Of Tattoos and “God’s Will”

IMG_0043I have a tattoo on my foot. I’m sure it seems totally out of character for those who know me, for someone “my age” and conservative background. When I got it, it sure was a big surprise to people I knew at the time (including my husband!)!

It’s not a tattoo that I got when I was young or one I got spur of the moment on a whim. I went with my daughter after Jason died when she wanted to get a tattoo in memory of her brother, and I got one at the same time. We’d been talking about it off and on since Jason’s death, and I had in mind exactly what I wanted. It’s a tattoo of a red rose, a heart, and Jason’s initials. Jason loved to give roses to people he cared about, he had a huge loving heart, and it seemed very fitting.

Jason giving roses to fellow "Our Town" actors

Jason giving roses to his fellow “Our Town” actors

Very few people ask me about it, if they notice it at all. I did, however, have someone remark in surprise when she noticed it recently. She went on to ask questions about it, and I simply said it was in memory of our son. To her credit, she didn’t shy away, but asked me what happened and told me how sorry she was. I showed her a picture of Jason, and she told me her husband had passed away the year before. I appreciated her taking the time to ask and to talk to me about it.

However, she then kept adamantly insisting over and over that “they were in a better place,” that “God was in control and had a perfect plan,” that “all of this was part of God’s perfect will.” When I didn’t respond in agreement (as she obviously thought I would), she adamantly insisted the same things all over again. I’m sure she was well-meaning, but it just wasn’t something I really wanted to hear right then. With the anniversary of Jason’s death right around the corner, I felt like my emotions were very near the surface. I steered the conversation away to something else.

When is it appropriate to insist to a bereaved parent that it’s God’s perfect will that his or her child died?

Never. Never, ever, ever. I’m of the opinion that a person shouldn’t tell a bereaved parent that it was God’s perfect will that his or her child died, and I don’t think it’s ever okay to adamantly insist such a thing. Whatever a bereaved parent’s religious point of view or conviction of God’s part in the whole event may be, it’s probably better to say nothing along this line than to step on a bereaved parent’s toes. Believe me, a bereaved parent has enough to deal with! Unless one has walked in the other person’s exact same shoes – and, if you think about it, those shoes are “made for walking” by only one person because of each of our own unique situations and personalities – it’s better not to make any assumptions. One person doesn’t know where the other person is coming from or how such comments will be received or interpreted.

For me, personally, it’s never been a comfort to me for someone to tell that Jason’s death and the situation surrounding Jason’s death was God’s will – like Jason was supposed to die that day afer being broadsided by a drunk driver, that my family and I were supposed to have to walk this long road of grief, that we were supposed to be left alone by nearly everyone we knew, that we were supposed to learn to live a life without Jason, that it was absolutely God’s will for Jason to die as he did and when he did. Was it God’s perfect will for Jason to die that day? I don’t know, but I’ve always thought Jason had more things he was supposed to do here on earth during his lifetime. I can’t even begin to imagine Jason taking the brunt of a car going nearly 80 miles an hour. Was that God’s will? Jason was one of the “good guys” – kind, intelligent, funny, compassionate, Godly, on and on. It’s hard for me to think about Jason’s death on that awful day in terms of God’s perfect will.

It doesn’t offer a lot comfort to try to encourage me that he’s in a better place. I know he’s in a better place. I’m glad he’s not experiencing pain or sorrow. I know I will see him again some day in that better place. But that doesn’t change the fact that I have the right to grieve his loss or that I have the right to miss him so greatly in this present life. It doesn’t change the fact that the life I expected to live and the lives I hoped my children would live has changed beyond comprehension. It doesn’t change the fact that I have had to learn (and am still learning) how to be this “me” in this “new normal.” It doesn’t change the fact that I have had to weave Jason’s loss into the fabric of my life, that it affects so much of the very person that I now am, and that his death has changed me. It doesn’t change the fact that I’ve had to re-examine what I believe in terms of God and what I thought I knew of him.

IMG_0560One year, I wrote on the back of wallet-sized photos exactly what I was praying for my kids. I prayed for my kids. I prayed for their friends. I prayed for my family. I carried those photos with me wherever I went as a reminder to pray for my kids; I still carry them with me to this day. I believed 100% that God heard my prayer and that he would protect my kids. I believed that God heard my prayers and that they “availed much.” I believed 100% that God had a wonderful plan for Jason’s life, that he had a wonderful spouse for him, that my husband and I would enjoy watching Jason marry and have children. But it didn’t happen that way. Jason died at the age of 19 after being hit by a drunk driver. I guess I’ve been trying to reconcile what I thought I knew about God and my new reality ever since then.

I don’t claim to know the mind of God. How can I know the mind of God and know all his ways and why things happen the way they do? The Bible says his ways aren’t my ways. I don’t claim to know what his plans are or why he didn’t protect Jason from harm when I prayed and prayed and prayed for all of my kids and for their protection from harm.

I have a lot of questions I would like to have answered someday when I am face to face with God. There is no sin in having questions. There is no sin in wrestling with God on things we don’t understand. The Bible says we see through a “glass darkly,” but someday we will understand. Right now, I feel like I am seeing through that dark glass.

The Bible says that God is not willing that anyone should perish without knowing him. Do people perish without knowing God? I would say yes, they do. Is it God’s will that they perish without knowing him? I would say, no, it’s not. If it’s God’s perfect will that people don’t perish without knowing him, then why do they? There could be lots of reasons why things happen the way they do. I don’t have to know all the answers now – like why people perish without knowing him or why Jason died. I do know that God knows me as I am, and he knows my heart. He knows my struggles and my questions.

12 For now we are looking in a mirror that gives only a dim (blurred) reflection [of reality as in a riddle or enigma], but then [when perfection comes] we shall see in reality and face to face! Now I know in part (imperfectly), but then I shall know and understand fully and clearly, even in the same manner as I have been fully and clearly known and understood [by God]. I Corinthians 13:12 (http://www.biblegateway.com/verse/en/1%20Corinthians%2013:12)

It’s no secret that I have struggled some in my faith since Jason died. It doesn’t mean that I don’t believe in God or that my faith in him is gone. It just means that my faith doesn’t look the same as it once did. It just means that I have questions and there are so many things I don’t understand. It just means that I am less doggedly sure of what I believed about God and what thought I knew about what God’s plans for my life were and those of my family. It just means that I don’t know why God didn’t protect our precious boy or why we had to live these years without him. It also means I really don’t want to hear someone insist to me that it was God’s will for Jason to die.

I know people are well-meaning. I know they don’t know what to say. It’s easier to think that bereaved parents who believe in God should just accept that it God’s will for their child to die than to question why a child died and why God didn’t protect that child. It’s easier to think that bereaved parents who believe in God should respond as Horatio G. Spafford, the author of the hymn “It is Well With My Soul,” following the death of his children. (Sometimes it feels like the Horatio Spafford model is what is expected of bereaved parents, and that we are supposed to have no or little grief or soldier bravely on by singing that “all is well” with us in spite of the fact that our child died.) It’s easier to think that there is a greater purpose when a tragedy strikes than to recognize that it’s really hard work to integrate the loss of a child into life. After Jason died, I looked and looked and prayed and prayed for a greater purpose and that his life and death would be for nothing.

I just don’t have a lot of answers any more, but I don’t think I will ever be convinced that it was God’s perfect will that Jason die on that day. I don’t know why Jason died on that day; I just know that he died and I miss him so much.

© 2013 Rebecca R. Carney

33 thoughts on “Of Tattoos and “God’s Will”

  1. I never imagined that I would get a tattoo. I didn’t have any qualms against them; I just had no interest in having one. Your comment about your age and conservative background ring true here, as well. I waited about two years after my brother died, to be sure that I wasn’t making a rash decision, but then I got a tattoo on my upper back — similar, but not exactly like the one he had in the same spot. It was meaningful to me, and although people are surprised sometimes to realize that I have it, I don’t regret it at all.

  2. I’m sorry that lady upset you so. Oh! I hope, I hope, I never unthinkingly do that to anyone.

    There is no place in popular evangelical christian belief for your kind of pain. I remember reading Yancy’s Disappointment With God just before we moved. It was so upsetting I couldn’t finish it. It is interesting to me, in addition to our travails, two of my friends whom I thought most genuine in their faith were allowed an even more defining experience.

    “I’ve had to re-examine what I believe in terms of God and what I thought I knew of him.” Amen to this comment. I vividly recall my relinquishment of belief and the amazement of finding the Lord believed for me. I hope you’ve found the same. It was the start of my rebuilding.

    For years I felt out of step with the evangelical faith. As the dross was stripped away the essentials remained and it rendered the world more simply. That simplicity has been very comforting.

    It takes courage and a longing for truth (abandoning our little safety nets) to look at those disfigured by grief and loss. Job’s friends couldn’t stand it and neither can many of ours. Gratefully I can do this now. My faith has space for trauma.

    I am glad you can express yourself so beautifully through writing. I am glad I finally found you. Three cheers for Facebook!

