How Long Should Grief Last?

July 18, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

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Image Credit: Jim Jackson | License: CC-O | Used by permission

Have you ever thought or said this about a friend or relative who is “taking too long,” to grieve a loss: “It’s been a long time and she’s still grieving. Shouldn’t she be over it by now?”

Anyone who has experienced a traumatic loss will tell you that there is no set time for getting over grief.

Truth be told, you never get over it. You learn to live with it, to adjust, to function, and hopefully even to enjoy life again.

But you never get over it.

Grief changes you. It makes you into a different person than you were before your loss. That’s neither good nor bad; it just is. The grieving person must adapt to a new life he did not want or anticipate.

Sometimes it takes years to adapt.

And that’s okay.

People grieve at their own pace.

So, if you have a friend or relative who is still grieving after a long time, give them a break–even if you feel it’s been “too long.”

Pray for them; encourage them; love them.

But don’t ask, “Shouldn’t you be over this by now?”




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A Baby Named Michelle

May 31, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

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Michelle in Baylor\’s NICU

Our daughter Michelle Lynn Pence was born on Monday June 1, 1987. She died exactly one week later, on Monday, June 8th. This would have been her 28th birthday. I am re-posting the story I wrote about our experience with Michelle both to remember her and as an encouragement to anyone who is hurting. At the moment of your deepest pain, God is there with you. — James Pence

The Sonogram

From the moment Laurel and I walked through the door of the specialist’s office, an uneasy feeling crept through my stomach. The two-hour wait did not ease my fears. Now the doctor’s apparent unwillingness to explain his findings only intensified my anguish. I would have given anything to be somewhere else that day.

How different that sonogram was from the first one. Only two weeks earlier we overflowed with joy, anticipating a brief look at our first child. We drove to the doctor’s office, hardly able to conceal our excitement. In the darkened examining room, lit only by the cool light of a monitor, the obstetrician pointed out little hands and feet on the screen. We held hands and smiled when he told us we were going to have a little girl. Then, as the doctor moved the wand around, examining every detail of our baby’s body, I noticed a small bump on the baby’s head. The doctor made no mention of it. But he had seen it too.

“It’s probably nothing,” he said later, “but I’d like you to have a high resolution sonogram anyway. Nine times out of ten, these things don’t amount to anything. I wouldn’t worry about it.”

Jim, Laurel, and Michelle in Baylor NICU

Jim, Laurel, and Michelle in Baylor NICU

Despite his reassuring words, when we left his office, our eagerness as new parents had evaporated. Only a gnawing fear remained. Perhaps the perfect child we prayed for might not be so perfect after all.

Changed Perspective

It’s funny how circumstances change your perspective. Before the sonogram, when someone asked us whether we wanted a boy or a girl, we’d say, “It doesn’t matter. All we want is a healthy baby.” We didn’t think that was too much to ask. But over the two weeks between the first and second sonograms, a transformation began to take place. I entered into that period hoping for a perfect child. Now I had to deal with the very real possibility that our baby might have some kind of

Laurel, a registered nurse, has a medical library. During my private

Laurel and Michelle in Baylor's NICU

Laurel and Michelle / Baylor NICU

moments I would take her books down from the shelf and look up all the possible problems our baby could have, based on the little I knew. Hydrocephalus, spina bifida, meningocele, and other afflictions filled my head like unwelcome house guests who don’t know when to leave. I wanted to get rid of them, but I couldn’t. Instead,one by one I grappled with each and gave it to the Lord. By the time the two weeks of waiting ended, I had prepared myself for anything—I thought.

After the second sonogram, Laurel and I strolled through a nearby shopping mall. The uneasiness that had begun at the specialist’s office intensified. The doctor had
been too evasive.

Jim's parents holding Michelle

Jim’s parents holding Michelle

He had pointed out some obvious problems during the exam. The baby had a duodenal atresia, an intestinal problem that would require surgery. But every time
we asked him to tell us if our baby would be all right, he would dodge our questions. “I have to go home and put all this data in my computer. I can’t tell you anything until it is all analyzed.”

The answer sounded authoritative enough. Why didn’t I believe him?

We returned home and tried to resume some sort of routine. The next

Laurel's mother & Michelle

Laurel’s mother & Michelle

day, I went to the church, spread out my commentaries and pretended to study for Sunday’s message. I stared at the books for hours, seeing words and comprehending nothing. Then the church phone rang. It was Laurel. I could tell that she’d been crying.

“What’s wrong,” I asked. “Did the doctor call?”

“Yes,” she said.

“Is everything all right?”

“Not really.”

“I’ll be right home.”

I rushed to my car and drove home like an ambulance driver on a call. I burst through the front door to find Laurel sitting on the sofa with a box of tissues. She didn’t have to say a word.

The news was bad.

