Free Chapter From My Next Book: You’re Still Here – Surviving the Death of a Child

holding handsI’ve mentioned on Twitter that I’m working on a new ebook for people who have lost a child, or know someone who has. I’ll also release the book through CreateSpace as a paperback. It’s not going to be terribly long, and I’m not a doctor or therapist or big name celebrity pastor/author, so it’s not going to be terribly popular. But what it will be is honest. Perhaps too honest.

But as I’m writing for hurting people, that’s not a bad thing.

See, there aren’t a lot of resources out there for people who’ve buried a child. Be it a stillbirth, a miscarriage, SIDS, an early childhood illness or just the injustice of a fallen universe, a lot of people are hurting without many resources to comfort them. I don’ t know if it’s because those resources have a limited audience and therefore remain unknown or if companies and writers are simply unwilling to publish on the topic. It also may be that there are tons of resources available and I just don’t know how to Google search them.

I doubt that last point, though, because every time someone I know experiences a child’s death – be it personally or via friends and family – one of the first questions I get is always, “I’ve looked online for resources on this, but there don’t seem to be that many. Can you recommend something?”

The thought of writing something for hurting parents and family and friends has been in the back of my head for a while. I’ve put it off because A- I don’t have the platform to effectively write and sell such a book, and B- I’m not an official expert in the matters of grief. But I got a message from my cousin the other day on Facebook asking about resources for someone who’d just lost a baby. I gave her a couple of books that Rachel and I had read that kind of helped, and gave her some advice on what not to say or do around the grieving parents. And I realized: I don’t have to write the definitive book on surviving the death of a child. I don’t have to be psychologist or counselor or mega-pastor to speak from a place of wisdom.

I’ve lived it. And if I keep it short and sweet, and tell my story as a way of offering advice and insight, then that would be enough.

Part of writing is offering help to the people who read what you write. Whether it’s escape or insight or just a momentary sense of camaraderie, giving something to your reader is an essential piece of being a good writer. I know that enough people come to this blog on a search for information on stillbirth and child death to know that even a short book on living through such a horrific life trauma might help someone else grieve better. So I’ve put my other projects on hold for the moment in order to get this book done.

If you know someone who might benefit from this book, please be on the lookout for it’s release. I’m hoping to get it done relatively soon, with sections for both the grieving parents and the friends and family of the aggrieved. It’s not going to be lengthy – maybe 30,000 words all told, but it will be sincere. If you work for a funeral service or maybe as a grief counselor or hospital chaplin, I’d love to send you a manuscript file before I publish and get some feedback and a review for the book. You can fill out the form below if you’re interested.

For everyone else, you can have a free chapter from the book by simply downloading the sample via this link: Sample Chapter_You’re Still Here. The chapter is titled The God Dilemma and it’s a quick look at how the question of God comes into play after the death of a child. The file is read-only.

If you know someone who’s coping with the death of a child, please share this post with them. I’d love for them to know that someone understands, and that a resource is being developed to offer some help in their time of need.

Stillborn, Still Here

photo (23)I couldn’t sleep last night. My neighbor’s to the back apparently were conducting search and rescue missions in their backyard, because a massive floodlight lit up the back of my house, a light so bright it was sufficient for identifying insects in their yard with the naked eye. From my patio. Over 300 feet away.

Anyway, since I couldn’t sleep, I powered up the laptop and checked email. There was the usual assortment of junk (mostly writing website stuff), but among the various vanities was a tiny little message from my father-in-law, Jim. The subject line took my breath: Ruthanne Awaiting In Heaven.

I wasn’t prepared for it, so it stunned me. Even though I mentioned Ruthie in yesterday’s blog, and even though my mind knew her birthday was today, I simply hadn’t been consciously thinking about her. Sure, when we visited my parents yesterday, my dad pointed out the flowers they’d placed in her memory at church. He asked Ella to tell him how old Ruthanne would be; Ella walked over to the plant, saw the preciously painted pink polka-dot nine, and informed my dad that her sister would, in fact, be nine years old. My dad grinned, turned to me and said, “Can you believe that? In just a couple more years she’d be a teenager!”

