When you are walking through the worst nightmare of your life that you just can’t wake up from, there’s bound to be collateral damage that you never anticipate. “I wish I’d never met you,” I told Leah and Joe after they came to see the piece above they commissioned me to create for them. “Then you’d still have your sweet boy and you’d be sharing in all the milestones alongside his buddies and I’d be some random photographer you never met. Life could have plodded on predictably with your greatest worry being if you’d picked the right college right now.” They understood.
After a full on warrior battle with brain cancer, Joe and Leah’s precious son Jake entered the mighty throne room of heaven almost 4 years ago …which I can hardly believe even as I write it. Joe and Leah are still very much feeling the weight of their grief and it shows no signs of lifting. Grief wrecks you on every level you can imagine. Life splits in two…before and after your child’s passing. The unconditional love a parent feels for their child doesn’t stop because the child has died. Instead, it’s held onto more tightly, regardless of how uncomfortable it makes people around them. Because love doesn’t stop with death. Parents long to hear their child’s name, to share their stories, to know the child who is constantly on their mind has not been forgotten as everyone else has moved on. Holidays are sometimes easier to ignore than embrace, because the absence is so shattering it’s easier to busy yourself with a distraction away from traditions than face them without your child.
While creating this piece for the Offutts, my wheels were spinning on all the conversations I’ve had with those who have lost children prematurely. Every parent’s worst nightmare, that makes even good days harder than anyone could ever imagine. I wanted to take a moment to share sentiments shared with me from many families, in hopes that this will help others as they navigate their grief journey and walk beside loved ones who are in the thick of grief.
Pastor Rick Warren, who wrote one of the most influential books of my life, Purpose Driven Life, shared in an interview re the loss of his son, “you don’t get over it — you get through it.” His wife Kay shared this letter below that echoes so much of the grief I see in Leah and Joe and so many others who have crossed my path.
As the one-year anniversary of Matthew’s death approaches, I have been shocked by some subtle and not-so-subtle comments indicating that perhaps I should be ready to “move on.” The soft, compassionate cocoon that has enveloped us for the last 11 1/2 months had lulled me into believing others would be patient with us on our grief journey, and while I’m sure many will read this and quickly say “Take all the time you need,” I’m increasingly aware that the cocoon may be in the process of collapsing. It’s understandable when you take a step back. I mean, life goes on…
But for most, life never stopped – their world didn’t grind to a horrific, catastrophic halt on April 5, 2013. In fact, their lives have kept moving steadily forward with tasks, routines, work, kids, leisure, plans, dreams, goals etc. LIFE GOES ON. And some of them are ready for us to go on too. They want the old Rick and Kay back. They secretly wonder when things will get back to normal for us – when we’ll be ourselves, when the tragedy of April 5, 2013 will cease to be the grid that we pass everything across. And I have to tell you – the old Rick and Kay are gone. They’re never coming back. We will never be the same again. There is a new “normal.” April 5, 2013 has permanently marked us. It will remain the grid we pass everything across for an indeterminate amount of time….maybe forever.
Because these comments from well-meaning folks wounded me so deeply, I doubted myself and thought perhaps I really am not grieving “well” (whatever that means). I wondered if I was being overly sensitive –so I checked with parents who have lost children to see if my experience was unique. Far from it, I discovered. “At least you can have another child” one mother was told shortly after her child’s death. “You’re doing better, right?” I was asked recently. “When are you coming back to the stage at Saddleback? We need you” someone cluelessly said to me recently.
“People can be so rude and insensitive; they make the most thoughtless comments,” one grieving father said. You know, it wasn’t all that long ago that it was standard in our culture for people to officially be in mourning for a full year. They wore black. They didn’t go to parties. They didn’t smile a whole lot. And everybody accepted their period of mourning; no one ridiculed a mother in black or asked her stupid questions about why she was STILL so sad… What does this say about us – other than we’re terribly uncomfortable with death, with grief, with mourning, with loss – or we’re so self-absorbed that we easily forget the profound suffering the loss of a child creates in the shattered parents and remaining children.
