May 29, 2002, was another one of those cold, damp, spring days in Northern Michigan. Overcast, rainy, cool. Nothing out of the ordinary except for one factor. That was the day our 19-year-old son, Jonathan, died. What do you do when your child dies? How do you respond? They don’t prepare you for this when you receive premarital counseling. The prenatal classes don’t prepare you. How do you handle it? I don’t pretend to be an expert on this, but I’d just like to discuss this issue for a few minutes because it’s real life. Children die. Maybe they die as infants. Or at 1 year old, 2 years old, 10 years old, 20 years old or 40 or 50 or 19. As a parent, what do you do? Specifically, here, I want to address this from the perspective of a Christian whose child dies. At times this video will be very personal, but even as personal as it may be, I do not want to exalt our experience with the death of our son beyond the authority of Scripture. Scripture is always our guide for everything we do in life – not our experiences.
Please allow me to briefly tell you what happened with our son. I start out by talking about being a volunteer in a Michigan prison. In 1999 I encountered a prisoner who was around 60 years old and who had spent over half his life in prison and was known throughout the system for his coldness toward other humans, but in 1999 the Lord saved him. I came to know him quite well over the ensuing years and he was a model to other prisoners. Men from his past, when transferred to that prison, encountered a new creation in Christ Jesus. Then my prisoner friend became ill. He was eventually diagnosed with untreatable liver cancer. I had two encounters with him shortly before he died which stand out. In one, I asked him – now a skeleton of a man, the muscles of his weightlifting days wasted away by the cancer. I asked him if he had any goals as he was dying. He said, “Jeff since I became a Christian, it’s been my goal to show these guys in here how to live as a Christian. Now that I’m dying, I want to show them how to die as a Christian.” The other encounter was when he was wheeled into a small office where I was with a couple other prisoners and volunteers and he prayed. He prayed, thanking God for allowing him to share in the sufferings of Christ in order to have a small hint of what Jesus endured on his behalf. My friend died ten days later. Seven days after my friend died, I knelt down in another prison down the road and prayed that if the Lord needed to break me like he had broken my friend in order to use me, to go ahead, Lord, and break me. I haven’t told you about other examples of how the Lord had used brokenness in my friend’s life to bring glory to Himself. One month later, the Lord answered my prayer. The Lord broke me. Jon died two months shy of turning twenty years old.
I don’t want to elevate the pain we suffered then and still do to this day, beyond the pain of others. I cannot tell you how many people said this to me at the funeral: “I can’t imagine.” They’re right. They’re absolutely right. They were saying this only three days after Jon died. What about now, approaching nineteen years later? What about in the interim between then and now?
One thing I want to say right now and make abundantly clear is this: this hurts. Please, please do not rebuke a parent who is grieving the death of their child, “Why are you crying? He or she is in heaven right now!” It doesn’t matter whether it’s a child who dies at birth or an 80-year-old woman grieving the death of her 61-year-old son… please allow Christians to mourn the death of their child. Please. They loved that child as only a parent can. Please allow that parent to mourn in their own manner. We see three examples of this with King David, if we look at the three examples of his sons dying. In 2 Samuel 12, David really doesn’t show visible signs of grief. In 2 Samuel 13, when he found out Amnon had died, he tore his garments and lay on the earth. In 2 Samuel 18 he wept at the chamber gate over the death of Absalom. When Job found out his ten children had been killed, he tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground… and worshiped.
What do you do, Christian, when your child dies? When I was viewing our son’s body in the casket the day before his funeral I just started crying and I couldn’t stop it. I never knew what true weeping was until that day. I … could not… stop. It just came in waves and waves and I was gasping for air I was weeping so hard and this lasted for minutes. I had cried in the two days since Jon had died but nothing like that. You might cry. You might weep. You might wail. Do it. Let it happen. And I’ll tell you this. You may well cry for a long time. I had someone who had also lost a child tell me this, not too long after Jon died: there are going to be days when you just start crying spontaneously and you don’t know it’s coming, and you can’t stop it. It didn’t take too long to find out they were right. My wife and I call them “bad Jon days.” Let me give you an example.
