When a Child Dies: Hope

They called the other day and invited me to speak in chapel at a local Christian high school. I was delighted and told them what I usually do.

They said, “That’s fine. But another time. This time, we need something else.”

What I often do in high school assemblies, I told her, was to set my easel up on the gym floor and get two or three students out of the audience and caricature them. Then, for the piece de resistance, stand the principal before them and sketch him/her. After that, give them my 10 or 15 minute talk on lessons learned from a lifetime of drawing people on the subject of self-image, self-acceptance, and faith in the Lord who made us.

She said, “That sounds great. And we’d like to have you back to do that sometime. But we need something else from you this time.”

“One of our students is dying,” she said. “And it has shaken the entire student body. We need you to minister to us.”

The next day the student went to Heaven.

Today is Friday, the chapel service is Tuesday morning.

Get that? This Sunday is Palm Sunday, the next Sunday is Easter, and in between we’re going to have a service to talk about death and life.

And hope. That’s what this is all about. It’s certainly what Easter is all about.

“We have been born again to a living hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (I Peter 1:3).


Since I know none of the students in the young man’s class–and precious few students in the entire school–I made a suggestion to the administrator about Tuesday’s chapel service.

“Suppose you sit down with two or three members of his class and ask them what they need from that service. After all, I’d hate to do one thing and what they wanted and needed was something entirely different.”

She agreed to do this.

It’s hard to know about teenagers when they come up against the death of a friend for the first time. Are they thinking about the empty chair in the classroom and the loss of a buddy? Are they angry at God and need something on the reason for suffering in the world? Or, are they wondering what Heaven is like?

Do they need to cry together, to pray, or even to laugh?

I’m not even sure that they know themselves.

My prayer life has kicked up a notch, I’ll tell you that. There is One who knows what they need. I’ll be asking Him.

Pastor Richard Hipps has compiled a moving little volume called “When a Child Dies: Stories of Survival and Hope.” (Published by Smith and Helwys of Macon, GA.) The 10 contributors are grieving parents. Richard and I are new friends on Facebook and he thought I might like to read the book and sent it my way. He was right. It’s life-changing, even for those of us who have never known this ultimate grief of burying a beloved child.

Tony Cartledge, former editor of North Carolina Baptists’ weekly newspaper, The Biblical Recorder, tells of the death of his precious Bethany, age 7. He and she were in the car on a trip, doing what fathers and little girls do–laughing, dreaming, making up silly songs. Suddenly, as they topped a rise, Tony spotted a black pickup truck speeding toward them in their lane. Just as the driver hit the shoulder of the highway, Tony veered left to avoid him. The man apparently was jolted alert by the wheels off the pavement and jerked the wheel back to his right. The pickup slammed into the right side of Tony’s car. Little Bethany never knew what hit her.

Another victim of a drunken driver.

I had to lay the book down and weep. I’m so sorry, Tony. Surely, this is the cruelest of all blows one can sustain in this life.

Somewhere I read, and wish I could find it, where Mark Twain wrote about the death of his grown daughter, something to the effect that the fact that a person can get news like this and still go on living is the greatest testimony to the power of the human heart.

Tony Cartledge has something to say on the subject of hope. It’s worth being carved in stone.

“At times I wondered, before I knew better, if there really was that much difference between hope and faith. Both of them seemed to involve trusting in someone you cannot see; one just seemed more certain than the other. Paul once said that when all else is gone, “Faith, hope, and love abide” (I Corinthians 13:13). I wasn’t so sure that hope deserved to be in that awesome triumvirate. It seemed to me that faith and love said it all.

“Let me tell you what I am learning–at least, what I am learning to be true for me. The reason hope is so important is that, when faith falters, hope is all you have left.

“No one can lose a child in such a senseless fashion without experiencing a crisis of faith. Hope seems to be weaker than faith, because it is less certain; but in truth, hope is stronger, because it has more staying power. In our Christian pilgrimage, hope comes before faith blossoms, and hope endures even after faith falters.”

Perhaps this is what the writer of Hebrews meant with the line, “This hope we have as an anchor for our souls” (Heb. 6:19).

A gospel song we sang a generation ago and probably “used up” from overuse said, “In times like these we need an anchor.”

Still true today, for the grieving parents of a little Bethany Cartledge or a little Sonny Stewart. True for the shocked and saddened students at John Curtis Christian School down the street from my house. But also true for all the rest of us. Because none of us will be spared from the tragedies and heartbreaks of this life. Not a single one.

A man whose wife was taken suddenly in a tragic accident told a friend, “You know, I’ve learned that life really is fair; sooner or later, it breaks everyone’s heart.”

The big difference in faith and hope, it seems to me, is the time element. Faith concerns the here and now; hope takes the long view, thinks of the future.

Faith is a confidence in the Lord that He is true, His promises can be trusted, and I can obey today. Hope is an expectation that He will be there in the future when I need Him most and that all this will make sense then.

Without faith it is impossible to please God (Heb. 11:6). Without hope, it is impossible to rally ourselves.

