On April 9, 1999, my pregnant wife Lisa returned from a prenatal doctor visit, pulled into our garage with an ashen look on her face, and delivered the crushing news. “We’ve lost the baby,” she said, collapsing into my arms and sobbing.
Confronted with an immediate rush of emotions ranging from deep personal sorrow to husbandly compassion, I followed my first instinct. By God’s grace, I carried Lisa into the house and laid her onto the bed … knelt down beside her … and prayed. My words were few, but they were heartfelt and they set our course. “Lord, I don’t know what’s going on. I am very confused and hurt. But we want to proclaim right now, regardless of what happens, that we will not grow bitter and we will not not worship you. We refuse to give the enemy the satisfaction. Please give life back to our son. If not, please stay close and carry us through this. Amen.”
A follow-up visit with a second doctor confirmed that our little Timothy Sterling Mitchell, six months into the pregnancy, had died from a fetal cord wrapped several times around his neck. After an induced delivery and a few days of rest, we buried our firstborn.
We then started the long journey toward emotional and spiritual recovery. Reflecting on that difficult process, I recall a number of key decisions we made that set guardrails on our grief and helped carry us down the road to better days. Here’s what we did:
1. We rejected fixing and embraced being.
We longed for God to “fix” the problem, or at least remove the pain quickly. When He didn’t, an amazing phenomenon began to occur. By necessity, prayer became less about leveraging something from heaven and more about connecting with the Lord and casting our anxiety upon Him in the midst of the pain—God the Companion rather than God the Problem Solver.
When asked “Why pray?,” C.S. Lewis once replied, “Why breathe?” Addressing this same question in his book Prayer: Does It Really Make a Difference?, author Philip Yancey answers, “Because Jesus did.” Both men describe what we discovered, that the value of prayer lies essentially in the “surpassing value of knowing Christ,” including “the fellowship of His sufferings” (Philippians 3:8-10).
God did eventually heal some of our sorrow on His timetable. But He never left us alone. He entered into the pain and opened up His inner life to us (John 14:21).
2. We rejected deism and embraced Jesus.
Deism is the belief that God created the world but has since remained indifferent to it. The Bible presents a very different picture, of course, showing God in human flesh and intervening directly into the affairs of men. But sitting in a hospital delivery room awaiting a stillbirth, or carrying your son’s body to the grave in a shoebox-sized coffin, has a way of blurring a person’s vision.
Adding to our sense of God’s indifference were those “insult to injury” times, the things that just seemed beyond the pale. For us, it was the memory of a Sunday morning altar call only a few weeks earlier where Lisa and I had joined hands and prayed to become great parents. Or the unfortunate moment when a nurse, uninformed that our baby had died, asked excitedly, “What are you having today, a boy or a girl?” It’s hard to explain, but these acerbic moments felt almost more unjust than the tragedy itself.
But Jesus, the One who had also endured senseless injustice, hovered close. He gently reminded of the time when He hung on the cross, exhausted and thirsty from His torture, and asked for a drink of water. Receiving a sponge full of vinegar on the end of a stick instead, He cried, “It is finished!” He then “bowed His head and gave up His spirit” (John 19:30), a sour exit for the King of Kings.
Rejecting a distant God and embracing a personal Savior who is well-acquainted with both our injury and our insult would allow us to echo the words of the disciples, “Lord, to whom shall we go? Only you have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68).
3. We rejected fatalism and embraced the future.
Fatalism is the belief that all events are the inevitable result of fate. Rather than the indifferent being of deism, fatalism offers an impersonal force. In our case, because God appeared to sit on His hands as our baby died, we were tempted to look ahead in fear and assume further pain lay just around every corner.
The best remedy we found for that empty worldview is to resolve whether there is any real purpose behind such tragic events. If you asked me today to explain why my son died, I would reply with the words of Jesus. When asked to explain why a certain tragedy at birth had occurred, Jesus said plainly, “That the works of God might be displayed” (John 9:3). This short but robust statement by Jesus is the only one we’ve discovered that works, and it allowed us to move ahead in hope for better days.
It also protected us from the emotional ambushes that lay ahead, like hearing the popular restaurant commercial at the time featuring the unforgettable melody, “I want my babyback, babyback, babyback, babyback, babyback, babyback, ribs … I want my babyback, babyback, babyback …” The commercial seemed to play every time we turned on the television, and it cut deeply. We wanted our baby back, too! But he wasn’t coming back.
Fatalism would have had us believing that there was no purpose and that the future should be feared. Had we followed that viewpoint, we would have missed the joy that has followed, as C.S. Lewis concludes in the movie Shadowlands, “The pain now is part of the happiness then. That’s the deal.”
