Letter to a Parent Grieving the Loss of a Child
Earlier this year, a grieving mother, who recently had given birth to a stillborn son, wrote to me asking for counsel and comfort. The team at Desiring God thought this letter might be helpful to some others, whether other mothers who have lost infants, parents who have lost young children, or perhaps even more broadly.
This loss and sorrow is all so fresh. I hesitate to tread into the tender place and speak. But since you ask, I pray that God would help me say something helpful.
First, please know that I know I don’t know what it is like to give birth to a lifeless body. Only a small, sad band of mothers know that. I say “lifeless body” because, as you made clear, your son is not lifeless. He simply skipped earth. For now. But in the new heavens and the new earth, he will know the best of earth and all the joys earth can give without any of its sorrows.
I do not know what age — what level of maturity and development — he will have in that day. I don’t know what level of maturity and development I will have. Will the 25-year-old or the 35- or the 45- or the 55-year-old John Piper be the risen one? God knows what is optimal for the spiritual, glorified body. And so it will be for your son. But you will know him. God will see to that. And he you. And he will thank you for giving him life. He will thank you for enduring the loss that he might have the reward sooner.
God’s crucial word on grieving well is 1 Thessalonians 4:13: “We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.” Yours is a grieving with hope. Theirs is a grieving without hope. That is the key difference. There is no talk of not grieving. That would be like suggesting to a woman who just lost her arm that she not cry, because it would be put back on in the resurrection. It hurts! That's why we cry. It hurts.
And amputation is a good analogy. Because unlike a bullet wound, when the amputation heals, the arm is still gone. So the hurt of grief is different from the hurt of other wounds. There is the pain of the severing, and then the relentless pain of the gone-ness. The countless might-have-beens. Those too hurt. Each new remembered one is a new blow on the tender place where the arm was. So grieving is like and unlike other pain.
There is a paradox in the way God is honored through hope-filled grief. One might think that the only way he could be honored would be to cry less or get over the ache more quickly. That might show that your confidence is in the good that God is and the good that he does. Yes. It might. And some people are wired emotionally to experience God that way. I would not join those who say, “O they are just in denial.”
But there is another way God is honored in our grieving. When we taste the loss so deeply because we loved so deeply and treasured God’s gift — and God in his gift — so passionately that the loss cuts the deeper and the longer, and yet in and through the depths and the lengths of sorrow we never let go of God, and feel him never letting go of us — in that longer sorrow he is also greatly honored, because the length of it reveals the magnitude of our sense of loss for which we do not forsake God. At every moment of the lengthening grief, we turn to him not away from him. And therefore the length of it is a way of showing him to be ever-present, enduringly sufficient.
So trust him deeply and let your heart be your guide whether you honor him one way or the other. Everyone is different. Beware of blaming your husband, or he you, for moving into or out of grief at different paces. It is so personal. And what you may find is that the one who seemed to recover more quickly will weep the more deeply in ten years. You just don’t know now, and it is good not to judge.
May God make your grieving a bittersweet experience of communion with Jesus. Matthew tells us that when Jesus heard that John the Baptist had been beheaded, “he withdrew from there in a boat to a desolate place by himself” (Matthew 14:13). So he knows what it is to go with you there.
We do not have a High Priest who is unable to sympathize. He was tested in every way as we are — including loss.
Grace to you and peace.
Other letters from Pastor John: