We all—hundreds of us—asked God for something good: a baby’s life. Something that would give us an opportunity to magnify his mercy and exalt Jesus together as a church family. Instead, he let baby Tahlia die just a few hours after she was born. Instead of a telling miracle story, we are grieving with our friends who have been left with empty arms.
Every grief is different, and it’s usually unfair to compare one loss with another. But most people seem to acknowledge that grief over a lost baby is in a special category. In fact, this is the second time these young parents are walking a similar path—after losing a tiny daughter in the second trimester of life in her mom’s womb less than two years ago. So their longing for unborn baby Tahlia was intense and understandable. Then came the news that her heart wasn’t developing properly in utero. Then several months of agonized waiting and crying out to God. Then she is born and rushed into the care of one of the best surgical teams in the world. And then the crushing news that she can’t be saved, and she is brought back to her parents’ arms to die in a few short hours. I don’t mind telling you, this is awful.
No, “awful” doesn’t begin to describe it.
In God’s family, we are called to share this more-than-awful thing with each other. To bear each other’s burdens (Galatians 6:2), to weep with those who are weeping (Romans 12:15). Together we groan together under the weight of creation’s brokenness, longing for its final redemption under its Maker and King (Romans 8:19-25).
There are many ways we can bear terrible burdens like this with each other (providing meals, helping with housework, going on walks, etc.). But I want to describe two other aspects of dealing with grief in community that have occurred to me in these days: speaking truth into grief, and worshiping through grief.
Bearing Truth Alongside Their Doubt
“Why would God allow this?” It’s the question that everyone expects and many dread. Since I taught theology in seminary for 13 years before moving into a pastoral role just over a year ago, I’m ready to have this discussion. “I don’t know why,” I say, “but I know God, and he is infinitely wise and trustworthy. And even though you can’t see that right now, it’s still as true as it was before this tragedy.” On on hand, this is true and ultimately will be helpful, but doubt is a subtle, persistent nag who just won’t let it go. “Is he? Does he really have good in store for me? Two babies in a row—our only two children. How can I face pregnancy again? How can he possibly consider this a good thing for us?”
Great grief brings doubts born of swirling emotions and desperate questions. It is our role as the community of Christ to patiently bear truth alongside our hurting brothers and sisters as these doubts arise. We must pick up and carry the solid knowledge of God’s sovereign, wise goodness that our friends may lose hold of in the weakness of sorrow. So we walk with them, entering into their grief and bringing the healing truth with us—not as a whip to keep them in line, but as a cushion to keep them from hurting themselves as they are tossed about by waves of immeasurable sorrow.
“I know it hurts. I have no idea how much. But I’m not going to pull away from you or lecture you because you have doubts. I love you, I’m absolutely sure that God intends good for his children, and I believe that you will once again “look upon the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living” (Ps. 27:13).
I can’t make them feel better about their child being taken in death. But I can help them remember that death has been defeated by the crucified and resurrected Lord Jesus Christ; that death is now a stingless serpent whose utter banishment is just around the corner.
And in this we will all find stronger hope. Gradually, and not without setbacks, because this kind of doubt is frustratingly stubborn. But the truth of God’s self-giving goodness is even more persistent. In fact, it’s everlasting, which death and grief cannot be. And so my role in part is to carry this cushion of truth alongside my friends until they can once again embrace it for themselves.
Gaining Strength through Worship
Sunday morning came less than 72 hours after Tahlia lived and died. Most of our church family arrived in sorrow. We had all banded together in prayer and encouragement for months, asking God to give Tahlia her life. The smiles we greeted each other with were not normal. It was as if we had all silently agreed we would smile for now rather than all fall apart at once.
Although the service wasn’t planned as a service of lament, the whole morning was colored with our combined grief (Tahlia’s parents were still in the hospital 150 miles away). And although I’m speaking for myself here, I have no doubt many other people experienced what I did that morning: in my weakness I was made stronger through worship.
Each familiar song we sang took on new facets of meaning: a song of praise helped me zoom out to the cosmic level and see a praiseworthy God who is sovereign and good even as I grieve this great evil he has allowed into his family. A song of commitment helped me renew my determination— even through tears—to learn to trust him as I walk with him:
I believe everything that you say you are
I believe that I have seen your unchanging heart
In the good things, and in the hardest part
I believe, and I will follow you.
Then our lead pastor shared with everyone the news that almost everyone already knew. If there were any dry eyes before this moment, they were now welling up like all the others.
We sang “Be Thou My Vision.” Can I help my friends look beyond their grief to see Jesus when I’m struggling to do the same? “Naught be all else to me, save that Thou art.” Even a newborn baby? “Thou and Thou only, first in my heart / High king of heaven, my treasure Thou art.” In sorrow for my friends’ loss, it’s not hard to see how I can treasure any number of things more than Jesus.
Then I was brought to a turning point with a song that I had actually been reluctant to endorse a few months prior. Yet I’d grown to like the song, and I’m glad our worship leader added it to our repertoire. But on that Sunday it became more than a good praise song, it became an anthem of victory and strength.
Death could not hold you, the veil tore before you,
You silence the boast of sin and grave
The heavens are roaring the praise of your glory
For you are raised to life again
You have no rival
You have no equal
Now and forever, God, you reign
Yours is the kingdom
Yours is the glory
Yours is the name above all names
What a powerful Name it is
The name of Jesus Christ, my King
What a powerful Name it is
Nothing can stand against
What a powerful Name it is
The name of Jesus
Singing these words as tears streamed down my face, I felt like we were literally shouting down the forces of evil that sought to defeat us through despair. And like never before, my heart could see Jesus Christ triumphant over sin and death, and find strength for my weakness in his victory. As I sat down in my seat, I knew it once again, and more deeply: Jesus is Lord. He has defeated death and is the source of true life. Eternal life. Tahlia’s life.
I could go on and describe how our pastor’s sermon—just the next section of the book of James—applied poignantly to our developing strategies to comfort our broken brother and sister. And how the closing song redirected us to find stability in the risen and glorified Christ. But you get the idea: worshiping together in our weakness brought strength, and we were drawn tighter into the arms of the Savior. Imagine if we had said, “I’m so sad, I just don’t think I can face going to church this morning.”
My grieving friends are going to be ok, even though they can’t see how just yet. So until they can, we’ll all grieve, remember the truth, and worship God together. Someday their hope will be renewed and our bond of love in Christ will have grown stronger from sharing this dark path. Grief will not win, because death has already lost. Thank you, Jesus.