    • I wasn’t that upset with her, in particular. She’s a very nice lady, and I understand by now that why people say things like that. I think sometimes my frustration lies in the cumulative things that have happened over the years – expectations by others that I need to allow God to heal me, that I wasn’t allowing God to heal me if I didn’t get over Jason’s death quickly enough, that I needed to “turn and face my grief” so it would go away and I could “move on” from Jason’s death, having Christians disappear until I “got better” and was back to myself. It doesn’t usually bother me too much any more, but sometimes it just smacks me the wrong way. 🙂 There was a time when my frustration with Christians and my lack of understanding why God didn’t protect Jason were intertwined; it seemed all had abandoned us. I have learned – and am still learning – to extend as much grace as I can to those we knew at the time, and am doing what I can to nurture my faith once again.

  3. Rebecca, Your words are so eloquent and I relate completely. My heart was in my throat because my dead child was also a “Jason.” Our grief has changed our lives forever, and you are very insightful on your grief journey. As I read other blogs about grief, you are one step ahead of me – with beautiful comments left wherever I look. I know you have helped others, as you have also helped me with your support. 🙂

  4. I have to say the worst thing one can say to a grieving mother is that ‘their child is in a better place’. I was told that, I never forgot it. I just published my book ..’I Cry For Tommy’. I wrote about being told things like that… how it’s best if one hasn’t experienced the lost of a child, to only say ‘I care’. I was reading what you wrote, and I identified with all you said. I’m so, so sorry you lost your young son. The pain, oh, I know the pain. I also, lost my son, Tommy. Gloria/Granny Gee…. my primary blog is: happycolorsandgrannygee.blogspot.com where I have photos of Tommy. I’m also, here at WordPress.

  5. Thank you. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve felt that way when someone professes to know God’s will in my son’s death. I appreciated your blog.

  6. It is a little known fact that Horatio Spafford became insane and died several years after writing that hymn. My view of God has certainly changed since Eva’s death. And I long for heaven in a whole new way. I often think about all the questions I would have for God but I think that when I get to heaven with eternity stretching before me and so so happy to see Eva that all my questions will seem unimportant. Obviously, I don’t know how it will go but that’s how I see it and I just can’t wait to see my precious girl again.

  7. I love the tattoo. It’s really a lovely way to remember your son in a very symbolic way. One of my closest friends was widowed very young when her children were still very young. I remember the pain she felt when other Christians tried to “comfort” her telling her that God was in control and would bring someone else into her life. Like that was consolation? Well-meaning, yes. But I learned a lot through the things she shared with me, and I have learned that most of the time those of us not walking this road need to keep our mouths shut, and just love and comfort! I hope many others read what you’ve shared. It is quite powerful!

  8. Thanks for sharing your journey so openly, Rebecca. It helps me know how to be a better friend to the bereaved and helps me to better walk my own grief journey.

  9. Reblogged this on The 50-something life of a Southern gal and commented:
    No one has ever told me that it was God’s will for Donald to die at 22 or that he was in a better place. That’s a blessing. I have heard that I will see him in heaven (which I count on) but that doesn’t make the pain less. It does make this life on earth easier to bear.

  10. I will never understand why my daughter died so young. I just can’t wrap my head around it. And she wasn’t suffering. She died very suddenly. Luckily, noone has told me that she’s in a better place- they probably would have gotten slapped. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. Its nice to read about someone who really understands what its like to lose a child.

  11. Thank you, once again, for sharing your heart…I am one of those who cannot find the words to write, but who can relate to so much of what you write about. It helps me to know I’m not alone in my thoughts on this journey and like you (& so many others), I long for heaven in a whole new way. Going to church is the hardest thing I do each week, so many weeks I simply don’t. I know I should and I really want to, but it’s the one place where I’m so keenly aware that my son, Austin, is in heaven with God & not here with me and the pain is more real than ever. I keep praying it gets better with time…

  12. I am so sorry for your loss of Jason. That pain never goes away.

    What wonderful and beautiful words you are sharing – and so very true. Thank you for writing on this very difficult subject. It is helpful to parents like me. I will get the book you suggested and read it.

    In peace and love, Jana Brock.

  13. amazing, amazing entry, rebecca. inside my head i kept shouting, “yes! yes!! YES!!!” to so many things you touched on. it frustrates me to no end when people try to push the “it was God’s will” bit onto me… it offers ZERO comfort to me. on the same token, hearing “he’s in a better place now” or “he would want you to be happy, he wouldn’t want to see you like this”…. as if i didn’t already know that. i realize my brother wouldn’t want me to suffer but the truth is that he took his own life and that left a whole lot of pain. and it is my right, as it is your right, to be allowed to feel what we are feeling. if i’ve learned anything from brian’s death it is that i need to set healthy boundaries for myself with regards to others. and i have not shyed away from letting myself feel things as they come up– i honestly believe no good can come from just stuffing those feelings back down because others think we’ve been grieving too long.

    and again, regarding “God’s will”…. i actually find those comments far more hurtful than helpful. he’s. still. gone. while their intentions i’m sure are quite good, i really don’t think anyone is in a position to tell us “it is what God wanted.” how could there be any comfort to be had whatsover in hearing that God decided your loved one should die?

    i’m grateful for your openness and honesty– these are topics not everyone wants to talk about. i’m so glad you are! i know it is helping you… please know it is helping others too. 🙂

  14. My daughter died July 16, 2012 on her birthday. I have been wresting re; getting a rose memorial tattoo on my wrist and am leaning toward getting it done. I’m sad about the judgmentalism out there (as a Christian and an older one at that) but at this late date, that doesn’t seem to matter. I don’t think the tattoo will actually “help” but I can only hope it makes me feel better in some way. I will have to cover it up for work.