“Yeah, and only another couple of years and she’d have been driving!” my mom added.

I shook my head. No, I really couldn’t believe it. After all, I’m doing well just keeping up with a seven year old girl who thinks she’s seventeen and a four year old boy who enjoys screaming random bits of conversation when not actively giving his mother a hard time. In other words, I have no idea what the heck we would do with a third, older child.

I would imagine we’d lean on her to help keep the other two in line, or ask her to watch them when we need to get work done. I can imagine her being Ella’s best friend and chief rival, Jon’s mini-Mom, and Rachel’s sweet helper. It’s easy to think about those things. But it’s hard to imagine how she would relate to me. Ella is so much like me in her creativity and imagination (though she is very much like her mother too) that I can’t imagine having a daughter more attuned to this nerdy dad. I look at Ella and try to think about what Ruthanne might have been like – responsible, intelligent, socially aware, helpful, lots of the qualities that Ella exhibits by virtue of being the first surviving child – and I just can’t picture it.

Yet, that doesn’t make me sad.

Once upon a time, I would’ve felt tremendous regret for what I missed out on with Ruthanne. In some ways I suppose I still do, but it’s not as consuming as it once was. In fact, other than the occasional question about Ruthie from Jon or Ella, I really don’t think of her much at all. It sounds heartless, but here’s the thing: like David, I know she’ll never come back to me, but one day I’ll go to her. In the meantime, I have to love on Ella and Jon, pour into them my very best and cherish every moment we have together (even the stressful and annoying ones).

Like the past couple of mornings, when we’ve been watching the entire Star Wars franchise (even the horrid prequels). They run around the house, fighting with plastic lightsabers, knocking into things and raising a ruckus, but it’s life and it’s beautiful and I cherish it.

That’s not to say that today doesn’t hold meaning – it does. But what it says even louder is that the passage of time, the healing of wounds, is not only possible, it is inevitable. It comes whether we work at it or not; it simply comes faster when we participate and chase after healing. Everyday people come to this blog because of a search on the word “stillbirth” or the phrase “stillborn child.” I can honestly say that there hasn’t been a day in the last two years when that word hasn’t shown up in my stats information. That means that everyday for two years someone has either been curious about stillbirths, or wondered how to survive a stillbirth, and they’ve landed here. They’ve read our story. And they’ve seen that healing does come.

It’s painful at times. It’s sudden (or seemingly so) at others. But it’s persistent and it’s real, and that’s something I desperately wanted to know nine years, eight years, heck five years ago.

We’re still here. We’re still a family. Perhaps even more so because we have such a poignant reminder of the fragility and value of life.

And we also know what my father-in-law knows. His email was brief, but so powerful. Jim is a man who has lost much in his life – Ruthanne, his little brother Preston, other family members who didn’t have much time on this earth, but who live now eternally in heaven. And so his quiet, thoughtful, touching email grabbed me last night and reminded me that while we’re healing here, we’ll be fully healed when the day comes that we join our loved ones on the other side.

Here’s what he said:

Dear Rachel and Jason,
The most beautiful thing about Heaven is knowing that infants like Ruthanne, Preston, Gravis, and Helen who went early before us will be waiting to meet us there.
The closer I get, the more I am looking forward to seeing them!
Remembering Ruthanne in our thoughts,
Jim Paw and MeMe

Short. Sweet. Heartfelt. And for our family, utterly true.

Today, the sun is shining, and both my kids are foaming at the mouth to get out of the house and do something fun (which means, as it does with most children, going somewhere and spending money). Today, they’ll want to run all over a playground or go to Stone Mountain or see a movie or any number of things that incite their tiny little imaginations. And, as best we can, Rachel and I will chase after them, laughing and enjoying the day, forgetting our loss by embracing our blessings and simply living without the burden of regret.

This is what life is. It’s perpetual rebirth. It’s discovering each day that the greatest way to honor the memory of Ruthanne is to not let that memory steal our life. She was stillborn, but we’re still here. One day, we’ll see our loved ones and never have to let go, so let’s start that process today, with the ones closest to us. We’ve got a lot of living left to do.

So do you.

Now get out there and do it.

