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The nurse gently pulled me aside, away from the metal crib, away from my baby. She held me in her arms as another nurse examined Angie. I watched her reach over the crib and shut off the monitor. The arms around me squeezed tighter.
The other nurse turned away from the crib and faced me. "It's over," she whispered, her cheeks wet with tears. "I'm so sorry."
The memory of Angie's pale face remains with me today. She was just 11 months old, a victim of cancer. Angie's father, my estranged husband, was attending college in another state. The lonely two-week vigil beside her crib left me dazed and numb.
I pulled away from the comforting arms around me and wandered, looking for a place to grieve. I don't know who called my pastor, Jon, and his wife, Linda. They found me in the sun room on the top floor of the hospital. I stared out the window, not blinking, not thinking, not feeling.
Linda embraced me as Jon paced the floor. Just one month earlier he had held Angie in his arms at a church service, anointing her for healing. With her arm and its tumor draped over his shoulder, he had paced the altar and wept. As he prayed, I saw Linda through the nursery window, holding their infant son tightly. She prayed for Angie too, placing her hand against the glass.
This was the first time my young pastor had ministered to grieving parents or conducted a funeral for a small child. But Jon's inexperience didn't matter to me; his compassion and concern were what I needed.
He didn't say much. He put his arms around both Linda and me and whispered, "She'll never hurt again." That's when the tears started, releasing months of bottled-up sorrow. They helped me sit down, and we wept together-the three of us clumped in a bundle of grief.
My pastor and his wife ministered to me when I needed most to know God's love. I was comforted knowing they felt the pain and anguish I felt. But their ministry began long before the day Angie died.
Angie's surgeon suggested that if her arm was amputated, she might have a 10-percent chance to extend her life by a year. It was an excruciating dilemma. Her father and I would have given our own arms to have her with us another year, but we decided against the amputation.
My pastor didn't question our choice. He didn't judge me in the life-and-death choices I had to make. He simply acknowledged our struggle. "I can't possibly know what I would do in your situation," he said. "I know how difficult this decision is for you." And if others in the congregation wondered how we could refuse any treatment, any chance, of extending our child's life, he kept those questions from reaching my ears.
When a child is sick, parents face heart-breaking choices. What if the amputation would have been God's tool for healing her? Had I sealed my daughter's fate? Pastor Jon never tried to answer my questions. He knew any answer would seem trite.
A few days after the funeral he called and said, "It must be some comfort to know her last days weren't spent with the additional pain of a major amputation. Your choice allowed her to go gently. I admire your courage."
I appreciated his thoughtful encouragement.
I could not understand how a loving God would allow a baby to suffer. Nor could I escape the daily, harsh reality of that suffering. Well-rehearsed religious phrases mean nothing to parents who sob over their screaming, pain-wracked baby.
Nights were a rhythm of pain. Two hours after receiving her pain medication, Angela began to whimper. After three hours she was sobbing. I watched the clock and prayed that God would make it speed up. At three and a half hours, Angie's screams pierced the night, her head tossed from side to side, her legs drawn up with the pain.
The clock seemed to stop. It never made it a full four hours before I administered another dose. Two hours later the agonizing cycle started again.
I am grateful my pastor didn't tell me I shouldn't doubt. He didn't try to suppress my anger or frustration. "I don't know why Angela must hurt like this," he said once. "But, I know your questions are valid, and I believe those questions will drive you to God, not away from him."
Once, after Angela had fallen into a fitful sleep, Linda said, "God cries for this planet. This was never what he wanted."
I remembered her words recently when the pastor of the church I now attend said, "We keep hearing people ask, 'Why does God allow children to suffer or go hungry? Why does God allow war?' But God asks, 'Why do people allow such things? What have you done to yourselves?' "
Since no one has the answers, it's okay to say so. We can't put something in the place where awe, reverence, and humility belong. We are mortal, and we have limits.
Shortly after I told my pastor about my long nights with Angie, several church women took turns spending the night with me. Some came only one night. I understood why they couldn't come back. It's never easy to encounter stark suffering.