One of our daughters got married two years after Jon died. She was 17 when Jon died. At the wedding, I walked her down the aisle and gave her away, which was hard enough, and then I sat down. Next to my wife was an empty chair and we knew that was Jon’s chair. What we didn’t know was what our daughter was going to do. She picked up a white rose, turned around, walked back down the steps next to my wife, and put the white rose on Jon’s chair. My wife and I both lost it. Those things still happen occasionally now, spontaneously, in 2021.
How do you process all this, though? When it’s your child in the casket. When you have a marker at a cemetery which has your child’s date of death on it? When all you have is memories or unfulfilled hopes for the future of your child. What do you do? How do you cope? Here’s where your doctrine matters and how much you really trust your doctrine.
The primary doctrine here is the sovereignty of God. I know every Christian will say they believe in the sovereignty of God… but when the rubber hits the road of real-life, many don’t. There’s a reason I told you about my prayer at that prison a minute ago. God answered my prayer. I just didn’t have that answer in my list of multiple choices for HOW He would answer. Apart from my prayer, though, is God sovereign? Yes. How sovereign, though? Absolutely sovereign. Even when your child dies. Absolutely sovereign. He didn’t take a day off from being sovereign the day your child dies. Maybe you’ve been praying for God to protect your child…or heal your child…and your child dies. It doesn’t matter whether it’s sudden or not. So, what do you DO with your doctrine, then? You take that doctrine and you say, “I trust you, Lord. I really do.” Even when you’re crying and you might be looking for answers – when Jon died, we found out a woman at our church had a child who died as a pre-teen and they never knew how. She just… died. Like that. You know we proclaim trusting the Lord in all things here at I’ll Be Honest. Even when your child dies… under the sovereign rule of Almighty God. Job was absolutely right. “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”
We have a couple who just joined our church who are relatively new Christians, and they used to attend another church here in San Antonio which preaches the prosperity gospel and as new Christians, they were there when a well-known prosperity preacher came to that church and preached a message, and the message was this: “God has no right to take anything away from you – EVER.” The husband told me even as a new Christian, he just knew there was something wrong with that. Job would certainly disagree with that sermon and recall Scripture tells us in all this Job did not sin. You might sing that song in your church “Blessed Be The Name.” “You give and take away” is in that song. How do you sing that song when your child has died? You sing it in faith and maybe in tears at the same time but the Lord is just as good and as faithful the day your child dies as He was the day before. I can identify with David’s cry in 2 Samuel 18 over the death of his son, Absalom, when David, as he is weeping, cries, “My son, my son!” I get it all too well.
When your child dies, in the moment, you may not be thinking about what God has planned for you as Romans 8:28 plays out, as God works all things together for those who love Him and are called according to His purpose. I had no clue, standing in the rain in rural Michigan in May 29, 2002, what God had planned. It turns out what He had planned for me was to use Jon’s death as part of my serving in prison ministry. Jon’s death was used to give me access to prisoners no other volunteer in our group had. Men were drawn to talk to me about things they wouldn’t discuss with anyone else. God used Jon’s death to advance the gospel – and I sure didn’t know that the day Jon died.
Every child you have now or will have in the future lives by the grace of God. In Him, your child lives and moves and has their being as Paul stated in Acts 17. As I speak, we have five other surviving children and sixteen grandchildren. Every one of them lives and moves and has their being due to the kindness of God. The nineteen years and ten months we had with Jon were due to God’s kindness and as much as his death has hurt over the years, we would not take trade that time for anything. We’re thankful for nineteen years and ten months.
