I've had the misfortune of attending way too many funerals for young people. Suicides and accidents have been the bulk of these wretched events, but tomorrow I am attending a funeral for an infant, SM, who died about two weeks before she was due to be born. This was a much-hoped-for, much-longed-after daughter and granddaughter; the couple are new friends of ours.
Despite not being a parent, much less one who's gone through the horror of losing a child, I've come to know that people tend to say a lot of stupid, heartless and ridiculous things in such situations. Sometimes, ministers are especially guilty of this. I really hate hearing bad theology at the funerals of children and youth. (Well, I hate hearing bad theology all the time, but bad funeral theology is the absolute worst.) I know that people mean well, and are trying to help and not hurt, but honestly, do they think about what they are saying before they open their mouths?
Here is my top three list of stupid things you should never, ever, ever say to a parent who has lost a child:
3. God had a special task for this one in heaven. I actually heard this in a conversation this week. Long ago, a kid had flu-like symptoms; the family, who didn't have health insurance, couldn't afford a $25 copay to learn their kid had the flu, so didn't go to the doctor. The kid ended up having diabetes and died from the complications. A young friend wanted to know why this little girl had died and she didn't, since she also had diabetes. The above was her mother's response.
Look, I know that it's hard to explain to little kids about our whack health system, but let's be honest: the kid didn't die because God had some special task for her; she died because her parents didn't have access to adequate health insurance. A tragic mistake, not the family's fault...but also not God calling a kid home. Um, no. Whether avoidable, preventable, accidental, or even occasionally intention, whenever when a child dies, it's not God's will. Ever.
2. God's will is mysterious. Really? You think it's God's will that children die? What kind of horrible God do you worship? Keep me away from Him, thank you very much. In a famous sermon by William Sloane Coffin on the death of his own son Alex, a woman says to him, "I'll never understand the will of God." To which he replies, "I'll say you don't!" He goes on to say that at the moment of Alex's death, God's heart was the first to break, and that in all things, God offers us "minimum protection, maximum support."
1. God needed another angel. Really? Do you truly believe that a) God needs anything, and b) that even if God did need anything, God's need could somehow be greater than OUR need? Are you honestly going to tell grieving parents that God needed that child more than her parents and community did? Your god is that needy, that greedy? Seriously? Bullshit.
I get that when we have people we love who are grieving, we want to help. We want to take away that suffering, or at least imbue it with some sort of meaning that will help the grievers get out of bed in the morning.
We also have this thing in our culture where we are stuck in a third-grade notion of God being omnipotent and able to do anything. That's where a lot of this bad theology comes from; we believe that if something happens, it's because it's somehow God's will. But the hard reality is that God is not all-powerful. At least, not here on earth. If God were all-powerful, we'd be getting ready to celebrate SM's birth. There would be no genocide, no poverty, no rape, no hunger, no addiction, no murder, no oppression of any sort. The question of why God permits suffering is intimately tied to things like free will and random chance, and any real answer would be far too long for a blog post. Permit me to say, however, that even when God wants to prevent suffering, God is not always able to do so.
This is not to say that God cannot draw good out of suffering. This is where God is most powerful, I believe - in helping us draw good out of terrible situations. It's not easy, and it's not always possible. It certainly seldom happens in the way we think it will. Even if lives are transformed and realities changed for the better as a direct result of a child's death, it still doesn't make the death "worth it." There will always be a hole where that child should be. And in the end, only the parents parents have the right to say, somewhere down the line, "We miss her, we'd rather have her here, but there are some good things that happened after this horrible death that might not have otherwise happened." We don't have the right to say that for anyone else. Ever.
When a child dies, it is utterly incomprehensible. It tears at the order and fabric of the universe in particularly devastating ways. And yet, it is totally human of us to try to make sense of utter nonsense. I get that. I desperately want to take away some of the grief my friends are feeling right now, and the normal way we think that happens is through an explanation. (What makes this situation even more heart-wrenching is that the doctors don't know why SM died. But I don't suppose that would matter very much anyway; it just maybe gives a focus for the grief.) But let's be honest: if it were you, would any of this stuff make you feel better?
When a kid dies, do your friends and family the courtesy of not making up bullshit reasons for why this happened, especially not bullshit reasons that put God at the center of what happened. Stick with the psalms of lamentation that rail against God if you must. But better yet: just show up. Bring them food. Hug them. Cry with them. And keep your mouth shut.
This, by the way, is how you bring God into the center of such a tragedy.