4. We rejected negotiation and embraced trust.
Those who have experienced the death of a child can probably relate to the unspoken agreement that we made with God. In our hearts we agreed to accept the pain … once. But God had to ensure that nothing that bad would ever happen again. Unfortunately, God never makes those agreements.
This was especially difficult four years later when another pregnancy ended in an early miscarriage. Through it all, we found that a sovereign God cannot be trusted to negotiate, but He can be trusted.
5. We rejected platitudes and embraced mystery.
As the bad news spread, family and friends offered their consolation and comfort. The kind words and even the sympathetic silence sustained us. However, a few felt compelled to try to explain the tragedy. Here’s a short list of ideas that surfaced:
- “God is preparing you to help others in the same situation someday.”
- “He must have needed your child in heaven more than you needed him here.”
- “You are already really strong people and God knew you could get through this.”
- “We may never know why this happened, but God will make you better from it.”
- “It will be easier when you have more kids.”
No doubt these people cared deeply for us. But frankly, their well-intended words were not helpful. At times they even offended us at a profoundly personal level, a place deep within that was craving real answers from heaven. In the process, we discovered a strange paradox—trite and easy answers don’t satisfy, but the deep and mysterious sovereignty of God settles the soul. When things were out of our control, they were never out of God’s control.
Yes, the idea of God being sovereign over Timothy’s death raises questions that we may never fully resolve. For us, though, the alternative is far more unsettling. Life experiences like the one we were enduring, untethered to God’s control, have no meaning at all. We rejected that notion.
6. We rejected melancholy and embraced hopeful grieving.
Immediately following the death of an infant, time loses its meaning. Moments seem to last for hours and hours for days. Things that were important before look trivial and petty. A suffocating dullness can settle onto the heart and shrivel it inward upon itself as you discover that not only is your baby gone, but so are the dreams you had for him. That’s a tough void to fill.
These were the moments when I felt the strongest sense that a real spiritual battle was being waged in the heavens between God and the enemy. Not a battle for my soul, but a battle for the direction of my life, and especially my thought life.
The battle was won by grief, of all things. We learned how to truly grieve in those days and months. There were times at night when Lisa and I were just too tired to offer much support and we just laid there listening to one another cry. We cried a lot, day and night it seemed. But we clung defiantly to hope for better days, and grief can be a powerful ally when accompanied by hope. “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve as do the rest who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13).
Specifically, we grieved with hope at the graveside as we sang, “Because He lives, I can face tomorrow.” We grieved with hope on Father’s Day as I stood proudly with the other dads at church even though I had no son there with me. We grieved with hope on Mother’s Day with no son to offer Lisa her corsage. We grieved with hope as the medical bills arrived from the hospital and doctors. We grieved with hope as we wondered whether to return the baby shower gifts to the givers or to the store for future credit. We grieved with hope as the memory of Timothy’s little face began to fade and we had only the prenatal pictures. In a way we still grieve with hope, though we long for the day when neither grief nor hope will be necessary. “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face” (1 Corinthians 12:12).
7. We rejected “Goodbye” and embraced “See you soon.”
Although there is no consensus among Bible scholars as to the fate of children who die, we believe that Scripture tells us we will one day see Timothy again. And next time, his eyes will be open and full of wonder and glory!
For this reason, we have chosen never to speak again of the death of our son as a “loss.” We didn’t lose our boy—he is absolutely safe in the arms of Jesus.
8. We rejected heroism and embraced weakness.
As a man, this was probably more my struggle than Lisa’s. I had to come to terms with the fact that I am not a superhero. I hurt deeply inside and there were things that brute strength and determination could not overcome. I had to learn that although I am weak, God is sufficient.
I also learned how much of God’s comfort and strength come through my wife. Scripture says that God “will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able” (1 Corinthians 10:13). However, in a marriage, God has joined two into one (Genesis 2:24). Might there be times when God allows more than either spouse can handle alone, but that both can overcome together? He did for us.
I would offer a special word of counsel to husbands whose wives have recently experienced the loss of a child: She needs you now and she will need you for years to come. She needs your hand, your ear, your heart, your compassion, your tears, your attention, your encouragement, your faith, your courage, your love, your leadership, and your understanding (1 Peter 3:7). And you need hers, too.
In case you’re wondering, God has blessed us with more children: a precious daughter named Grace and an energetic boy named Evan. If you’re in the midst of an experience similar to ours, though, my heart goes out to you. I know it feels like the fight of your life and you can’t imagine ever recovering. In a lot of ways, you won’t. But that’s okay. Because He lives, better days are still ahead.