Where joy and sorrow meet: How our faith survived the death of our child
John and Dana Hanley share their deeply personal reflections following the death of their toddler, Mattias
John: CS Lewis once said: “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
And rouse us it did, for on 12 December 2010, tragedy struck our home when we lost our 21-month-old son Mattias, nicknamed Tiggy, in a household accident.
The mechanics of this world marched on as we were awakened to just how suddenly life can be taken. We could never have known how difficult it would be to purchase funeral clothes for our children while others were filling their shopping trolleys with Christmas gifts for theirs.
The night came crashing down
Dana: It was a horrible, horrible accident and I’m still stuck replaying all the decisions I could have made differently that might have left my energetic little boy here in my arms, dispersing my dishes about the house, sneaking fruit out of the refrigerator and eating the tips off markers any chance he got. And it is only beginning to sink in how much worse it could have been.
Friday was such a windy day – 45-mile-an-hour gusts. We had an extension on our chimney with a draft-inducing cap on top and the wind caught it and took it down with a crash. I was so glad I didn’t let the children play outside on windy days. John went up on the roof, but there wasn’t much he could do, other than make sure that the chimney wasn’t damaged to the point of being unusable. Then he was called to a job elsewhere, and the children asked for a movie night. I said yes, then decided to go and put the baby to bed, before joining them again.
As our baby was falling asleep, Tiggy and Ellie came up and started wrestling and jumping around on my bed. I played for a minute, and let Tiggy shower the baby with his sweet little kisses. But that is an amazingly difficult way to get a baby to sleep, so I said: “Why don’t you go back downstairs and watch the movie with Koko?”
I will regret those words for the rest of my life. Over and over in my mind I let him stay upstairs. Let him bounce on the bed. Let the baby be awake until Tiggy runs out of energy and falls asleep. He was such a good little boy. He obeyed immediately. I laid the baby down.
Next, I heard a crash, and immediately ran downstairs.“Tiggy!” I heard my daughter scream. She and my son were standing there, doing their best to hold up a chest of drawers. The same piece of furniture my husband had pushed and shook and stood on when we bought it to make sure it could take some weight if any of the children tried to climb on it. It had landed on my little Tiggy, cracking his head against the concrete floor. I don’t remember getting from the stairs to him. I only remember kneeling over him, the weight of the dresser on my back, and screaming. My daughter was already running with the phone. I didn’t make a lot of sense, I don’t think. I said my address over and over as clearly as I could, but the lady on the other end wanted to know what happened. I remember screaming about my baby and blood before taking a deep breath and repeating my address.
I was panicking. There was blood everywhere. I didn’t think there was any way he would live long enough for the ambulance to arrive. But he did.
John: At the hospital we were able to comfort the children as best we could: “It’s no one’s fault, stop bickering, they’re working on him, we’re going to figure things out.”
Dana: I thought maybe there was a chance. But he was so little and that dresser was so heavy.
John: Mattias was transported to another hospital.
Dana: When we got there, Tiggy was still alive and getting a CT scan. We sat in a room with a nurse offering drinks and heated blankets. John wrapped me, practically swaddled me.
The CT scan was not good. There was a severe fracture to the skull causing very bad brain trauma. They described the surgery and the risks. They wanted to make sure I understood the risks and I wanted to yell at them for talking to me when they could be getting started.
We were led out to the hall and they let us see and talk with him ever so briefly before continuing the dash to surgery. Something in me knew it was goodbye. But I kissed him ever so lightly on the forehead because I was terrified of hurting him. “I love you, Tiggy! Be a good boy.”
John: He loved toy cars so I told him I loved him and to pull through so we could play vroom-vroom together. I kissed him ever so gently on the forehead hoping he wouldn’t feel any more pain. Sadly, the wound on his head was unavoidable.
Dana: And they took him. The last thing I heard as he went through the door was one of the nurses informing the surgeon that his blood pressure was improving. And again I felt a glimmer of hope that would flicker faintly for another hour before we knew for sure.
John: I’m sure he heard us, our last words to him. For one last time his spirit pushed his little body to say in such a feeble manner: “l love you too.”
Dana: He had held on for five hours. He was a fighter; strong, sweet and so full of a life that could not be easily taken.
John: The doctors walked down the hall to the waiting room 45 minutes ahead of schedule. You could see the heartache etched on their faces. A parent’s worst fear was about to be confirmed and, before the words even left their mouths, we knew Mattias was gone. The doctors encircled us, their tears freely flowing.
Everybody involved that evening was impacted in some form. I felt immense distress for the staff as much as they did for us. It truly takes a special person to work in a field characterised by the highs of saving a life and the lows of seeing one end. Asked if we would like to see Mattias, we found ourselves standing in front of that door.
On entering we were unaware that the frontlines had been drawn and the height of battle was drawing near to where Satan wanted to attack me personally. We moved closer to our lifeless son. My wife went to the opposite side of the bed and I took my position closest to the door.
After a short period of grieving together, my wife’s family arrived. From the moment the doors opened, I watched their every step as if in slow motion. They walked across the room, intent and full of purpose, passing by without any acknowledgement, reaching their destination, my wife. It was their parental duty. Of this I have no delusions, I fully understood.
