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When a Child Dies

April 7th, 2010 · 1 Comment

I like to think I’m pretty good with words, but a few times in my life I’ve been speechless. At those moments anything I could have thought to say would have been less than required. Words of advice or comfort or empathy would have been wooden and miserably weak. There wasn’t a thing I could say that would approach the pain of the person I was talking to. In each circumstance I was on the phone with a friend. In each circumstance my friend had just told me that their child had died.

The first time was a few years ago. My friend’s baby had died suddenly and unexpectedly in the night. I shared the story with you a while back ( The last time was a few weeks ago. I don’t think it was as sudden or unexpected, we haven’t talked about it; it’s still too raw. I imagine the pain is the same in either circumstance.

But the truth is that I can’t imagine the pain. I don’t know that anyone who hasn’t experienced the death of a child could. So words from me, however well meant or even true, lack any dimension equal to the hurt.

I have a very good friend, Roger. Roger and Rita lost their little boy, Eric, twenty-five years ago. I trust Roger’s heart and his spiritual maturity. I knew I would be digging into an old wound but I asked him to tell us about Eric. Roger agreed because he cares more about easing the pain of others than protecting his own. My words, because I hadn’t tread that path, don’t mean much, but Roger’s words do.

Because if the length of his letter I’ve excerpted parts of it and broken it into two installments. The first is below; the second I’ll send to you next week.

Jesus and the Third Grader

In the spring of 1984, I accepted the call to pastor a rural Baptist Church in Southern Indiana. Soon thereafter my wife, daughter, two sons, and I loaded all our belongings in a big U-Haul truck and embarked on our pilgrimage from Wyandotte, Michigan. Soon the church began to grow a little and every day seemed to dawn with a new sense of expectancy. From my perspective, all things appeared to be going well. The following March something happened that would change our lives from that day forward.

Early one spring morning our little dog woke me to let her outside. As I went down the hallway I noticed a light on in the bathroom. When I gazed in, to my surprise our eight-year old son, Eric, was lying on the floor sleeping. I fussed at him to get back in his bunk. When I came back through I returned to the bathroom to turn off the light and shockingly noticed some blood on the floor. I glanced back at Eric and he was fast asleep. When I arrived back in the bedroom I woke my wife and informed her of what I had seen. She jumped out of bed and watched him until daylight. Soon after breakfast, she and Eric made a trip into town to visit our physician. A few hours later Rita phoned me from the local hospital and frantically informed me that our physician had admitted our oldest son as a patient. After securing a babysitter for the other two, I made a beeline to be with them.

Test after test failed to produce a diagnosis that would empower our physician and pediatrician to treat our helpless son who seemed to be gradually fading away. Later that evening Eric was transported about forty miles away to Children’s Hospital in Louisville, Kentucky. While he was being relocated, it was necessary for me to return home to be with the other two children. After finally arriving back at Children’s Hospital, I discovered a bunch of the church folks standing around in the hallway. I rushed by them and burst through the doors frantically looking for my son and wife. I was quickly escorted back into the hallway and told to stay there until Dr. so-and-so spoke with me. While waiting I ventured off to the restroom and when I returned the tending physician invited me into a room. A very dear friend accompanied me in, shut the door, and leaned against it. As soon as I was seated she said something that shot through me like a bolt of lightning and still rings very clearly twenty five years later, ‘Mr. Luther, Eric is gone!” For the next few seconds I frantically tore into my big friend, exhibiting a type of temporary insanity. Eventually, the physician escorted me down to the next floor to be with my wife. It’s bizarre when I think that one minute he appeared to be healthy and eleven hours later he was gone!

My objective in sharing the above was to briefly lay the foundation that, by His grace, might permit me to point out a few of the many ways God intervened in order that we might live, retain our sanity, bear witness, be strengthened, and somehow be better equipped for the many trials that lay ahead.

I am positive that very few pastors (thank God!) have found themselves sitting with their wife in a funeral home early on Sunday morning staring at funeral arrangements for their eight-year-old son while their congregation gathers for worship back at the church.

In spite of our tremendous level of mental and emotional anguish, we faced one of most horrendous nightmares that any two parents could face – making our third grader’s funeral arrangements. As we helplessly and ignorantly met with the funeral home director, seemingly out of nowhere came an aunt and uncle. Years before they both were previously married and suffered tremendously as they parted company with their original spouse. Let me assure you that they were truly a God send! Somehow, they filled in the blanks we could not deal with. Aunt Olive even volunteered to pick out Eric’s casket, when we could not bear to go upstairs to the display room. Days later the funeral home director informed us that Eric’s funeral was one of the largest in the history of the facility. Although the crowd was extremely large and the wonderful guests poured out their hearts, the terrible pain deep within was still there and did not show any signs of leaving anytime soon.

Days later, after the funeral, we were asked to meet with the physician and pediatrician in a hospital conference room to go over the results of the autopsy. My wife and I arrive early and as we sat waiting a thought popped into my mind – our eight year old son had lived, was a Christian for about six months, and now he was gone from us for the rest of our lives! After all, aren’t we supposed to go first? Second, I realized with shock that in a few years no one will know he existed! I jumped up, approached the telephone operator, and asked for some paper and a pencil. That’s the first and last time I can remember words strangely flowing in the fashion they did early that morning. When I finished I returned the pencil and the remaining sheets of paper to the young lady at the phone and asked her to look over the little tribute. When she returned it she was weeping. She has just confirmed its completion. Eventually the physicians arrived and we learned that Eric had died of pulmonary hemorrhage due to Goodpasture’s Syndrome. In 1985, this rare, rapid, and fatal disease was beyond the medical expertise of the time. Many years later, in the late nineties, a kidney specialist friend of mine from U. of M. Medical Hospital informed me that a blood transfusion would have saved his life. Once again, we were reminded that God had spared our first-born son from tremendous suffering!

What happened to the tribute I had written to Eric? After leaving the hospital we went to the local newspaper and had it printed verbatim as you see before you. This is a small copy of the original 4 x 8.

Little did I know that this small local newspaper had a circulation of 21,000. Over the next few months, we received approximately 2,200 hundred dollars in the mail, much of which was given anonymously. Although warmly received, I was afraid that my original intention had been completely misunderstood! As time progressed, though, I learned that God had used the simple article to bring a number of folks, especially children, to the Lord. While conducting a revival meeting about fifty miles north, a lady I had never met came up to me after the service, opened her Bible, and there it was – glued in the front. She had been using Eric’s tribute as a witnessing tool to her grandchildren! Even after death, the little fellow still served on the mission field!

Next week we will share the rest of Roger’s story and the lessons he learned out of his family’s personal tragedy.

For Roger’ Luther’s full letter go to:

Tags: faith · Heaven · suffering

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