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    Lord, Love Us When We Doubt

    What do grieving parents do with God when their child dies?

    By Alice J. Wisler

    May 18, 2022
    • Susan

      We are a family dealing with a granddaughter’s neuroblastoma. She went into remission, then had it return. I have been a pastor for more than 30 years and while my head believes everything you have said, my heart is still struggling. I tell myself “Children die every day, and yet you believe God is good. You can’t decide differently because it is YOUR family.” It is still a struggle.

    • Angie

      Beautiful thoughts on prayer and loss! There are many mysteries with God, but trusting in His goodness allows us to know that the ultimate outcome will be good.

    • Delores Douglas

      Ms Wisler, I cannot relate to your loss. Thank you for your painful honesty in words. It has impacted me at this moment and I pray will continue in my life. It is a remarkable work of God’s love and how you were able through it all to show this love.

    • Jeff

      Thank you for this article as I process my own personal misery of my wife's passing from AML just a few months ago. 32 years together were good years, but now: without children, it's difficult to know what my purpose is. What good can come out of this dark void that now festers inside me. Still it's helpful to read these articles from others who have made this journey.

    The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit. —Psalm 34:18

    When a child dies, people struggle with faith. Maybe they thought, like me, that trusting in God would keep them safe from the devastations of life. Now the God they thought they held inside a box is no longer inside. What do grieving parents do with God when their child dies, when their illusions about how faith is supposed to work no longer hold up?

    In 1996, when my three-year-old son Daniel was diagnosed with neuroblastoma, a highly malignant tumor, I sought prayer. A throng of friends around the world prayed for Daniel’s health as he went through surgeries, weeks of chemotherapy, and radiation. I was confident that one day I’d be rejoicing with Daniel because he would be cancer-free.

    Nine months later, at age four, Daniel died from a staph infection that had entered his compromised body. Despite prayers, despite faith, despite hope.

    Some Christians view prayer like a vending machine. I know this because I once viewed it the same way. When I’d been a new mom, I had a laundry list of requests. On it were desires – for my daughter’s eczema to clear up; for my husband, David, to make it through grad school and be employed; for the next baby to arrive soon and get off my sciatic nerve. I checked off each request when it was answered.

    young boy in bed with a large stuffed animal

    Daniel Wisler (Photograph courtesy of the author)

    I listened to a sermon about prayer by a famous American pastor. He said prayer’s purpose is not to manipulate God but to transform the believer’s heart. I’d heard that before and agreed. Then he went on to say that anything we pray for that aligns with the Father’s plan will be granted, and to be diligent in prayer even if the answer takes some time. We are to trust that he has only the very best in store for his children.

    After Daniel died, sermons like this made me think something was severely wrong with me. Had I not communicated well to God for my child’s health? Surely God had heard when I asked for Daniel to be healed. Whenever I looked up at the night sky, questions spun inside my head. Why? Didn’t Daniel’s continued life align with your plan, God?

    After the autopsy report came back and the oncologist told us that no cancer cells were found, I felt worse. What good was a no-cancer report now? I’d wake at three in the morning, tormented by how I should have kept my child safe and alive.

    My husband went online and joined a bereaved parents’ forum. There he met Ellen Keiderling, who had also lost a son to neuroblastoma. Ellen was part of the Bruderhof, a Christian community of Anabaptist origin in New York. David suggested I write to Ellen. When I sent my first email, I asked about her son’s treatments and death, and let her know of my disappointment with God.

    Ellen replied and we corresponded for weeks. She said that her pastor, Johann Christoph Arnold, was writing a book on prayer. He wanted to know if I’d like to contribute something to it. Before I could reply to Ellen, Christoph wrote. He encouraged me to write about my experience with Daniel.

    What good is prayer? I knew the response many would have liked me to give, including the pastor of my church, who had grown frustrated with me for my questions to God. I knew that the sentiment that made other Christians feel comfortable was summarized in: “All is well, God is good. He gave me my son and he took him away.” A quote from the Book of Job – “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21) – was what they wanted to hear from me, a mom with a crumpled and damp tissue in every pocket.

    Months earlier I had written an honest piece about losing Daniel and posted it online. A woman compiling accounts of Christians who had gone through situations that had not turned out as expected told me that if I tweaked my story a bit it could fit the premise of her book. I guessed that she wanted my words to sound less angry, less doubtful, less sorrowful. I could not do that.

    Between changing diapers, making dinners, searching for a new church to attend, reading bedtime stories, and going to support group meetings for bereaved parents, I came up with nine paragraphs on prayer. I read them aloud, I edited; I wished I were a better writer; I edited more. When I sent them off to Christoph, I expected nothing.

    Whenever I looked up at the night sky, questions spun inside my head. Why? Didn’t Daniel’s continued life align with your plan, God?

    Meanwhile, Ellen invited us to visit the Bruderhof. I thought of driving up there in our dusty minivan with three kids, including our newest daughter, who had arrived three months after Daniel’s death. I had gone to a Mennonite college, so I was familiar with the Anabaptist tradition: what conscientious objection means and how peace, simplicity, and service are emphasized. Still, I was afraid that even though Christoph and Ellen had been kind to me, I’d feel like a misfit among their people. If my inner being was at peace, I could tackle almost anything. But I was not the self-assured woman of two years before. My son was gone. My world was a mass of tears and doubts. I never went.

    Christoph sent an autographed copy of his published book, Cries from the Heart: Stories of Struggle and Hope. The back cover summarized a few of the stories. One line said,“Alice grew up believing in a God who heard her when she asked him to bless her mom and dad. Then her four-year-old son died.”

    Everything I had written was included. Christoph had not tried to minimize my words or delete or reshape any of them. Near the end of my piece were these words:

    I am still on this journey of seeking … I feel anger at some church groups who make it seem like God can be rubbed like a good-luck charm and will perform in any way the Christian prays … I wonder if the average Christian really knows much about prayer at all … Perhaps to be in communion with God means to be still before him and meditate on who he is, instead of thinking that prayer is coming to him in a huff with all of our requests.

    The conclusion read:

    Perhaps for now, prayer for me is looking up at the dark starry night or at the rising sun and pouring forth my simple yet heartfelt words: God, you are there, you are sovereign, you are immortal. I am confused, broken, saddened, and extremely mortal. And for your unchanging love, I am thankful.

    David agreed that Christoph had been thoughtful to print all my muddled words – to allow me to be where I was without judgment. If a pastor and community leader felt it was OK for me to grapple with my faith, perhaps God also accepted and loved me in spite of my doubt.

    Twenty-five years after Daniel’s death, I still have no answer as to why he had to die. The intensity of my grief has softened. I’ve grown bolder in my trust toward this magnificent God – Our Father, Ancient of Days, Sovereign King – a God who doesn’t fit in any box of human creation. When I stand under the stars, I let God’s love wash over me, grateful for his gift of mysterious faith – faith that expands even in those seasons when I am weak and cannot see.

    Contributed By

    Alice J. Wisler is the author of six novels and a devotional, Getting Out of Bed in the Morning: Reflections of Comfort in Heartache (Leafwood Publishing). She lives in Durham, North Carolina.

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