Losing a child

Peter Barnes Rev Dr Peter Barnes is a Presbyterian pastor who lives in Sydney, Australia. He has served on the mission field in Vanuatu, ministered on the Nambucca River in northern NSW, and is currently pastor at
01 February, 2010 6 min read

Losing a child

Peter Barnes

All deaths are terrible but the death of a child is especially terrible and the death of one’s own child possesses a peculiar kind of horror.

The great men of faith were not protected from it – Thomas Boston outlived six of his ten children while John Owen outlived all eleven of his. When C. S. Lewis’ wife Joy Davidman died, he graphically described his new life: ‘Her absence is like the sky, spread over every­thing’.

The absence of a child can be even more unbearable – the house has a new and terrible quietness about it; mealtimes are an ordeal and special occasions are especially poignant. Everything is different; everything is awful.

When Jacob was told that Joseph had been killed – although he had really been sold into slavery by his brothers – so great was Jacob’s grief that he refused to be comforted and declared that he would go down to his grave mourning (Genesis 37:35). His life seemed now to him to consist of nothing but misery.


Such a response is by no means uncommon. When G. K. Chesterton’s sister, Beatrice, died at eight, Chesterton’s father responded by turning Beatrice’s picture to the wall, getting rid of all her possessions and forbidding anyone to mention her name.

The great Russian novelist Feodor Dostoevsky lost an infant daughter at three months and his response is sad indeed: ‘This little three-month-old creature, so poor, so tiny, was already a person and a character for me. She was beginning to know me, to love and smile when I came near.

‘When with my comical voice I used to sing songs to her, she liked to listen to them … But where is Sonya? Where is this little personality for whom, I say boldly, I would accept the cross’s agony if only she might be alive’.

We can well understand why the ‘blood and iron’ chancellor of Germany, Otto von Bismarck, when asked what gave him most satisfaction in life, replied: ‘that God did not take away any of my children’. It is not a profoundly spiritual answer but it is one with which we can empathise.

At such a time, a parent is vulnerable and prone to break down emotionally. Others can say something that is less than helpful or even downright hurtful. When Boswell’s son David died, the usually erudite and insightful Dr Samuel Johnson wrote: ‘You must remember, that to keep three out of four is more than your share. Mrs Thrale has but four out of eleven’.

Job’s three friends came to see him in his grief, which included the loss of his ten children. They did well – or at least did no harm – while they said nothing and simply sat with Job. They blotted their copybook and added to Job’s anguish when they tried to analyse his suffering and suggest reasons for it.


We always want to know why something happens. It somehow brings some kind of consolation to us, even if the reality remains as dreadful as ever. We feel a strange kind of relief when the doctor gives our disease a name, even if the disease is still life-threatening.

Job was never specifically told why his ten children were taken from him. We know that Job was being tested, but he did not know that at the time and was never told, even at the end of the whole story.

The deaths of Jairus’ daughter (Luke 8:40-56), the son of the widow at Zarephath in the days of Elijah (1 Kings 17:17-24) and the son of the Shunammite woman in the days of Elisha (2 Kings 4:18-37) all enhanced faith and assurance in God’s revelation of himself through his prophets.

The grieving parent’s first response must be the natural one – to weep. Jesus wept at the tomb of his disciple and friend, Lazarus (John 11:35). The pain caused by the effects of the Fall so moved the eternal Son of God, the Lord of glory, the one who is the resurrection and the life, that he shed tears of sorrow that the world, which he himself had created very good, was now the home of such misery.


And the first response of those who seek to help the grieving parent must be, as Paul says, to weep with those who weep (Romans 12:15). Possessing faith does not require us to be unnatural. Paul himself says that he would have experienced sorrow upon sorrow had his friend Epaphroditus, who was sick, actually died (Philippians 2:27).

The citation of Romans 8:28, that God works all things together for good for his people, is not our first port of call. It belongs a little further along in the journey. This truth, delivered at the wrong time or in the wrong proportion, can do harm.

Secondly, the grieving parent has to face reality. Terrible temptations can afflict the grieving parent. One may want to try and abolish the grief by pretending the child never existed; another might carry on life as though the child were still present; another might become absorbed in the sadness so that he or she ceases to function properly in home or society; and yet another may take to parties, drink or drugs to forget the pain.

When David’s son born of his adulterous union with Bathsheba died, David faced facts. He had prayed and fasted that he would be spared, but that was not to be. He responded: ‘Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me’ (2 Samuel 12:23). David could not undo his sin, nor could he undo the child’s death. No amount of weeping would bring the child back to life.

Lastly, the grieving parent needs to grasp afresh the biblical perspective that all believers are here for a short time. Life is but a passing mist, but Christ is king of the new heaven and the new earth.

A renewed awareness of this truth will not work like a magic potion, but it does give an undergirding of joy to the experience of sorrow. ‘Our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to his glorious body, according to the working by which he is able even to subdue all things to himself’ (Philippians 3:20-21).

Suffering is not to be minimised, but in God’s scheme of things, it is but for a short time (John 16:21; 2 Corinthians 4:17) and cannot be compared to the glory which is to come (Romans 8:18).


How does this work out in the tragedies of life for those who are savingly joined to Christ? From 1858 to 1862, Rev. John William Matheson and his wife Mary laboured to bring the gospel of salvation to the island of Tanna in the New Hebrides (now called Vanuatu).

They both suffered poor health; their infant daughter died; and they themselves had not long to live. Yet the strong Christian affirmation remained, and Mary Matheson wrote: ‘One moment in heaven will amply compensate for all we have suffered here’.

What about if the death has come about directly by sin, where God is chastening his people – as in the case of David and his young son? Here too grace triumphs over sin and death. David was assured regarding his son: ‘I shall go to him’ (2 Samuel 12:23).

Some scholars have tried to argue that David was only saying that he too would die and join his infant son in the grave. In other words, life is a tragedy and that is all it is, so get used to it. If that is all that David meant, he could hardly have got out of bed the next morning.

The Bible tells us of the tragic side of this life, but also, even in the Old Testament context, ‘My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion for ever’ (Psalm 73:26).

We live today in the penultimate chapter of God’s book. It is only in the last chapter that the King, reigning in all his righteousness and mercy, puts every wrong right.


In 1860 Andrew Bonar’s little son, also called Andrew, died. It was a Sunday and somehow the grieving father managed to preach that day.

His lament was real and he wrote in his diary: ‘O to see him come with Christ, to recognise that sweet, sweet voice amid the company of the redeemed!’ Four years later, Bonar’s wife, Isabella, died and this time Bonar wrote: ‘I have been thinking of her in glory, perhaps with little Andrew beside her, and how they will meet me!’

In the gospel, all now mysterious becomes clear and all now that is grievous becomes joyous. ‘Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes in the morning’ (Psalm 30:5).

This article was first published in Australian Presbyterian

Rev Dr Peter Barnes is a Presbyterian pastor who lives in Sydney, Australia. He has served on the mission field in Vanuatu, ministered on the Nambucca River in northern NSW, and is currently pastor at
Articles View All

Join the discussion

Read community guidelines
New: the ET podcast!