Grieving the Loss of a Parent
I write this article at the same time I am working on a sermon on the third petition of the Lord’s Prayer — “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” The Heidelberg Catechism, when answering what this means, states, “Grant that we and all men may renounce our own will, and without murmuring obey Thy will, which is only good.” It was not my will to have my mother die of cancer when I was ten years old, but it was the good will of my heavenly Father. Permit me to tell you part of my story to allow you to enter into my grief and ultimately, into the journey of love I have been able to walk.
My mother was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 37; at that time, I was five years old. I understood very little of the reality of what was happening, but I did know my mother and father had to make frequent trips to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. I remember I was scared. Eventually it was obvious that my mother was quite sick and was slowly losing the battle against cancer. She lost her hair and was reduced to a shell of the woman she once was. After five years of being consumed by a slow cancer, she traded time for eternity and went home to be with her Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
While her death brought her earthly journey to an end, it began my journey of a child dealing with the grief of losing a parent. As a grief-stricken, ten-year-old boy, I experienced a sorrow that seemed to hurt my very heart. Even though I had five years to try to understand and prepare for my mom’s death, when the moment actually occurred, I realized death was uglier and harder than I had imagined. Those first days, weeks, and months following the funeral were hard, but that was merely the beginning of my grief. Little did I know that the death of my mother would be an ongoing, formative aspect of my life. For years I have thought of writing a book about my mother’s death and the impact of her death on my life. The title of this yet unwritten book is Always a Child. This title captures the sense of what I read recently in God’s Light on Dark Clouds. The author, Theodore Cuyler, writes that “there is something about deep sorrow that tends to wake up the child-feeling in all of us.” Deep sorrow does not simply wake up the child-feeling at the moment of the loss, but the memories of the sorrow reawaken those same feelings. So, what does a child (even one who is now 44) do with the grief of losing a parent?
The first aspect of my grief is captured in the opening words of A Grief Observed by C. S. Lewis; he writes, “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.” I feared losing my dad; I feared I would die young; I feared that somehow God was angry at me or my family. I feared God was not as wise, powerful, or loving as I once thought. I never completely lost my bearings, but I think I know what the phrase “dark night of the soul” means and feels like. Jeremiah writes of this in Lamentations 3,
He has led me and made me walk in darkness and not in light ... he has set me in dark places ... he has made my chain heavy ... my soul still remembers and sinks within me.
What is the answer to this heaviness — to the profound grief, fear, and doubts? Cuyler writes, “To my weak vision, dimmed with tears, the cloud is exceeding dark, but through it stream some rays from the infinite love that fills the throne with an exceeding and eternal brightness of glory.” Jeremiah proclaims, “This I recall to my mind, therefore have I hope. It is of the LORD’s mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not. They are new every morning: great is Thy faithfulness” (Lam. 3:21-23). The answer is learning to trust God — to come to the point of surrender to the good and gracious will of God. The most significant way this happens is when it is modeled. I am so grateful for my parents who lived a true faith that wholly trusted God. During the five years my mother battled cancer, I never once heard her question God or speak an ill word against God or the cancer He had given. The same can be said of my father; to this day, I have never heard him raise an objection to God’s dealings with him or our family. They both had a high view of God and truly believed Romans 8:28. This was not simply a verse to quote; it was a belief to hold onto and live out.
Cuyler writes, “It is the easiest thing in the world to obey God when he commands us to do what we like, and to trust him when the path is all sunshine. The real victory of faith is to trust God in the dark and through the dark.”
My parents trusted God in the dark, and this trust was a gift to me — a gift that made trust in God contagious.
Second, submitting to the will of God is an ongoing process because the grief associated with the death of a parent continues. This grief is not simply about the initial loss but arises at significant moments of life. I felt the absence of my mother at my high school graduation, when I brought home my future wife, at my marriage, at the birth of my children, at my graduation from seminary and ordination into ministry. It is a longing to share the most important moments with my mother, but knowing I can’t. It is mourning what will not be — the moments when my children do things that remind me of my mother and I catch myself thinking, “I wish Mom could meet them.” The times I am telling stories from my childhood that involve my mom, and my wife and kids will say, “I wish we knew her.” In this ongoing grief, I continue to learn to submit to my Father’s will. Part of the secret of submission is captured by Elizabeth Prentiss in The Home at Greylock. A mother in the novel who had lost a child at a young age quotes the following epitaph from a newspaper: “‘Oh,’ said the gardener, as he passed down the garden walk. ‘Who plucked that flower? Who gathered that plant?’ His fellow servants answered, ‘The Master!’ and the gardener held his peace.” This same truth is captured by Samuel Rutherford.
He writes, “Ye are not to think of it a bad bargain for your beloved daughter that she died — she hath gold for copper and brass, eternity for time. All the knot must be that she died too soon, too young, in the morning of her life; but sovereignty must silence your thoughts ... The good Husbandman may pluck His roses and gather His lilies at midsummer ... let our Lord pluck his own fruit at any season he pleaseth.”
Finally, even if I do not understand or see any reason for her death, it is necessary to come to the point of saying that God does all things well. One of the most difficult things in a trial is when we cannot see or understand the “why” behind it. The fact of the matter is God did not consult me about the trial He sent, nor does He need to explain Himself afterwards. The mysteries of providence can be perplexing. We must remember the truths articulated by Cuyler: “In Providence, divine wisdom is married to divine love. All things work together for good to them who love God and trust him. The skeptic jeers at this, but the trusting Christian knows it from actual experience. It is often a dear-bought experience, for some of God’s truths are knocked into us by hard blows, and some lessons are spelled out through eyes cleansed with tears. Our perverse mistake is that we demand that God shall explain himself at every step, instead of waiting for him to unfold his intricate purposes at his own time and in his own way.” You see, knowing God is sovereign does not take away the pain, but it does give me hope.
My hope is that darkness yields to light — that the dark moments open to vistas of His beauty that are revealed only as I emerge from the darkness. My hope is that “the eternal God is my refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms” (Deut. 33:27). My hope is that God keeps me and all those He loves in those everlasting arms. So I cling to what I know, not to what is kept from me. As a child of God, I come to my Father in my grief and crawl into His arms where I find refuge. My hope is that my mother, though lost to me for a time, is upheld by God’s everlasting arms and is safe until we meet again. My hope is that the truths of the song sung at my mother’s funeral remain true.
The sands of time are sinking,
The dawn of heaven breaks;
The summer morn I’ve sighed for —
The fair, sweet morn awakes.
Dark, dark hath been the midnight,
But dayspring is at hand,
And glory, glory dwelleth in Immanuel’s land.
O Christ, He is the fountain,
The deep, sweet well of love;
The streams on earth I’ve tasted,
More deep I’ll drink above.
There to an ocean fullness His mercy doth expand
And glory, glory dwelleth in Immanuel’s land.