For Those Who’ve Lost a Child

I’m currently working on a book of essays for people who have lost a child. I’m looking for folks both recently devastated by their loss and for people who have been able to heal over time to contribute quotes on any of the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

If you’d like to contribute, simply fill out the form below with your name, email, phone and story. If I can use your contribution, I’ll get in touch with you soon.

Surviving the Death of Your Child

ImageI don’t normally post blogs based on what people are Googling, but the last three days I’ve seen an inordinate number of hits on one of my posts, When Your Baby Dies, and noted that a lot of people searched the word “stillborn” which led them to my site. And I’m not talking about a spike of 10-20 hits, I’m talking in the hundreds. Despite being plugged into the daily news and doing my best to stay current on global events, I can’t for the life of me think of any reason that people would be searching so frequently for that term, or landing so often on my post.

But in the interest of helping those folks out, I’d like to tell you how to survive the death of your child.

Please keep in mind, my daughter was a full-term stillborn, so my experience is radically different from someone who lost a child outside the womb. I can’t imagine losing one of my children (my wife and I now have two, a boy and a girl) and having to go through the process of burying them and the memories we made. I can’t imagine how it would feel to stand in Jon or Ella’s bedroom, knowing that they were never coming back. What it would be like to not feel my son’s arms wrapped around my neck again, or not have my daughter beg me to bounce her on the trampoline until she collapsed into my arms, laughing too hard to stand.

I think, honestly, I would die.

I know some of that pain, having experienced it with my stillborn daughter, but the grief is different when you mourn lost potential. Losing someone you’ve had for weeks or months or years…I don’t know. But I do know this: there is a connection between all of us who have ever lost a child. We know the deep sorrow of seeing a future wiped out before it could be fulfilled. We know the intense horror of having to ask “Why?” and “What could have happened differently?” without ever getting a satisfactory answer. We know what it feels like to willingly offer our own life for the life of our child, begging for the chance that they might live and we might die instead.

And we know the futility of such begging.

If you’ve ever picked out your child’s clothes, knowing that it would be the last thing they’d ever wear, you know that sometimes simply breathing is like being pierced with a knife.

If you’ve ever had a doctor look at you, eyes full of fear and mouth devoid of words, you know that the universe itself can seem small and cruel.

These are the pains of losing a child. They are not easy. They are not short-lived. They are not understood by many, save those who have drank from the same cup. They are, however, not permanent, at least not in the sense that each day feels like a fresh reinvention of the concept of hell. Eventually you will wake up and realize that you can go on. You will wake up and realize that the death of your child, though still with you in each heartbeat, each moment, is not going to kill you too.

Surviving the death of your child isn’t easy. It requires help, professional as well as personal. You need to go see a counselor; a therapist; a doctor; a spiritual advisor. You need to spend time with friends and family who may not understand your grief, but won’t shrink away in fear when it surfaces. You need to write down your thoughts, scream obscenities to heaven, cry until you fear dehydration, and battle the twin terrors of exhaustion and insomnia.

If you want to survive, you have to fight. If you give up, you’ll die too.

Only it won’t be the physical death you perhaps long for; it will be the death of your soul, your emotions, the part of you that makes you you. No one is strong enough to walk through a child’s death alone. You’ll crave solitude, and it will be an important part of your healing, but you’ll need community, a group of people who can and will go with you through the struggle, especially in the first few months when the world goes to hell and you can’t even make yourself care about eating a bowl of Frosted Flakes.

It’s a bitter irony, I suppose, that the one thing that helps you survive is family. And yet, it’s true.

If you are one of the many people who have searched for info on stillbirths, or have been moved by life events to read When Your Baby Dies, I sincerely hope that you have the family you need to survive the family you lost. If I could offer any other advice it’s merely this: with the right people around you, the best way to heal is to go full-on into your grieving. Don’t push it off. Don’t try to play hero. Don’t pretend it only hurts a little.

Embrace it. Run into the burning building that is your soul. Once the flames have gone out and everything has been reduced to rubble, you’ll find that by the grace of God and the strength of the people around you, you’re still standing. You’ve survived.

That’s what we all hope for. May you find it.

