When a Daughter Dies: Walking the way of grace in the midst of our grief



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Ben Witherington
with Ann Witherington

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It is a parent’s greatest fear, and it happened to Ben and Ann Witherington in January 2012. Their daughter, Christy—whom by God’s grace they brought into this world and raised into mature adulthood, bearing her burdens and rejoicing in her triumphs—suddenly died at age 32.

What does one do in the face of an unbearable sadness? What Ben and Ann did is this, as Ben put it: “I was determined from day one after Christy’s death to be open to whatever positive thing there might be to glean from this. I cling by my fingernails to the promise of Romans 8:28 that God works all things together for good for those who love him.” And so immediately—within days of Christy’s death—Ben began blogging about his grief and his theology of grief. The response was overwhelming. Parents who suffered tragedy and those who had not agreed: here were keen, realistic, personal, and Christ-centered reflections on grief.

For this eBook, Ben and Ann have added personal reminiscences about Christy and more theological reflections. It is a remarkable account of one couple’s grappling with love, life, God, and grief in the immediate aftermath of their daughter’s death—both a journal of grief and a testimony of hope in the face of life’s deepest heartaches.


What Readers Are Saying


Kelli Trujillo

April 03, 2012  8:22pm

What a lovely, lovely piece. Thank you.


James Dauer

April 04, 2012  9:31am

When I was in college I studied all of Dr. Witherington's books to combat the Jesus Seminar instructors I had. I went to seminary and told Dr. Elmer Colyer (Dubuque Theological Seminary) how blessed I was by Ben's contribution to scholarship, and Elmer would tell me what an outstanding person Ben was. So I always felt like I knew Ben, and so his story is particularly moving. He's a friend I never met but one I certainly feel for. **And I love what he wrote. This is the most equisite personal and theological statement on death I have ever read. Ben is awesome.


Tom Howard

April 11, 2012  10:20am

I follow Ben Witherinton's blog and followed this in almost real time. I can only repeat what James Dauer has just said...."This is the most equisite personal and theological statement on death I have ever read." and the theological elements are transferable to a number of grief's we all must face. Thanks Ben for your transparency and thanks CT for sharing it for all of us.


Chad Thomas Johnston

April 11, 2012  10:44am

Ben, I am so sorry you lost your daughter. I am so sorry for your pain. But you have written such a lovely and hopeful meditation on loss here. Thank you for this. As a new father, this is my worst nightmare. And as a son, I hope I do not die before my parents do. But this kind of sorrow that is acquainted with hope is the right kind, I think. You have written well of difficult things. Again, my heart goes out to you in your loss, but also in your hope for your resurrected Christy. Thank you again for this.


Sheridan Voysey

April 11, 2012  11:56am

A beautiful piece, Ben. Bless you.


Dale Fincher

April 11, 2012  1:26pm

Well said while it is still so fresh. Thanks for saying that grief is about "us," the one who has lost something. I hope many take it to heart who hold back their grief as ones who have no hope.


Joni Wise

April 11, 2012  1:30pm

Your heartfelt words and feelings just ministered to my heart. You see, three years ago this June, I received the same call. I had eight children and now I have seven. Michelle was teaching English as a second language in Bangkok. She was to return home to the states the next weekend so I was stunned when we received the news that she had walked off of a balcony of a fellow teachers apartment on the seventh floor. She was a bi-polar child and self-medicated using alcohol and drugs. I do not know if in those final seconds she repented or not as I am not the judge of her heart, only Jesus. I am a firm believer and trust God's word in Rev. 21:4 that say's And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away. So I may never know if she made it or not because our Lord will not let me remember is she didn't. Thanks for sharing and I will be praying for your family.


Anne Pharr

April 11, 2012  1:35pm

I'm afraid the Christian community (one of which I'm a part) tends to teach that a truly exemplary version of faith provides the believer with a sort of "ironman" or "ironwoman" strength. Yet there have been many occasions where such resilience simply hasn't been available to me. Maybe this is why I'm comforted by your acknowledgment of the courage it takes to be honest about tasting pain and its accompanying sorrow. Thank you for an insightful reflection on one of the more difficult mysteries of the Christian journey. Blessings to you and your family as you move forward . . . towards hope. Anne / shadowwonder


Rory Tyer

April 11, 2012  2:10pm

Thank you, Ben, for being willing to publicly reflect on the grieving process. It is beautiful and prophetic and beneficial to the church. I hope this - and the rest of your work - continues to find a wider and wider audience. I especially appreciate your affirmation that God did not kill your daughter. It is much easier for me to live with the mystery of the exact nature of God's sovereignty than to live with the mystery of how God is truly good if he is in fact the cause of suffering, death, and sin (as you and others, such as Roger Olson, have pointed out is the case in strongly Calvinistic thought).


