Death of a Child
This past week we had a funeral for a 23 year old whose alcohol problems caused an untimely death*. During the funeral — which was one of the more powerful funerals I’ve ever worked — the mother of this young man somehow mustered the strength to read the following poem. I don’t know who wrote the poem, and neither did the mother; and, honestly, it’s doesn’t even come close to having great poetic structure.
What it does manage to do is capture the honest, grieving soul of a mother who had to bury her child in a way that I’ve never heard enunciated.
Don’t Tell Me
Please don’t tell me you know how I feel,
Unless you have lost your child too.
Please don’t tell me my broken heart will heal,
Because that is just not true.
Please don’t tell me my son is in a better place,
Though it is true, I want him here with me.
Don’t tell me someday I’ll hear his voice, see his face,
Beyond today I cannot see.
Dont tell me it is time to move on,
Because I cannot.
Dont tell me to face the fact he is gone,
Because denial is something I can’t stop.
Don’t tell me to be thankful for the time I had,
Because I wanted more.
Don’t tell me when I am my old self you will be glad,
I’ll never be as I was before.
What you can tell me is you will be here for me,
That you will listen when I talk of my child.
You can share with me my precious memories,
You can even cry with me for a while.
And please don’t hesitate to say his name,
Because it is something I long to hear everyday.
Friend please realize that I can never be the same,
But if you stand by me,
You may like the new person I become someday.
*I’ve changed some of the details of the funeral I mentioned above in order to protect the family’s privacy. If you know which funeral I’m referring to, please continue to comfort them and pray for them.
I’m a funeral director. Have been for the past 10 years. And during those ten years, I’ve helped numerous families memorialize miscarriages and still born babies.
As a male who often finds himself in that “insensitive” category, I used to secretly wonder why there’s a desire to memorialize those not yet born.
After all, what’s to memorialize?
When I first became a funeral director, I struggled to understand how I could write an obituary for one who has no biography. After a year or so, I developed this three sentence template:
_____________ the stillborn son/daughter of ___________ and ____________ passed away on ____________________ at “so and so” hospital. Left to grieve this loss is the maternal and paternal grandparents, as well as the uncles and aunts. A memorial service will be held on ____________ at the __________ Funeral Home.
That’s it. No job occupations to write. No hobbies, memberships or significant others to be included in the obituary. In place of the age, the obituary will suffice to say, “infant”, or “stillborn”.
Being both insensitive and hardheaded, it took a pretty intense situation for me to see and feel the “what” and the “why” of memorializing those who weren’t afforded a chance to live.
I used to think that one of the most in house controversial topics for Christians related to the “eternal security” and/or “perseverance of the saints” discussions. I’ve seen artery popping, fist clenching, impassioned arguments over whether or not you can walk away from God and lose your entrance ticket for passage through the Pearly Gates.
I was wrong. There’s another topic that’s even more sacred.
I learned my lesson in a Degree Completion Class at Lancaster Bible College. There was a large cross-section of students in that class, with ages ranging from 25 to 62 and an even broader array of experience.
The professor breached a topic that he wished he hadn’t when he said, “There’s no absolute biblical evidence that fetuses and infants go to heaven.”
That was it. He had touched some major buttons that I don’t think he even realized existed.
Without even raising their hands, two outspoken women in the class – who, as we were soon to learn, had lost children – burst in with utter defiance. “How dare you speak to something so sensitive when you’ve never lost a child!” one said. Another burst into tears, asserting how God had spoken to her, reassuring her that her lost children were indeed with Him.
I’ve felt tension in classrooms, funerals and churches, but this was a tension that was raised to a level I didn’t know existed. Without knowing it, that Prof. had tread on one of the most sacred realms of Christian doctrine … the belief that ALL lives are loved and known by our Maker … that ALL are children of God.
Mother’s day is today.
This is the time of year that many mothers carry a silent grief. This is the time of the year when mothers remember, when they memorialize lost lives that the rest of us (their friends and family … especially us men) have unintentionally forgotten. And, specifically, it’s a time when men can be exceptionally insensitive to the grief that can reemerge during this holiday.
