Another Voice in the Chorus

The suicide of Rick and Kay Warren’s son made headline news a year ago. Rick is the founder and senior pastor of Saddleback Church, one of the largest churches in America, and author of The Purpose Driven Life and many other books. Recently Kay Warren posted this on her facebook page – her plea for understanding and for the support of true friends:

As the one-year anniversary of Matthew’s death approaches, I have been shocked by some subtle and not-so-subtle comments indicating that perhaps I should be ready to “move on.” The soft, compassionate cocoon that has enveloped us for the last 11 1/2 months had lulled me into believing others would be patient with us on our grief journey, and while I’m sure many will read this and quickly say “Take all the time you need,” I’m increasingly aware that the cocoon may be in the process of collapsing. It’s understandable when you take a step back. I mean, life goes on. The thousands who supported us in the aftermath of Matthew’s suicide wept and mourned with us, prayed passionately for us, and sent an unbelievable volume of cards, letters, emails, texts, phone calls, and gifts. The support was utterly amazing. But for most, life never stopped – their world didn’t grind to a horrific, catastrophic halt on April 5, 2013. In fact, their lives have kept moving steadily forward with tasks, routines, work, kids, leisure, plans, dreams, goals etc. LIFE GOES ON. And some of them are ready for us to go on too. They want the old Rick and Kay back. They secretly wonder when things will get back to normal for us – when we’ll be ourselves, when the tragedy of April 5, 2013 will cease to be the grid that we pass everything across. And I have to tell you – the old Rick and Kay are gone. They’re never coming back. We will never be the same again. There is a new “normal.” April 5, 2013 has permanently marked us. It will remain the grid we pass everything across for an indeterminate amount of time….maybe forever.

Because these comments from well-meaning folks wounded me so deeply, I doubted myself and thought perhaps I really am not grieving “well” (whatever that means). I wondered if I was being overly sensitive –so I checked with parents who have lost children to see if my experience was unique. Far from it, I discovered. “At least you can have another child” one mother was told shortly after her child’s death. “You’re doing better, right?” I was asked recently. “When are you coming back to the stage at Saddleback? We need you” someone cluelessly said to me recently. “People can be so rude and insensitive; they make the most thoughtless comments,” one grieving father said. You know, it wasn’t all that long ago that it was standard in our culture for people to officially be in mourning for a full year. They wore black. They didn’t go to parties. They didn’t smile a whole lot. And everybody accepted their period of mourning; no one ridiculed a mother in black or asked her stupid questions about why she was STILL so sad. Obviously, this is no longer accepted practice; mourners are encouraged to quickly move on, turn the corner, get back to work, think of the positive, be grateful for what is left, have another baby, and other unkind, unfeeling, obtuse and downright cruel comments. What does this say about us – other than we’re terribly uncomfortable with death, with grief, with mourning, with loss – or we’re so self-absorbed that we easily forget the profound suffering the loss of a child creates in the shattered parents and remaining children.
Unless you’ve stood by the grave of your child or cradled the urn that holds their ashes, you’re better off keeping your words to some very simple phrases: “I’m so sorry for your loss.” Or “I’m praying for you and your family.” Do your best to avoid the meaningless, catch-all phrase “How are you doing?” This question is almost impossible to answer. If you’re a stranger, it’s none of your business. If you’re a casual acquaintance, it’s excruciating to try to answer honestly, and you leave the sufferer unsure whether to lie to you (I’m ok) to end the conversation or if they should try to haltingly tell you that their right arm was cut off and they don’t know how to go on without it. If you’re a close friend, try telling them instead, “You don’t have to say anything at all; I’m with you in this.”

None of us wants to be like Job’s friends – the pseudo comforters who drove him mad with their questions, their wrong conclusions and their assumptions about his grief. But too often we end up a 21st century Bildad, Eliphaz or Zophar – we fill the uncomfortable silence with words that wound rather than heal. I’m sad to realize that even now – in the middle of my own shattering loss – I can be callous with the grief of another and rush through the conversation without really listening, blithely spouting the platitudes I hate when offered to me. We’re not good grievers, and when I judge you, I judge myself as well.

