Losing a child is a terrible thing. It strikes at the heart of a family, permanently reshaping it. Death because of disease or accident is heartbreaking for the parents who are left behind, grieving the loss of the child and also the loss of the future joys and hopes that the child represented—all the teaching and love and bonds that never came to full fruition. It is jarring for a parent to bury a son or daughter—against the natural order even in a cursed world. We recognize this, and so every culture has set up ceremonies and customs to grieve, support, and comfort.
But there is more than one way to lose a child. Parents who have lost a child to the world face different challenges. They not only grieve loss but also grieve unrepentant sin and ensuing damage. They have had joys and hopes crushed through willful hurt and deliberate rejection. They have taught and loved and forged bonds, only to have it thrown back in their faces. There is no protocol for parents to use when facing this grief, no ceremony that brings closure. The grief is often complicated by the fact that they are often trying to protect the child from gossip or publicity, that the struggles and grief are caused by sin, and that there are no recognized means for a community to acknowledge this sorrow. There can also be varying opinions on the cause of rebellion—parents can carry a burden of guilt along with the load of grief.
The church needs to understand this grief. We must understand in order to care for parents and families who are walking this hard road as well as for the children who are wandering. We need to understand in order to love well and pray well.
To try to facilitate discussion and thought on this, I sent a list of questions to parents who have lost children to the world. That loss could look like anything from addictions to violence to prison to a hard and polished intellectualism. Although the parents come from different countries and cultures, have different family sizes, parenting styles, ages, and marriage situations, these fathers and mothers are all seeking to honor the Lord as they grieve. They graciously and anonymously offer their experiences as a window into this loss. Our hope is that this honesty creates openness for suffering families and compassion for the children whom they still love dearly.
Unlike the announcement of a death, which is public, news of a child’s rebellion is often given privately. This means that there is usually an immediate and personal response. It can go either way: hurtful or helpful. I asked parents, “When people heard that your child was struggling, what is something that someone said to you that ministered to you?” A theme that stood out in the answers was prayer. “We had a few amazing people surrounding us,” one couple said, “and the best thing that they did was asked how they could pray for and with us. The prayers of the saints surrounding us is so important and amazing.” It is not a complex thing, and it brings such comfort: “People remembering our daughter and telling us that they pray for her frequently, is a blessing.” One father wrote, “As our son left the faith and entered into the dangerous world of substance abuse that threatened his life, one older godly woman (who continues to pray for him daily) said, ‘Where there’s life, there’s hope.’ ”
The other encouraging response that grieving parents often received was the reminder of God’s promises. “[Some people] encouraged us to not forget the covenant promises of God (such as Ps. 103:8–10, 17–18; Ezek. 34:15–16) or the story of the prodigal son,” said a mother. Another wrote:
Very early on, when I felt such dismay at our son’s choices and my heart was breaking, my brother reminded me of God’s repeated mercy to Israel over their disobedience and rebellion. Hosea 11:8–9 in particular expresses the heart of our covenant-keeping God: “My people are bent on backsliding from Me. Though they call to the Most High, none at all exalts Him.” And then Jehovah’s response: “How can I give you up, O Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel? . . . My heart churns within Me; My sympathy is stirred. I will not execute the fierceness of My anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim. For I am God, and not man, The Holy One is in your midst; And I will not come in terror.” Many reminded me of Scripture promises and that God hears prayer.
There is also the fellowship of suffering. Parents with a straying child need to know that they are not the only ones in this situation. As one of the survey respondents wrote:
People who shared a similar issue regarding their child and have come through the situation where their prayers were answered in bringing that child back to Christ and the gospel were wonderful glimpses of hope! The stories shared caused us to learn more about others’ struggles that we did not know about. We did not feel as alone in our suffering.
In addition to verbal encouragement, there were specific actions—loving deeds—that encouraged grieving parents. While these deeds varied depending on life circumstances, they all communicated the love and care that suffering people need.
Listening and praying are ubiquitous in the stories:
- “One close friend outside our congregation came alongside, hugged, listened to, wept, and prayed with us. Unlike comments that others made that questioned what we had done wrong in our parenting, she did not condemn but sympathized with us.”
- “The prayer, the support, the visits, the encouragement [were helpful actions].”
- “People let us know that they felt the pain of the struggle and continued to ask how things were. We appreciated that their interest was genuine, not gossipy. They let us know that we were loved, regardless of our situation.”
- One mother found a support group: “The single most helpful thing has been getting together weekly with a small group of women over the past four years specifically to pray for our children and grandchildren. We start each meeting by focusing on a characteristic of God, reading together many Scriptures that expand on it, then praying for that individual child’s needs with a selected verse as a guide. It is also a great opportunity to share how God is answering our prayers.”