Trust Jesus Christ. I know it may sound overly simplistic but it’s true. Trust Him and trust His people. Your fellow Christians may say awkward things, or even foolish things to you when your child dies, but just understand that they’re trying to help you. They don’t know what to say but they just want to say SOMETHING to help you. I have a story for you about silence in a minute. Let God’s people try to help you. Don’t retreat into a shell. I’ll tell you what bad advice looks like – bad advice will tell you to stay home and don’t go to the meetings of your church until you feel like it. Run from that advice. The very place you need to be after your child dies is amongst God’s people – you need to allow God’s people to do what Scripture charges them with doing in 2 Corinthians 1, verses three and four, where we are told to comfort others with the comfort God has given us. Recall what Scripture tells us in Romans 12:15 – to not only rejoice with those who rejoice, but weep with those who weep. It’s not a sin to cry at the death of your child. Really, it isn’t. It is sin, though, when you do not allow God’s people to obey what they are supposed to do. Sometimes you may just have to swallow your pride and let people see you crying or see you after you’ve been crying, and you look like a wreck and I’m not just talking to women right now.
Finally, this, and I know this is really sensitive. Don’t focus on the eternal fate of your child. After your child has died, there’s nothing you can do to change it. You may have questions. Where’s my child? Heaven or hell? Wherever your child is, they’re there for all eternity. The heart of the matter is this – where are YOU going to spend eternity? People would say to us that we probably can’t wait to see Jon again. Whether Jon is in heaven or hell now, though, is another discussion for another time. If Jon is in heaven, though, isn’t the essential thing that matters for my wife and me. What matters is whether or not WE will be in heaven. Are WE ready to die? I think about what Jesus told people – notice in Luke 13 as they were coming to Him to complain about the government and its unjust treatment of worshipers and Jesus tells them – twice – what matters – “Do you think those people were worse than you? Repent or you too, will perish.” Is that really what we should be thinking about after our child dies? Yes, it is. It’s what we should be thinking about before our child dies as well – are we ready? Are we running the race with endurance? Are we enduring to the end? Are we still walking in newness of life? Are we walking in a manner worthy of the gospel? I’m not going to heaven to see Jon and neither is my wife. We’re going to see and be with Jesus, but we have to make it to the end. And when we make it to the end and enter the realities of what we see in Revelation 21 and 22…if we see Jon there, that’s just icing on the eternal cake. Our desire is Jesus… to see Him as He is.
Let me close by saying something to you who may know somebody who’s lost a child…or you might someday. Let me speak from real-life here on what ministered to us on that day.
We were told that Jon had died around 730 in the morning. At around 1030, we were in the house by ourselves. My wife and I, and our three youngest children – the two oldest were adults and living on their own then. It was a cool, rainy, dreary day in Northern Michigan. We’re sitting there numb. I had called a couple of friends to let them know what happened. There’s a knock on the door. Standing there in the rain is one of the friends I had called. He’s crying. I’m crying. He walks in, gives me a hug, and doesn’t say a word. Gives my wife a hug. Doesn’t say a word. He turns around and leaves. A few minutes later there’s another knock on the door. Another friend standing in the rain. He comes in. Doesn’t say a word. Gives me a hug. Gives my wife a hug. He leaves. A few minutes later there’s a third knock on the door. It’s a friend of ours who’s a logger. He had been out in the woods when he heard. He walks in, soaking wet. He’s not silent. He hands me a sandwich. He says, “I thought you might need something to eat, so here’s my sandwich.” He hugs me and leaves. I know that day, and in the days which followed, a lot of people said a lot of things but the three which stand out are the men who said nothing – or nearly nothing. Just hugging your friend or just being there speaks volumes.
Since Genesis 3, we can only imagine how many tears have been shed throughout the years over children dying. But we know that one day the tears will end. Revelation 21 tells us that there will be a day when there will be no more crying or tears or pain because the former things have passed away. Even when you’re crying over your dead child, through the tears there is a day when the tears will be gone. The tears will be gone and we shall see Jesus Christ at the marriage supper of the Lamb and what a day that shall be when our Jesus we shall see. Amen.