And there’s some women who will not only carry their silent grief this mother’s day, but who also NEVER had the chance to memorialize lives that God knows … because I know that for every one woman who has memorialized the death of the unborn or still born, there are many others who have not.
Today, God remembers you and your losses. There’s a scripture that says God bottles our tears, a word picture that says, “your tears are too precious to fall to the ground” … that when a person cries, it’s such a valuable experience to God that he stops what he’s doing, bends over and carefully watches every tear flowing down our broken faces. It’s as though he keeps those tears so he can remember what you have gone through … the same way we save items of sentimental value so those things can help us remember important experiences.
I invite you to remember that God not only remembers, but he also grieves with you.
The following post was originally a guest post on Michelle Van Loon’s blog, “Pilgrim’s Road Trip.”
The author of the post, who wishes to remain anonymous, wrote the following message to me via facebook:
Last June we accepted a foster placement of twin girls who were four months old. We’ve been foster parents for almost 7 years, but nothing prepared us for the sudden death of one of the twins, Ellie, at almost seven months. She went to bed a happy and healthy baby and when I reached into her crib in the morning I pulled out a corpse instead.
I am traumatized. I am an emergency nurse and not unfamiliar with death. I did CPR on Ellie out of reflex but with the full knowledge that she was gone and I couldn’t fix it. I can still taste the breath that I pushed out of her lungs. I’m never going to be the same…and I know it.
I am also a Christian. I think. In fact my husband is a church leader, making me the wife of a spiritual leader.
She then gave me the link to her post at “Pilgrim’s Road Trip.” I asked if I could also post it on my blog and she gave me permission. This post is immensely challenging, and will beg you to vicariously see the grief of a bereaved mother. This isn’t an easy read, but it’s one that will help you understand the grief of a parent who has lost a child. It’s written from the perspective of Holy Saturday … where doubt and silence are the only forms of faith.
Please stop attempting to spiritualize the death of my child. Assigning some thoughtless Christian platitude only serves to deepen my anger and further question my beliefs. If you don’t know what to say, a simple, “I’m sorry, I don’t know what to say,” would be far better than these actual attempts at comfort that I’ve received:
1. “God has a plan.”
Really? You serve a God with a plan that involves killing babies? Or at least standing by and allowing the baby to die when you believe that he could have intervened? Because the baby killers I’ve seen get life in prison. And even the convicts know which guy to attack.
2. “Some good will come of this. You’ll see.”
You think that at some point I’m going to see some direct blessing in my life or someone else’s that will make me think, “Aha! Here’s the good that came from my child’s death! I am now so glad that she died so that this could happen!” No! An Almighty God could surely think of some other really creative way to bring about good. Or else I don’t want that “blessing.” I will always wonder why it had to be this way, no matter what good things may come later in my life.
3. “Just think of the ministry you can have someday to parents who have lost children.”
No. At least not the ministry you’re thinking. That would require me to say that God is somehow in this for them and I happen to know that’s not helpful. Plus, I don’t want that ministry. I’ve spent twenty years of my life trying to serve God full time. I’ve put every major decision of my life through “God’s will” as a filter, including setting aside life dreams for myself. All of the big things I’ve tried to do for him have been heartbreak for me. I think I’m done with ministry at this point.
4. “God loves you.”
Imagine If I were married to someone who said, “I love you. I mean, you’re going to get hurt and I won’t stop it. In fact, I might even cause it. But I love you! It’s for your own good! It’s because of my great love for you.” You would encourage me to get to a women’s shelter immediately for my own safety. Where’s the safe place from this kind of “love?”
5. “God’s perfect love casts out fear.”
I’ve been dealing with a moderate amount of anxiety since my baby’s death. I’m not a very anxious person by nature, so I’ve sought some help dealing with the feelings of panic. I struggle with coming home after a night shift and wondering what I might find. I compulsively check on my children at night. Going to the doctor with another child of mine is a trip through some very dark places of fear. I’m constantly wondering which of my family members is next on God’s hit list. The advice that God’s love will fix those fears isn’t really resonating with me right now.
