I’ll never forget meeting Mark Anderson. Our common ground went beyond our faith in Christ: we both had ice running through our veins. Hockey ice, that is.
Being that I’m a Canadian-bred, hockey-loving pastor in Southern California, it’s not every day that I meet Michigan-bred, hockey-loving people like Mark. His wife, Chelsea, is no less a fanatic either. If their favorite team (the Detroit Red Wings) beat my favorite team (the Toronto Maple Leafs) on a Saturday night, Chelsea would go out of her way to let me know about it on Sunday before the service even started! Their friendship within the church has been a refreshing gift from the Lord in so many ways, which is why my wife and I couldn’t contain our excitement when they announced they were pregnant. We knew just the gift we’d get to welcome little baby Joselyn Grace into the world.
Against every fabric of my being, I mustered up the courage to even touch another team’s jersey, let alone buy one. I still have time before she arrives, I thought, as I stared at the “Purchase Order” button on the website I was on. I could still change my mind and buy her my favorite team’s jersey. But for Baby Joselyn, I’d make the exception – she was worth it.
We customized her name on the back of the jersey and my wife added the rhinestones one by one around the jersey number. “It has to be girly,” she persisted. We wrapped it, boxed it, and it was ready to go.
Then the news came.
Baby Joselyn would never get to wear her jersey. The Master had called her home.
In Mark and Chelsea’s own words, here’s what happened:
From the very beginning, our pregnancy journey was a difficult one. The hardest season began in the second trimester when we discovered our daughter had multiple abnormalities. Every doctor's appointment seemed to include a new abnormality to add to the list as her prognosis worsened. The doctors suggested termination as her life expectancy was grim. At one point, we were given a 2% life expectancy for our sweet girl and faced potential health risks for Chelsea if we wanted to continue carrying our daughter. We clung to God’s word, standing firm in our belief that God ordains the length of each life. Termination was not an option, regardless of a prognosis, no matter how difficult or traumatic the circumstances were. We believe that God is always sovereign and in control, and that if He has willed such pain and hardship in our lives, then He would grow us and sustain us through every moment. That is exactly what we experienced.
During the traumatic thirty-eight weeks of pregnancy, God sustained us. Through the ups and downs of crippling morning sickness, through countless doctors’ appointments, hospital visits, and monitoring sessions. It was the absolute best and the absolute worst thirty-eight weeks of our lives. To be in such despair, and yet have so much joy. To feel so weak, and yet watch our faith and marriage be strengthened. To be consumed with all the “what ifs” and worries, and then to be able to turn to the Bible and renew our minds with His truth brought such joy, peace and understanding. It was so painfully beautiful. And still is.
We’d be lying if we said our hearts aren’t broken. Every time we see other parents enjoying their children, it is a stinging reminder of our sweet Joselyn. It is so very hard to express our pain, especially to friends who may not understand that our grieving process takes time, sometimes much longer then we had even expected. We know what the Bible says, and that brings us such hope and peace, but sometimes it takes a little longer than we’d like for the message to mend our broken hearts.
“But God.” Those two words have become the life raft we cling to when the waters of pain are so deep we cannot swim. His grace is sufficient in our greatest times of weakness. That is a promise we hold on to each day.
The Russian Roulette of Christian Response
When people in our lives go through this sort of pain, the response from Christians can be like a game of Russian Roulette: you just never know what you’re going to get. Some of us aren’t sure what to say, so we say nothing. Others are scared to say the wrong thing, so nothing is said at all. Still, others try to say the right thing, but end up doing more harm than good. But there is even another group – those who are selfishly indifferent to the pain that others are experiencing for any number of reasons. We all may may fit into this last group from time to time, no matter how much we don’t want to admit it.
Like an archer painting a bullseye around where his arrow hits, we tend to act like we know what we’re talking about when, in reality, far too many of us are unable to construct our responses upon a foundation of biblical understanding.
