John W. Mahaffy
A couple with three small children had been worshipping with us for several weeks when I heard that the wife was in the hospital following a miscarriage. I was a very young pastor serving my first charge, but of course I visited them in the hospital.
Their response, when I expressed sorrow at their loss, took me aback: “We already have three children and didn’t want any more. We’re fine.” I read a psalm and prayed, but left with a sense that something didn’t fit in the way they were (or were not) dealing with the death of their unborn child. I felt at a loss as to how better to bring the comfort of God’s Word to them.
That was more than thirty-five years ago, but I wish that I had been able to read Little One Lost: Living with Early Infant Loss, a new book by Glenda Mathes, before meeting with them. I wish I could have given them a copy, saying, “You may not want to read this right now, but at some point this little book may help bring the comfort of God’s Word to you.”
Granted, people deal with loss in different ways, but minimizing grief usually delays healing. Mathes has written a greatly needed and most helpful book, which skillfully knits her story and those of others together with clear explanations of scriptures that bear on the loss of an infant. She writes, “The unfulfilled anticipation of new life lost before birth—like a tender bud pinched by an early frost—is what makes the loss of a pre-term infant so piercing. Yet society often minimizes such loss. We live in an abortion-accepting society that has hardened its collective heart to the loss of prenatal life.” However, she continues: “Even the loss of the littlest one is the loss of a real person. Each child is unique, created in God’s image. Such a loss rips a hole in the parent’s heart and leaves an aching void” (p. 17).
The chapter “Knit Together” gives a superb overview of the way in which the Bible treats even little ones, before and after birth, as valuable persons, made in God’s image. The book then moves on to recount stories of grief surrounding the loss of little ones, each unfolding the hope and comfort that the Scriptures give.
In twenty-seven short chapters, which move quickly, but flow much more deeply than a casual glance reveals, Mathes deals with difficult decisions that have to be made, and focuses on the mother’s sorrow. She also discusses the grief of the father and of any children in the family, as well as of the broader community.
Mathes provides helpful suggestions on what not to say to a grieving parent, as well as advice on how to provide comfort in concrete ways. In dealing frankly and gently with grief compounded by abuse or by sinful actions on the part of parents, she always points to the forgiveness that Christ offers.
“Covenantal Comfort” is summarized in chapter 15, but underlies the whole book. Readers of New Horizons should recognize that the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms share a similar view of God’s covenantal faithfulness as the Three Forms of Unity, the solace of which she beautifully unfolds in “Confessional Comfort.”
Grief and guilt are complex. Mathes warns against secular counseling, which “will fail to bring the comfort of God’s forgiveness into the equation.” She also appropriately cautions against forms of Christian counseling that may be “too simplistic, blaming personal sin for every emotional problem” (p. 105). She keeps unfolding the comprehensive forgiveness found in Jesus Christ.
Regarding sufferers, even Christian sufferers, who are angry at God, the author quotes a Christian counselor who properly expresses the goal that Christians deal gently with grieving persons, helping them “come to a place where they see God’s providence, accept it, and still believe that it is good” (p. 119). Although Mathes does not encourage venting anger at God, the idea that “God is big enough to handle their anger” seems to me to be neither fully biblical nor truly helpful.
Every pastor ought to have a copy of this book. Elders and deacons, who come alongside grieving members, need to read it. Purchase a copy for your church library, and encourage people to read it. Give a copy to grieving parents to read when they are ready.
Although the targeted readership of Little One Lost is the covenant community, Mathes points so clearly to Jesus, the source of comfort, that this sensitively written book may be an appropriate gift even to a griever who does not yet know the Lord. “No matter how traumatic the loss, no matter how much or how little it is grieved, believers have hope of a glorious future. We look to that future with hope that is firmly based on God’s sure promises for a future free from pain and sorrow. Our future existence will not be as vague spirits floating in the clouds. When Christ returns, we—and our covenant children—will be reunited with our original bodies, glorified in a way far beyond our imaginings. God the Father sent His Son to atone for all our sins. He sends His Spirit to comfort us in our sorrows.... He holds before us the hope of an existence free from grief and full of joy” (pp. 134–35).
The author is pastor of Trinity OPC in Newberg, Ore. Little One Lost: Living with Early Infant Loss, by Glenda Mathes (Reformed Fellowship, 2012), is a 144-page paperback, with a list price of $10.00.