A Good Friday Lament for Child Loss and Childlessness

Good Friday is a day for difficult reflection. It’s a day we remember a tragic death. We remember that Jesus hung on a cross to die for the sins of the world.

This year I was asked by a neighboring pastor to lead a Good Friday service for his church. It was a unique request–could I lead a service of lament and remembrance for those who have suffered miscarriage or infertility? As we talked, prayed and planned, we decided to expand the service to minister to anyone who has experienced any kind of child loss or childlessness: infertility, miscarriage, stillbirth, SIDS, failed surrogacy or adoption, abortion, or any other circumstance.

As a former hospital chaplain assigned to the high-risk pregnancy and neonatal intensive care units, I had an idea where to begin. As an aunt to two miscarried babies, I knew something of the sensitivity needed.

So we began with lament. We set our pain and grief before God through corporate readings and song. We prayed and poured out our hearts before the Lord.

From there we moved into acts of remembrance and healing. We lit 41 candles for children lost or hoped for. I anointed sisters and brothers with oil for healing of body and spirit. We went to the communion table and received Christ’s body and blood so that God would sustain us as we heal, and wait, and hope.

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Then we let Jesus’ words minister to us through Lectio Divina:

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is kind and my burden is light.      Matthew 11:28-30

I wrote a prayer of response to this whole movement of souls:

Jesus Christ, Son of God who hung upon the cross in agony—
Remember our suffering, sorrow, and loss.
Help us come to you when we want to run and hide.
Replace this heavy yoke of grief with one that is kind and easier to carry;
We need your holy rest.

Living and eternal Savior,
Heal and restore us.
Gently teach us how to live with joy.
Resurrect our hope that you are good at all times and in every way.
Supply the resilience we need to live in broken bodies and a broken world, until you
Come and make all things new.


Too often the church remains silent about the pain and grief we experience because it make us (pastors) uncomfortable. Or, we tell ourselves, that the plans we have for our services and sermons can’t be interrupted. But child loss and childlessness burdens too many people for the church to ignore this pain.

1 out of every 10 couples experience infertility.

At least 1 in 4 women will experience a miscarriage in her lifetime.

God lost his one and only son to death.

The church should be a safe place to cry out our every pain and suffering. A place to weep. A place where we give ourselves over to the mysterious, healing work of the Holy Spirit. A place where we stretch our empty arms toward the God who knows our loss.

So tonight a small branch of the church gathered. Tonight we cried out like God’s people have done for centuries. We sat in the quiet–waiting, listening–and expecting that God was at work in us.

At the end of this Good Friday, we left candles burning before the cross and went home knowing that God heard our prayers.

May resurrection and new life come soon.

When someone you love is dying

My grandmother Betty battled cancer for more than a decade. Most of my memories of her are tinged by the effects of disease – terrible bloating and vomiting caused by experimental drugs, brutal rounds of chemo that made her hair fall out and grow back in different shades and textures, and our family spring break trips to Mayo Clinic when she was too weak to be at home.

Despite her prolonged illness, I remember many good things too. Grandma’s nickname was Mean Betty Jean but she was just the opposite: invariably kind and calm, with a gentle smile and a friendly chuckle that made me want to cuddle into her side. She taught me how to play card games like Crazy Eights and Kings in the Corners. Every year for Christmas, she bought me pajamas that came packaged with a matching stuffed animal; this was both delightful and silly.

Even though my grandmother was sick my entire childhood, I never realized that she was slowly dying. One ordinary Thursday I came home from school, made myself a snack and was eating it standing by the sink when my mom came in and told me that grandma had died. We stood there for a long time, quietly crying by the kitchen sink. I thought I’d share many more spring breaks with grandma. I was looking forward to another Crazy Eights tournament. But most of all, I wished I’d had the chance to say goodbye and to give her the best hug I had because I knew it would be our last.

Now in my mid-thirties, I’ve said goodbye to several beloved family members and friends. As a hospital and hospice chaplain, I helped people prepare for death and supported grieving families. With death and dying as the landscape of my daily work, I learned that while being a witness of death is never easy, it doesn’t have to be depressing or scary.

The time that precedes death can be the most beautiful time you share with someone you love. It’s a time to give and receive precious gifts. Not gems set in velvet boxes, but true words and actions. Things as simple and life-giving as presence, as saying I love you, as laughing over a hand of cards. These are gifts with the power to free souls from fear and pain and open them to gratitude and joy.

If your loved one is dying – my thoughts are with you. I pray you have the courage to give and receive the following gifts.

Talk about death. We often avoid the D-words – die, death, dying – because we fear it will be too painful for the one who is dying. In my professional experience, dying people want to talk about death. Unless they suffer from dementia, they know it’s their daily reality. Most want to acknowledge it, talk about it and prepare for it as best they can. They want the opportunity to review their lives, tell their stories, to confess their regrets, and seek forgiveness. How will they have a chance to do this important work, this emotional preparation, if we are afraid to accept their reality? One of the greatest gifts you can give your loved one is the freedom to openly face their death.

