Note: This article was written in 1998.
How do we prepare our children for pain when it still surprises us?
At the cemetery by his little grave I watched the sunflower pinwheel spin in the warm May wind. "I didn't expect life to be this tough," I whispered to my husband, David.
He nodded, sniffed back a few tears and went to tell the children it was time to go home.
I watched him head toward the grassy lawn where our three children were happily playing and pondered how in the world this difficult life had become ours. I said my prayers, I ate my vegetables, I was kind most of the time, and I had a strong faith and love for God. I was even the daughter of missionaries! What went wrong? How had I come to spend Saturdays at a cemetery by a marker that read "Our Darling Boy?" How could my energetic four-year-old boy's earthly body be laid to rest under this hard ground?
Loss of Innocence
From my view over the pinwheel I saw my seven-year-old Rachel do a cartwheel as David, two-year-old Benjamin, and one-year-old Elizabeth clapped. Although she looked normal, there was a time I felt Rachel's chances of having a normal life were shot. When she was five she'd seen her brother treated for a malignant tumor with powerful chemotherapy, throw up countless times, scream as he got shots to increase his white blood cell counts, and on a cold winter day lie motionless in a bed in the ICU because a staph infection had destroyed his brain and weak body.
Then she'd seen our tears, our struggles, and our faith shaken over the course of the 15 months since her brother Daniel's absence from our family. She'd lost the innocence that comes with being a child, the "pseudo-security" that Mommy and Daddy can keep the bad away and make everything all right.
My childhood was easy, I remembered. I could hold to a faith that God protected those he loves, that prayers make a difference. I didn't experience the kind of pain and sorrow of losing a sibling. For the most part, I'd been carefree. It isn't that I was sheltered from the world's difficulties, it was just that I believed the myth that the really bad wouldn't touch me.
I find it amusing that one of Jesus' promises to his disciples is that in this world we will have troubles (John 16:33). But how often do we tell our children about this verse and truly explain that there are tragedies in life and being a Christian won't prevent us from experiencing them?
We teach about adversities, but only when the Bible stories hold happy endings. We like it because Hannah prayed for a baby and she conceived. Daniel was thrown into the lion's den but was delivered. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were thrown into a fiery furnace but came out without a hair singed or even smelling like smoke.
Teaching Our Children
It's important that we teach our children not only about the victories of people like Noah and David mentioned in Hebrews 11, but also about those mentioned in the last paragraph of that chapter who, although faithful to God, for some unknown reason, suffered.
The truth is, cries are all around us. Cries from a couple who pray to conceive but as each year passes, the woman's womb remains barren. Cries from the parents of the five-year-old girl who has premature arthritis. Cries from a woman who prayed for healthy children with each pregnancy, but her last child was born disabled. Cries from those like me and my family, who have watched a child suffer and die in spite of faith and countless prayers.
What can we do when the tragedies happen? What can we teach our children when the stormy winds blow and all around seems chaos?
A solid foundation for our children often comes from Hebrews 13:5, in which God promises, "I will never fail you. I will never abandon you." It is a comfort for kids to know that God is always with them in all of the rough times, even when the valleys feel dark and lonely.
How can we better equip our children not only for adulthood when they're sure to face troubles, but now, as children when they're exposed to the disabled, ill, bereaved, abandoned? How can we bring our children up in a world where they can reach out and show Christ's love and compassion instead of being sheltered?
There are ways we can teach them to personalize Walt Whitman's words in "Song Of Myself": "I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I become the wounded person."
Get Them Involved
One way to involve kids in reaching out to the suffering is to let them help with fundraisers that benefit those with a disability or illness. Three months after Daniel died, one of his five-year-old friends and her parents attended the American Cancer Society's "Relay For Life." They took luminaries with them to light in Daniel's memory.
The woman with the five-year-old daughter who has arthritis, went to her son's first grade class to teach his classmates how to reach out to disabled children. She asked them to think about what games they could play with a child who is disabled, instead of focusing only on what disabled children cannot do. The children in the class learned much and her son was proud to be a "Spokes-student," able to make kids aware of how to help kids like his younger sister as well as how to befriend other children like her.
Since my son Daniel's death, my friend Susan and her husband (whose youngest son was friends with Daniel) have incorporated a new set of values that they incorporate in their household.
"Each day is a gift from God," she explained to me. "It's a day to treasure family and friends. Don't take any good thing for granted, not even the sun coming up. Above all, remember that God is God. And when something happens that we don't understand, don't be surprised. That is life. We're only passing through. This is our training ground for heaven."
Remember Watermelon Season
A friend gives her family a gift by placing Daniel's picture on her refrigerator. Seeing his handsome little face reminds her family with two school-aged children, how fragile and precious life is.
My friend Rachel and I call this precious and short life, "watermelon season."
The first time I told my friend that life is always "watermelon season," she gave me a strange look. But I explained: we shouldn't put off important things like going on a bike ride or eating the box of chocolates our neighbor brought us from France even when it isn't a special day. We shouldn't wait for some later time to do things.
"Why watermelon season, though?" she asked.
So I told her that one day in early spring when Daniel was four, he spotted watermelons at the grocery store and asked if we could buy one. I told him that those watermelons couldn't possibly be any good since it wasn't watermelon season.
"When is watermelon season?" he asked.
"In July," I told him.
In May he was diagnosed with neuroblastoma. After that, our lives focused on the now, savoring each moment together. In the hospital during treatments, Daniel got to eat a lot of watermelon. We even let him spit the seeds onto the floor and at his friends. Living in watermelon season causes us to say, "I love you" more often, hug each other tighter, and eat more ice cream together.
In the Meanwhile …
As I heard my family calling to me from our van, I gazed up into the sky. So vast, and up there, somewhere beyond my vision is where heaven lies. Since Daniel's death, I keep one eye up. Clearly, that's where one of my treasures lives. It's easy for me now to realize that we're only passing through here; this isn't our permanent dwelling place. The glorious life without difficulties will be in heaven.
Meanwhile (and sometimes those meanwhiles can seem awfully dreary and long), there is much to learn, to share, and to teach. There's truth to give our children so that they can be equipped for the normal Christian life. You know the normal life—splashes of unfairness, torrents of sorrow, and showers of blessings.