On April 11th, 2013, my great-grandmother, Lucille Stout, passed away. She lived her whole life with a passion for the Lord and raised her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren to know about grace, love and salvation. Her life was a long and beautiful testimony that following God no matter what is worth the payoff. One night, at the age of 98, she went to sleep and never woke up. She had no pain. She didn’t suffer from disease, she didn’t have fear. She simply fell asleep and met Jesus.
I grieved deeply for her, mostly because her life was so rich that I regretted not getting to know her better. I wished that she would have been able to see my kids get older, to meet my youngest son who hadn’t made his entrance into the world and to see the legacy of what her faith had produced. I also simply missed her face and especially her laugh.
Jesus promised us in the Sermon on the Mount that those who mourn are blessed because they will be comforted. It was easy to feel God’s comfort with the death of my great-grandmother. Although I missed her terribly, I knew that she lived a wonderful life that was rich in love, laughter and faith. Her death coming so peacefully made the comfort sweet because I felt that God had rewarded her life of service with an easy transition home.
On August 5th, 2015, my grandmother, Ruby Stout, passed away. Again, she was a godly woman who raised her family to know that Jesus loved them more than anything else in the world. Grandma came from an abusive home. She was often left alone with her younger siblings for a week or more at a time to care for them when she was under 10 years old. She never shared the details of her abuse, but told us only that once she met Jesus in church as a child, she promised never to treat her children the same way that she was treated, and she never did. She exuded God’s grace through taking care of children, her kids and grandkids and all of the little ones that she taught in Sunday school.
Grandma’s transition to heaven was harder. She developed dementia and we watched as she became forgetful, lost words, and settled down peacefully into old age. As a music therapist, I had the opportunity in the past to work with a terminal patient who had dementia and a history of child abuse. She used to hide in closets at her assisted living facility and cry because she thought her father was coming home to beat her. Without telling my family, I begged and begged God to not let this same thing happen to my grandmother. This was the comfort that I found in her transition as she quietly succumbed to confusion and remained blissfully unaware. God had heard my prayer and provided her comfort.
But Grandma started to forget that she couldn’t walk well. She was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and spent the last years of her life in continuous pain. I was angry that after a life of service to God, she had to struggle so much. It seemed unfair that God would not reward her for a life well lived. One night, she got up to use the restroom, forgetting that she couldn’t walk without her walker and fell, breaking her hip.
The family came from all over the country to visit and see if she was okay and we learned that she would not be sent to recovery. She was too frail to have hip surgery, she developed pneumonia and even if she did recover, her memory wouldn’t allow her to do the necessary therapy to recover physically. Hospice was called in. It was time to say goodbye.
We sat by her hospital bed for days. Each day, the doctors would come in and tell us that “this would most likely be the day,” and then she would last the night. I went from praying that God would let her live to praying that he would take her fast so that she didn’t have to suffer. We sat and watched her breathe, and each time her breath would pause, so would ours until she took the next breath. We pushed the morphine button over and over again as we saw it start to lose its effect and she winced in pain. We sang hymns as a family and prayed over her. We told her that it was okay to go home and eventually, she did.
This time, I felt comfort in the fact that she was finally at peace after so many years of pain. I felt comfort in knowing that she was in heaven. But at the same time, small cracks were beginning to form in my faith. Why would God let her pain go on for so long? Why would someone who touched the lives of countless individuals through her years of faithful service have to endure such hardship over and over in her life? I also had a hard time reconciling the fact that one of my biggest cheerleaders, spiritual mentors and friends was so suddenly gone.
On November 24th, 2015, my daughter, Lily Grace, passed away. I delivered her the next day after 11 hours of labor. We went in for a routine check and the doctors couldn’t find her heartbeat. Much of that news being delivered was a blur, but I remember the ultrasound technician searching for what felt like an eternity while the doctors, nurses, Scott and I watched in silence. Finally, one doctor looked at me and simply said, “I’m so sorry.”
Over the next few hours, I was taken to labor and delivery and given a room, medicine was administered to start my labor and we waited. My parents came in and prayed with me before they left to babysit my other kids but I did not feel God in that moment. I labored all night and early into the morning. As Scott slept, I felt utterly alone other than the occasional nurse peeking in to check on me.
