How do you tell someone your child died?
In my job as a hairstylist, I talk to dozens of people per week, and I thoroughly enjoy talking to all of them. Those that know me well know that my favorite conversations are about life’s mysteries. I’ve been practicing this skill for seven years now, and I like to think I am pretty good at chatting in an intentional and loving manner. Despite all my experience, there’s one question I get asked regularly that still makes me stutter and struggle to answer:
“Do you have kids?”
Typically, I take a deep breath and scramble my brain to effectively respond because my answer is not simple.
Here’s the short answer: “Yup! Arthur, Simon, and Moses. They’re amazing and I’m so thankful for them.” Then I quickly and strategically redirect the conversation back toward them before they ask how old they are because that’s when it gets complicated.
Here’s the honest answer: “Yup! We have Arthur, Simon, and Moses. Arthur was born in March 2019 with lots of health problems and spent 10 weeks in the NICU at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital and Medical Center before he got an infection and tragically died before we could ever take him home. Simon was born in September 2020. We found out at 32 weeks that he had kidney problems so we also spent some time in the NICU where he received a Chronic Kidney Disease diagnosis but he is doing amazing now. He’s such a goof and we love him so much! My wife, Ashley, delivered Moses in October 2021. He was stillborn, but we still count him as one of our children because of how much he changed our lives. Oh, and she had a few miscarriages between all that but I don’t really know the best way to mention that. We really want Simon to have a living sibling, so we want to keep trying. It’s just not easy because my wife has this rare clotting disorder thing and we are still figuring that out.”
All of that answer is true. So again, how do you tell someone your child died? Our story with pregnancy and children has been the biggest struggle in our married life. Answering those questions will always be a challenge, and I still haven’t sorted out the best way to share it. Sadly, I conceal that honest answer most times, because anytime I tell someone that my firstborn son died they don’t know how to react. It pains me every time. I so desperately want to tell my family’s story, but it is a long and gut-wrenching story. I am so deeply proud of my children and the impact they’ve had on so many people.
If you’ve experienced miscarriage, stillbirth, or infant loss, I am sure you can relate to these awkward feelings. It feels clunky and unnatural to tell someone that your child died. Plus, it feels unfair to the person who asked because they couldn’t have anticipated the heavy words about to come at them. There’s no way anyone can be ready to hear, “My newborn child died in my arms.” But it is even more unfair to you and your child not to share the honest answer.
In my opinion, it’s a real bummer that our culture isn’t more accustomed to death and dying. After all, isn’t grief destined to affect all of us? We will all die, and we will all, at some point in our lives, experience grief in our own unique ways. It is odd to think about all the schooling and training we receive throughout life, but there’s little to no exposure to grief until it happens, especially in our current America. So what is the proper way to grieve?
Well, I don’t think there’s an answer. My hope is to invite you into our experience but also to validate whatever experience with grief you’ve had.
In his epistle, James says:
“Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing.”James 1:2-4
This verse is typically one of the first that comes to mind for most people when contemplating suffering. I cannot tell you how many times others referenced this verse to us when we were navigating our trials, and I do not fault them for doing so. However, it stung every time I heard it because I felt like James was primarily addressing my future state of “perfect and complete,” which we can not reach until heaven. However, my present state of brokenness and aimlessness was left unaddressed.
As hard as it is to admit, I did not find comfort in this verse because the hope of God perfecting me didn’t make the pain of losing Arthur any less. My body and soul was still being ravaged with grief and confusion. I would try to force myself to arrive at the joy that James describes because the grief hurt unlike anything I had experienced. It is like a sharp pain cutting deep into parts of your body and soul that you didn’t know existed. Simultaneously, it’s like a constant, dull, radiating pain that is present in every thought or action throughout the day.
Losing Arthur and experiencing grief also gave substance to things I had read in the Bible but couldn’t personally connect with—things like wailing, gnashing of teeth, and iniquity. I began to relate to those like David in Psalm 31:9-10 which says, “Be gracious to me, O LORD, for I am in distress; my eye is wasted from grief; my soul and my body also. For my life is spent with sorrow and my years with sighing; my strength fails because of my iniquity, and my bones waste away.”