Know and honor their wishes. Terminal illness comes with an obstacle course of decisions. Do we pursue life-extending medical treatments? Will we manage the pain with narcotics or alternative therapies? What finances do we need to get in order? When and how should we prepare the memorial service? These are important questions, but too often families tackle them without consulting their loved one. Two of the greatest emotional struggles of the dying are loss of control and loss of identity. Asking your loved one about their wishes, and following through with them, honors their personhood. It helps them retain an important strand of control. Start with Five Wishes and advance directives.

Address the bucket list. People who are dying often daydream about what they would do if they had unlimited time and resources. For many, this ‘bucket list’ may not be written on paper, so talk to your loved one about what they want to do with their remaining time. Many bucket list items can be accomplished outright but you might need to do the legwork. Other items might be beyond your loved one’s physical capabilities, but could be modified to achieve the same sense of satisfaction.

Consider hospice. While hospitals do what they can to create a comfortable environment, it’s not an ideal place to share your final days. Hospice provides 24-hour on-call support for patients and families in a variety of settings: private homes, retirement communities, skilled nursing facilities, and in-patient hospice units. It is a free benefit of Medicare, Medicaid (in 47 states) and of most private insurance carriers. A consistent, interdisciplinary care team – including a physician, nurses, a social worker, and a spiritual care provider – will manage medications, address pain, provide informed and compassionate guidance as things change, and generally enhance your loved one’s quality of life. Not all hospices offer the same range of services, so ask for referrals in your area. If you have more questions, start here.

Share simple pleasures. It’s easy to get distracted by all the details that come with caring for a loved one. Meetings with lawyers and ministers are important, but no more so than surrounding your loved one with what gives life to their soul. Focus on simple things. Cook their favorite meal, even if they can only enjoy a few bites or the smell. Hold hands. Reminisce and tell your loved one why you cherish them. Say I love you. Put a cozy lounge chair in the garden and share the sunshine and the quiet. Have a family movie night. Read their favorite stories aloud. Let the grandkids star in a family concert or play. This will be their comfort and joy.

Let them apologize. It’s natural to seek forgiveness and express regret at the end of life. Research shows that the dying seek forgiveness in three categories: the forgiveness of God, of others and of self. Surprisingly, the data says that forgiveness of self is the most difficult category. Seeking the forgiveness of others is certainly a doorway to forgiving ourselves. Families often try to deflect, minimize or avoid such apologies because they don’t want their loved one to feel burdened by grief. Well friends, grief is unavoidable at this point. The good news is that letting your loved one speak their truth is precisely the thing that can lighten their burdens. So when they speak, don’t interrupt. Take deep breaths and listen until they are finished. Then offer words of acceptance and love.

Let yourself be weak. If I had a dollar for every time I heard a family member say I have to be strong… I know this is difficult advice, but it’s much kinder to let yourself fall apart from time to time. Have a good cry in the shower. Go into the basement or the woods and yell. Confess your fears and struggles to a good friend or counselor. Cry out before God. These are better coping skills than trying to rigidly harness the emotions that come with losing someone you love. Grief is an unruly thing; it comes and goes in unpredictable, sometimes turbulent, waves. Try though we might, the tide is not something we can control. It’s best to ride the cresting waves and trust that they will deposit you on shore.

Care for yourself. It’s okay to care for yourself even when your loved one is dying. In fact, it’s critical. Stress and grief will upset your ability to assess your needs, so listen to your friends and family when they say you need a break. Let them take you out for coffee or to the spa. Accept their casseroles, their offers to clean your house and their long hugs. These things are like a good saline drip to a body parched from grief. Plus, it will give them a practical way to help you, which is what they desperately want to do.

Plan a memorial service. This part of the grieving process can be difficult, but also incredibly healing. Through words, music, prayers, pictures, flowers and food you can craft a gathering that honors the life of your loved one. Invite family and friends to contribute and do the work together. You’ll laugh and cry and discover later that this is when the mending began.

Stay connected to God. Friends, this is the time for raw and real prayers. This is a time to use the Psalms like prayers when you have no words of your own. This is a time to sit on the floor in your closet and open your hands to heaven. It’s a time to acknowledge your weakness. To ask for comfort and for the strength for one more day together. It’s a time to realize that God is in every moment working for your good and for the good of your loved one. And when pain, fear, and confusion come, this is when you’ll need to trust that things are not as they seem. Remember that God is with you, doing the unseen, gathering you all under the shadow of his wings.

 

Have mercy on me, my God, have mercy on me,
    for in you I take refuge.
I will take refuge in the shadow of your wings
    until the disaster has passed.
Psalm 57:1

When someone you love is grieving

As clinical chaplain, I quickly learned that most people are uncomfortable with grief, even doctors and pastors. So if you have a grieving friend and you feel totally inadequate, take a deep breath. Your response is natural. The wide and unpredictable pendulum of grief’s physical effects – from weeping and yelling to silence, from stillness to shakes – can make anyone hesitant and uncertain how to care. With that in mind, I’ve compiled a list of ways you can support a grieving friend.

