When the Worst Happens
Have you experienced a difficult death in your family or among your friends? I mean, all deaths are sad, and we mourn the loss of a dear person—but it is very different with tragic circumstances or when children or young people die.
Anyone who has lost a child or has had a child with a significant physical or intellectual challenge has heard comments and questions that leave them cold.
I remember wondering where God was when a busload of wholesome young baseball players careened off an exit ramp, killing most of them—and they had prayed for safety in a circle before they left on the trip. Why does a 32-year-old young mother get taken by cancer, while a 90-something man asks his family, “Who is going to figure out how to get me out of here?”—meaning he’s so ready to die?
Why is one infant miraculously healed from a bad heart valve while another dies? Who gets saved when a hurtling hurricane suddenly veers another direction—and who gets killed instead?
These questions plague most thoughtful persons—including persons of faith. And even pastors, priests, and rabbis. Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote probably one of the most popular books ever on the topic, Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People?
Jessica Kelley is a young woman who has written a new book on suffering, titled Lord Willing? Wrestling with God’s Role in My Son’s Death (Herald Press, April 2016). She and her husband, Ian, had two adorable—if sometimes mischievous—children: Henry, age 4, and Miriam, age 2. Henry got sick off and on for much of the winter one year. But what preschooler doesn’t? Tests kept coming back showing nothing.
You know where this is going. Henry was eventually diagnosed with an invasive brain tumor, from which he died a few months later.
Why read a book about suffering and what feel like unanswerable questions?
Before you say, “I don’t want to read such a book. I don’t need anything else about which to get depressed,” let me say Jessica is a superb writer, excellent speaker, and thoughtful theologian. Not that she’s a pastor or Bible scholar. But we are all theologians when we study scholars and discuss our thoughts about who God and Jesus are. And she’s done that.
Jessica had started listening to podcasts of various Christian leaders to pass the time while nursing her babies in the middle of the night. Years earlier, she had gone through a period of intense depression, and also experienced difficulty after her parents split after 20-some years of marriage. At one point she checked herself into the psychiatric floor of her local hospital—and then tried to check herself back out again (which doesn’t work).
So some of her wrestling with eternal questions happened well before Henry got sick. In her book, she writes, “I’m so thankful that I started wrestling with my picture of God before Henry’s diagnosis. As a result, I had an assurance of God’s goodness when I needed it most” (pp. 22–23).
Anyone who has lost a child or has had a child with a significant physical or intellectual challenge has heard comments and questions that leave them cold, even when they come from beautiful, well-meaning people who are just trying to help. Comments like “God knows best” or, when a child dies, “God needed another angel,” do not help, according to those who’ve gone through it. Jessica is quick to say in her book that if believing in this kind of God is helping you through whatever your trauma or tragedy is, then hang on to it. But many more people, when told “Everything happens for a reason,” wonder what kind of God has a reason for a child to get an incurable tumor. And they decide not to have anything to do with such a God.
Jessica, along with painting in words her son’s struggle and how they coped with his excruciatingly difficult illness, holds out hope and help for all those who have ever gone through tragedy and loss. Parents passing through such trials often despair, or wish to give up in the weeks, months, and years after.
Jessica writes, “For those of you already suffering, I believe these pages will bring hope, healing, and knowledge of the truth of God’s good character” (p. 23). She points to biblical passages that tell us that God shows his true nature and love in the person of Jesus, who offered nothing but love to those who came to him, except for religious hypocrites. He healed people—and wouldn’t allow his disciples to take up a sword to defend or protect him. Believing in that loving, gentle Jesus is what carried Jessica through their time of greatest trial.
As she left the stage of deep denial about her son’s condition, “Love and hideous pain met and merged and wrapped around me. I shook like a wounded child, reeling from the insistent, persistent reality that refused to back down. I shut my eyes and surrendered to the arms that rocked me like a baby. Encircled in strength, I faced the doom with heavy sobs and a heart that screamed, God, help me. This is real!” (p. 108).
Most of us encounter friends and family members going through difficult times. This book is sad and gut-wrenching, but not depressing. It is painful, but not empty. It points to a God who loves and keeps arms encircling us, no matter what.
Lord Willing?, is available at http://store.mennomedia.org/Lord-Willing-P4686.aspx. For a free booklet, “Walking with God through Grief and Loss,” write to me at MelodieD@MennoMedia.org or Another Way, 1251 Virginia Avenue, Harrisonburg, VA 22802.