Not every day feels like bones wasting away. Some days grief is just feeling a little down and sad. It can range from general pessimism and apathy to haunting dread, like nothing will ever be right again. Some days you won’t cry. Other days it will feel like your body is forcing you to cry so hard that the only way you can cope is to fall on the floor, shake like something is trying to jump out of you, and clench your teeth together harder than you ever have in your life. That tightly clenched jaw feels like the only thing still holding all of you together. Sometimes you feel grief approaching almost like a sneeze so that you can get yourself to a quiet, removed spot and let the wave crash over you. Other moments catch you completely off guard and force you to experience grief immediately, regardless of your setting.
As you know, or can imagine, these are very undesirable sensations. Experiencing these heavy, heavy feelings is exhausting and not how anyone wants to spend their days. I of course want to be “perfect and complete, lacking nothing,” like James says but that feels so unrealistic especially after a traumatic loss (or any trauma for that matter). Grief is such a unique and odd experience because you have to learn to live with it—to work with it as a constant companion.
Unlike other emotions, you have to make time and space to get acquainted with grief. Suppressing grief and trying not to embrace its ripple effects is unhealthy. Eventually, it will catch up in one way or another. Believe me, how grief reveals itself then will be even less desirable. I am a hairstylist, not a doctor, but I am convinced that an inability to deal with any kind of loss or an unwillingness to engage with grief leads to a lot of personal and cultural problems.
The promises of heaven and the coming re-creation, when all will be made new, taste sweeter because of grief’s sourness. We only know what is sweet because we have tasted the sour. This is one of my favorite parts of God’s creation. I’ve heard it described as the “reality of duality.” Dark and light. Good and evil. Land and sky. Earth and heaven. Sweet and sour. They exist together. Knowing this gives me a better understanding of grief. My ability to experience life’s sweetness has tremendously grown because of my experience with one of the worst traumas life can offer—a child’s death. I daily hold grief in one hand and hope in the other. I choose not to run from grief the same way I choose not to run from hope. Grief makes me savor my hope. Hope makes me honor my grief. They compliment each other. I cannot tell Arthur’s story without highlighting the immense grief of his loss, but I also cannot do so without explaining the undeserving and confusing hope given to us by the Holy Spirit.
Consider it a sliding scale between grief and hope. Some days I feel full of hope; some days full of grief; most days right in the middle. There is a great sigh of relief that comes from realizing you can feel both at the same time, together. To put it another way, consider it a sliding scale between flesh and spirit. Some days my spirit is empowered by the hope of future perfection. Some days my flesh aches so bad I feel it will crush me. Most days I exist somewhere in the middle. God doesn’t expect one or the other. The grief still hurts and that’s okay.
There are plenty of promises of comfort in the Bible like Psalm 34:18 which says, “The LORD is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.” Or like Matthew 5:4: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” I believe those promises to be true and I’ve experienced the Holy Spirit in them. Yet, I still feel grief because my son is gone. Sure, one day we will be reunited in heaven, but I have to live the rest of my days on earth without him, and it still stings. Some days are better than others. Some days are worse. Most days I am way more concerned with my wife’s experience with grief rather than my own. There are days where I believe God’s promises are true and I find comfort in them. There are other days where I don’t consider God’s promises or think about Arthur.
If you’ve experienced grief through miscarriage, stillbirth, or infant loss then you can understand that each day—sometimes each moment—is different. Don’t mistake your grief looking different as grieving correctly or incorrectly. Grief is fluid. It’s nonlinear. It’s mysterious. I’ve spoken to parents who lost their child decades ago, and they still have hard days. Grief can be triggered by a song or an exit on the interstate. Grief prompts us to be present and in touch with how God designed us with our emotions. We are all different creatures, and our grief looks different. As a husband, I desperately wish I could experience grief exactly the way my wife does because that would allow me to connect with her and love her better. But I cannot do that. Despite knowing each other better than anyone else, we are still different people and we grieve differently.
