In the modern-day United States, only 24 out of 100,000 children will die before the age of 4, and only 13 out of 100,000 will die between the ages of 5 and 14. This means that, for most parents, the death of a child is utterly unexpected.
But in 16th- and 17th-century England, the era in which the Puritans lived and ministered, a quarter to a third of children died before their 15th birthday. Parents had to anticipate that one or more of their kids would not outlive them.
So how did Puritan pastors minister to grieving parents in their day?
Three Truths for Bereaved Parents
Here are three truths that Puritan pastors impressed on those grieving the loss of a child.
1. Children are on loan from God and do not belong to us.
While we often think of children as belonging to their parents, the Puritans believed children belong to God, who entrusts them to parents for gospel aims. In his letter “To a Christian Gentlewoman on the Death of Her Daughter,” Samuel Rutherford wrote:
Remember of what age your daughter was, and that just so long was your lease of her. If she was eighteen, nineteen, or twenty years old, I know not; but her term was come, and your lease run out. Ye can no more justly quarrel your great Superior for taking His own at His just term day than a poor farmer can complain that his master taketh a portion of his own land to himself when his lease is expired.
When parents embrace this truth—that their kids belong to God and are on loan to them—rather than feeling cheated out of a lifetime with their children, they can find relief in knowing their child lived exactly the number of days God intended.
2. Your young child who has died will be reunited with you.
Separation creates a relentless ache in grieving parents’ hearts and lives. But the Puritans encouraged parents to see this separation as beneficial for their child and temporary for themselves. Samuel Rutherford asked a grieving mother, “Do you think her lost when she is but sleeping in the bosom of the Almighty? Think her not absent who is in such a friend’s house. Is she lost to you who is found to Christ? . . . [And] ye shall, in the Resurrection, see her again.”
Similarly, he wrote to Lady Kenmure, “Ye have lost a child: nay she is not lost to you who is found to Christ. She is not sent away, but only sent before, like unto a star, which going out of our sight doth not die and vanish, but shineth in another hemisphere.”
As my husband and I minister to grieving parents through our weekend Respite Retreats, it provides tremendous comfort to them to know that their young children have been welcomed into a home—a place where they are loved and cared for—and that they will indeed one day be there with them.
3. God intends your good.
The truth that God could have a good purpose in the death of a child is at once bewildering and comforting to greiving parents. Often parents are unwilling to accept that God has a good purpose in their child’s death unless they can identify and articulate what that purpose is and deem it good enough to be worth the death of their child.
When one mother suffered the death of numerous children, Rutherford framed God’s purpose as an opportunity for her growth and grounding in God: “The Lord hath this way lopped your branch in taking from you many children to the end you should grow upward like one of the Lord’s cedars, setting your heart above, where Christ is, at the right hand of the Father.”
Bereaved parents can believe God is working out his good purposes in the death of their child, even if they can’t see it clearly now, and even if that purpose is primarily what God intends to do in and through them.
Bereaved parents can believe God is working out his good purposes in the death of their child, even if they can’t see it clearly now.
Three Instructions for Bereaved Parents
Along with comforting bereaved parents with the truths of God’s providence, purpose, and promises, Puritan pastors also challenged grieving parents. To modern sensibilities, some of their challenges might seem insensitive or dismissive of the depth of the parent’s grief. But clearly these pastors took seriously their call to disciple their congregations and saw the death of a child as an opportunity to call their people to deeper trust and intimacy with God.
1. Do not let sorrow overtake you.
Rather than indulge their grief, the Puritans encouraged congregants to fill their minds with Scripture and their conversations with both the truths of the gospel and also the benefits of union with Christ. “It is a Christian art to comfort yourself in the Lord,” Rutherford wrote to the Viscountess of Kenmure.
The Puritans challenged bereaved parents to avoid becoming obsessed with their grief. To Mistress Taylor on her son’s death, Rutherford wrote, “Sorrow for a dead child is allowed to you, though by measure and ounce weights.”
Rutherford’s measured approach is helpful, but it may also be in need of some qualifiers. Surely there is a season during which being overtaken by grief is not only understandable but also beneficial. Great grief reflects great love.