Dian B Grant

April 11, 2012  4:39pm

I really appreciate your article, Ben, sharing your responses, so far, to the untimely death of Christy. I most particularly applaud you for your paragraph about why you are not a Calvinist. I, also, do not believe in God's detailed control of all events. I am a spiritual director and I cannot believe that the tragedies some of my clients have shared were all in God's plan and under God's control. Nor can I any longer tell myself that my own daughter's death was part of God's doing. While God has worked through my husband's and my grief in redemptive ways in our lives, I cannot agree with what I read on Facebook shortly after reading your article. A friend posted this concerning a loss in her own life: ". . . God broke my heart to prove to me he only takes the best." As you wrote, "The phrase, 'It's all God's will,'" is, indeed, "cold comfort." May you and Ann continue to sense God's comforting presence with you. Coincidentally, our surviving daughter currently lives in Durham, UK.


Paul H McKey

April 11, 2012  6:56pm

We lost our dear daughter Sheila over 15 years ago. My, did we cry for such a long time! I thought "grown men don't cry". I was wrong. It was a release for me and still is. My wife and I felt bad when we began to have good Sheila days. But I guess that's a part of the healing process. It will be good to see her again. That's part of the 'blessed hope' Have to stop now, tears are getting in the keyboard.


Michael H Constantine

April 12, 2012  3:14am

A most wonderful and heartfelt description of grief, Ben. My personal grief takes the form, not of a child who has died, but of a child who, after growing up as a believer, now considers himself an atheist. He is 35. My wife and I grieve, yet in hope that God, who loves him more than we can, and knows him better than we do, will somehow reach him and draw him back. No, it is not the grief of death. It is grief over his separation from The One Great Lover.


Jeffrey L Rudloff

April 12, 2012  8:18am

I heartily concur with the praise already posted for your deeply personal essay. Surely the God who wept at Lazarus' tomb does not expect us to do other than likewise. But I did cringe for a moment at this statement: "...God is in the trenches with us, fighting the very same evils we fight in this world; disease, suffering, sorrow, sin, and death itself. He cries with us." I am not a Calvinist any more than you are, and I am not in any sense a New Testament scholar. But the suggestion that God is in the battle with us in the same way as we are is uncomfortable. It is not that He and our enemy are struggling for mastery now, and that God will triumph in the end. The Cross and the Resurrection which we have just celebrated are both proofs positive that He has already won the ultimate battle. The exact nature of His sovereignty, as another response put it, may be uncertain; but the FACT of His sovereignty is sure, as you later affirmed. The CAUSE means nothing if we know Who is in CONTROL.


Leo Cumings

April 12, 2012  9:19am

I am watching my wife descend through lung cancer. While my full engagement with the grief of personal loss is still future, that future keeps crashing in unexpectedly upon me with grim hints at its devastating power. Like Ben, I am convinced that we live in a fallen, broken world in which death works indiscriminately and indeterminably. I do not believe that God is the immediate or necessary cause of all suffering. Yet I remain a Calvinist. For me, Job's words are anchored in faith. Qualifying God's involvement in Job's suffering as "permission" does not liberate us from the difficulties of reconciling God's sovereignty with the problem of suffering. I believe that "All the days ordained for me were written in [God's] book before one of them came to be" (Psalm 139:16). The mysteries of God's sovereignty escape me, but his unfailing love and faithfulness are bedrock. Thank you for so eloquently expressing your grief and your hope.


Troy Jones

April 12, 2012  9:57am

I too lost my daughter 2-4-10 from a pulmonary embolism. She was about to graduate from college. Shortly after her death, I would have written a similar story. In fact the Book of Job was a central component of my early grief. But today, my Good Grief would have a very different perspective and I suspect yours will too. The loss of a child is unique. As a Rabbi said centuries ago, there is a word for one who lost their parents (orphan), one who loses their spouse (widow) but not for one who loses their child. This rabbi said it was because no word can describe it. I think it is because our relationship is the same in reality: I still have a daughter and I am still her father. But we are on a path here different than other fathers and daughters. Good grief requires me to live that path. Just because our daughters are perfectly united to Christ doesn't mean we put them in a box we bring out on special days or when it suits us. I look forward to what you have to say next year.


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Table of Contents


Prologue: When a Daughter Dies


Chapter 1: Was This God’s Will?


Chapter 2: "Comforting" Words that Are Simply Not True


Chapter 3: What Good Grief Looks Like


Chapter 4: Why Does Death Continually Surprise Us?


Chapter 5: The Paradise Paradox


Chapter 6: Hypersensitive Grief


Chapter 7: Post-Mortem Prayer
Chapter 8: The Way of Grace


Chapter 9: “Death Be Not Proud”


Epilogue: The Presence of an Absence




Appendix 1: Eulogy for Christy Ann Witherington


Appendix 2: Scholarship Fund


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