Written by Andrea Carpenter
Edited by Becky Tankersley
On Wednesday, April 13, 2016 I dropped off our 4 year-old son, Paul, at preschool then took our 6-week old, Jack, to the pediatrician’s office. I was grateful they agreed to fit me in for an appointment that morning even though it seemed he was experiencing a routine nursing issue.
The pediatric staff noticed an elevated heart rate and recommended transporting Jack to the hospital by ambulance. Once we arrived in the emergency room, the staff did several interventions, escalating from cold ice packs to medication to electrical shock, before successfully bringing his heart rate down to a normal level.
I briefly left the room to make arrangements for my 4-year old, as I was told to plan on spending the night with Jack for observation. When I returned, they were performing CPR because his heart had stopped. Despite 30 minutes of continuous CPR, they were unable to get his heart to beat on its own. They put him on a bypass machine to stabilize him and try to determine the cause of the arrhythmia.
My husband was on his way to a work conference in Ottawa, but I was able to get in touch with him during his layover in Philadelphia, and he made it to the hospital that afternoon. Initially there were promising signs showing Jack had gotten enough oxygen flow while receiving CPR. However, an ultrasound and other tests the next morning indicated potential swelling in his brain. The doctors ordered a CT scan, a process that would take several hours.
That afternoon they told us Jack had suffered catastrophic brain damage. His heart was not able to work effectively on its own. He was not eligible for any extreme lifesaving measures such as a pacemaker or heart transplant, and he could not continue to stay on the bypass machine much longer. We lost our son that evening, on a Thursday night.
The Hands and Feet of Jesus
As we recently marked what would have been Jack’s second birthday, I’ve been thinking about how our church ministered to us and helped us navigate those first hard weeks as well as the two years since. There are many ways our church family stepped in to be the hands and feet of Jesus to our family during this difficult time.
1. Provided a gospel-centered framework for understanding suffering: Romans 8:28-29 says “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. 29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” This passage refers to the ultimate good, our sanctification and conforming of image, but it’s not always what we think of or experience as being “good.” Our pastors often preached about living in the “now and not yet” and how to view God’s goodness through what Christ provided on the cross, rather than filtering it through our circumstances. Because we had that foundation before losing Jack we were better equipped to process this loss from a gospel-centered framework.
2. Encouraged community: Our church intentionally encourages community and relationships through small groups and other gatherings. Through our involvement in small groups we developed close friendships while also having avenues for mutual accountability. Because of the vulnerability others in the church shared about fear, anxiety, and challenging circumstances of life, we felt safe sharing our own grief and sadness after losing our son. Our small group also took a lead in organizing prayer for our family, meals, and many other arrangements that blessed us.
3. Grieved with us: Having our church friends and pastors cry with us and express their own grief for our loss was incredibly meaningful. They allowed space for us to process theological questions, but they preached the gospel to us through their actions and their presence. They didn’t try to explain why this happened, but instead listened and offered support. As we neared the one-year anniversary of Jack’s birthday, death, and funeral, they reached out and asked if they could coordinate a gathering of friends to observe his life. On what would have been his first birthday, we met at the cemetery to pray and sing with many of the dear friends who saw us through the previous year.
4. Demonstrated how the church functions as a body of believers: Women from the church laundered the clothes Jack would be buried in, helped me pick out an outfit to wear to the funeral, bought me mint tea to help my milk supply go down, and sat patiently while I cried. Our church family offered suggestions for the ways they’d like to help, taking the pressure off of us to think of what to ask for. They brought meals, sent cards, helped pack up baby items, made snack bags for our relatives for the funeral, cared for our nieces and nephews during the service, and ministered in many other practical and emotional ways. Our childcare leaders came over to talk about how we could prepare Paul for his little brother’s funeral, and the church staff planned the service. In the hospital Jack had been on a bypass machine to take over the functioning of his heart so he could rest and have a chance of recovery. I had a strong image during this time of the church being the bypass machine for us - taking care of the functioning of daily life so that we could rest and start to heal.
Grace for a Day
Before Jack’s death, I imagined that if something ever happened to one of my kids I would want to die—that I never again would find any joy in life. This has been the hardest two years of my life; yet during this time I’ve also seen God’s goodness and have felt His love for our family.
God has given us grace to get through one day at a time… grace for each hard conversation with our older son… and grace each time we visit Jack’s grave to bring him flowers. There is a loss that won’t ever feel right this side of heaven. But when I drink mint tea, fold laundry, or see snack bags, I’m reminded of all the ways our church family cared for us, and how very much God, our great Comforter, demonstrates His love through believers.
*To learn more about Andrea and to meet our other team members, please visit our "Contributors" page.*