The Valley of the Shadow of Death

As many of you know, we walked through the valley of the shadow of death in March as we watched our oldest son, Nathan, and his wife, Melanie lose their precious daughter, Susannah Joy, after she lived only three days. We were not total strangers to that valley having lost two babies, ourselves, to miscarriage. As Susannah’s life was held in the balance, we felt like our lives were on hold as well. At that moment, it didn’t seem like any semblance of reality or normalcy could ever continue again. But a month later, we found ourselves celebrating Joseph’s eighteenth birthday with life moving forward—without the grandbaby we had so excitedly anticipated being part of each special event.

I was with Melanie the day she was in early labor. Because of her serious back labor, I rode to the hospital with Nathan and Melanie to rub Melanie’s back while Nathan was driving. For four days, I ended up living at the hospital with them during the time Susannah was in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). I was Melanie’s companion when she needed to be in her room to eat or rest, enabling Nathan to be with Susannah. I was their secretary and messenger since cell phones weren’t allowed in the NICU. I was also the one to sit with Susannah in the middle of the night when Nathan and Melanie were forced to leave her to sleep a few hours.

When Job’s seven sons and three daughters perished in one day, Scripture tells us of Job’s response. “Then Job arose, and rent his mantle, and shaved his head, and fell down upon the ground, and worshipped, And said, Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither: the LORD gave, and the LORD hath taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD. In all this Job sinned not, nor charged God foolishly” (Job 1:20-22). In the very early morning hours of Susannah’s last day, I was able to hold her during my turn at her side while her parents slept. I memorized those verses with that precious, tiny baby in my arms. They were words of comfort, truth, and hope for my hurting heart.

We wanted to go through this trial as Job went through his trial, but we didn’t really know what that meant in a real-life situation of a baby dying. Job grieved, but he also worshipped the Lord in the midst of that grief. Throughout those most difficult three days, we found our continual words to each other and our family members were, “God is good.” He is good in the midst of pain just as He is good when all is going smoothly. We were determined to praise the Lord Jesus even when our hearts were breaking with the seriousness of the situation we faced. In hindsight, I believe the confession of God’s goodness was a part of our worship of Him at that time.

Nathan would regularly say to Melanie and me during those hospital days, “We aren’t going to ask questions. We are simply going to trust the Lord.” Of course, they asked many questions of the doctors and nurses about Susannah’s care and how she was doing. Those were not the questions to which he was referring. The unasked questions were concerning why this was happening when they had waited five long years for a baby and the Lord had finally filled their empty arms. There were so many of these kinds of questions we could have asked for which there were no answers. I saw Nathan’s wisdom in his direction to us. What would we accomplish by dwelling on those questions? The trials in our lives produce tests of our faith. “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). I can’t understand; will I still believe?

“And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). That trust Nathan was calling us to rest in was based upon the truth of God’s Word. While we continually cried out to the Lord Jesus for Susannah’s healing, there was a sense in our hearts that He might not answer that prayer with physical, earthly healing, which would have been the “work together for good” that we would have chosen.

“Blessed be God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies, and the God of all comfort; Who comforteth us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort them which are in any trouble, by the comfort wherewith we ourselves are comforted of God” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4). I experienced that comfort through my miscarriages, and I experienced it again with Susannah’s death. In the hospital, especially when we knew Susannah wouldn’t make it, I felt like maybe I would start crying and never stop, but I didn’t. One way the Lord comforted me was to keep me busy. There was always a phone call to make, something to be carried to the NICU, or a job in the room that needed to be done.

When Steve and I were on the way home from the hospital after Susannah’s death, we stopped at a convenience store. As we walked in, the first sight I saw was a young mommy coming out with a tiny baby in a car seat. How many times during Melanie’s pregnancy had I seen a similar situation and thought to myself, “Soon that will be Melanie with her baby”? As I looked at that mommy and baby, my eyes filled with tears thinking that Nathan and Melanie would never put Susannah Joy into a car seat. At that moment, I realized I had a choice in front of me. I could gaze at the baby and think about all the “what if’s,” focusing on my pain and grief and Nathan and Melanie’s as well. Or I could turn my thoughts away from myself and onto the Lord Jesus Christ through thanksgiving. “In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you” (1 Thessalonians 5:18).

Thanksgiving is a daily, ongoing choice I have to make. I can wake up in the morning thinking about Susannah and start to cry, or I can wake up praising the Lord. When something hits me out of nowhere that reminds me of Susannah, and I begin to cry, I can continue to cry, or I can take those thoughts captive. “Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5). The truth is that while we wanted Susannah to be a part of our lives on earth, she is with the Lord Jesus—a place filled with the joy of His presence without any pain or sorrow. The span of this life is but a passing moment compared to the eternity we will spend with her. Where will I put my thoughts—on myself or on my Lord Jesus?

We are very grateful to each of you who have prayed for Susannah, Nathan, Melanie, and our family. You have been a part of God’s rod and staff that brought us comfort. Your prayers and words have sustained us, and they have caused us to thank God as we walk in this valley of death.

“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me” (Psalms 23:4). Perhaps you have walked through the valley of the shadow of death. Maybe you have faced or are facing another type of trial for which there are no answers. May I encourage you that God is good. Trust in the truth of His Word. Allow yourself to be comforted by the God of all comfort. Set your mind on thanking Him rather than on the grief or difficulty.