6. “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle. Just depend on Him.”
The Christian grief counselor we saw put it this way: “God doesn’t give sorrow to people unless he knows they can handle it.” Really? Well, he was wrong. I can’t handle this. And if he doesn’t give me more than I can handle, why do I need to depend on him? The last time I was depending on him, my child died. So, yeah. That’s not likely to happen again soon.
7. “You’ll see her again someday.”
Is that day today? Then no, this isn’t helpful. It’s minimally hopeful if I can be sure that it’s true, but there’s no Scripture to really support this belief. There’s inference and tradition and conjecture, but there’s no chapter and verse that says, “Infants who die go to heaven.” Besides, If I live an average life expectancy, I will have to live at least another fifty years of missing her. ”Someday” could be a long, long time from now.
8. “Look at all of God’s blessings in this situation already! At least_______”
All of your “at leasts” aren’t blessings to me. Anything you say that starts with “at least” only minimizes my feelings.
9. “Just read [insert Bible verses here] and you’ll feel better.”
Passages that have been suggested to me include verses about God’s judgment, the story of Jesus bringing Lazarus back to life, a passage instructing me that my heart is deceitful and wicked, and other similarly “helpful” Scriptures. This advice also assumes that I know no Scripture to which I can turn. You know which verse has been ever on my mind ever since the day my child died? “My God, my God. Why have you forsaken me?” I’ve been reading the Bible for almost thirty years. I know where to find verses. Not too many of them are helpful right now. Bludgeoning me with Romans 8:28 is especially painful.
10. ”Just trust God. He is in control.”
I was trusting God at the time my baby died. She still died. If God is in control, that assumes that he killed my baby. My sweet, smiling, dimpled baby. If he didn’t kill her, he stood by while she died and didn’t stop it. Still guilty. I’d much rather believe that fate or chance had a hand in her death. I’m a lot more likely to have a continued relationship with someone who didn’t cause my baby’s death, either directly or indirectly.<
11. “This happened for God’s glory. Maybe someone might even get saved!”
This has been said to me with much excitement and expectation. You mean to tell me that God couldn’t have orchestrated some other way to get glory or reveal himself to someone? Or that some person out there is going to say, “Oh! God allowed ‘T’s’ baby to die. I should start a relationship with him and trust him with MY life!” Doubt it. And even if that actually did happen, should I then feel that this was all worth it?
12. “This world is not our home. She’s in a better place now.”
Yeah? Well, I live here right now, so it’s my home. If you actually believe this, why haven’t you committed suicide yet? As for me, I’d finally be in a better place if I died, too? And no, I’m not at all suicidal. I’m just saying that no matter where she is, I’m in a really painful place right now.
13. “Just imagine what tragedy or heartbreak God saw in your baby’s future that he decided to save her from.”By killing her? I’m sure there was another possible work-around or two. For that matter, this has been a devastating tragedy and heartbreak for me. Why didn’t I die as an infant so I wouldn’t have to go through this now?
14. “God will carry you through.”
If this is the kind of thing God is going to carry me through, I’d like him to please put me down.
15. ”Be thankful for what you have.”
The assumption here is that I wasn’t thankful before (I was), that I’m not thankful now (I am), and further minimizes the loss I feel. How do you suggest that I answer even the simplest question of how many children I have? I’m thankful for what I have AND for what I no longer have. It’s impossible to answer this question correctly now. Similar, but even more guilt-producing is “You have your husband and children to think about now.” Thank you for the suggestion that my grief and pain are invalid by comparison and should be left unmanaged for the good of my family. See? There. I was thankful.
16. “Things will get better.”
When? How do you know? Because for me, bad things just keep happening. It can get worse and I can name at least fifty ways it could get worse right now. So don’t say that things will get better. It could go either way.