  15. People mean well. They do. But this comment always cuts, just like, “he’s in a better place now,” “he’s not suffering,” and my favorite, “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.” This is more than anyone can handle, or ever should have to handle. As a person of faith who has also lost a son, I absolutely agree we have no way to know God’s will, or God’s mind, or God’s “perfect plan.” I will never understand why this happened, to your family, to my family, to any of the families walking this path. All I do know, for certain, is that God understands the pain of losing a child. I know that as my Father, he grieves for me, and with me. That much I know. And all the platitudes people try to offer? I’ll smile and direct them to your blog.

    • Thanks for the post. I am getting a wrist tattoo in memory of my beautiful daughter. I’ve never been “into” tattoos but I am hoping it will remind me she is with me wherever I go. She died 2.5 years ago and there isn’t much relief in sight… There is nothing like losing a child – it has changes everything. I am trusting God ti the best of my ability. Love and prayers🌹.

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  18. I lost my son 2 years ago at the age of 17, suddenly. He accidentally shot himself at his buddies house, in front of his 2 best friends. Some days I ask God how much longer im going to have to live without Jake. I’m tired of being here. I have a daughter, Jakes big sis, and I constantly live in fear of losing her too. I feel so alone. My husband is Jakes stepdad. We were married 5 months before Jake died. I’m not the same person. I really don’t care if I live or die. Horrible attitude but it truly how I feel. Your words are the first to nail down what I’m feeling. Thank you

    • Oh, Trinka. I am so sorry about your precious son. It’s not an easy road and takes a lot of effort to keep walking. Just know that you are not alone. One step at a time, one day at a time.

      I, too, struggle with the fear of losing another person I love, another family member. When how realization of how quickly someone we love can be taken from us is known in such a personal way, it’s hard not to worry. I have a breathing app on my phone and I use it whenever I feel panic-y. I have found that it helps.

      Hugs to you,

  19. I only just came acrossed your postings an hour ago; I haven’t been able to pull myself away two hours later. I lost my only child Olivia (Livy) to suicide almost 3 years ago. She was 22 years old on 7/9/18, on 7/26/18 she passed away from a gunshot to her head. So completely out of character for her as she was a considerate, loving and wise soul. We spoke about suicide often bc too many young people we knew had either died from suicide or overdose. She knew it was a permanent solution to temporary feelings and issues. You said so many things in your articles regarding God’s will, I felt like you were speaking directly to me. I do believe in God and though I question why every single day, many times each day, I always end up in the same place; I trust in God. I believe that God does have a perfect plan for His children. I believe that all things happen exactly how God planned and He knew before He formed her in my womb how this story would play out. I still want to know why though. Why my child? What is God’s purpose for such a sad and tragic loss? Why He felt it was a good idea to bless me with a beautiful child, only to snatch her back and break my heart for the remainder of my life here on earth? I can only trust that He has a greater purpose for me, for my husband, for those who love Livy. So great that He gave us this trial, the worst I will ever experience; for the glory of His name and greater purpose. I prayed without fail day and night for God to watch over and keep my beautiful baby safe.. I believed He would never allow me to experience losing the love of my life because surely He knew that losing her was the one thing I could never bear.. For the first time ever, on the 26th of July 2018, I prayed my usual prayer that God please keep her safe, however, I then said, “your will be done, not mine”. I realized I never spoke those words to God bc I wanted my will to be done in Livys life, not God’s. When I said my prayer, It was 2 pm on Thursday; at 530 p I would receive my last text from Livy, at 605p I received the call from her fiancé that she was dead. God’s will? Yes, I belive so. His will for her life to end so tragically and mysteriously? I don’t belive so. I do trust in Him; in the fact that He is all holy and all good, therefore, His plans are also all holy and all good for us, His children. He loves us so much that He willingly gave His life to death upon a cross so that we could live eternally with Him and those we love, without sadness, pain and tears. I cannot imagine surviving this loss without knowing God’s promises and having faith in the hope He gave us when He suffered on that cross. My heart breaks for all who have to go on this journey. Thank you for your beautiful words and may God bless you always.

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