Before you print this post and use it like a blueprint, please note – these are options, not rules or a checklist to follow. These suggestions are appropriate ways to approach someone who is grieving but not every approach will be a good fit for every relationship. Remember, you know your friend better than I. You have a history with them built across months and years of experiences and conversations. Draw from that however you can.

Grief requires us to pause, reflect deeply on another’s soul, and to act through discomfort. As difficult as that is, there are many simple things you can do that will be a powerful balm to a grieving heart.

BE PRESENT
Especially when a friend is dealing with an unexpected loss, go to their side. Even if you don’t know what to say, showing up is something they will never forget. Your physical presence says so many important things: I love you, I’ll stand with you in your darkest moments, you are not alone.

OFFER HEALING TOUCH
Physical touch is a powerful response to raw grief. It has the ability to soothe and support in ways and times when words are inadequate. So take their shaking hands between yours. Place a gentle hand on their shoulder as they cry. Offer an unhurried embrace where your arms become a safety harness wrapped securely around their back. They may not say anything in response or they may cry harder, but the warmth seeping from your skin into theirs is medicine that we cannot bottle.

ACKNOWLEDGE LOSS WITH WORDS
In the shadow of death words seem insufficient, but they are not. While “I’m sorry for your loss” is appropriate, we are all capable of saying something more meaningful, more personal. Who was this person to your friend? What role did he or she play in your friend’s life? If you knew the deceased, what about them made an impression on you? Think about this and then say something that honors them and their relationship with your friend. Keep it simple – there’s no need for a lengthy speech – perhaps two or three sentences that show you understand the significance of this loss.

One important caveatunder no circumstances are you responsible for making sense of your friend’s loss! Death and grief are never easy, even when we have time to prepare for them. There are lots of true things we can say about death and God’s will and the end to suffering, but they will never be helpful to someone saying goodbye to a person whose life and spirit shaped their own. Avoid any and all trite phrases that attempt to explain death or try to look on the bright side. Be very, very careful about quoting from the Bible. Even if your friend is a person of faith, and even though scripture speaks ultimate truths, context and timing remain crucial when comforting someone who is grieving. Stick to this famous proverb– if you don’t have anything good to say, don’t say anything at all.

TELL STORIES
Grief can act like a great chill that freezes our limbs and our hearts. We can get stuck in that horrible moment when we suddenly realize our loved one is gone forever. As a young chaplain I learned that getting people to share stories and memories can melt this emotional deep freeze. Storytelling can be a helpful healing tool throughout the grieving process, not just in the moments after death, but you have to discern when it might be helpful.

I recently led a graveside service for a family grieving the loss of a beloved wife, sister and mother of three young adults. With only twenty minutes permitted at the site, I invited those gathered to share a sentence or two beginning with, “I will always remember.” What followed was a poignant time of stories and tributes to her character. Tears flowed freely and loudly, but from them emerged the first smiles and laughter of the day

TANGIBLE EXPRESSIONS OF SYMPATHY
Modern friendships often stretch across states, continents and oceans. We can’t always be physically present with a grieving friend, but that doesn’t mean we can’t care for them well. I’m a big advocate of tangible expressions of sympathy. Think of something you can do that will engage your friend’s senses, something they can see, hear, smell, touch or taste. Even when grief puts our brains in a zombie-like state, our senses remain active. That’s why, for centuries, people have sent flowers when someone dies. Flowers are a visible and vibrant message of love; their scent is your presence subtly filling your friend’s home.

Keep in mind that not all expressions of sympathy will be equally well-received. Some people won’t want their freezers stuffed with six types of lasagna. Others might resent a Hallmark card with a canned message and your signature. So take time to consider, how can you be present in a way that will be most meaningful to your friend? Maybe, for reasons only you would understand, baseball tickets would be more meaningful than a casserole, a mix CD better able to lighten their grief than a card, a framed photo a better tribute than a bouquet whose blooms will droop and decay.

BE PRACTICAL
Grieving people are rarely able to articulate what help they need. If you know them well enough, you can name their needs for them. Look for simple ways to step into their regular routine. Take their trash to the curb, do their grocery shopping, take over carpool duties, mow their lawn, etc. Communicate well as you pitch in. How and when can you help? For how long? Make sure you leave room for them to tell you if it’s too much or if this type of help is unwanted.

BE AWARE OF SPECIAL OCCAISIONS
Birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, graduations: these are things your friend thought they would get to share with the deceased. Death stole these moments and grief will flavor these celebrations toward the bittersweet. The anniversary of their death will also be a difficult day for your friend. Be attentive to their emotional needs on these days. Talk about it ahead of time and make yourself available, both physically and emotionally, as they need.

FINAL THOUGHTS
Grief is a bit like a circus lion. We can approach focused, with caution and care. We can do all the “appropriate” things but be quickly reminded that as tame as it seems on the outside, at heart it’s still a wild animal. Despite your care and thoughtfulness, your friend may not receive your offerings well. They might lash out or seem indifferent. Don’t take this personally; your friend has a lion inside them. An unpleasant response doesn’t mean that you’ve failed. These are some of the most difficult days of your friend’s life. If your actions are thoughtful and sincere, you have done well. Trust that and keep caring.