17. “Maybe God is trying to teach you something.”Well, maybe he could have just texted me the instructions instead. Seriously. All I’m learning is that God can do whatever he wants and that’s not necessarily a good thing. A similar platitude, “Maybe God is trying to draw you closer to himself”, is equally insulting. Can’t he see the future? Didn’t he know that using an infant’s death to deepen our relationship might backfire? Please don’t presume to know the mind of God or impart your opinion of it to me.
18. “She’s with the Lord now.”
She wasn’t before? How about the rest of my family? I’m not with the Lord? Well, I’m glad he’s with someone, I guess.
19. “I know how you feel. I felt exactly that way when my grandparent/great Aunt Lucy/Fluffy died or when my child was sick, but then got better. But I just prayed and kept my eyes on God and he got me through. He’ll get you through, too.”
You have no idea how I feel. I wouldn’t wish how I feel on anyone. And what will he get me through TO? Can you guarantee that whatever is on the other side of this trench in life is something less painful? Because whatever it is, it will be a life missing my child and all the things that loss means.
20. “I was so devastated when your child died that I couldn’t go to work that week/I’m still struggling a month later.”
Both of these are actual things said to me by people who had seen my baby fewer than six times in her whole life. Other ways people who barely knew her have tried to be a part of the drama and somehow connect themselves to this tragedy include Facebook statuses or tweets with her name as a hash tag, prayer requests without my permission or in inappropriate places, and most difficult: “How are you doing? Because I’m so sad that ____.” There was an expectation that I should comfort THEM. Exhausting.
21. “You should_____.”
Don’t tell me what to do. I don’t want to exercise more, eat better, read that great book about God, go to a grief support group, focus on God, get involved more at church, get alone with God, go away for a weekend without my kids, take sleeping pills, talk about it more, or think about it less. I can’t afford to take any more time off work. I can’t concentrate enough to do much of anything right now, honestly. And a bigger list of things I “should” be doing right now is simply not helpful.
22. “If you need anything, let me know. I’m here for you.”
No. I’m here. Alone. It’s not possible for you to be here for me or I’d gladly give it to you. I’m glad you want to help, and I don’t doubt your sincerity. But this comment is a substitute for any kind of real help. You’ve absolved yourself of actually helping me in any tangible or intangible way and placed the onus on me to come up with some idea of what I need. You know what I need? I need my child. Alive and giggling. I need the image of her lifeless in her crib out of my mind and the taste of her dead skin out of my mouth. I need her siblings to grow up with her. I need for my husband to have never experienced this depth of pain. If you can’t give me any of these things, you’re kind of on your own with suggestions for helping me. Maybe send a sympathy card. It will make you feel better.
23. “Well, I’ll pray for you.”
Aside from the doubt that exists over whether you’ll actually do it or not, how is this helpful? Who knows better than God what I need and why hasn’t he already given it to me? Your asking for it will make it magically appear? The worst part about this statement is that it usually comes at the end of your listening to me or grieving with me. As in, “You’re done now. I’ll pray for you, okay? You’re making me uncomfortable with your intense sadness and hard questions.”
I know that I haven’t left you anything to say. Maybe that’s the point. I also know that, if you’re a typical Christian, you’re defensive and even deeply wounded by what I’ve said here. You’re thinking, “But remember, here’s what God is REALLY like and here’s where you’re wrong. Here’s where you need to adjust your theology and get your heart right with God.”
Whether you like it or not, no matter how uncomfortable this makes you feel, no matter what you believe or even what I believe, these things you’ve said are not helpful to me. In fact, many of them are so hurtful that I’ve been awake more than one night trying to work through them.
Maybe someday I’ll be ready to accept my child’s death with a little more grace. But for now, I’m afraid you’ll have to stick with, “This sucks,” or a simple, “I’m sorry.” You know what’s even better? The sound you make when you stay quiet.
Last Friday, I posted this photo on my Confessions of a Funeral Director Facebook Page.
Since I posted it, over 2,000,000 people have viewed it.
Many have asked, “Where is this gravestone located?” ”Who is the gravestone for?” And various other questions.