I must take this opportunity to quote one of my favorite artists:
“I grieve differentKendrick Lamar, “United in Grief”
Everybody grieves different”
I bet you never thought you’d read a reference to Kendrick on this post, huh? Well . . . I had to.
A mentor asked me a few months after Arthur passed away if I thought the pain of losing him would ever go away. Initially, I felt like the correct answer was to respond with a “yes” because that would mean God healed me and I could feel some relief. Instead, I told him no, because at that point in life I didn’t want the pain to go away. It is okay to miss those we’ve lost. It is okay to break down sulking because your child is dead. It doesn’t matter if they died yesterday or 40 years ago. They might be with God in Paradise preparing a place for you right now, but at the same moment your face can be in your palms filled with tears.
This was our family’s experience and still is. We were familiar with the promises God has for us and our children, but we were desperately waiting for someone to tell us, “It’s okay to feel what you’re feeling.” That thirst for validation is very real and if someone close to you is actively grieving, one of the best things you can do is validate how they’re feeling, no matter how scary it is.
Validation came from friends, but in the end, we felt God validated our experience. We knew Jesus’ story and could quote the Scripture, but it was one day while weeping that my wife felt confirmed that God met her in her grief. He, too, had lost his Son, and it broke his heart. This only happened because we made time in our day and created space in our hearts to embrace grief. It was a bit like going to a Bible study or a weekend church service. It was a regular thing that we had to check in with. Not checking in with grief and how we were experiencing it would cause all this nasty stuff to pile up like pipes being clogged.
In my experience, the real challenge after Arthur died was not feeling the weight of his loss—that was easy. Instead it was not letting the weight of his loss define who I am. My identity is not defined by my son’s death but ultimately the death of God’s Son. Who I am is confirmed in the blood of the Lamb, not in the infection that unfairly took my son’s life. Living in our identities as God’s heirs is our biggest challenge in life, regardless of if you’ve had a child die or not.
Paul says in his letter to the Romans:
“. . . we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”Romans 5:3-5
Ashley and I interpret the above verse like this: Suffering will rid us of shame in the end. Our suffering of losing Arthur will teach us to shake off our shame if we walk in step with the Holy Spirit. This is incredibly hard. The energy it takes to bear grief’s weight and follow the Spirit at the same time feels nearly impossible. But the effort is so worth it. Shame is from the enemy, and shame has no place in the spirit and memory of our son, Arthur. It is not welcome in our home nor in any of our children.
Losing Arthur gave my family an opportunity. If you’ve experienced a similar loss, then this same opportunity is open to you. Losing a child is considered the greatest suffering in life. I like to think it was God’s greatest suffering to lose all of us in the fall and eventually lose Jesus on the cross. If what Paul says in Romans is true, then our greatest suffering could be our greatest weapon against the shame of the enemy. I refuse to let Arthur’s death, the loss of Moses, and other miscarriages create more shame. In partnership with my wife and the Holy Spirit, I want to tap into that suffering to put shame in its place. That’s what God did. That’s what I want to do, and I invite everyone to do the same. It’s a precious opportunity.
Even if you have not experienced miscarriage, stillbirth, or infant loss, grief still exists in life. Grief comes from unfulfilled expectations, and we all know what it feels like to have expectations not met. All of us who profess Jesus as Lord with our mouths and invest our hope in heaven are living in grief every single day. We were created expecting to live in harmony with our Creator in the garden, but the enemy and our lack of faith in God’s goodness took that from us. That is a loss worth grieving. God grieved that loss when he sacrificed his own Son to restore relationship with us. God’s grief gave us life. My hope and prayer for my family and anyone who has experienced grief would be to experience a purer, sweeter version of life.
Photo credit: Emily Brustoski
Tyler lives with his family in Cincinnati, OH. He is a writer and a hairstylist at High Five Salon. When not working behind the chair, he spends his time listening to an excess of podcasts, planning Cincy’s next best dance party, or watching nature documentaries with his son. He is obsessed with the question, "Why are we the way we are?" and loves any excuse to help create an event to bring people together. Tyler is definitely a "foodie" (even though he despises that word) and is scouring the earth for its delicacies.