- “In the midst of my pain and finding out new information about my adult daughter, I texted a couple friends just to let them know the update. Later that day I was mowing the back lawn as my husband was out of town. I was so distraught. Something caught my eye while mowing—it was those two friends standing there on the other side of the gate with a treat. These ladies have young children, things to do—I was so surprised and so comforted at the same time! We sat on the deck, enjoyed what they brought, and they listened and prayed for me. I will never forget that day.”
- “My husband received a long tear-filled voicemail from an elder in our church, after we sent out an email to the elders sharing the news of our wayward adult child. It was so encouraging to have him share in our brokenness and make us feel that we were not carrying the pain alone. My husband still has it saved in his phone from over three years ago, and he deletes everything.”
- One woman texted the specific, lengthy prayer that she was praying for a friend’s wayward daughter—something that the mother read many times as an encouragement.
Part of the grief of a wayward child is the awkwardness that it creates in community relationships. There can be a lack of clarity in how others should interact with the child. But parents have specific hopes and examples of Christian love for their straying child. I asked parents how they hoped other Christians would relate to their son or daughter. One father takes great encouragement from a friend’s sacrificial love:
One dear friend was not afraid to seek out our son and show him love even in his sin. This friend has done so for years. He invited our son to meals, gave counsel, and sought help for him when he was in trouble or expressed desire to escape from his addictions. Another friend would provide work and medical attention for our son, and had him and his live-in girlfriend over for meals where our friends would share Christ. They exhibited Christlike love in going to where sinners are.
There are many stories of similar love: “During one of many crises when my son was drinking suicidal amounts of alcohol, a young family from church went over and shoveled my son’s driveway. The father later had the opportunity to talk to my son about the gospel answer to his dilemma.”
Christian parents do not want kind actions separated from the gospel:
I hope that they will love our child,” said one mother, “I hope that they will ask where he is at and point him constantly to the Lord. I hope that they will let him know that he is loved and being prayed for. An older woman in the congregation prayed for our son daily for more than ten years! She was the most excited when she saw how the Lord was answering those prayers.
One couple wrote, “We would hope that those who are close to [our daughter] would reach out, care, lovingly confront with the gospel, and encourage her, not just chit chat and ‘try to be a friend.’ ” Grief often clarifies real friendship, and this is true for parents who have lost a child to the world.
In addition to reaching out to a rebellious child, Christians must reach out to the other children in the suffering family. These siblings see parental grief firsthand, grieve themselves, and feel the impact of broken relationships reshape their lives. Often, they do not get the attention or support that they need.
I asked parents, “How can the church care for and support your other children?” One mother was very blunt: “By recognizing that the family doesn’t consist only of the one who has strayed.” Another pointed out that everyone needs to recalibrate. She said, “I don’t think it would be out of place for church leadership to at least offer family counsel. Outside wisdom and objectivity certainly wouldn’t hurt. I am so thankful that our oldest son took upon himself this role. We did numerous interventions as an entire family—fielding needs, implementing sibling strengths to act strategically, all the while praying together regularly and being reminded to ‘restore in a spirit of meekness’ while setting boundaries. The spirit of love and unity that resulted was a huge source of strength for me.”
Again, a willingness to listen came up. A father wrote that the church can care for these children through friends “giving them opportunity to share with love and sympathy their own pain and struggles occurring because of their lost sibling. Also, not allowing the reputation of their sinning sibling to reflect upon their own standing and relationship with others in the church.” A mother whose children are all grown and moved away said, “They hear our stories of people that have cared for us and that blesses them.”
Despite all the stories of support and encouragement, parental grief is often compounded by a lack of understanding that creates isolation or hurt. There are many answers to the question, “What do you wish that people understood about your grief that they don’t seem to understand?” One father answered:
First, that it is truly grief. The Proverbs say that a “foolish son brings grief to his mother” (Prov. 10:1, NIV). Second, that though we have learned to manage it better as time has passed by not letting it debilitate us, grief does not lessen over time but just comes in irregular waves, often unexpectedly. Baptisms remind us of our son who was claimed and raised to be His but has rejected Christ; holidays and family gatherings pain us either with his presence or absence; a sight or memento can suddenly bring memories of both the joys we no longer have with him or the pain we have gone through with him. Third, there are times and occasions we do not want to talk about it. Being hit suddenly in a worship service when someone prays without warning or even uses our son’s name as an example can hurt rather than heal. Pressing privately for details can make parents feel quite uncomfortable and even ashamed. Fourth, we cannot express how thankful we are for the faithful people who keep praying and gently asking about him. Their love often sustains us and gives us renewed hope. Understanding that a gentle presence has a powerful impact is something we wish others understood.