Here’s my plea: Please don’t ever tell someone to be grateful for what they have left until they’ve had a chance to mourn what they’ve lost. It will take longer than you think is reasonable, rational or even right. But that’s ok. True friends – unlike Job’s sorry excuse for friends – love at all times, and brothers and sisters are born to help in time of need (Prov. 17:17 LB). The truest friends and “helpers” are those who wait for the griever to emerge from the darkness that swallowed them alive without growing afraid, anxious or impatient. They don’t pressure their friend to be the old familiar person they’re used to; they’re willing to accept that things are different, embrace the now-scarred one they love, and are confident that their compassionate, non-demanding presence is the surest expression of God’s mercy to their suffering friend. They’re ok with messy and slow and few answers….and they never say “Move on.”

We, as bereaved parents, need to continue to speak up. We need to say this as often as we can – that we are not the same people we used to be, that there is no “moving on,” that it takes a long time to learn to live without our children, that we need people in our lives to support us for who we are and where we are following the death of our precious child for as long as it takes.

While life goes on and goes back to “normal” for others, for those of us who are walking through the darkest periods of our lives following the death of our child, our lives never go back to “normal.” I will never forget my incredulity when, three months after Jason’s death, a “friend” proudly told me that their lives were “90% back to normal“…and then proceeded to express concern that our “sparkle” was gone. We, along with Alina’s family, had known each other for quite a few years, and our kids had been good friends and fellow homeschool students. Her lack of understanding and lack of empathy hit me like a slap in the face. It still makes me shake my head in disbelief today.

I know that it’s not easy to know what to say to someone who has lost a child. We, as bereaved parents, need to continue to join our voices in the chorus until people hear us and begin to have at least an inkling of understanding – it’s not that we don’t want to “move on”; we can’t just “move on,” especially on someone else’s timetable. We are not the same people we once were. We need love support and understanding, not judgment about what our grief journey should look like or how long it should take. No one can know what it’s like to lose a child unless you’ve actually lost a child. I wouldn’t wish the death of a child on anyone. Please, just let us grieve the loss of our child in our own way and for as long as it takes.

© 2014 Rebecca R. Carney

Added 4/1/14:

Here is an article written about the overwhelming response to Kay Warren’s facebook post:

19 thoughts on “Another Voice in the Chorus

  1. This helped me so much, Becky. As you probably know, my 23 year old son took his life. Everything Kay Warren is so true. Why is it so many Christians.. those you raised your family with for 30+ years, either distance themselves or make you feel like there is something wrong with you because you are not serving in the church to the same capacity you once were? How come there are so many of “Job’s friends” out there?

    God knows. And one day he will draw back the curtain and make it right.

    Thank-you for sharing this.

  2. I wish I could just print this and hand it out as a leaflet to everyone. I grow so weary of having to pretend or else somehow justify my sadness to others. I usually find it easier to avoid people than to have to figure out how to answer their questions or their looks. As you say, no one who has not experienced this can possibly understand and they are in no position to judge us.

  3. I think the silence/absence of “friends” is the worst…at least when they ask questions I know they’re thinking about us. If people only knew how much we long to hear someone speak our child’s name. So much of our child’s life involved others & when they share their precious memories with us it allows us to know a part of our child we might otherwise never know. I so wish I could compile a book of all of those stories & just read it over & over as time passes & my own memories start to fade.

    • So very true…I’m so sorry for your loss…

      Not long after the accident that claimed Jason’s and Alina’s lives, one gal in our homeschool group, whose daughter sold memory books, offered to put together a photo album for us and for Alina’s family. Alina’s family chose to have a memory book put together of cards they had received. I just wanted people to include pictures of Jason – ones we may not have had – and stories about him. She didn’t get a lot of submissions at the time, which really bothered me. People don’t know what to say even in writing. In looking back, I realize that a lot of Jason’s and Alina’s friends were grieving, too, and it was not easy for them to write. About that same time, too, many people were writing letters to the judge who was handling the vehicular homicide and hit-and-run charges. I guess it wasn’t realistic to expect a lot, but I just wanted people to tell me about how they knew Jason and how he impacted their lives. I can’t help but wishing, even now, that people would write down their stories for us to read. One of Jason’s friends wrote a song for him, but I’ve actually never even seen the words or heard the song in its entirety. People have no idea how much it means to hear about our children.

      • I have asked several times for people to share photos and stories about my son, Donald. Occasionally, someone will send me a photo I’ve never seen and it makes my day to know he is not forgotten, that he is still loved and that he made an impact in someone’s life. Now that it is over a year and seven months, I notice that his friends are starting to share a little more. I know that many were devastated by his death. At the time of his death, pictures came flooding in, but after a month or two, it was as if I was all alone. I love hearing about my son, and I love to be able to talk about him. There are many people who will talk about their children but let me try to share a story about Donald and they shut me out.