At the end of a psalm in which he grieves over the behavior of the ungodly–they seem to feel nothing, they speak boastfully, they live for this world only, and seem to see nothing beyond the next generation–David uttered one of the great expressions of hope found in God’s Word:

“But as for me, I shall behold Thy face in righteousness. I will be satisfied with Thy likeness when I awake” (Psalm 17:15).

After this life, I will awaken. I will see the Lord. And whatever this involves and whatever it’s like, I will be satisfied.

But David’s hope sometimes wavered. At times, he took his eyes off the Lord and grew discouraged. In the 42nd Psalm, he calls himself back to the reality of hope, and does it twice, in verses 5 and 11:

“Why are you in despair, O my soul? And why have you become disturbed within me? Hope thou in God, for I shall yet praise Him for the help of His presence.”

Hope in the Lord or despair within ourselves.

Those seem to be the choices.

We have a living hope by the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

Thank God for Easter.

16 thoughts on “When a Child Dies: Hope

  1. This was a great article. My Husband an I have lost 3 Babies. What you said about Faith being the here and now and hope thinks of the future is so true. After our third miscarriage my faith was really shaken to the point I was really waivering. I had a hard time understading how a loving God could let this happen again. That’s where hope came in. The hope that I would one day meet my sweet babies in heaven was what got me through. It’s been 2 years since the third miscarriage and we now have a sweet little boy, but I still hold on to the hope that one day I will meet my babies.

  2. Brother Joe, I’m still living on the long view, thinking of the future.

    You never fail to put joy in my heart, a smile on my face and make my day a better day.

    Thanks,

    Don

  3. Just recently I witnessed close-up how losing a child can affect a families faith and how they cling, as their very lives depend on it, to that “hope” you talked about. I am close to this family and I can tell you that they were shaken to their very core to have lost a son and a brother at the young age of 25. One who himself had so much hope in the Lord. Nevertheless, I can also testify to the glory of the Lord in this family’s life during this event, it was as though they stood in His very presence (and still do!) during that week. I am amazed by their strength…do they still weep? Sure they do, but their words are few, filled with grace and in hope they say to their son who is now at home with His King, “save a place for me son…I’ll see you soon!” I am honored to have known this young man and be a simple part of this families life. Thank you God for their faith and OUR hope, your Name be praised!

  4. Thank you,fb friend, Dr. Joe. This is just what I need to send to my first cousin who just lost her 24 year old son, a sudden illness/infection, died in less than 2 weeks.

    You do have a wonderful way with words. Scriptures that remind me of God’s presence and His promises to always be with me have helped me through this 5 week nightmare of being so sick and allllll the dr. visits and meds. UGH

    Thank You, Lord, for Dr. Joe. Bless him and his family while You encourage him to keep on keeping on ministering to those in need. Amen

  5. Thank you, Bro. Joe for your encouraging words. Life is indeed tough. One of our neighbors buried a 25 year old daughter today; mother of a 4 year old daughter. She went to the hospital one morning after going to work. They put her in ICU and she died in less than 24 hours. I will give them a copy of your blog.

    I have preached the last two Sundays for a church where their pastor took his own life. I preached from John 3:16 on the first Sunday. They told me that their pastor had preached on that text his last message. God

  6. Hope for the future….and look at the blessings we’ve all received even when our faith seemed to dim….

    You have such a geniune love in your heart for the people you have met throughout the years, and no doubt we all love you.

    Louise

  7. Dear Joe,

    Thank you for this very touching article. I got news yesterday that a friend’s 25 year old son took his life yesterday morning. My heart began to cry for Don and Cindy, grandmother, Marlene, and other family members! I lost my oldest son in suicide 7 years ago and I still cry for him. His Leukemia came back and he lost all hope for his future. Again, thank you for speaking to me through this good article.

  8. All those Christians who talk as if theology is unimportant to “real ministry” and “real life” should be made to read this article. Thank you, Brother Joe, for sharing your thoughts after a lifetime of prayer, Bible study, thinking, and shepherding God’s people.

  9. I made a passing reference to Sonny Stewart in this article. He was a precious 2 year old who died in the late 1960s from leukemia. To this day, my heart is so sad at the death of such a wonderful child. His aunt Louise left a note above.

    Thank you, Gerri, for identifying where we can find the piece from Mark Twain. I can’t wait to read it.

    The call from John Curtis Christian School this morning confirming the chapel service tomorrow indicated that they had decided my usual program would be better. “The kids need to smile a little,” someone said. I’m delighted to be able to do this, and am enlisting the prayer support of everyone I know.

  10. Bro. Joe,

    I am praying for you as you speak to those students tomorrow. Grace is always sufficient. Blessings friend.

  11. My husband and I are new pastors in a small urban church. We just heard today (Maundy Thursday) that one of our former members lost her 18 year old son in a drive-by shooting. He was with a group of other people who had just attended a funeral. It was not a gang related incident. The newspaper stated “it was a classic case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

    This article was a great comfort to me while I have been preparing myself to speak with the family as well as preparing a meaningful sermon for Easter Sunday. I praise God for your Godly wisdom and willingness to share it with others.

  12. Bro Joe,
    Thanks for sharing this ! I lost my son 5 years ago and it still hurts so bad !! I was just sitting here thinking about his. I even posted something about him and next thing I pulled up was your post, I know God sent this to me. Thank you so much !!

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