A mother feels as though people misunderstand love:
It’s interesting, this question. Our church family recognized our grief and encompassed us with their love—real love. Our genetic family wrote our son off as a lost cause. I would like people to understand that your child does wrong, which has to be dealt with, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t love them anymore. Because we love them, we hurt all the more. It’s not us that they are sinning against. It’s the Lord, and that is the most painful. So, I would like people to know that our son is still our son, and that we still love him.
Many parents just need a recognition of grief:
- “Just because we may be laughing, that doesn’t mean we are fine and over our pain or dealing with it better. We carry the pain all the time. We just bury it better. At any time, the pain can show itself in tears, sometimes there are none.”
- “There is really no closure—no funeral—it’s ongoing.”
- “We must appear to be normal, be happy, exist, work, interact, without a constant ‘sadness filled with grief’ countenance. But it is there underneath—the pain is raw but hidden.”
- We want people to feel empathy or know they are grieving with us and care. Our grief is unique, it’s complex. It’s not like a death. Sometimes we don’t want to give all the history.”
- “Grief can feel all-consuming when the crisis is ongoing. Keeping one’s eyes on the loving, sovereign Father while anticipating imminent disaster is exhausting. The spiritual warfare is real and we have a deadly enemy. I wonder if people know the ponderous weight that contemplating your loved one’s future apart from Christ can inflict, the helplessness you feel in your inability to transfer the baton of faith, and the continual assessment of yourself regarding true and false guilt for your failures as a parent.”
One mother had a positive aspect that she wishes people understood in the midst of the tears:
Years into it, I do wish people knew what I’ve learned about God, prayer, and an increasing dependence and intimacy with my heavenly Father. I truly see how grief is working for me an eternal weight of glory. I do have an ever-intensifying longing to be forever in the presence of Him who loved me enough to reconcile my own wayward heart and train it to love Him more every day.
Things to Avoid
The last question that parents answered was, “What are some things for people to avoid as they seek to love you in this hardship?” “Please,” a mother asked, “don’t give advice or try to help us figure out why this is happening unless we ask for it.” Another said that “the biggest thing that people could avoid is constantly pointing out the sin. We know the sin. Our child knows the sin, whether they accept it as sin or not. Keep pointing to God’s Word. Keep pointing, in love, to what’s right, and as we and perhaps our child, learns and accepts what’s right, the wrong will be put away. Don’t tolerate the sin, but don’t rub it in the face each and every time.”
Other parents asked people to keep evading the issue. “Out of sensitivity, people may think I don’t wish to be asked about my son or how I’m doing. Yes, there is real shame connected to what we are undergoing (see Proverbs), but neither our grief nor our sanctification are intended to be for our benefit alone. Humility and dialogue are necessary to effectively comfort others with the comfort with which we have been comforted.” Another parent had a slightly different angle on the same issue: “When I was in the depths of pain and it was hard to conceal it at work, I decided to tell my boss that we were having some painful issues with our daughter and I’m having some hard days, but hoping to leave it at the door. He went on to tell me that they were going through painful things at church, and that I’m not the only one with problems. And this was said kindly—he’s a kind man—but I would have loved for him to ask a bit more of what we are struggling with that I might want to share, since I actually put it out there. I guess I would say that if someone who you know is hurting, opens up a bit to mention it, ask them if they want to share a bit, that you care, and even though you may not be able to help, you can pray. When someone opens up and gives you a lead into their pain, ask. It’s worse if you don’t and end up sharing your own grief instead.”
The pain is clear, isn’t it? One parent, who has also buried a child, quoted an old writer, saying that it is easier to grieve ten buried children than one living one.
But if you are a parent who is walking through this grief, is hope clearer to you as you read others’ stories? Stories not only of hurt and grief but also of perseverance, growth, wisdom, faith, and God’s sustaining grace? There is pain, but there is also One who promises to bring us safely to the place where we will be beyond pain’s reach.
These stories also make gospel opportunities clear. The need to love—parents and children—is real, and it is possible through Christ’s love in us. As the church, let’s be surrounding these people with that love and in love bringing them before the throne of grace and the One who also knows what it is like to lose a child. Let’s grieve alongside people. Let’s love the wayward with a love that seeks to bring Christ to them in the middle of the sin and suffering.
I’ll leave you with one mother’s closing thoughts: “I hope that these answers are somewhat helpful. Love us enough to point us in the right way. Love us enough to not focus on the wrong but keep pointing us to Christ.”