Unless you’ve stood by the grave of your child or cradled the urn that holds their ashes, you’re better off keeping your words to some very simple phrases: “I’m so sorry for your loss.” Or “I’m praying for you and your family.” Do your best to avoid the meaningless, catch-all phrase “How are you doing?” This question is almost impossible to answer. If you’re a stranger, it’s none of your business. If you’re a casual acquaintance, it’s excruciating to try to answer honestly, and you leave the sufferer unsure whether to lie to you (I’m ok) to end the conversation or if they should try to haltingly tell you that their right arm was cut off and they don’t know how to go on without it. If you’re a close friend, try telling them instead, “You don’t have to say anything at all; I’m with you in this.”
Here’s my plea: Please don’t ever tell someone to be grateful for what they have left until they’ve had a chance to mourn what they’ve lost. It will take longer than you think is reasonable, rational or even right. But that’s ok. True friends – unlike Job’s sorry excuse for friends – love at all times, and brothers and sisters are born to help in time of need (Prov. 17:17 LB).The truest friends and “helpers” are those who wait for the griever to emerge from the darkness that swallowed them alive without growing afraid, anxious or impatient. They don’t pressure their friend to be the old familiar person they’re used to; they’re willing to accept that things are different, embrace the now-scarred one they love, and are confident that their compassionate, non-demanding presence is the surest expression of God’s mercy to their suffering friend. They’re ok with messy and slow and few answers….and they never say “Move on.”
In reflecting on the loss of his son, Rick Warren shared, “I wouldn’t wish it on anybody else. But at the same time, I know my own hope is stronger and I minister from a stronger place of hope than I ever have before because I have a very clear recognition that the truth of the Gospel is either true or it’s not and if it’s not true then we just need to forget it all, go home, call it a farce, call it a fairytale and go home. But if it’s true, if Jesus did raise from the dead, then that means that Jesus is alive today, and Matthew is alive today, and we’ll be alive someday when we leave this life, when these bodies die. And that truth has given me I think a deeper confidence in sharing with people as I enter into their pain, their suffering, their sorrow, whatever it is that they’re struggling with, I’m more sure of heaven, and of God’s mercy, than I have ever been before.”
Holding back the tears, Kay stated, “I’ll live with a broken heart until the day that Jesus comes for me, and that’s ok. It’s ok to walk through life with tears in your eyes and a smile on your face at the same time.” Pastor Warren then said, “That’s a good point; that it’s not a contradiction to be able to laugh and cry at the same time. The Bible says that there’s a ‘time to laugh’ and ‘a time to cry.’ And I do both every day. I’ve cried every single day since Matthew died. I don’t see that as a sign of weakness, but as a sign of love. I love my son; and I miss him very much. Now I’m not grieving for him for I know where he is. He’s in heaven. I’m grieving that I miss him.”
I’d like to wrap with an encouragement of patience and grace for all those in your life who are walking in grief. Some of their scars are in plain sight, but so many more are hidden. I can’t imagine anyone enters a terminal illness battle with their child anticipating there will be PTSD from the months of pain endured in the hospital. I can’t imagine anyone anticipates friendships that were once so precious, falling away because the journey is just too hard to handle. I can’t imagine anyone anticipates the loss of their child would have a domino affect of even more loss piled on top and the weight that is to carry daily.
On the other hand, I can’t imagine the thousands of lives that have been impacted because of one selfless boy named Jake Offutt who saw the best in everyone and brought that out in them as well. Joe and Leah are so thankful for the family and friends who have embraced them and enabled them to still be standing today. They consider it their greatest honor in life to have been Jake’s parents. They, along with thousands of others, help Jake’s legacy live on by pouring all of themselves into raising support for other families walking through cancer with their children via their work with the Jake Offutt Foundation.