“The baby’s going to die,” she said. “The doctor says that when she’s born she won’t be able to do anything at all. She probably won’t even live for a few hours.”

Laurel's father & Michelle

Laurel’s father & Michelle

Later we learned that a genetic flaw had caused multiple birth defects. I sat down beside my wife and melted into tears. I wasn’t ready for this. I had prepared myself for every eventuality but the worst. The reality sank in quickly. Not only would our baby die, but for the next sixteen weeks Laurel would carry a child who had no chance of surviving.

Questions and Struggles

Questions began to flood my mind. How could God allow this to happen? How could we face the loss of a child and still glorify Him? How could I as a pastor tell people about God’s goodness when I wasn’t even sure of it myself anymore? Joining hands, we approached His presence. Through my tears, I prayed, “Lord, you’ve asked us to walk this road. Please give us the grace to do it. Please get us through this.”

For the next four months we tried to forget the inevitable. Even though we had committed our way to the Lord, we still struggled. We struggled with well-meaning

Laurel and Michelle at Home

Laurel and Michelle at Home

strangers who would walk up and congratulate us, asking us what we planned to name the child or whether we wanted a boy or girl. Grief stabbed at us every time the baby kicked. With saddened hearts we continued our weekly childbirth classes, preparing for a new life that would never be. We struggled with friends who made well-intentioned but thoughtless statements like, “You’re young. You can have another baby.” We endured the dull ache of a grief process we could not close.

Then came the night when Laurel felt the first contractions. At eight the next morning we packed up our things and headed for the hospital. We checked into the hospital and were ushered into a labor room, like any other new parents. In the labor room, we realized we had never chosen a name for our daughter. We decided to name her Michelle Lynn.

When she was born at 7:06 p.m. on Monday, June 1, we stole a brief glimpse as the nurses rushed her into the neonatal ICU. She was tiny—only three pounds. But she was our baby. Later we visited her and marveled at how tiny she was. She looked like a china doll, her little body dwarfed by the respirator and other equipment. We had requested that her organs be donated, if possible. So, the doctors had connected her to a respirator to preserve them.

When the doctors determined that Michelle’s organs were too small and damaged to be used for transplant, they weaned her off the respirator and the grim wait began. I jumped every time the telephone rang in Laurel’s hospital room, relaxing only when the expected news did not come. After two days, Michelle was still breathing and showed no signs of weakening. Laurel said, “I’d like to take her home.”

Going Home

I expected resistance from the doctors, but they supported us. They made arrangements with a home health service and on Thursday afternoon a caravan of cars left the hospital. Michelle was coming home!

Our home NICU

Our home NICU

Our little daughter required twenty-four hour care. Because she was unable to regulate her own body temperature, we kept her wrapped in blankets. An intravenous drip provided the fluids she could not take in on her own. Laurel’s parents stayed with us and we each took shifts caring for Michelle, holding and rocking a heavily blanketed baby in the sweltering June heat. For four days we held, cared for and cuddled this little child who couldn’t even respond to us. Her eyes never opened except for a startled blink at the flash of a camera. She never cried, never made a sound.

Quickly our home version of ICU became a routine. Friends from the church brought food. Daily visits from the home health nurse brought supplies and encouragement. Laurel’s mother, also an RN, added a touch of both grandmotherly and professional care. But in the midst of the frenetic activity, I still sensed a cloud hanging over me.

Although I was glad to have Michelle home, I dreaded what I knew was coming. I didn’t know how soon it would happen, but I knew she was going to die. What would it be like? I didn’t know what to expect and I was afraid. I dreaded being there when it happened; I was also afraid that I wouldn’t there.

“Lord, give me the grace to face that moment,” I prayed.

Not only did God give the grace, but He orchestrated Michelle’s
home-going and held our hands through every step.

The moment came at lunchtime on Monday, June 8th, exactly one week after Michelle had been born. Early that Monday morning, her IV had infiltrated and
the home health nurse came to our house to restart it. We laid Michelle on the dining room table to give the nurse a better working space. She got the IV going again and then went on to her other patients. As Laurel’s mother prepared lunch, we kept Michelle on the table. For the first time since we had brought her home, Michelle’s mommy and daddy sat together, holding her hands.

Daddy, Mommy, and baby

Daddy, Mommy, and baby

Then quietly, as the clatter of dishes colored the background, Michelle quietly stopped breathing. I took Laurel’s hand, drawing her away from the conversation.

“I think she’s gone,” I said, my voice breaking.

Laurel looked at her, then back at me and nodded.

The flood of tears I had held back for four months finally came. It was over. I heard the voice of my father-in-law in the background, offering a halting prayer of thanksgiving.

Michelle had gone home.

How can I glorify God after losing a child? How can I tell people about God’s goodness?

