Long Distance Pain
We burst out of the hospital elevator laughing, my good friends Larry and Sharon and I, on that warm night last summer. “Our” kids—my daughter and their son—had just given birth to our second granddaughter. We were like three little kids heading for the candy shop. My husband, halfway around the world that night, was painfully missing, but this time Larry and Sharon were “home” and not overseas where they have spent their married life.
As we turned the corner I pointed at the door to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) and said, “That’s where they were when Keren was born.”
Sharon said later that I turned white as a sheet. Painful memories flooded over me. “We were so far away that day,” she said, “and we grieved, but you were here and part of it all.”
Oh, so much a part of it all. Three years before, Keren, our first granddaughter had been born in that same hospital. We had known she would be impaired since the twenty-week ultrasound, but we hoped against hope that it would be minimal.
I got the call about four in the afternoon from my son-in-law. “Mom, you have a new granddaughter named Keren Elyse.”
“How is she?” I asked.
The pain in his voice was palpable. “She’s OK.”
And I knew that she was not OK, and that their lives were changed forever. By the time I reached the hospital they were already in the NICU and I was allowed in immediately. My husband arrived soon after. Our little granddaughter was stretched out on a warming table, a tiny scrap of humanity, covered with electronic probes, an oxygen tube in her nose, while doctors crowded around taking blood and doing tests. Our son-in-law stood like a silent warrior guarding his wife and child. I held both of the new parents and struggled to keep my composure.
Keren has a rare chromosomal disorder called Trisomy 18, worse than Down’s syndrome, most often fatal, never “cured.” She will always be severely multiply-impaired. But right then she was screaming for life.
At least we were there, but Larry and Sharon were thousands of miles away. All four of us are global workers who have raised our children in different and wonderful places. There comes a time, though, when our children grow up and leave us. How does the mid-life global worker handle life when their adult children hurt deeply and there is no way they can be beside them? Their world is no longer our world. Often miles of ocean separate us.
The day after Keren’s birth, Sharon wrote to their family and friends, “God has seen fit to give us a special gift of a granddaughter. We don’t know how to pray, really, except for wisdom on the part of the specialists and for the family as decisions are made. We pray for a little understanding, and lots of peace. We find it so difficult to be separated from our children, especially when we see them hurting and in need. We yearn to wrap our arms around our children and our granddaughter Keren, to comfort them, yet we can’t. Many years ago, we committed ourselves to holding our children with open hands, and once again, we are being held to that commitment.”
Against all odds, Keren went home from the hospital in a week. A few months later, at Christmas time, Larry and Sharon were able to come home for a brief visit. “We didn’t know how long she would live,” they told us later, “and we came feeling this was the one and only time we’d see her.”
Life was still very tough for that young family. Neither of the young parents got much sleep and work demands continued for our son-in-law, but they were pulling together desperately to survive and keep their child alive. Through the Christmas holidays we parents agonized together over the situation our children were facing. Just before Larry and Sharon went back overseas, another sibling took care of Keren for a few brief hours and the six of us—four grandparents and two parents—went out to dinner.
I remember sitting around the table talking logistics, in seemingly cold and calculated terms. Funeral, burial, services. Finally Sharon said to her son, “If Keren dies, do you want us to come home?”
Knowing the expense and the difficulty, he said, “I don’t want you to feel you have to do that.”
Again his mother pushed him. “Not us, you! Do you want us to come home?”
“Yes,” he said, dropping his eyes, “I need you to come home.”
It was on the table. The negotiations were done. We all knew where we stood.
Sharon wrote later, “What is it like to be so far away and not able to do anything to help? My first reaction often is feeling so utterly helpless and wishing I could be there to comfort or help in practical ways. With the news of Keren’s birth and circumstances, I just cried, hurting for them and that little helpless infant with so many problems. I wanted to hurry home and help out. I wished so much that my children didn’t have to go through so much pain—how I’d rather bear it for them.”
But when global worker parents are far from their adult children, there is no easy fix. Whether it is the birth or death of a grandchild, a loss of job, the painful breakup of a marriage, serious illness or accident—when we are in missions, we cannot just pick up and go home to help.
On the one hand we could ask, “Is this any different than all parents?” No, in some ways the inability to heal our children’s pain is the common lot of all parents of adults.
But there are a few differences. One is that the global worker parent may not have money to go home. Another, even in an age of new technology, may be poor communication systems that make phone calls and internet connections almost impossible. A third may be a sense of duty to God’s calling that cannot be ignored or left behind. Like pastors of churches, global workers are not always in control of their own schedule. There is often a team and a ministry which they cannot leave. God has called them to a people far from their own country, and the gospel compels them to complete the task.