God With Us

* This is the manuscript to my sermon from this morning. I delivered this message at my church, Chestnut Grove Baptist, for our final Advent candle – the Christ candle. I post it here for those who might be wondering, in the wake of current events, just where God is when we need Him.

* * * * *

baby jesus“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel (which means, God with us).” – Matthew 1:23

It has been a very long week for our country and community. Between the Newtown shootings on the 14th and the murder of Paul Sampleton on Wednesday, a whole lot of people have been asking the collective question:

Where was God?

In the face of any tragedy, this is the almost-universal human impulse; both believers and non-believers alike instinctively turn their minds to the question of, if there exists an omnipotent, omniscient God, where was he when we needed him?

Professional theologians call this theodicy; the more understandable version is the problem of evil and suffering. Whatever you choose to call it, the issue is one of the great intellectual and emotional barriers to the Gospel. It is an issue that must be addressed carefully and with great wisdom.

While I want to be brief today, let me summarize for you the basic structure of the problem of evil: if God is all-powerful and all-good, then evil should not exist because God would have the power to stop it and the moral imperative to do so. However, based on our simple powers of observation, we see that evil does, in fact, exist. Therefore, either God is not all-powerful (meaning he can’t stop evil from occurring) or God is not all-good (meaning he has no moral imperative to prevent evil), or God is okay with evil and suffering. None of those seem like truly great options.

The rhetoric on this issue runs deep, much deeper than we have time for this morning, but I bring this up because it is such an ingrained part of our human experience whenever we encounter tragedies such as Newtown or Paul Sampleton’s death. We experience it even more personally when things in our life don’t go according to plan; whether it’s the illness of a loved one, the death of a friend, the loss of a job, or the plain reality that life is harder than we would like for it to be, we run headlong into the problem of evil and suffering at almost every turn.

In fact, if I were to take a quick survey of the people in this room, asking if anyone here has struggled with some form of suffering or evil in the past few days, I believe almost every hand would shoot up toward the ceiling and stay there. Pain, it would seem, is a constant companion.

The Apostle Matthew knew this. Being a Jew, and a tax collector at that, Matthew was well acquainted with the realities of suffering and evil. And when he sat down to pen his Gospel account of the life of Christ, he did something remarkable: he bookended the story of God’s Messiah with the generations of Israeli suffering and the massacre of innocents.

Take a quick look at Matthew 1, and you see that he begins with the genealogy of Jesus Christ, tracing his Jewish roots from Abraham down to Joseph. Three sets of fourteen generations, a highly symbolic accounting that pointed not only to the divinity and fulfilled prophecy found in the birth of Christ, but to the history of God’s people who suffered faithfully while looking forward to that same birth. While many modern readers would tend to skip the long lists, there is so much to be gleaned from them; not only the remembrance of the more famous individuals, but the collective perseverance on the part of God’s people. To read those lists is to face first hand the pain and suffering (much of it self-inflicted, but pain and suffering nonetheless) of the chosen people of God, a pain and suffering that the author of Hebrews said was credited to them as righteousness.

We dismiss this part of the story at our own peril. Often times, our suffering is seemingly made worse by the idea that we know/believe that God is powerful enough to end it, and yet chooses otherwise. We have been conditioned to believe that somehow, God SHOULD end our suffering because we have become his adopted children through Christ, a less-than obvious twist on the blasphemous “prosperity gospel.” History tells us, as does Jesus himself, that our sufferings are not anomalies to be quickly dispatched, but instead are circumstances in which we are to learn the character and faithfulness of God.

For a specific example, consider the apostle Paul, who, we learn in Acts 9:15-16 was Jesus’ “chosen instrument.” As Jesus told Ananias, Paul was “to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”

So the prelude to the birth of Christ is the historic suffering of God’s people. Suddenly, after generations of patient endurance, Christ arrives and enters into history as promised.

Only he comes as a child. A tiny, defenseless infant incapable of anything more than the most basic of human functionalities: breathing, eating, moving.

To underscore this point, Matthew shares with us a second look at suffering, a foreshadowing of what awaited the infant Christ: the suffering of death. Matthew carefully records King Herod’s command to kill all of the boy children under the age of two in Bethlehem and surrounding areas. And the soldiers execute the order — and execute what many historians estimate to be around 20 small boys. Church history has rightly called this the Massacre of the Innocents, with an Orthodox day of observance on December 27/28.

