A Grief Like No Other: When a Friend Loses a Child

October 14, 2015

Marie Notcheva

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Marie Notcheva

When my older son was 11 years old, he lost his best friend to cancer. Sitting here at my laptop, exactly four years later, I still feel the sting of a mother’s grief as sharply as if it had happened yesterday.

His name was Josh. I am using actual names in this article, because they were real children. With real names. Who really mattered.

So many of my friends have gone through the unspeakable agony of losing a child—whether in utero, in infancy, or adolescence—but this is a lonely, solitary agony that even those closest to the parent cannot really shoulder. We want to enter into grief with a friend, and yet cannot fully. Empathy is the closest we can come.

There is something inherently selfish even in the most compassionate of us that stops us from really experiencing, even vicariously, what a parent is going through in this kind of loss. There is no real comfort we can provide; and we don’t even want to contemplate the full horror of their experience. Our human instinct is to detach. Emotional detachment is necessary in medical fields, and even to a certain extent in the counseling office; but it never feels quite right—especially when you are a parent.

Professional Detachment vs. Personal Involvement

As a medical interpreter in Boston, I occasionally see pediatric cases (which are rarely terminal). These children are usually flown here to receive medical treatment not available in Bulgaria. Two years ago, I had a late-afternoon pediatric assignment when I was a bit impatient to get home and make my 8-year-old daughter’s birthday cake for her party the next day. I had no idea that within a few minutes I would have to tell a woman, just like me, that her daughter was dying.

The little girl’s mother had come alone for a consult with the oncologist while the child, also 8 years old, received a blood transfusion at another hospital. She and Natalia might have been friends. It took nearly an hour just for Mom to give the medical history, and as I interpreted the painful details of the little girl’s neuroblastoma treatment, my heart broke. Her cancer was so advanced that there was nothing more that could be done. The oncologist advised Mom, with tears in her eyes, to take her back home to Bulgaria.

In 15 years as a medical interpreter, this was one of two times where I cried. (The other was a phone call. I had to tell an 18-year-old MIT student’s mother that her son had been killed in a motorcycle accident. His name was Georgi, by the way.) But the problem was, there was nothing I could do. I hugged her in the elevator, told her “I’m so sorry,” and drove home. I couldn’t even let myself dwell on this poor mother’s plight, because I wouldn’t have been emotionally available to my own children. It was an unpleasant feeling, and I felt mildly selfish for forcing myself to “detach.”

It’s different when the grieving parent is a personal friend. It may not be different “biblically,” but it’s still different. When a woman from church buried her 18-year-old son several years ago, I found it difficult to make eye contact at the funeral or casually ask “How are you?” afterwards. Stephen should have been a college student. Josh, my son’s buddy, passed unexpectedly just before Christmas. The grief that consumed the parents, siblings, and our church family was so raw and heartbreaking the natural instinct was to withdraw, even while wanting to offer comfort.

“I am a parent. I don’t want to feel this horror; I don’t want to go there in my mind. The Bible tells us there is comfort. Let’s remind each other of that. It is not ‘spiritual’ to feel this grief, especially when we know the child is in heaven. No pain. At all costs, stop the pain. We do not grieve as the pagans do; we have hope.”

As Kate, who lost her 1-year-old son Alex to a heart defect said, “It still tears you apart.”

‘Comfort’ is a relative word when we are talking about the loss of a child. There is no substitute love, no biblical promise, no futuristic hope of glory strong enough to wipe out the aching, relentless pain of emptiness when the child you carried, nursed and nurtured is suddenly gone. Sometimes all you can do as a friend is to be there–not run from the other parent’s pain, not deny it, not gloss over it with spiritual-sounding platitudes. Months after Josh died, after the cards stopped coming and the meals were no longer delivered, his mom and I cried together over the phone. “I just miss him so much…this wasn’t supposed to happen,” she said.

