The death of a child
I suspect many people remember this song: ‘Would you know my name, if I saw you in Heaven? Would you be the same, if I saw you in Heaven? I must be strong, and carry on, because I know I don’t belong, here in
Heaven…’ When rocker Eric Clapton wrote those words, he was thinking not of the potential success of a hit record, he was writing from the heart. On March 20, 1991, just a week after my own son was born, Eric Clapton lost his four year old son Conor in a tragic, heart-rending accident. It happened on the 53rd storey of a New York apartment building. Conor, like all boys his age, was full of energy.
Unfortunately a cleaner had just finished wiping a large floor to ceiling window and left it open to dry. Conor was running and, before his mother could grab him, simply fell out the window, plunging 49 stories to the rooftop of an adjacent four storey building.
There are so many ‘if- only’ elements to this sad event, and Clapton took nine months off to grieve. As commentators noted, when he returned to performing his music was much more powerful and more reflective.
The other week, someone I know lost a child in an equally tragic accident in Auckland. Again, the ‘what-ifs’ and pain swirl in an endless cyclone of recriminations wishes by the parents that they could turn back time and do something – anything – differently.
Death comes to all of us, yet it is incredibly hard to deal with. The pain, the trauma and the emotional loss from an event like these is like a jagged blade in the heart, and the wounds take a long time to heal. So if religion is supposed to answer these “meaning of life” questions, if religion is supposed to help us deal with the ultimate question, how do the various religions stack up when it comes to death?
If you don’t believe in any kind of afterlife, I suspect coping with death is hardest for you. And indeed, medical and psychiatric studies have repeatedly found that a spiritual belief makes people cope with life better than those who don’t have one. For a non-believer who loses a child, there is no hope, just an aching hole in the heart where their baby used to be.
For Buddhists, Hindus or follower of New Age doctrines, life is a cycle of reincarnation, and the grieving parent at least is comforted by the idea that their child will return as someone else’s child. The downside to this is the loss of personal identity. In the Eastern faiths, you become one with the universe, recycled and then spat back down to Earth again where past identities and memories of those you loved are lost to you – a meaningless, cosmic Groundhog Day.
It is Christianity, I suggest, that offers the only tangible hope for non-Christians and Christians alike.
The central theme of Christianity is triumph over death. Death entered the world through the fall from Eden. Now imagine that sequence in reverse, where a kind of supernatural Earth (Eden) is poisoned,, in a massive universe-wide dimension shift that kicks humanity and the world it occupies out of the heavenly dimension into a dimension where death and decay exist. This was the first separation of humanity from God.
Jesus Christ came back to Earth to offer an invitation back for those who believed. In regard to children, it is widely believed from Christ’s comments that children who die are accepted into Heaven by God’s grace. For a grieving parent, Christian or not, God’s grace is equally available by invitation. Only Christianity and the example of Jesus’ resurrection, offers the hope of seeing a dead child alive again.
And yes, Eric, little Conor will know your name, if choose to join him, there in Heaven.