In the midst of grief, however, the bereaved parent must cannot simply listen to their own desperate thoughts. They have to talk back to those thoughts with the truth of God’s Word, which provides perspective and generates genuine healing and hope for the future.
2. Affirm and submit to God’s good plan.
In a rare acknowledgement of the losses of his own children, Rutherford expressed a common lament of grieving parents and addressed it with acceptance of the sovereignty of God. To Mistress Taylor at her son’s death, Rutherford wrote:
All the knot must be, “He died too soon, he died too young, he died in the morning of his life.” This is all: but sovereignty must silence your thoughts. I was in your condition; I had but two children, and both are dead since I came hither. The supreme and absolute Former of all things giveth not an account of any of His matters.”
Similarly, and perhaps breathtakingly, Rutherford challenged a father to “thank God that Christ came to your house in your absence and took with Him some of your children. He presumed that much on your love, that ye would not offend; and howbeit He should take the rest, He cannot come upon your wrong side. I question not, if they were children of God, but ye think them well bestowed upon Him.”
Most modern comforters would not expect those to whom they are ministering to thank God for taking a child from them, but such a challenge reflects the Puritans’ thorough confidence in God’s good plans for his people. While it is profoundly difficult for a parent to accept that the death of one’s child could be part of God’s plan, it is ultimately comforting to know that God has a plan for his people and his world, and that we do not live in a world of random chance.
3. Avoid idolatry in your grief.
Many parents today would be offended at the suggestion that the length and intensity of their grief is evidence that their grief has become idolatrous. But the Puritans did not shrink from calling out excessive grief as a possible refusal to be happy in God.
John Flavel wrote, “Our God is a jealous God, and will not part with His glory to another. The world is full of examples of persons deprived of their comforts, husbands, wives, children, and estates for this reason, and by this means. Hence it is that so many graves are opened for the burying of our idols out of our sight.”
Similarly, Rutherford wrote to the Lady Gaitgirth: “Take no heavier lift of your children than your Lord alloweth. Give them room beside your heart, but not in the yolk of your heart, where Christ should be; for then they are your idols, not your bairns [children].”
To encourage a grieving parent to consider the possibility that their grief has become idolatrous requires great sensitivity, and is best communicated by someone who has truly shared that parent’s sorrow in such a way that the relationship will be able to withstand the suggestion.
4. Draw nearer to Christ in the midst of your grief.
Genuine, consistent, and intimate communion with Christ was the aim of Puritan life—and ministers saw grief as a valuable opportunity to fellowship with Christ more intimately than the grieving parent had previously experienced. “I have seen the Lord weaning you from the breasts of this world,” Rutherford wrote to Lady Kenmure.
In his letter to Mrs. Polhill, John Owen instructed her to “labour vigorously” to resolve to “bring herself into a fresh engagement to live more to Him; and you will find the remainder of your work easy; for it is part of the yoke of Christ.” While it can be challenging for bereaved parents to embrace increased intimacy and dependence on Christ as part of the good purpose of God in their child’s death (partly because they don’t want to think this increased relationship with God required such a loss), parents who do experience greater fellowship with God are the ones who emerge from loss most healed and open to returning joy.
This increased nearness to Christ was, in fact, the experience of at least one grieving mother in the Puritan era. E. Braund records an account of a Mrs. Clarke who, after the death of her youngest child, testified:
Though I lay long under the burden of that loss, yet in this time did the Lord sweetly manifest His special love to my soul, assuring me that He was my gracious and reconciled Father in Christ, whereby my love to Him was much increased and even inflamed, so that by His grace it wrought in me more diligence and carefulness to maintain and preserve these evidences of His love.
In the midst of grieving the loss of a child, parents are most interested in receiving counsel from those who have lost a child themselves. And because so many Puritan writers experienced that loss, their counsel has credibility even though it is profoundly challenging.
The Puritans’ writings, which emphasize God’s sovereignty, communion with God through his Word and prayer, heavenly-mindedness, and the Christian hope of resurrection of the dead, can serve modern parents well, helping us center our lives on God in such a way that we are equipped to endure the death of a child in such a way that we can emerge from it with a clearer sense of who God is and how he works in the world, a firmer grip on his promises, and a greater intimacy with him.