  4. I lost my son David 15 months ago, I will never ever be the same, I died that day too, I go on for my other 2 boys but its all an act. Its a nightmare.

  5. I read Kay Warren’s post earlier this week after a friend sent me the link. I shared it on my son’s memory page on FB, along with my own comments. Only a few “friends” commented or “liked” it. Most of the responses were from people I don’t know, expressing how they feel after the loss of a child. I agree with you that we must continue to share these feelings and thoughts so that others will become aware of what to do and say and what not to do and say, not only after the loss of a child but after any death. We are not taught how to grieve, just as we are not taught how to be a good friend to those who are grieving.

  6. Reblogged this on The Infinite Fountain and commented:
    Rebecca is a woman who is much farther along grief’s highway than we are, and offers the perspective of time. What is true, is that sometimes not much changes with time, no matter how much passes. We never go back to our old selves, we are changed permanently. We all have to continue to let people know this. That we no longer run on any external timetable. How we deal with this, and in what time frame differs with everyone. As I just said, we are all different in how we do this, yet we are all exactly the same in needing as much time and space as it takes.


  8. Thank you for re-posting that. It was heartfelt and expressed well what so many of us feel but don’t know how to put in words.

  9. I went out to Kay’s FB page and posted my comment of support for her there. Thanks for sharing. I am about 17 months out from losing Jesse and most have moved on…it is solitary journey most of the time, the only ones who truly understand are other parents who have also lost children. We are stil in the court process, the person who ran over my son being charged, next court date is 4 days before my 50 birthday….

    Thank you for your insightful blog about your own grief journey with your son. I was also wondering if you would be willing to share if moving helped you or not…we are just so overwhelmed by all the memories here…yet that is what we do not want to lose either…very mixed feelings on this.

    • You ask a difficult question, because the answer is as varied as the loss and the ones involved.

      My husband and I were on different pages when it came to going through Jason’s room and selling the house. I could have used more time, and wish I had waited until I was ready and not on his timeframe. I felt pushed and rushed, even though nearly two years had passed since Jason died. If I had been able to wait until I was ready, I think I would have done things differently.

      My husband’s needs and wishes were certainly as valid as mine, but I personally would have benefitted from waiting until I was ready. The house was too big for just the two of us, and the yard was a lot for my husband to manage on his own. I was having some back issues and couldn’t help him, so he was struggling with the logistics of taking care of things as well as dealing with everything else. With no family close and no one to help, upkeep on a house and property that large was overwhelming at times. Joe pushed and pushed for me to go through and clean out Jason’s room so we could list our house, and I so I did.

      We moved into a small rental house after our house sold. I desperately wanted to stay in Washington, but Joe desperately wanted to leave. It was so hard for him to be confronted in so many ways and in so many places that Jason was gone. We all had to drive right by the accident location whenever we went places, and that was really hard. I found comfort in familiar places (not the crash scene, but other places that contained good memories) at times and felt closer to Jason, though, even though they made me cry, but my husband really struggled with them. He had been laid off from his job because of downsizing and I was looking for a job, so we were both a bit a loose ends where work was concerned. When we were told that our little rental home was going to be torn down and we would have to move (after being there only six months), Joe jumped at the opportunity to leave Washington. I felt like he was frantic to leave and get away, and that if I didn’t go with him, he would go without me. I wanted to stay put in a place that still feels like it should be home to me, but Joe needed to leave. How do you decide who is right? I don’t know. I just didn’t feel like I could lose my husband, too, because I wouldn’t move.

      I have to say that I was so totally depleted and worn down during this time. I was so sad, depressed, and was really struggling to find that “new normal” everyone talks about after the death of a child. I think Joe thought moving from Washington would help me. In retrospect, I would say that it did me more harm than good and prolonged my grief. For me, the price tag of leaving Washington was high, perhaps too high. I don’t think I’ve ever recovered from all of it – Jason’s death, all that we walked through following his death, selling our home, leaving a place both Jason and I loved, moving away from everyone I knew (even though I felt so betrayed when most all of them disappeared). I had finally made a friend who I felt valued me as much as I valued her. I really was working hard to find my way back to some normalcy, whatever that is – trying to find a job, trying to make a friend or two, trying to find a new place to call home. It was a lot of work, and I was just plain worn thin. I had no reserves. I caved in to pressure from my husband – to go through Jason’s room, to sell the house, to “get rid of” things, to move from Washington. I know he thought he was doing the right thing by trying to make some changes and get me “unstuck” from my grief. But it cost me in more ways that I can count.

