Monday, 13 January 2014

The Loss of a Child

Death in children is as unnatural as it is traumatic.  My own family's scars when we lost my sister in 1980 have left a mark on all of us that only eternity will heal.  It is impossible to celebrate Christmas and New Year without thinking back to those traumatic days in December 1980.  Lynda died of a brain tumour at the tender age of 13.  She was a bright, confident teenager full of hopes and dreams for the future.  As an 8 year old, death wasn't something that had visited our house and the thought that it could happen to my sister was unimaginable.  Many of the emotions defy words and perhaps rightly, remain within the family.

I couldn't (and still can't) really enter into my parents grief and as the father of 5 boys I just can't imagine how overwhelming the loss of a child must be.  As I think back over 35 years I rushed home from school and into the arms of my weeping father, it is only now that I am a parent, I can, in some small way, understand the unnatural trauma of being separated from a child this side of eternity.  A few years ago I had dinner with somebody whose promising son was murdered in Liverpool nearly a decade ago.  Listening to his story was heart wrenching, and yet at the same time inspiring.  His grief journey was unique and incredibly humbling.  It certainly makes me hug my own boys a little tighter every night.  None of us know what the future might hold.

Thomas Guthrie and his wife also experienced death.  'Little Johnnie' died in 1855 at the tender age of 20 months.  Apparently Thomas Chalmers visited Guthrie around 1845 and said 'I have been a family man now, sir, for forty years, and we have never had a breach.'  Guthrie could almost have said the same were it not for his youngest child.  As late as August 6th 1855 there seemed to be some small hope for Johnnie with Guthrie writing; 'With the exception of an occasional cough, he lies with his little emaciated hands peacefully laid on his breast.  May this sharp trial be sanctified to us all; and if he be taken away, may our thoughts often turn, and our desires be more closely fixed, on that heaven, to which, first and youngest of our family, he leads the way' (letter to his son James in 1855). 

Only three days later Johnnie had died.  Guthrie again writes to his son James; 'Our dear child is in glory.  This morning they came to tell me he was worse, and I had better not come in, for there were slight convulsions.  However, I went to the cradle; and, dear lamb, it was but some gentle gasping, the last feeble billows breaking on life's shore, before they subsided into everlasting rest.  We have felt it deeply - not bitterly, no certainly not; but it wrung my heart some minutes ago to lock the door of his lonely room' (Letter to James Guthrie, 9th August 1855).  Before the year was over Guthrie has also lost his youngest sister Clementina.

So what comfort is there in the midst of overwhelming grief?  I am certainly no expert and can only admire those who have experienced such a loss with such full assurance in the goodness and providence of God. 

Firstly, we can say that we have a Saviour who knows what it was to mourn and experience loss.  He wept over the death of Lazarus and he is a merciful and faithful high priest able to comfort us (Hebrews 2 v 18).  We can take our grief, and our tears to him.  The verse on my own sisters grave is a comfort to us all; the wonderful words of Isaiah 40 v 11 'he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom.'  Sometimes in the greatest loss, we can also experience the greatest love from the Saviour.

Secondly, God is the one who can bring great good and fruit out of the most intense loss and grief.  My fathers little booklet about my sister 'Behind a Frowning Providence' has been a comfort to thousands around the world.  We take comfort that however we may feel 'all things work together for the best unto them that love God' (Romans 8 v 28, Geneva Bible).  We don't say that glibly but looking back over 30 years, we can see that God has brought good from a place of great pain.  Often those of us who have been battered and bruised are better able to help other in the same situation.  We need to remember with William Cowper 'Behind a frowning providence, God hides a smiling face.'

Thirdly, as with many others Guthrie believed that there will be many children in heaven.  As he says; 'Heaven is greatly made up of little children - sweet buds that have never blown, or which death has plucked from a mothers breast, just when they were expanding, flower like, from the sheath, and opening their engaging beauties in the budding time and spring of life. "Of such is the kingdom of heaven." How soothing these words by the cradle of a dying infant? Perhaps God does with his heavenly... garden as we do with our own. He may chiefly stock it from nurseries, and select for transplanting what is yet in its young and tender age - flowers before they have bloomed, and trees ere they begin to bear.'  Thomas Guthrie, The Gospel in Ezekiel.

Fourthly and finally, all death is a reminder to us off the fragility of life.  Death amongst children in our own country is very rare but none of us know what is ahead.  Death is a stark reminder of our own mortality and our need to seek Christ.  My own sisters death was the ultimate means of my own conversion and many can testify to a similar experience.  Death shows us in a very stark way how short and fragile life is.  What is life without God?  This is what Thomas Chalmers says; 'Strip human life of its connection with a higher scene of existence and it is the illusion of an instant, an unmeaning farce, a series of visions and projects, and convulsive efforts, which terminate in nothing.'  We are eternal beings and death reminds us that our lives are short and fragile.

When writing to Lord Southesk about the death of little Johnnie Guthrie says; 'Saved through Jesus, may we and ours meet in heaven; and from the place of many graves, be united in the house of many mansions.'  This world is a place of many graves but heaven will be a place of eternal life.  I'm certainly looking forward to reuniting with many who have gone before me and one day seeing our family being brought together again.  In the meantime let's remember that God is in control.  As Dr Guthrie once wrote;  'We seem sometimes to forget, when we cower down before the tempest, and look before us with a fearful eye on the mighty billows that are rolling on. We seem to forget what the sailor boy said ‘my fathers at the helm’  Letter from Thomas Guthrie to his mother September 1839.

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