Words to describe the loss of a child do not exist.
Some of my teaching colleagues learned this lesson for the first time this week when we heard the awful news about our colleague’s child. Some of us older teachers got an untimely review on the subject of death and cried for other students we’d lost through the years as well. We all took a blow. None of us could think of what to say about this loss of a child.
Our friend lost her seven-year-old son to cancer last Wednesday. This boy was one of our first graders, too, and he had roamed our halls with happy-go-lucky abandon since he was a preschooler. He and his family fought a valiant battle for the past year and a half. During those awful treatments and long hospital stays, all we could do was raise money, pray, and send over dinner.
Our friend has been walking a road no mother should ever have to walk.
She and her husband have been in the valley of the shadow of death.
There are no words for us to say. And maybe there shouldn’t be.
What words are there to describe the feeling of watching a child suffer through chemo? What language could we possibly deem sufficient to describe the utter powerlessness parents feel as their child slips away? What phrase could possibly take away the pain of the loss of a child?
I read Psalm 23 several times this week.
Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for thou art with me, thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Nowhere in that verse does it mention anything as trivial as words from the earthbound for comfort.
God is the only power great enough to move grieving parents through the valley.
And God promises to do so.
The first time I lost a student, I was a second-year teacher. At 23, I was naïve enough to believe that my words could provide comfort to the family and to my students. This child’s passing flung my entire class out of orbit. My words could do nothing to curb the tears, behaviors, and frenzied energy that took over my fourth graders during those days. They drew pictures of the rainbows their classmate loved while he was living. We listened to his favorite Spice Girls song. Nothing I did helped them process something as big as the loss of a child.
I had no idea what to do, except take them on a field trip. We left under the clearest, bluest sky I’ve ever seen before or since. I don’t remember where we went. The bus driver turned on the radio to try to calm the mood, but to no avail. Nothing we said could avert the frenetic tide.
Suddenly, I heard a scream.
“It’s a rainbow!” a little girl yelled.
One tiny cloud had formed in an otherwise crystal clear sky. A rainbow spilled off like a child’s drawing following our bus. The bus went silent. Our boy’s favorite Spice Girls song came on the radio.
“He’s letting us know that he’s okay!” the girl cried.
The energy on the bus changed instantly.
The kids were all dancing and singing in their seats—but they were in their seats.
“…make it last forever…friendship never ends…” they sang as the rainbow and my need to find the words to fix all of them faded.
The grief and the questions continued, but that surreal moment on the bus put us all on the path to finding our way again.
Twenty odd years later, we still remember and comment on this child’s life. Loss is still loss no matter how much time passes by. No one who experiences loss will ever fully be the same again. But we must be humble enough to realize that our words have no power over grief. Our timetable will not bring our grieving loved ones back to their “old selves.” It certainly won’t fix a class of broken nine-year-olds either.
It is our willingness to pray, to sit in silence, and to wait for a rainbow that supports our grieving loved ones the most. There are no words for the loss of a child. And maybe there shouldn’t be.