Never Minimize Grief

I have always been struck by the scene in John 11, where Jesus wept with the two sisters, Mary and Martha, over the death of their brother Lazarus. Even knowing He was going to raise Lazarus and the story was going to end “happily ever after,” so to speak, the Savior of mankind was moved so much by individual, human grief that He chose to fully enter into it. There is not a human emotion Jesus has not fully experienced, and this fact alone brings us a measure of comfort in our own pain. Notice He never minimizes their pain; our Redeemer is moved by His children’s suffering. God never says “pull yourself together” or “just get over it.” And neither should we–grieving is a long, lonely, and highly personal process.

There is a tremendous desire for the parent to rejoin their child in heaven; the best thing you can do for a grieving friend is sit quietly with her in the waiting room. It’s not much, but with a burden they are carrying alone they need not be alone in their grief. Two years later, after having moved away, Josh’s mom wrote me:

“Mom to mom…I am pressing on. I have really hard days and some good ones. God has been extremely kind in all the blessings He has brought our way, yet I seem to be half here and half fixed on heaven. God says his people perish for lack of vision…I have been asking Him for His vision so I can bring glory and honor to His name. I have changed, but I know God is strong and able to still use me. Marie, some days I miss him so much that I feel like my heart will burst. Surely God had a very good reason for this plan…I know one day I will understand and even praise Him for it.”

The Lonely, Secret Pain of Miscarriage

One might rationally ask, “How is it possible to love someone you have never known?” Any mother who has carried a child, to full term or not, knows that love for a child is not “rational.” In biblical Greek, there are four different words for “love,” and one, “storge” (στοργή) describes nurturing, parental love. It is rarely used in ancient works, and then almost exclusively as a descriptor of relationships within the family. Modern ultrasounds allow us that wonderful moment when you see and hear your 8-week baby’s heart beating deep within you, but from the beginning of time God has planted that deep, loving parental instinct within us as a reflection of His own heart. It cannot be explained, or rationalized.

Losing a child through miscarriage is a unique loneliness. There is usually no grave, no memorial service, no cards or sympathetic phone calls. One has to “keep it together” and go on as if all is normal. But it’s not normal, and it never will be again. Life has been turned upside down, even if no one else sees it. You have lost a part of yourself that can never be replaced; a wound that only God sees. You grieve because you never held that child, never knew him or her, couldn’t even give the gift of a name. And there is guilt—“Was it my fault? Did I exercise too much? Was I eating enough? Maybe God is punishing me…”

And the nagging questions about God’s goodness: “Why does He give someone a child, only to take it away again? He could have done something to prevent this from happening. He did nothing. Is He really ‘for’ me? How can I trust that God will always be faithful, even when I am not?” The death of a child—at any age—is a tragedy, and if a friend confides this “hidden” loss to you, the best thing you can do is to understand that and allow her to grieve.

Comforting a Friend in Any Affliction

The hardest thing about trying to help a friend who has lost a child is that even with all the biblical truth and promises of God’s goodness we have, the pain never really goes away. It dulls, but it stays with the parent and nothing we say can “make it all better.” Like with depression, the most important thing your grieving friend needs from you is to know that you care. And you will not leave her, no matter how long or difficult this season is. When you don’t know what to say, it is a good time to say nothing…sometimes tears are the sincerest reflection of one’s heart.

It is not necessary (or wise!) to be like Job’s friends—offering advice; admonishing her for a lack of faith, telling her grief is unspiritual. On the contrary, 2 Corinthians 1: 3-4 tells us plainly that God Himself comforts us in all of our afflictions, so that we may in turn comfort others with the same grace.

Not preach.

Not lecture.

Just comfort.

God knows exactly what it feels like to lose a Son. While it may seem He is silent, the sure and simple knowledge that He is there, and He cares about the grieving heart is exactly what a parent going through this tragedy needs to know experientially. Don’t worry about saying the “right thing.” Even on the worst days, His personal love is like a cushion that protects us, so that nothing can hurt quite as much. By being available, just to listen…to empathize…and yes, even to cry together—on a small scale, you are able to demonstrate the caring heart of Jesus to your friend in their loss.


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