When Suffering Falls on Our Children

My dear friend sat across from me at our kitchen table. Despite the sun illuminating the room, a heaviness had settled upon both of us. Though our stories differed, similar threads wove our hearts together — threads of grief, loss, waiting, and hope in something beyond our pain.

Only eight months prior, we shared in the excitement of finding out that we were both pregnant, with due dates only days apart. That shared joy, however, had a dark shadow cast upon it when, weeks later, my friend and her husband were informed that, even if the baby survived delivery, their precious child would most likely only live for days.

Our stories of loss and heartache may have looked different on the outside, but we were grieving and wrestling in many similar ways as we watched our expectations and hopes of parenthood shatter before our eyes. For her and her husband, it was in the loss of their sweet boy. A lifetime of hopes, plans, dreams of watching their child grow was suddenly stripped away. For my husband and me, it had been year upon year of experiencing the painful ripple effect of our son’s special needs, while grieving the fact that I had passed my chronic illness onto all four of our children.

Though our paths were different, our questions, fears, and griefs drew us together. We were fellow travelers navigating roads we never would have chosen. If God is good, we wondered, why is he allowing so much pain when we are seeking to follow him? How can we go on in life when these losses leave such a gaping hole within our hearts?

Over the years, I have found comfort in specific truths as I’ve grieved and struggled through the losses we’ve experienced in regards to our children. Here are a few that I hope will encourage you, even if your loss has looked different than ours.

1. Brokenness and loss draw us toward heaven.

Relationships can be some of the sweetest gifts that we experience on this earth. But the sweetest gifts can also cause the greatest pain when lost or broken.

As Thomas Boston explained,

Relations are the joints of society, and our most acute pain is often felt when the crook (Ecclesiastes 7:13) takes place there. They are designed to be the springs of man’s comfort, but they often turn into the greatest bitterness for him.

Sometimes this crook is caused by the loss of a loved one [or the loss of a child we longed for]. Job laments, “he has made desolate all my company” (Job 16:7), meaning his dear children who he laid in the grave without a single surviving son or daughter. At other times, this crook is made when the hand of God lies heavy on our family, which by virtue of the relationship, recoils on us. This was deeply expressed by the believing woman in Matthew’s Gospel, when she said, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed” (Matthew 15:22).

So, we often find that our greatest cross occurs in the place where we expect the greatest comfort. (22–23)

As painful as these losses are, however, they can also become the vessels that drive us into the arms of our Savior like never before. And as a Father who knows the pain of losing his child (and watching him suffer unimaginable pain), he never grows weary of our cries of grief — he is always ready and able to meet us with comfort and hope.

As time goes on, these losses we experience can loosen our grip on this world and tether us to our heavenly Father and the home he is preparing us for. As Charles Spurgeon wrote, “When the Lord takes a child [or doesn’t give us children, or allows mental or physical brokenness in our children] there is one less cord to fasten you to this world and another band to draw you toward heaven” (53).

2. Death to one joy often gives birth to another.

Though the death of what we hoped for and expected for our child (and family) has been incredibly painful, it has driven us to find a deeper joy that is beyond the bounds of life and death. As John Piper wisely says to someone experiencing the loss of the healthy child they had longed for,

The first joy dies. It’s a real death, and that death is painful. That wonderful joy disappears. It’s gone. All that is happening while the new joy is struggling like a little seed to push its way up through the rocks of disappointment and fear and sorrow. There are days, and weeks, and maybe months of transition from the death of one joy to the full flower of another joy, and those are not easy days. They require enormous patience as we wait for the Lord. The Lord has to do a miracle of creating that other joy in a gift we did not pray for and which we didn’t want. That’s a miracle. It does come, and it is right, and it is beautiful.

But as we wait, we can be assured that God is growing something beautiful. If not in circumstances without, then certainly character and hope within.

Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Romans 5:3–5)

3. Distress teaches us to rest in God’s sovereignty.

What has gradually changed my perspective on my life, my child, and my family’s struggles is that it’s never been about me. When I believe that life is all about my happiness, when I think that I could do more if I didn’t have this hardship or that I am missing out on what life could have been, I get discontent, anxious, and downcast. But when, by God’s grace, I trust that nothing happens apart from his will and sovereign plan, I am encouraged and strengthened, knowing he is working in and through even my darkest days, to make me more like him. It is in the midst of our darkness that his light shines most brightly to those around us.

As much as we would like answers and help for the painful, confusing, overwhelming circumstances, we must remember that Christ himself is the answer that we need in both an earthly and spiritual sense. He knows each member of our family intimately and is working out his good purposes in each of our lives (including the children he calls home and those living with disability or illness), often in ways we never would have expected. As we learn to trust Christ in our grief, despite what seems hopeless, we can begin to grasp more deeply the profound hope of the gospel.

If you have been entrusted with a road that has been marked by loss in your parenting and are struggling to see beyond the pain, I pray that you will be strengthened by remembering that your family has been divinely chosen to display God’s glorious redemption story. Although we aren’t promised healing (physical or mental) on this earth, we are promised that Christ will not waste one tear we shed over the painful effects of sin and brokenness within our world. You are not hopeless, you are not alone, and your losses will not have the final word.