Lily was born just after 4am the next morning. She was dressed in a gown that the hospital had saved for such an occasion and we were able to spend two precious hours with her on this earth. We told her how much we loved her, took pictures of her, held her and cried tears that could never convey how we were feeling. Scott and I spoke words to one another that were too intimate to share with any other human being about life, love and faith; words that can only come from two people experiencing the same unimaginable loss.
We said goodbye to Lily two hours after saying hello. I watched her being gently carried out of my hospital room and there was no comfort. My rejection of the picture that I had always had of God being our loving father was immediate and intense. When I was discharged from the hospital carrying only a teddy bear and a box of Lily’s few tiny possessions that the hospital had given us to remember her by, I was utterly alone and could not be comforted.
For months I waded through deep grief. For those who have never experienced this type of loss, it feels like the world is moving too fast around you. You are in it, but not a part of it. I knew that I had to get up and take care of my other children, my home and my responsibilities, but all of it was done through a thick veil that was the new way I saw the world. I couldn’t move fast enough and everything I did felt like a heavy weight on my shoulders. I never knew that grief could cause physical pain in my chest until I lost Lily. I was trudging through life but not living.
I didn’t go back to church until our Christmas Eve service a month later, but that only brought more pain as I kept hearing about the “baby in the manger” and pictured my own baby and thought about how this Jesus who came to save us chose not to save my daughter. I was so angry with God. I spent hours crying alone at night when the rest of the family went to sleep. I couldn’t take a shower without crying. I couldn’t drive my car without crying. I couldn’t sing in church without crying. I couldn’t pray without crying. So, I cried and cried and cried.
I went through all of the stages of grief, begging God to reverse time and let Lily live. I yelled at Him in anger. I shared with him all of my sadness and I held on to Romans 8:26 that says, “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.” I groaned into my pillow without the vocabulary to convey my sorrow and hoped that God heard my pain, but I did not feel His comfort.
I started to question my faith. If I truly believe in God and that He is all-powerful, I have to believe that He could have saved my child. If I believe that God is the loving father that I had always known him to be, how could He let Lily die? If He really does love her (and me) as much as the Bible says that He does, why take her and leave me with such unbelievable pain? If He only wants good for his children and wishes no harm upon them, maybe He isn’t strong enough to intercede. What if He doesn’t really exist at all and I will never see my daughter again?
I was scared by my own questioning and my loss of spiritual direction in life. I was floundering and couldn’t hear God’s voice at all in the midst of my deep mourning. I began to search for answers and came back to a story in the Bible that I had heard many times but that had never resonated with me before. In Mark, Chapter 9, a man comes to Jesus and asks him to heal his son who has been possessed by an evil spirit for years. The father begged, ““…if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.” “If you can?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for one who believes.” Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”” (Mark 9:22-24)
This prayer became the only words that I knew to pray. “Oh God, I believe, but you’ve got to help me overcome my unbelief.” And slowly and painfully, I met God again. I wasn’t less angry with Him, but I knew that He was listening and answering my prayer to know His presence again in my life and help me with my unbelief. I slowly reconnected with my faith and began to find more words to pray. They were all angry words but at least I knew that they were being heard.
I had a life-changing moment about 8 months into my struggle with God in the midst of my pain. I was doing some chores around the house alone (and crying, as I did every time that I was alone) and was praying and yelling at God. This was a pretty typical scenario at this point in my life. When I felt sad, it was God’s fault and I had grown accustomed to my prayer time consisting of phrases like, “You could have stopped this from happening. How could you do this if you love me? Why do we have to go through this intense pain?,” and always ended with, “Why didn’t you save her?”
On this particular day, I had fallen to the floor and sat there, crying my eyes out, and yelled, “Why didn’t you save her?” I heard God’s voice simply say, “I did.” It was an audible voice in the room with me and it was probably the only time in my life that I will ever hear God that plainly. I heard with my ears, not just my heart, “I did,” and all of my anger came crashing down around me. I was overwhelmed with sudden clarity of the whole gospel account of Jesus and his life, teaching, death and resurrection.
