When I sat down with Ernest and Lacy (not their real names), I did not have much to say. They had lost their daughter several days ago, and what can one say about the loss of a child that can make things better? Their tears were still fresh; the Kleenex box was about half-full.
As a chaplain to senior adults in Decatur, I said what I usually say in these circumstances: “Tell me about your child.”
In between sobs and long periods of silence, Ernest and Lacy told me stories about their beloved daughter, age 63, who lost a battle with cancer.
Then Ernest and Lacy told me what I always hear from mourning parents: “A child is not supposed to go before her parents.” This was especially heartbreaking; they both celebrated 90th birthdays just last year.
I have been serving senior adults in this capacity for nearly eight years. I have seen almost every kind of hardship–everything from death to the grief that results from losing the ability to drive. I sat with way too many people who lost a child or grandchild.
The fifteen minutes I spent with Ernest and Lacy, however, were among the hardest in all my ministry. While I heard their stories, patiently sat with them in silence, and provided sacred space for them to sob, I could barely compose myself. I almost had to excuse myself twice for fear that I, too, would not be able to control the onslaught of tears that accompanies such tragedy.
I almost burst into tears because I was realizing several things that day. For one, it does not matter if a child is 6 or 63, she is still someone’s “little” girl or boy.
Second, there really is nothing like the loss of a son or daughter. The emotions that come with that kind of loss are different than the grief that follows the death of a spouse or parent. And, as a father, I could empathize with Ernest and Lacy all too closely.
There was a sermon I once read by late Episcopal priest, John Claypool, that addressed child loss. Years ago, Claypool lost a eleven-year old daughter to leukemia. It was a year-long battle before she passed away.
His first sermon upon returning to the pulpit was on Genesis 22, when God commanded Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. The text is an awkward one since we cannot relate to Abraham’s unflinching willingness (and where is Isaac’s mother?) in offering his son without some kind of fight.
Claypool noted that his journey with his daughter was a lot like Abraham’s trek up that mountain. The uncertainty and the mystery of giving up such a precious life was all too familiar. When it was time to come down the mountain, however, Claypool’s story differed from Abraham’s.
Unlike Abraham, Claypool–like Ernest and Lacy–did not get to come down that mountain with his child. It was unbearable grief that followed such an empty-handed journey.
If I were to visit Ernest and Lacy again, I would not do anything different. I would not try to explain away the situation. I would not try to use cheap cliches that merely make excuses for God or try to rectify a horrible situation.
All I can do is cry with those whose loss is too much for words to describe. All I can do is sit in silence and make a sacred, safe space that permits a deluge of tears and a runny nose.
All I can do is recall a simple fact that preacher, William Sloan Coffin, realized when he lost his son in a car accident: the fact that when Ernest and Lucy’s daughter took her last breath, “God’s heart was the first of all our hearts to break.”