Others became partners in our pain. They rocked my screaming baby, sang to her, prayed with me, or just made tea. Their presence seemed to calm both Angie and me. I began sleeping a little more, and the added rest helped me cope.
Rather than scolding me for having doubts, Jon and Linda and the women they recruited were themselves tangible proof that God loved Angie and me and that we weren't alone.
My friends didn't react to my anger or doubts. Instead they responded to my pain with friendship and support. They helped my questions draw me closer to God.
It doesn't always happen that way. About ten years ago, my friend Alice watched as the body of her 3-year-old daughter was pulled out of the pond at a church picnic. As her husband cradled the blue body of his little girl, a well-meaning deacon said, "You just have to accept God's will." As far as I know, her husband hasn't entered the door of a church since.
Doubting, grieving parents don't need others to question their relationship with God. They need the space to express their doubts and anger. They need others who can share with them in their suffering.
I wanted Angie's funeral to run smoothly. I didn't want any emotional displays. And I did not want to see the body. The funeral director was instructed to close the coffin when I entered the building.
I did not trust myself. The pain was so strong, I was certain the sight of Angie in the coffin would send me over the edge of sanity.
I did not cry the first night I accepted visitors. I did not discuss Angie. I asked my friends about their families, jobs, vacations, about anything except the tiny casket in the next room.
The next evening Jon pulled me aside and said, "I understand you haven't seen Angie."
I looked at the carpet and didn't reply. He took my hand. "I'll go with you," he said. "You should see her. She looks like a doll."
It didn't take much encouragement to get me to go with him. As I looked at her frail body, reality set in. My baby was gone. I wept freely into the clean handkerchief Jon gave me. Pastors need extra handkerchiefs for times like that.
A couple from my present church, Laura and Ron, were married eight years when their son, Christian, was born. They had struggled with fertility problems, so the baby was a miracle. If they cornered you, they would praise God exuberantly for their miracle baby. Christian was six months old when an inexplicable brain hemorrhage suddenly killed him.
Our current pastor is a qualified minister who has conducted many funerals. But something about their tragedy shook him as it did all of us. Laura and Ron smiled through their tears and talked about how thankful they were for the short time they had Christian. We knew they meant it.
But still it was evident our pastor struggled with their loss. He hesitated as he spoke; he forgot things; he was unusually quiet.
Laura told me later it was a great comfort to her knowing our pastor wasn't unaffected. He did not just go through the motions mechanically. He didn't hide his feelings, but neither did they rule him. In short, he was real. He showed Laura and Ron that grieving was acceptable.
At Angie's funeral, Jon listened to me talk a long time about the day Angie learned to stick out her tongue. I told him about the nurse who taught her how to do it. I told him how delighted she was to perform her new skill for others.
There was nothing Jon could do as I talked. There was nothing he could say. But he didn't have to say anything. He simply stayed there; he listened; he encouraged me to talk. To me, he was being real.
Grieving parents receive a lot of support during the first days following a funeral. This support dwindles quickly. That's why they need someone who will stay in touch with them.
Within two weeks, people stopped asking me questions. They stopped talking about Angie. But I found it impossible to shake off my loss in a few weeks or months. My worst period of grief set in about three months after Angie died, when most of my support had diminished.
Pastoral follow-up reassured me that the grieving process was normal. When silence otherwise engulfed me, it helped to know someone understood I still hurt. It helped to know prolonged hurting is normal. When I was encouraged to talk to others and pray about my feelings, I could work through my grief.
Other simple things helped as well, such as a call on Angie's birthday. A call on other holidays or on the anniversary of her death would have meant just as much. These are especially painful times. I needed the time and companionship of others. I didn't want people afraid to ask me how I was doing or if I needed to talk. Their prayers also gave me strength.
The genuine care of others eased my pain and helped me cope with a terrible loss. But I realized my pastor and my friends were only human. They were limited. Sustaining comfort could finally come only from God. He gave me peace of mind when I clung tightly to him in my grief. I could not expect my pastor to heal my wounded soul, but I'm glad he brought me to the One who does.
-Lonni Collins Pratt
Copyright © 1991 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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