I woke up this morning with a headache. There’s nothing remarkable about that; but as I stood at the bench and gulped down a couple of pain killers, I was reminded of how unpleasant a headache can be, and how easy it is for me to get rid of it.
It’s not so easy for my son. Over the last two years, he’s missed many, many weeks of school due to headaches, tiredness and general all-around blah-ness. We’ve had blood test after blood test: all negative. A few weeks ago I took him to a paediatrician, and she told me it sounds like migraines. They run in the family, but I’ve never seen them like this before. They persist for over a week. His face is pale and his eyes dark. He sits listlessly, wrapped in a blanket. He misses yet more school. And migraines are tricky: there’s no cure, only vague management plans that may or may not work. So we’re not looking at any quick solutions.
This feels all too familiar. Four years ago, I wrote these words about my daughter: “She has been sick for over a month. Sore stomach, a bizarre headache in the back of her head, aching muscles. She’s been dragging herself through school and putting herself to bed an hour early every night, as her skin grows whiter and the circles under her eyes more purple”.1 I checked the Internet, as parents do, and alarmed myself with long words like slow-growing chronic myelogenous leukemia. Blood tests and a gastroscopy revealed a less sinister cause: coeliac disease. It took months on a gluten-free diet – months when she missed yet more school, or went to school teary and sick – before her health was restored.
So why am I telling you this? Because this is normality. It doesn’t feel normal, because kids don’t get sick all that often in our protected Western world. Not very long ago, they would have spent months in bed with the usual childhood diseases: mumps, measles, chicken-pox. Some got polio and were crippled for life. Many died young. They still do, in much of the world. We take vaccinations for granted, and we take healthy children for granted. But health isn’t normal: in this fallen world, sickness and struggle are normal (Gen 3:1-24; Rom 8:18-21). As Christians, we’re not exempt from these things. Indeed, they many come with greater frequency, as God grows us – and our children – into the likeness of his Son (Rom 8:28-30; Heb 12:7-11).
What attitude shall I bring to my children’s suffering? How shall I regard it? After long weeks of sickness, I’m tempted to complain to God and give in to despair. Why me? Why another child? Wasn’t one child with a long-term illness enough? Weren’t two? (I have a third child with ongoing health issues that I haven’t written about here.) In the back of my mind, I’m thankful that God has preserved us, so far, from the terrible suffering that many parents go through – a still-born baby, a child with leukemia, a disabled teenager – but in the forefront of my mind I’m confused, lost and desolate. Yet God is teaching me and my children so many things through these afflictions.
I learn not to expect perfection. What is it about our arrogant Western mindset that makes us expect perfection in our children, our families and ourselves? We assume that our children will be healthy and intelligent; that they’ll excel at school; that they’ll be well-behaved and accomplished. Go down this path, and it leads you to a world too terrible to imagine, where the lives of unborn children are worth nothing unless they are (apparently) perfect. But these are my children, infinitely precious, healthy or not.
I learn patience. The patience that enables me to cheerfully give up my precious solitude for another day home with a sick child. The patience that companions me during long hours in the doctor’s waiting room. The patience that helps me lay aside my plans and sit with my son on the couch, reading a story or playing a game. The patience that waits through many months to find an answer – any answer! – to a child’s worrying symptoms.
I learn to care. I’ve discovered that it’s remarkably easy to distance myself from my children’s pain. I’m tempted to tell them to stop whining and snap out of it. But it only takes a headache, like the one I had this morning, to remind me of how unpleasant pain is and how important it is to weep when my children weep (Rom 12:15) – to give them a cuddle and loving words, and make them as comfortable as I can2 – to turn these long days into precious memories of a mother who was there to comfort, leading them into the knowledge of a greater comfort (2 Cor 1:3-4).
I learn to pray, to bring my confusion and aching questions to God. Shall I refuse to trust him because he hasn’t made life trouble-free for me and our family? Shall I let fear and self-pity grow strong? Shall I pretend that God isn’t in control, that this suffering is caused by something other than him? Or shall I allow it to drive me to God, cast my anxieties on his strong shoulders, and beg him to help me in my unbelief?
I learn trust: the faith that grieves to watch my children suffer, yet somehow trusts God, on their behalf, that he has purposes in their lives that I cannot see. It’s trust in God that carries me through the dark days when I wonder what the next diagnosis will be, and that bleeds through words in my journal:
I can live with this uncertainty. I like to know the reasons, but I can live without a reason. I can live with the absolute certainty that God loves me and my children more than I will ever know, that he always has a reason for allowing us to suffer, and that the reason may stay hidden in his loving Father’s heart. I can trust my heavenly Father with my life and the lives of my children.
I learn to teach my children. I learn to work with, not against, God as he makes them more like Jesus (Rom 8:28-30). I pray with and for them. I help them to practise patience and a cheerful heart. I speak God’s words to them. As I write this, it sounds so much neater than the reality! The truth is that I have to remind myself to make this about more than another day of getting through it. I have to remind myself that kids need loving discipline, even when they’re sick. I have to remind myself to give attention to their needs. I have to remember to speak of God’s sovereign purposes and loving care.
I committed my children to God many years ago. I gave him their lives: the lives he once gave to me. If the choices he makes for them are different from what I’d choose for them, I know his decisions are better and his love greater than my own. And if I ever have to face the worst of my fears – if I hear the words from a doctor that bring an end, for a time, to happiness – then I pray that God will help me to say “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21). On that day, may I bring him my doubts, cling to him in my grief and trust his goodness. I want to love him more than anything, more than life itself, more even than the lives of my children.
So I go back to another day of getting on with my life and caring for my son at the same time. I ask how he’s feeling. I get him a drink. I do some chores. I check how he’s going. I pray, yet more prayers, that God would restore his health. This is normality. This is life. This is the Christian life. And I will trust my heavenly Father, and encourage my children to do the same.