In that moment, I learned the crux of God’s plan for redemption and salvation. I had heard it so many times before, but it was different after the loss of my own flesh and blood. I sat there and cried as God gently reminded me through scripture that I have known my whole life that Jesus conquered death, hell and the grave. I had always been amazed by this but was looking at it through the lens of Jesus’ resurrection and how amazing it was that He is alive.
In this moment, God showed me that this conquering of death was not Jesus’ death, but my daughter’s. He did indeed already save her, and it was through Jesus’ death and resurrection that I will see her again. I also saw the resurrection account through the eyes of the father rather than the son for the first time. Losing my child was the most unimaginable pain that I had ever experienced. Jesus went through physical pain, but God knew how I felt because it happened to Him too, and He let it happen willingly so that I would be able to spend eternity with Lily.
So the question remains, in light of all of the pain of loss, how do I feel blessed to mourn? Because when we enter the deepest, ugliest, darkest parts of our own souls, when we hit bottom so hard that we wish for death, when we question God’s love or even His existence but have the courage to invite him into our pain with us, we understand more fully God’s intent for all of creation. Death is the worst pain that can ever happen to us, and Jesus conquered it, not only for Himself, but for all of us. Death is not the end of the story for any of us.
I was pondering these thoughts on grief and mourning in my heart again recently and realized that my great-grandmother, my grandmother, my other grandmother who is still living and I all have something in common that I never thought of before. We have all lost children to stillbirth. I have known about their losses my whole life, but hadn’t thought about them since my own since their generation didn’t speak about stillbirth openly. They are now reunited with their babies in heaven, something that I long so desperately for.
These women stand out in my mind as my spiritual leaders and mentors and for a split second I thought, “Why can’t I handle the loss of my child with grace and dignity and move on like they were able to.” Then I remembered that when we closed my great-grandmother’s casket and said goodbye, the last thing that I saw were her wrinkled, age spotted hands holding a tiny pillow with her baby’s name on it. She had lived for over 70 years with the pain of losing her child and had never gotten over the grief. She requested to be buried with that pillow because it was all that she had of him in this world.
So how does God comfort people who are in such extreme mourning? Before losing Lily, I thought of comfort as the knowledge that my great-grandmother didn’t suffer or the knowledge that my grandmother was no longer in pain. But this is not real comfort. This is consolation and self-soothing information. Had I not lost my daughter, I would never understand true comfort that only God can give. It has nothing to do with whether I feel sad or not. It has everything to do with the cross and the fact that if I never feel okay with the loss of my daughter in this life, the cross made this life only the beginning of the story.
A few people have asked me how I can continue to serve and love God after all that I have been through and after He let my child die. There is no easy answer. I didn’t just wake up one morning and decide that everything was fine. I have struggled with my faith so much through this experience of loss. But God has heard every word and has not left me in my grief. I have found only one explanation for allowing this loss to occur and it is found in the book of Luke.
Jesus’ words from Luke 17:20-21 say, “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst.” I have wrestled with the reason for loss and attributed it to this fallen world and for a time told myself that I will just hang around because I have to and not be a part of a sinful world that would let things like children dying happen. But Jesus says that the kingdom is here now. There is still beauty in our fallen world, even if the only beauty we see is true comfort in deep pain.
As for why God would create a child only to let her die before being born, I find my answer in
1 Corinthians 13:12 that says about life after death, “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” Lily knows fully and is fully known by God. I am certain that she is living her true life and doing what God created her to do. God didn’t create her to let her die. He created her for a purpose that she is fulfilling already. I am the one who doesn’t yet know what my life in eternity is for.
This grief that makes everything feel like I am moving slowly and not seeing clearly is analogous to the way we live before resurrection. We have the opportunity to glimpse God and we “groan as in the pains of childbirth” (Romans 8:22) waiting for Him to make all things new.
Blessed are we who mourn this life because there is something so much better waiting for us. Comfort is a promise from God and it is guaranteed when we see Him face to face. Until that time, God is the same yesterday, today and forever no matter our circumstances.