I can speak of God’s grace and how it was always sufficient for us—even in the hardest times. I can praise him for orchestrating the moment of Michelle’s death so that both Laurel and I could be with her, even holding her hand. I can glorify him for the countless doors of ministry he’s opened since that time, allowing us to encourage others who are going through similar experiences. I can thank him for seven unforgettable days with an exceptional child. I can worship him because he truly is in control. And all things do work together for good to those who love him.

When Jonathan Edwards, the great pastor and theologian, died unexpectedly due to complications from a smallpox vaccination, his wife Sarah wrote these words, “What shall I say? A holy and good God has covered us with a dark cloud. O that we may kiss the rod, and lay our hands on our mouths! The Lord has done it. . .. But my God lives; and he has my heart. We are all given to God.”

We, likewise, are given to God. We rarely understand His work while it is in
progress. That is why we must fall back on Scripture and realize that God is at work for our good in all things.

Whatever happens, we must be willing to trust Him every step of the way. That is the only way we can find meaning in what often seems futile. To many people, Michelle’s short life may appear meaningless.

Our sweet daughter

Michelle Lynn Pence 6/1/87 – 6/8/87

To us, it overflows with meaning. And, while it is not a road we would have chosen to walk, God walked with us.

And a baby named Michelle changed our lives forever.

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10 Things NOT to Say or Do to Bereaved People

May 18, 2015 by · 2 Comments 

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Image credit: Jenko_Ataman_Fotolia_64209116_XS

Image credit: Jenko_Ataman_Fotolia_64209116_XS

In 1987, my wife and I lost our daughter Michelle when she was only one week old. That was a profound, life-changing experience for both of us. For one thing, it led me to become a writer. Over the years, much of my writing has focused on grief and tragedy, and how God brings people through it. In June and July, I’ll be helping teach a series on suffering at our church in Greenville, Texas. The following are some thoughts I jotted down in preparation for one of the messages.


We’ve all felt it.

That uncomfortable feeling when we’re around someone who has suffered a tragedy.

We want to help, to do something that will make the person feel better. But we’re not quite sure what to do or say. Unfortunately, in those moments it is all too easy to say or do things that unintentionally add to our friend’s pain.

We intend to help; instead we injure.

Following, in no particular order, are ten things not to do or say to people who are in deep pain.

1. Don’t say, “I know how you must feel.”

The truth is, you don’t know, even if you have gone through a similar loss. Every person’s experience of grief is unique to that individual.

2. Don’t withdraw from or avoid the person.

Friends of ours who had lost a child told about seeing someone from her church in a grocery store shortly after their tragedy. Instead of talking to them, the other person acted as if she hadn’t seen them (she had) and rushed into another aisle. Don’t withdraw from or avoid bereaved people. They’ve already lost a loved one. They don’t need to feel even more isolated.

3. Don’t be afraid of tears — theirs or yours.

Sometimes we avoid people in grief because we’re afraid that they will cry, or that we will cry, or both! It’s okay to cry. The Bible says that we are to “weep with those who weep.” Don’t be afraid of tears.

4. Don’t be afraid of silence.

Another reason we sometimes say unintentionally hurtful things is that we don’t know what to say, but we feel the need to fill the void. So we speak up and add to the other person’s pain. It’s okay to just sit quietly with your friend. In fact, it’s often better that way.

5. Don’t quote scripture at them.

The scriptures can be a great source of comfort, but only when the bereaved person is ready to hear them. Often, when a loss is fresh, we rush to quote “all things work together for good.” Don’t rush into this. Give the person time to get past the raw emotion before you quote Bible verses. And be sure that you’re truly doing it for them, not just because you want to break the silence.

6. Don’t offer theological observations.

When a person has suffered a loss and is in the throes of grief, it is not the time to offer reflections on God’s purpose for the tragedy. Enough said.

7. Don’t say, “If there is anything I can do, just let me know.”

Often this is a genuine offer to help, but sometimes it just a way of breaking the silence. Either way, it comes across as empty most of the time. Instead, say “What can I do to help?”

8. Don’t offer trite sayings.

“God took her because he needed another angel.” “The good die young.” “God picks the best flowers from the garden first.” Yeah, right. Don’t say stuff like this. Trust me, it doesn’t help.

9. Don’t judge.

Most of the time we don’t do this to the person’s face. And usually it’s in the context of a larger tragedy. For example, after 9/11 some Christian leaders said that the attack was God’s judgment on America. Unless you are privy to the mind of God, don’t say things like this. You don’t know.

10. Don’t tell people how to (or how long to) grieve.

There is no timetable or recommended length of time for grieving. Never say to a bereaved person, “It’s been _______ months/years. Shouldn’t you be over this by now?”  Truth is, you never get “over” a tragedy. You just learn to live with it.

Are there any that I’ve missed? Join the discussion by adding your comments and thoughts below.

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