful, whether you yourself are grieving or whether you are supporting another through the process.
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