Here’s Matthew Stanford Robison’s “Find a Grave” page that will answer most of your questions:
|Birth:||Sep. 23, 1988|
|Death:||Feb. 21, 1999|
This unique monument shows the young boy jumping upward, out of his wheelchair. Confined to the chair most of his young life, he is now free of earthly burdens.
“And then it shall come to pass, that the spirits of those who are righteous are received into a state of happiness, which is called paradise, a state of rest, a state of peace, where they shall rest from all their troubles and from all care, and sorrow.” Peacefully in his sleep on Sunday, February 21, 1999, our cherished son, brother and friend, Matthew Stanford Robison was received into a state of happiness, and began his rest from troubles, care, and sorrow in the arms of his Savior and friend Jesus Christ.
Matthew was a joy and inspiration to all who were privileged to know him. He was a testament to the supreme divinity of the soul and an embodiment of the completeness our spirits yearn for. The godliness of his soul inspired, influenced and blessed all who knew him. He came into this world as a miracle and left this world as a miracle.
Born with severe earthly disabilities on September 23, 1988 in Salt Lake City to Johanna (Anneke) Dame Robison and Ernest Parker Robison. At birth, Matthew’s life expectancy was anticipated to be only hours long. However, fortitude, strength, and endurance, combined with the power of God allowed Matthew to live ten and one-half years enveloped in the love of his family and friends. His family was privileged to spend time with him here upon earth, to learn from his courage and marvel at his constant joy and happiness in the face of struggle. His family will be eternally changed by his presence and temporally changed by his passing. His presence inspired all those who knew him. He opened their hearts as well as their eyes.
He is survived by his parents: Ernest and Anneke; sisters and brothers, Korrin, Marc, Jared, and Emily of Murray, Utah, and Elizabeth (Czech Prague Mission) Also, grandparents and other family members. A heartfelt thanks to his special care givers, especially Shauna Langford, and others at Liberty Elementary School.
Salt Lake City Cemetery
Salt Lake City
Salt Lake County
Here is part of Matthew’s obituary:
Says my grandfather as he looks at the handsome face of a 13 year old boy lying motionless on our stretcher.
The last time the family saw him was a couple days before Easter.
Now, a day removed from Easter, they will view the body of their son one final time before he’s taken to the crematory.
Mothers dread walking into their son’s room and finding their boy making out with a girl. They don’t look forward to walking into their son’s room and finding them with cigarette in hand.
But few mothers have experienced this: walking into your son’s room to find him lying on the floor with his face distorted and discolored from livor mortis. It was a heart problem that the doctors said was under the control of proper medication.
The mother came through the funeral home door with a laugh, trailed by her husband (the father), their son and a couple friends.
Those laughs are now tears as they cut some of the locks of his hair and place them neatly in our small keepsake bags. My dad walks past me and says, “Hardest thing I have to see today.” That after he embalmed a 47 year old cancer patient in the morning and then held the hand of the cancer patient’s wife while she made arrangements.
10 minutes pass.
Tears communicate instead of their words.
“He looks so good”, one of them says.
We wait, feeling the temperature of the room with that empathy sense that funeral directors develop.
We’ve done what we can to remove the livor, leaving his facial skin looking like that of a china doll. And once they begin walking away from the stretcher, the laughter begins again.
I start an internal dialogue as I attempt to understand the contrast of tears and laughter:
“It’s got to be unhealthy for them to be laughing.”
“Maybe, but how would you feel when the last time you saw your son’s face it was discolored?”
“But this is so unnatural! The whole thing … the death itself, the way they found him and now … laughter?!?”
“Imagine all the darkness they’ve seen … and now this little glimmer of light … small as it may be … they can see their son one last time the way they remember him. Something as simple as his cleared up skin may be the brightest thought they’ve had for days. Let them laugh now … there will be plenty of crying to do later.
And with that I consoled myself; reassuring myself that when a child dies, sometimes, somehow … it can be natural for parents to leave the funeral home happy.
As with all my post, circumstances have been changed and rearranged so as to protect the privacy of this family.