Many people have rightly connected this historic atrocity with what happened in Newtown last week.

We shudder at the death of children. We consider the lost potential, the tragic cutting short of life before is allowed to blossom, and we weep for what could have been. Mostly, we think of those children to whom we are close and we despair that it could have been them. The world offers no illusions about the fragility of life; when we think of the smallest, weakest, and most innocent among us being wantonly killed for reasons either unknown or incomprehensible, we feel the world spin out of control and we ask again: where is God?

Matthew surrounds the narrative of Jesus’ birth with two accounts that ask the question “Where is God?”, and in so doing, he magnifies God’s answer: the birth of Christ. Where is God in our times of patient suffering? Where is God in the midst of our horrific tragedies? The answer is as simple as it is profound: he is with us. In our midst. One of us, inhabiting our flesh and bone and suffering beside us.

The mystery of the Incarnation isn’t merely that God became man, it’s that God chose to live among our sin and feel it for himself. As the writer of Hebrews wrote, Jesus was “tempted in every way we are, yet did not sin.” He was “a man of sorrows, well acquainted with grief.” Yes, he came to put an end to the sin that destroys us, but he didn’t do it as we would imagine; he didn’t come and conquer the world and turn it immediately into paradise.

He was born as a baby. He had to grow as we all grow, slowly, painfully, one day, one week, one month at a time, until the time was right for his ministry to begin. Then, he still took three years to invest his life in the lives of the apostles, pouring out his wisdom and insight into men and women who were – admittedly – a little slow on the uptake. He died an excruciating public death, was buried in a public tomb, was resurrected and appeared to numerous people, all to show humanity that the faithfulness of our souls was made possible by the faithfulness of God.

In other words, nothing about the birth, life, death or resurrection of Christ points to God being in the quick-fix business. And while we know that suffering is not something that we’ll endure in heaven, it’s part of the journey that takes us there.

But if you listen to some of our most basic, everyday church language, you see that we don’t understand that idea. If you really pay attention to what we say as Christians, you will hear that we really don’t believe that hardship has a place in the Christian life, or in the immanence of God. We pray all the time for the alleviation of suffering, instead of our enlightenment through suffering. We pray for God to be with us, when he already is.

And while these heartfelt prayers don’t come from a place of malice or malevolence, they still speak to the fact that we simply do not understand some of the most fundamental truths of our faith, truths that are revealed from the beginning of Scripture and are most obvious in the life of our Savior.

If God didn’t spare his own Son suffering, but brought about our redemption through it, will he not do the same with ours?

It would be easy to go off the rails at this point and address whether or not suffering was part of God’s plan. You can chase that particular rabbit all day and never come away with the obvious answer: regardless of the plan, the reality is that we suffer.

But we do not suffer in vain, and we certainly do not suffer alone.

The birth of Christ, the birth of the one called Immanuel, wasn’t merely the ticket to eternity that we have sometimes mistakenly made it out to be. It was an invitation to walk with God again as in days of old. It was an invitation to understand anew that the Father God who made us is the Son of God who walks with us and the Spirit of God who fills us. We see this in the outpouring of support for the families in Newtown; we see it in the way people have responded to Paul Sampleton’s death. As my friend, Ayubu Hashiguchi, one of the youth pastors at Grayson UMC said, it is in our sufferings that we find God revealed through the people who come alongside to comfort, assist, and pray with us.

Where was God at Newtown? Everywhere. Where was he in the case of Paul Sampleton? Right in the middle of it. Where is God right now, in the midst of your struggle? Inside you, beside you, walking with you through every moment of pain and doubt.

Don’t mistake the absence of easy answers for the absence of God. As my friend Dawn Hood is fond of saying, “Life is hard. God is good. Don’t get the two confused.”

The Christ candle we lit today serves to remind us of the most amazing of all our theological truths: that God so loved the world that he sent his one and only Son into our midst, into our flesh, to show us himself and remind us that we are not alone. Ever.

God is with us. Right now.