What CAN global worker parents do when their children are far away and in distress?
One global worker mom said about her son going through a wretched divorce, “I still weep over the desperate emails from our son. There are times I just want to run back, take care of him, hug and love him as I did when he was little and mama’s hugs and kisses ‘fixed’ the pain.”
“Then I turn to our Lord God. I pray His names and call out, knowing He has brought a future and a hope to me in the past when life seemed so dark… And He will do the same for our adult children. I trust Him, knowing His ways are not our ways; His thoughts are not our thoughts.”
Turning to the Lord may seem almost too simplistic, but which of us has not at some time hit the wall and, like Paul in Romans 8, turned to God in utter desperation, knowing that “the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words”? First and foremost, we must turn to God to let Him work—in us, in them, in the circumstances.
God may also give us friends who have gone before us. When our little Keren was born, Sharon found there were two other women in her friend circle who had experienced stillborn Trisomy grandbabies.
“These grandmas could relate the pain they and their children went through during the pregnancies. We could talk about His sovereignty, trusting Him as Provider, Rock, and Sustainer for our kids. They loved me through this time as only friends can do.”
I too found certain friends who sustained me. In fact, after seeing Keren in the NICU that first afternoon, a close friend drove me to a women’s conference where I was to speak. The schedule had been set for two years. Though I had known this friend for years, I had only recently learned that her particular nursing focus had been counseling families who lost babies. That weekend she and God tag-teamed. She kept me alive physically and emotionally and God gave the messages. I stood back in awe.
Just two weeks later my husband and I had to leave for an overseas assignment. I went with great fear that our granddaughter would die in our absence and that we would never see her again. But again, God sustained her, sustained me, and provided a host of dear friends who gathered around our children for support. In fact, the support continued even after I returned—freezer meals, laundry pick-up, ironing, marketing, and sitting for an hour to hold tiny Keren so an exhausted young mom could take a nap.
A third comfort came from the fact that these adult children had grown up overseas, and their siblings are their closest friends.
For global worker parents whose children are still at home, teaching your children to bond together is a great weapon against the uncertainty of their future. Our daughter and son-in-law waited some years to have children. People often asked the intrusive question, “When are you going to have kids?”
Our son-in-law would answer, “When I get my first two through college!” He kept his word, provided a home base for his younger brother and sister, and did not start his own family until the “first kids” were on their own. God blessed him for that commitment which returns to him in rich measure from those siblings today.
Since Keren’s birth, I have seen the siblings on both sides—five of them plus some spouses—rally around as the ultimate caregivers. Though scattered around the country, all of them know how to work a feeding tube, put on leg braces and orthopedic shoes, bathe a child who cannot sit up by herself, and bring smiles and laughter to her face. They have planned vacations and visits just to be there for their niece and to help her parents.
We are most fortunate if our adult children turn to God themselves. It does not always happen, and there are no guarantees that “if we raise them right, it will all turn out well.” In fact, perhaps the greatest grief for a global worker parent is when their adult child turns their back on God and goes away from all that the parents hold precious. There are no easy answers and no words to express the pain these parents feel.
So, while saying that God is able to be God for our adult children in pain, we have to recognize they will have to turn to God themselves as they walk through dark valleys. It must be their decision to trust the Almighty, to step out and walk on their own. We help build strong roots and then set them free on their own wings. That is the joy of watching God become their God, not just their parent’s God.
In God’s grace, our little Keren is still alive and healthy today, living the meaning of her name–“strength, consecrated to God.” True, she will never be “normal” like her younger sister, but then, what is “normal?” She has her own definition.
On that lovely evening last summer, when we three grandparents who were “home” for the birth greeted our second granddaughter, we found a healthy baby twice the birth weight of her older sister. In those first few days we watched in amazement as she just did what babies do, but what we had not seen before! The email lines bulged with pictures for the one missing granddad leading a team of teachers 12,000 miles away. We rejoiced that God brings all life, even when shadows play around the sunshine.
On the somewhat rare occasion when I am in town long enough to take care of the two girls, I put the boisterous, loud, pushy, “normal” one to bed at seven o’clock. Then I sit quietly with Keren in my lap and sing or talk to her. She butts her head against me and we both heave a little sigh of relief. She cannot speak, but she makes contented noises that seem to say, “Thanks for getting rid of that noisy baby.” I lean my mouth into her hearing aid and say, “Isn’t it nice, Keren? Just you and me and blissful silence.”
Isaiah 55:8-9 “For my thoughts are not your thoughts; neither are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD. “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.”