It was the late morning of November 2, 2004. We will never forget that day. We had just voted in the presidential election and had returned to the parsonage of Southwest Protestant Reformed Church. Out of the kitchen window we saw a police cruiser coming up our driveway. We went out to meet the policeman and find out the reason for his stop. He asked us who we were. And then he told us, “Your son has been in a serious car accident.” Those words changed our lives from that moment on. As we rushed to the hospital, we held hands and prayed aloud, over and over, “Please, Lord, spare Daniel’s life. Please, Lord, spare his life.” When we arrived at the hospital, we were escorted to a waiting area in the emergency ward. Finally, a woman came to us. “Is he alive? Is he alive?’ Daniel was alive, but his condition was very serious. Then she took us to his room in the ICU.
There were several doctors and nurses attending to Daniel. He was hooked up to all kinds of machines and there were tubes everywhere. They let us come to him and hold his hands. Over and over we assured him that we loved him and that the Lord will take care of him. We were told that a specialist would be coming in momentarily to evaluate Daniel’s condition. He did and after looking him over briefly, he simply shook his head at the attending physician and walked out of the room. It was at that point that we knew that our son was going to die. Before shutting off the machines, the staff told us that they would give us all the time we needed to say our goodbyes. All we could say was, “Daniel, we love you so much. But now you are going to heaven to live with Jesus. We love you and one day we will join you.” By this time many of our children had made their way to Daniel’s room.
When we finally told the nurses that we were ready, they came in and started turning off the life support machines. Together we recited Psalm 23 and other familiar Scripture passages. We also sang Psalter numbers. And then it was over. He was gone from us. By now many of the area PRC ministers were gathered in the ICU waiting room. They embraced us, comforted us, read Scripture to us, and prayed with us.
We never thought before this that a person could die from a broken heart. Now we knew the truth of that possibility. We never imagined that we could endure so much pain and still live. In the days that followed, the days of the viewings and the funeral, we were in a daze. We still thought that Daniel might come walking through the front door and tell us that it was all a dream. He was alive and back with us. But, of course, that did not happen. Many people came to the house and many more came to the funeral home for the viewings. We felt that we were upheld by the prayers and support of God’s people. And we found that God’s grace was sufficient and His promises more real than ever before. Rev. Koole’s funeral message on Deuteronomy 33:27 brought us the blessed assurance that underneath us were God’s everlasting arms. Although we were still very much in shock and in pain, we will never forget his words of comfort that Saturday afternoon. Throughout the years, we have often reflected on it—often!
The days immediately following the funeral we were surrounded by our children and grandchildren. In fact, we had a new grandson, whose birth we will never forget. He was born a few weeks early after his mother went into labor at Daniel’s funeral. She could not be at the graveside service because she and her husband were on their way to the hospital. Very likely the early labor was brought on by the stress surrounding her brother’s death. We were invited to the hospital that evening to share in the birth of Aiden Daniel, named after the uncle whom he would never see and whom we had buried earlier in the day. What a day it had been! Death and birth, one life ended and another begun, a goodbye and a welcome, tears of sadness and tears of joy.
But now we had to go on. In the first days and weeks, we were grateful just to get through each day. Many days, more than once during the day, we broke down. And we still do. But by God’s grace we were able to get through the days. By supper time, we were exhausted. We never realized that grieving is so exhausting! It saps your energy and leaves you drained by day’s end. From our point of view, we barely got through the days. Frequently we asked each other, “How do unbelievers cope with the loss of a child?” We could not imagine that they could. And they cannot—not really. They have no comfort that their child is with the Lord in heaven. The strain of their grief affects their marriages. The divorce rate among spouses who have lost a child is very high. They become angry at the Lord, bitter against Him because of His way with them. Or they despair and are overcome by depression. Often they attempt to drown out their sorrows by losing themselves in their work. Or they turn to alcohol and drugs to ease their pain and become abusers and addicts. Some even take their own lives.
It is important to recognize the strain that the death of a child puts on a marriage. Various factors contribute to this stress. One of the spouses may blame the other for their child’s death. Or, because no two people grieve in the same way, and because men grieve differently than women, a wife may think that her husband is not grieving the child whom they have lost. Or, the demands of raising their other children, when there are still other siblings at home, may cause tension in the marriage.
We have learned that spouses must give each other “their space” to grieve. They must recognize that whereas something triggers renewed grief in them, it is often something else that triggers their spouse’s grief. This difference in grieving showed itself when we went to the cemetery. Although I have gone to the cemetery often, even after nearly 16 years, I cannot go to Daniel’s grave without crying. It hurts so much to think of my son in the ground and I miss him so much. My wife does not weep at the grave usually. She tends to the flowers and the headstone and feels like she is still doing something for her son. Mostly we go to the cemetery separately now because it pains her to see me breaking down. And truthfully, I would rather be alone in the cemetery in my grief. Some people cannot go to their child’s grave regularly because it hurts them so much. It is not that they do not care; it is just the opposite. We can understand that.
As we struggled to cope, occasionally hurtful remarks of friends or family made coping more difficult.
Our family is large; we have eleven children and thirty-eight grandchildren. And, by the way, when someone asks about our family, we always say that we have eleven children, though one is in glory. Our large family has been a special blessing as we cope with our grief. Our children and grandchildren have been an amazing source of support for us. Some well-intentioned but unthinking people have made comments along the lines that in some way our grief must have been lessened because we had other children besides Daniel. That is hurtful because, as we all know, each of our children has their own unique place in our covenant families. But it certainly is true that our extended family has been a unique blessing in our grief.
