I’ll never forget one frigid January evening in 1987. Our third child was all of two weeks old and I was venturing off for my first outing away from him. It was only a grocery shopping expedition, but when you’re home with preschoolers 24/7, even food shopping in the dead of winter can seem exotic if you get to do it alone. The plan was to drop all three kids at my mother’s house so I could shop in peace.
I carried the baby’s car seat out and set it on the hood while I opened the car doors for the other children. I heard it before I saw it. In one horrifying split second, the car seat slid across the hood’s icy surface and landed with a sickening crunch, face down on the frozen crushed rock below—with my newborn baby in it.
Few words can describe what a parent feels in that moment, and “competent” is definitely not one of them. I upturned the car seat and examined my son. Snuggled in his snowsuit, he still slept peacefully. It seemed the straps had held him to the seat and only the seat’s edges actually touched the ground. Shaking, I loaded him into the back seat facing backwards, with a sibling on either side facing forward. Then I climbed behind the steering wheel, not knowing whether I’d be driving to the hospital or carrying on with my original plan.
All the way to town, I kept asking my older son, “What’s the baby doing?” “Is the baby okay?” “Is he breathing?”
I held myself together until we reached Mom’s house, but when she came to the door, I became a hormonal puddle. “Mom,” I blubbered. “You won’t believe what I’ve done.” She let me cry it out of my system, assured me the baby would be fine, and sent me on my way.
I don’t know if there’s a parent anywhere without a similar story. No mother or father can be on constant alert every second of a child’s life (and if you could, I’m not sure you’d end up with adequately independent offspring.) Most of the time, our momentarily lapses in judgement don’t carry heavy consequences. But sometimes they do. And when they do, it’s imperative for us to remember they happen to all of us. The passing of judgement on one parent by another at these times is unacceptable. If you have managed to keep your child alive to adulthood, it is a far greater testimony to the grace of God than to your excellent parenting skills.
So where is God’s grace when a child does not survive?
I believe it’s still present. It just looks a whole lot different. It looks like the compassionate support of a caring community of friends and family who know, deep down, that it could just as easily have been their own child. Why wouldn’t we extend the same compassion following an accidental death or injury as we do when a child succumbs to cancer? If possible, the parents’ pain would feel even heavier as they wrestle self-condemnation. They do not need ours, too.
This Mother’s Day, let’s remember those who are hurting due to the loss of a child from any cause, at any age. Though I have been spared this grief so far, I watched my sister and brother-in-law bury their only son last year, at age 46. It never gets any easier, and there is no deeper loss. There just isn’t.