From my vantage point, however, it was the most difficult moment of the entire evening. The pastors and hospital staff kept a respectful distance. My wife was in the arms of her family and the only other person in the room was Mattias. His lifeless body stretched out upon the bed. He was gone…I felt so helpless and utterly forsaken.
Standing there, right then, I experienced agonising loneliness. Nothing could relieve the pain as emotions were crashing in around me. I stood on an island. Displaced. Defeated. Devastated.
The inner turmoil intensified and total despair overtook me. Though it seemed I couldn’t cry any more, a new stream burst forth from the depths of my already shattered soul. My cries went to heaven: “O God…”
Dana: I think about that long, impossible walk towards the hospital’s exit.
Nurses stood by, offering condolences, hugging me, asking if I needed a wheelchair. I remember being mildly irritated at the suggestion. But as soon as I stepped outside, I collapsed. John and two of the nurses caught me and carried me back inside; placing me in the wheelchair I had refused.
Everyone was talking, trying to figure out who was going to travel with who. A nurse suggested no one move the car seat, so it sat there empty for over a week.
John: We broke the news to Tiggy’s siblings. Each responded as their personalities allowed. Dakota was stoic, Steffen was angry, Nisa was goofy, Elianna so quiet. Micah at one-and-a-half months just needed his mummy.
John: Dawn broke. It was Sunday morning. Our lives would never be the same again.
Dana: I’ve cried out in anguish with a sorrow so deep there were not words to attach to the prayer. I’ve wrestled with why. Why Mattias? Why my baby? He was such a good boy. So sweet. So happy. Why?
And there were those who answered: “Jesus just needed your baby boy more than you did”, or “God was short an angel”, or even: “Isn’t it an honour – a compliment, a privilege – that God deems you worthy of this trial?”
I never know how to respond to these insights into the ways of God. I prefer wrestling with why. It isn’t such a faith-shattering question that it needs to be swept under the rug. It is a statement of belief, or else why would we ask him anything at all? It is recognition of his power and presence in our lives. We know what he could have done, we just don’t understand why he didn’t. It is recognition that God is good. That is why it is so difficult to reconcile the death of a loved one with what we know about God. From the depths of my being, I am plagued with a feeling that This. Just. Isn’t. Right.
It hurts, not just emotionally, but physically. It leaves me nauseous and makes breathing difficult. My limbs feel heavy, as if they’ve turned to lead. This is not the way it was supposed to be.
I think of recent conversations, Facebook statuses and Twitter updates with others extolling the virtues of God:
“Forgot to fill the tank. Low fuel light came on. Ran out of petrol, coasted down a hill, into a petrol station and right to the pump. Isn’t God faithful?”
“Hubby got the job! After over a year, our savings held out and he got the job! Isn’t God good?”
Pause for reflection. What about when things don’t turn out so well?
As I knelt on the floor, the weight of a dresser on my back, trying to keep my son’s head and neck straight as I rolled him to his side so he wouldn’t aspirate on his own vomit... Was God amazing?
As I stood shaking in the hospital, wanting to be with him (needing to be with him), terrified of being in the way as I heard them trying over and over and over to get him intubated... Was God faithful?
It isn’t really something we post to Facebook quite like that, but even in tragedy, God is still amazing. He is faithful. He is good. Because his character is not dependent on my circumstances.
He has done many wonderful things in my life, but his character is not revealed through my wealth, nor through my safety, nor through my comfort.
His character is revealed through the cross and, as I think of my son, crushed, his skull broken, his form lifeless, I can think of only one thing. Our Father did it willingly. For me. For you. For the world he loved so much he gave his only begotten Son.
Joy and sorrow
John: North-east from our porch, within walking distance, is the cemetery where Mattias is buried. Looking across the field, we realise that is where our son’s physical body is laid and it’s sorrowful. From that same porch, if we look up we are able to acknowledge that Mattias is in the hands of the living saviour, Christ Jesus, and that’s joyful.
Sin, the mechanics of this world, brought Mattias down to the grave (sorrow). The opposite of sorrow is found in Christ Jesus for “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8, ASV) and in so doing conquered the grave (joy). In Christ Jesus, joy and sorrow meet. Life still hurts but death has lost its sting.
Pastor and author Paul David Tripp says: “God doesn’t call you to stifle your grief. He doesn’t call you to put on a happy face when you are crushed with grief. He doesn’t want you to hide behind religious clichés and theological platitudes. God approves of your tears! But he welcomes you to look at death through the eyes of Christ. The comfort and hope he provides does not remove your grief, but allows you to grieve in a brand-new way. And he promises one day to take you to a place where you will never cry again.”
There’s a void within, yet I know I’ll see Mattias again because my certainty is in the historic truth and resurrection of Christ Jesus. Sure, I mourn, but not as though there is no hope; I have joy and comfort in the rock-solid promises of God. Scottish Presbyterian pastor Samuel Rutherford once declared: “His sweet presence eateth out the bitterness of sorrow.”
To that I say “Amen”.
After Mattias’ death, the couple’s hearts turned towards the plight of children who have never known love. This led to them working with the charity Love Justice International (LJI) and forming a family home in South Asia for abandoned children. For more information, click here. To support the charity go to lovejustice.ngo