      We have lived in Oklahoma, Florida and North Carolina since then, but I have not felt “at home” since we sold our home and left Washington. I felt like I was just existing in Oklahoma. I remember driving home from work and thinking, “I live here, but I feel like a stranger.” We purchased a smaller home in Oklahoma, but rented furnished small condos in Florida and North Carolina, so I’ve never felt like they were my home, either. I feel, at times, like a disconnected vagabond, a pilgrim wandering through the desert. We truly have not found a place to be “at home.”

      I think the important thing to remember is to give yourselves all the time you need. Don’t decide until you know for sure (or at least are fairly sure), and don’t allow anyone to pressure you into making a decision until it feels right for you. If you and your spouse are on different pages, try to allow each other enough time for things to become more clear. Once you move, you can’t go back. Once you “get rid of” things, you can’t get them back. There are things I gave away of Jason’s and other things that were important to me in the continuity and history of our lives that I wish I had kept. If you’re not sure whether to keep something or not, put it in storage until such a time when you can decide more clearly. It’s important to remember that, wherever you go, your memories go with you. Your grief goes with you, too. You don’t leave your grief behind just by moving. You don’t memories behind by moving, either.

      I know this isn’t an uplifting answer that perhaps you were hoping for. My experience is my own, and it is what it is. It’s not pretty. Your journey and your grief is your own. I hope that you can find an answer that brings you and your family peace and comfort. Sincerely, best wishes. I’m so sorry you have to walk through this. We, too, had to walk through the trial thing. Very difficult.

      • Becky, thank you for sharing your honest experiences and heart. In this difficult journey, the feelings are what they are; the death of a child rips and tears at the depth of one’s soul. I have witnessed what extreme grief can do to a parent as I belong to an active grief group.

        “Once you move, you can’t go back. Once you ‘get rid of’ things, you can’t get them back.”

        Yes, it is wise to recommend to bereaved parents to go slow on giving things away. For me, it feels in some ways like I are giving away what little bit of him I have left…now I know that is not rational, but it is what it is. During the funeral, Jesse’s co-workers brought his sweatshirt to me, I wore it for the rest of the service.

        “I feel, at times, like a disconnected vagabond, a pilgrim wandering through the desert. We truly have not found a place to be ‘at home.’”

        Perhaps for some — and I truly wish this for my fellow bereaved parents — a resting place may be found in time. For me, in losing Jesse I feel like I have been marooned on some foreign shore, where all that was familiar has been stripped away…and one struggles to find their way the best they can…and it is okay because we are doing the best that we can.


  10. We moved…16 months after our sons’s death, but we made the decision just 11 mos after. Our counselor cautioned against making such a huge decision until after the 1 yr mark but the more I considered her advice the more sure I was of our decision. The first house we looked out fell thru & I was devastated but then my husband found the perfect one & every detail worked out perfectly, including selling ours within 2 wks…affirmation of God’s perfect time. Our new home is less than 1 mile from our old one but is in a different neighborhood. The 1 mile made a huge difference for our mental state but did absolutely nothi

  11. Nothing to change the loneliness of this journey. My best friend came & helped me pack up my son’s room & we did donate some of his clothes to some kids who needed them. We also donated his 2 bicycles to victims in the Missouri tornadoes stricken town of xxxx- can’t think of it – but it felt good to know they went to someone who needed them. All the rest of Austin’s things are stored in a closet in our new home in the exact spot where we put them. In the 2 yrs we’ve been here I haven’t gone thru them but I know they’re there & one day I will. Our move was right for all 3 of us at that time. Currently I spend 2-3 hrs each day commuting to work. I would love to move again but the timing just isn’t right for my son and my husband. So, for now their needs come first. But we all agree another move is in our future…in God’s time. It’s a journey that we each must find our way thru & we all take different paths. I think what makes the death of a child extra hard is that each member of the family is also on a different the same house! It’s so hard, but it is our new normal. Let us know what you decide to do.

  12. Pingback: ACKNOWLEDGMENT | myjourneysinsight

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s