We are left wondering what it actually means to come alongside those who are experiencing great loss. But exactly how do we do it?
In light of our great need to represent our Great Savior to those experiencing great pain, here are four ways to biblically mourn with those who mourn:
Show Empathy Towards Them
Now, before all the tough guys who never cry roll their eyes and scroll on, think about Paul’s words in Romans 12:15. Instructing the church on how to serve one another he writes: “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.” In the most basic sense, it is a downright Christian behavior to show emotion that is appropriate for the moment. Feelings matter, and empathy is one of those feelings that Christians should cultivate for the good of those around them. We serve a compassionate God (James 5:11), we have a Savior who wept over a loss (John 11:35), and the One who holds the world in His hands holds our tears in a bottle (Psalm 56:8). Emotions are not bad, they’re a tool for bonding.
It may take some effort, but you are called to show empathetic emotion towards those who are mourning.
Listen to Them
We can all do a better job at this one. I’ve spoken with numerous parents who have lost babies and the majority of them want to talk about it. They need to talk about it. We do well to listen and put our emotional tool boxes aside – they don’t need fixing.
One of the most awe-inspiring examples of listening in the Bible didn’t even involve talking. Job’s friends “listened” to the pain of their friend by simply saying nothing. Job 2:11-13 does the heavy lifting here as it says, “Now when Job’s three friends heard of all this adversity that had come upon him, they came each from his own place…to sympathize with him and comfort him…then they sat down on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights with no one speaking a word to him, for they saw his pain was very great.”
Want to be a listening ear? Sit silently and hear the pain of those around you. Sometimes we comfort those around us best when we have the courage to just sit with them in the process of pain.
In his book, Comfort the Grieving, Paul Tautges charts bereavement plans that last up to three years (pp. 58-59). How’s that for serving? Not every Christian will be able to hold down the fort for a three-year plan, but the idea behind this sort of thing is something everyone can and should do: serve those who are in pain. Jesus served to the point of laying down His life (Matt. 20:28). He was the ultimate example of selflessness and humility (Phil. 2:3-7) and we are to be devoted to one another with the same attitude of service (Romans 12:9-13). That’s going to mean looking in the mirror. Does pride keep you from serving others? Are your own idols barricading your heart from being able to show more love to others?
Maybe it’s time to say to someone who’s grieving: “What do you want? Consider it done.” “What you need? We’re ready to do it right now.” “Please inconvenience me, I am here for you.”
Journey with Them
Reminding people about the sovereignty of God is a great thing. Telling people to “consider all joy” when they encounter trials is also a great thing (James 1:2). But without applying any of the strategies on this list, rapidly discharged sentiments, no matter how biblical, have little impact if a relationship isn’t present. We need to inconvenience ourselves, crush our selfishness, and embrace the annoyance of “effort” to forge relationships. Every ounce of “me” must be squeezed out of our sinful hearts, that is, if you want to really walk with someone the way Christ intends us to.
Relationship opens the door for trust, and trust enables us to say the things we need to say to one another. Speaking the truth in love is possible all the time, but it is especially effective when we do so with people that share relational trust. Drive-by one-liners like, “Stay focused on eternity, you’ll see your baby in heaven one day” or “Keep your perspective during this time, millions of babies die every day” are useless maxims when the pain of searing loss is present. Journeying with people enables us to spend time with them and, therefore, opens the door for us to share wisdom with them. Encouragement – and even correction – from a trusted source wins every time.
We Need Each Other
Notice what mourning with those who mourn is not about? Yep, you guessed it! It’s not about you. Your opinion on timelines, perspective, or even well-intentioned sharing of how you conquered previous pain is not essential to this process. It is Christ who provides the best recipe for restoring the broken heart. Selflessness is the mark of Christ-likeness, and there is no better way to be the church to those around you than to live in light of His model.
Your moment will come too. Pain is a reality that we are all going to experience. Taking practical steps enables us all to bear one another’s burdens and be the hands and feet of Christ.