In a year that has seen at least 23 school shootings, parental grief lies very near the surface of our society. At the same distressing time, a stunning 1 in 4 women has had an abortion by age 45, creating a quieter, but even greater undercurrent of grief — one mostly unshared and unacknowledged. Then there are the countless precious children who have died too soon a thousand other ways.
How many parents that you know are facing another Christmas without their son or daughter?
Entering into the mourning of friends (or even total strangers), we rarely know how to comfort them — how to do or say something that puts God’s mercy on display, while trumpeting the joy of our blessed hope, all with appropriate sensitivity. We desperately want to avoid a candy-coated misuse of Romans 8:28 that forces tragedy into some sort of untainted blessing without acknowledging the lacerating loss. The tension renders us wordless.
But where we are wordless, the word of God is not. Woven into the account of the Messiah’s birth is a story of childhood death, a blunt and brutal story that brings parental grief right into “the most wonderful time of year.”
Massacre of the Innocents
Any reader of the Bible knows that parts of Holy Scripture are not fit for a Hallmark greeting card. The event that runs roughshod over our sanitized Christmas stories gets a 3-verse description in Matthew’s Gospel, so brief that some scholars argue about whether it happened at all.
Matthew writes, “Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah:
‘A voice was heard in Ramah,
weeping and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.’” (Matthew 2:16–18)
Historically, Holy Innocents Day has been celebrated on December 28, the fourth day of Christmas, but our modern tendency to gloss over the “difficult” passages of the Bible has often caused the horrific account to slip by unnoticed, robbing believers of a tender and relevant record of loss. In sidestepping the tragic tale, we also sidestep an invitation to acknowledge the pain of present-day grieving parents.
Celebration of Holy Innocents Day
If we are going to obey our charge as believers to “bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2), we must be willing to enter, with compassion and care, into the horror that accompanies the death of a child — whether the losses come suddenly and violently, as they did in Bethlehem, or more slowly through sickness or disease.
As a mother of four living sons, I write as an outsider to this form of grief. I do not claim to understand the depth of truth behind Jeremiah’s cruelly accurate prophecy that they will not be comforted (Jeremiah 31:15). I have sat on a couch, side by side but miles apart from a friend who had just lost her son in a tragic accident. I had time and presence to offer — but no words that could touch her loss. In the weeks and months that followed, I wrote notes, shared Scripture verses, listened to her sadness, and showed up bearing food, never once feeling confident that any of it held meaning, and often sensing that I was missing the point altogether.
Addressing the Crisis of Confidence
Desperate for counsel, I read What Grieving People Wish You Knew, Nancy Guthrie’s excellent book for Christians wanting to love well after someone else’s loss.
When grief barges through the door, the church is always in the best position to offer hope and help. Few of us, however, have prepared ahead of time to respond well when death strikes someone we know. Guthrie writes to bring clarity and a measure of confidence to our conversations with mourning parents.
While grieving the loss of two infants from the same rare metabolic disorder, Guthrie sensed this crisis of confidence among well-meaning believers. In response, she conducted an online survey in which she asked grieving people for examples of what others said or did for them that proved to be helpful and meaningful — and what was detrimental or discouraging. Here are three lessons I came away with from her moving and helpful study.
1. Listen really well, and don’t be afraid to say something.
Under the best of circumstances, I’m not a great conversationalist, so it was a relief to me to hear Guthrie say, “It matters less what you say than that you say something” (20). In fact, “even if you come up with the perfect thing to say (as if there is such a thing), it simply won’t fix the hurt or solve the problem of the people who are grieving” (23). Guthrie found that one of the very best things you can say is, “I don’t know what to say.”
One incorrect assumption we make is that a grieving family is being ministered to by people who are “closer” to them, or, even worse, that they would rather just be left alone. We leap over the hurdle of awkwardness with acts of nonverbal comfort: a hand on the shoulder, a hug accompanied by a simple “I’m so sorry.”
To be sure, we should be far more ready to listen than to speak, but our words can be a lifeline for those who are lost in grief. Trust the Spirit to give you what to say.
2. Enter into their grief with humility and compassion.
Showing up makes a powerful statement of support. Esteeming the grief of those we love will most often look like patient listening. Love will also keep us from putting a deadline on someone else’s grieving process. It will keep us from looking away when they cry, and it will give us courage to shed our own tears in their presence, weeping with those who weep.
A humble approach to comfort comes without assumptions and without comparisons. Guthrie warns that believers can “tend to assume a lot of things that we probably shouldn’t. Don’t assume that those you are comforting are confident that the deceased is now in heaven. . . . Don’t compare the grieving person’s loss to your own loss or anyone else’s.” Rather than giving in to our need to “fix everything,” we are most helpful when we are “willing to enter into the unanswered questions and unresolved conclusions and uncomfortable realities” (29).
Our shared sadness is tangible evidence of our love, which often earns the trust they need to let us in. As they look squarely at the truth that God does not promise parents a lifetime with their children here on earth, they will need someone to hold up their weak and often failing arms.
3. Run the long race of healing, and keep showing up.
I find myself wishing that the weeping women of Ramah could have known what we know so that they might not have grieved as those who have no hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13). One way of honoring their losses is to let them become a launching pad for the church’s practical, emotional, and spiritual support to grieving families during a season in which loss is keenly felt and often hides underground.
Drawing from her own experiences of loss, Guthrie suggests that, for grieving hearts, grief is “the treasure that has come to them wrapped in a package they never wanted. They need to experience the power and presence of God like never before, perhaps because they never knew how much they needed it before” (116). Often this “power and presence” is best perceived when Christians, who represent their caring Savior, carry truth into casual, everyday conversations and minister patiently in prayer throughout the healing process.
The day after the funeral is not a finish line, but a starting line. The ceremony begins a long and challenging season in which we can show up in meaningful, appropriate, and significant ways for a grieving family. Our love may range from the intensely practical — tucking a restaurant gift card into a Christmas card, providing meals for the family, or offering to help with the children — to the significant and symbolic — donating to a charity in memory of the child, inviting the family to your seasonal celebrations, and including the deceased son or daughter’s name as you reminisce about Christmases past.
Healing for the Brokenhearted
Let’s give the gift of prayer and support to those who grieve the loss of a child this Christmas season. Let’s trust God for greater courage and a more sensitive engagement of the body of Christ, especially with those who need to experience firsthand the love and mercy of God. Let’s wait and weep with them as they wait for their hearts to heal.
Finding no ready answer to the evil in the world, we discover that the deep suffering Jeremiah described creates a space in which we wait for the deep comfort promised by another ancient prophet: Healing for the brokenhearted. Consolation to those who mourn. Beauty, joy, and praise for those in agony (Isaiah 61:1–3).
As we wait with these parents, we wait for another coming of Jesus, longing for these mothers and fathers to find their hope in him and to cling to the day when we will finally see face-to-face the Savior and Comforter who was born in Bethlehem.