Wednesday afternoon, a friend phoned me and told me to sit down; she had bad news to share. The almost-two year old daughter of our friends had been accidentally run over when a truck backed out of a church yard, and she died. It was one of those freak accidents - plenty of adults watching over the kids. But a toddler darts off suddenly, then trips and falls, at the same time a driver starts his car and backs up. Someone shouted and grabbed the driver through the open window, but it only startled him into pressing the accelerator more.
When I worked in the emergency room in Kansas City, I saw plenty of kids in pretty bad shape after accidents. And this scenario happens much more frequently than we'd like to admit. But I've never experienced this kind of loss with friends before.
Andrew and I both worked closely with the couple in the past. The husband worked on Andrew's team until January, and the wife was my translator and helper in the clinic during my first two year here. I remember her sharing the happy news of her pregnancy, watching the improbable growth outward in her tiny frame, and seeing her daughter for the first time.
Although we don't see them often now, they're some of our best Cambodian friends here. They recently moved to a new village to work in a church, their home almost constantly full of children learning English and Bible verses. Their daughter was one of the most active, joyful, spunky little girls I've known. Andrew commented he'd never seen either parent unhappy - always warm and welcoming and smiling.
In Cambodia, funerals are often held within twenty-four hours after the death. She died at 3 pm Wednesday afternoon, and at 9 am Thursday, we were sitting outside the church, listening to weeping and the pastor speaking. Her round face, framed with spiky pigtails, stared out at us from a framed photo atop the closed coffin. Friends and family stood up to speak their hearts, sometimes unable to form words around the tears. People here don't have a week to get through the ugliest part of grief, then compose themselves for the service. It's loss in its rawest form.
After the service, we all piled into cars and drove outside of the city to a plot of land, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Buddhists always cremate bodies, so Christians find it difficult to bury their dead. People here are afraid of the spirits of the dead returning, so the cemeteries are far away from any houses. We sang Amazing Grace, thanked God for her time on earth, and said good bye.
I still feel such a weight of sadness. Yet I know that the sorrow I feel is just a drop compared to the ocean of grief her parents now find themselves in. To have your child taken so suddenly like that, to see the outcome could have been different if ___ (fill in the blank)? Tragic and paralyzing. I can only imagine it must feel a bit like having your heart cut out of your chest while you're still awake. I don't know how you ever recover.
And then there is the persistent question - why? Why take such a constant source of beauty and joy out of the world? When people here have so little, why take away one thing they treasure most? What's the purpose? Especially in such a way that the parents will always think,
If only I'd done this...she would still be alive.
It's easy for me to turn and accuse God of stealing away what belonged here on earth. It's hard to admit that our children ultimately aren't ours; they belong to God. And he knows what it's like to lose an only child. God knows what the separation and loss feels like, because he felt it when Jesus hung on the cross and was cut off from the Father for our sake.
And that's where our hope has to be. Only God can redeem this crushing loss and give us peace. He alone can give us true comfort, rooted in our eternal hope of Jesus one day destroying death and sorrow and giving us a new world, free of pain and loss. I can't tell my friends to stop mourning, nor should I. I can't give them empty words of comfort, that they'll have other children (because they'll never have that child back, here on earth). I can only stand with them, weeping, holding out Jesus as their hope for healing and peace.
Would you join me in praying that over their family and community? And if you've ever known a friend who lost a child - or lost one yourself - I'd so appreciate knowing what helped you comfort them and give them strength to weather this awful storm.