People frequently say to us, “But you would never want him back again.” We know what they mean, of course. But there are times when we want to respond, “We would give anything, all that we owned and everything that is of value to us just to see his face one more time, to hear his voice once more, to embrace him just once.” We know that is not the will of God. And we also know that Daniel is far better off; we do not doubt that for a moment. But we are so earthy and our faith is so weak.
At times in the months following Daniel’s death it was obvious in remarks that people made that they felt that we should be over our grieving and should be moving on. Others have testified of this same experience. Although it was true that we did move on and our grief was not the paralyzing grief that it was initially, we will never get over our sorrow. Every day—every single day—we think of Daniel. And although we can carry out the day-to-day demands of our earthly callings, we know that we will never get over our grief in this life—never completely. Because we loved him so much, we will carry our grief with us until we die. That does not mean that there are no joys in our lives. There certainly are. There are the joys of the birth of a new grandbaby, or a confession of faith of one of our grandchildren, or the marriages of children and grandchildren. But there is always a dark cloud overshadowing these joyful occasions. Even our greatest joys are tinged by the sorrow that Daniel is not with us and cannot share in the moment.
Over the years, there have been a couple of Daniel’s closest friends who have stayed in touch with us. In the first couple of years, they would stop over frequently to check on us and to visit with us. We have so much appreciated their thoughtfulness. They have been a great encouragement to us. At the same time, it is painful to see all the milestones in their lives and wonder about how Daniel would have experienced these milestones: graduation from high school, confession of faith, choice of vocation, dating, marriage, the birth of children, and more. Into what kind of a young men would he have developed? What sort of husband and father might he have been? We cannot help but wonder from time to time.
One thing that we have come to see over the years is that the Lord has brought about these painful circumstances in our lives so that we can reach out to others in similar circumstances and be a help to them. This is not something that we embraced eagerly at first. It was easy before Daniel died to preach on the first Q&A of the Heidelberg Catechism and use II Corinthians 1 to support the teaching concerning our only comfort in life and death. I always made a point of applying verse 4, “Who comforteth us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort them who are in any trouble, by the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted of God.” God’s comfort of us does not end in our own comfort, but has as a higher purpose that we may be able to comfort others also. It was much more difficult to apply that to ourselves after Daniel died. We understood the calling that we had to reach out to others who had lost a child, but at times we could hardly cope ourselves and now was it really true that in taking Daniel, God was preparing us to be able to comfort other grieving parents? There were times when we were resentful of this calling and felt it to be more than ought to be expected of us. How could we comfort others when we were struggling ourselves? Thankfully, God has been pleased to use us, and over the years we have grown to see our calling to comfort others “by the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted of God.” And certainly we may say that God has used this for our own greater comfort.
God has led us, along with a younger couple who experienced the death of their young son, to begin a support group in the Grand Rapids area for grieving parents. We call our group LOCKs, which stands for Loss of Child Kinship. We were amazed at how many PRC couples have experienced the death of a child, whether more recently or many years ago. Just in the Grand Rapids area there are over 50 couples in this situation. There are many parents who have buried children, and a few have brought more than one child to the cemetery. We meet only a few times a year, but it has been a great encouragement to meet with other parents who know what it is to lose a son or a daughter.
It is especially hard for us, when we hear of another couple whose child has died. Recently a couple in Iowa lost their youngest son in a car crash. We reached out to them, but it pains us to think of all the “firsts” that they will have to experience in the first year after the death of their son. All those “anniversaries” that are so difficult: the first Thanksgiving Day without him, the first Christmas without him, his first birthday not celebrated after he died, the first anniversary of his death, and so many more “anniversaries.” Whenever there is a family celebration, there is always one empty place at the table, one voice that is absent from the conversation, one laugh never again heard.
One of the greatest fears of grieving parents is that their child will be forgotten. Or, that if they are not forgotten, people avoid mentioning their name, for fear of causing a painful memory. But grieving parents want siblings, family members, and friends to talk about their departed child. We have Daniel’s picture displayed with the pictures of the other members of our family. And various pictures of him on a shelf in our living room. I have a quite amazing sketch of Daniel that was drawn in the days immediately after his death by one of his classmates at Covenant Christian High School. Sadly, he and his wife have since lost a baby daughter and are themselves part of our regular LOCKs meetings. We want the grandchildren to know about their uncle Daniel, to know something of who he was and how much he meant to us. To friends and family members, we would say talk freely about the child who has died. Keeping alive their memory is important to grieving parents.
One common fear among those who have lost a child is that they are going to lose another child, or maybe a grandchild. It has happened. Job buried ten children. Martin and Katie Luther buried two daughters. I have a great-grandmother who buried four of her fourteen children, all between the ages of two and eight. Two of them died of whooping cough five days apart. How can parents bring four small children to the cemetery? In fear, we become overly protective and easily overcome by excessive worry. It could happen again, after all. How could I ever go through this kind of pain again? It is important to address this fear, to see it for what it is: a lack of trust in the Lord. He knows how much we can endure and He has promised that His grace will always be sufficient.
And so we carry on. Yes, there are some hard days— some very hard days. Yes, indeed, we will carry this pain with us all our life long, until we go to the grave ourselves. But we have hope. Our hope is in a risen Savior, who has conquered death and the grave. Our hope is in the Prince of Life, the one who holds the key of death and the grave, the one who has promised in John 11:26 that whoever lives and believes in Him shall never die.
My soul in death’s dark pit shall not be left by Thee;
Corruption Thou wilt not permit Thy holy one to see.
Life’s pathway Thou wilt show,
To Thy right hand wilt guide,
Where streams of pleasure ever flow,
And boundless joys abide. (Psalter #29, stanza 3)