October is International Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month—a time for families to share the memories of precious children lost during pregnancy, infancy and childhood. Many in our churches have lost children both during and after pregnancy, bringing with it profound grief and sadness. As such, TGCA asked Rick and Rhonda Mason to share their journey so that we, as God’s people, might better understand and care for those who experience such tragedy.
TGCA: Thank you so much for your willingness to be interviewed by TGCA, Rick and Rhonda. Could you please begin by telling us a little about your loss?
Rick and Rhonda: On 15 September 2007, during our third year at Moore College, we heard the words no parent ever wants to hear: ‘I’m so sorry, but there’s no heartbeat’. Our first child had died in utero at 41 weeks, two days before he was due to be induced. The next day, Rhonda gave birth and we met our son Cameron. Born still but stillborn. Since Cameron, we have had five other sons: Angus, Peter, James, Edward, and Lewis. Last month, in the third week of spring, we celebrated Cameron’s birthday—something that we do every year as a family. Had he lived, Cameron would’ve turned thirteen.
TGCA: What are some common misconceptions about infant loss?
Rick: Perhaps that the grief is less—or that grief and loss shouldn’t be mentioned—if your child dies in the womb. This may come from the ‘old’ days when a parent was often not permitted to hold, or even see, their stillborn child. The reality is, having ‘known’ Cameron in the womb for nine months we absolutely felt his loss and were overwhelmed with grief.
Rhonda: Some people expect you to ‘move on’ from losing a child. Which is strange, because you would never expect someone to ‘move on’ from losing any other type of loved one, like a spouse, or a parent, or a sibling, or a friend.
Watching our other boys grow up has solidified for us what we lost when Cameron died. You don’t just lose your child. You lose their entire lifetime.
Also, having a second baby does not diminish one’s grief for the first; nor can the new child somehow replace the one that has died. A new child brings joy, that much is certain, but the joy does not erase the grief. Instead, joy and grief exist side-by-side—a strange phenomenon, I admit, but one that is real and undeniable.
When we fell pregnant with Angus, people used to say things like, ‘But you’ll get to do all of that with your new baby…’. Our response was always the same: ‘Yes, but we’ll never get to do that with Cameron…’ One cannot replace the other. In fact, watching our other boys grow up has, in many ways, solidified for us what we lost when Cameron died. Because you don’t just lose your child. You lose their entire lifetime.
TGCA: What surprised you about grief and loss?
Rick: That there were times when I actually could function and get on with life, yet, paradoxically, still needed as much comforting as I did. As a generally thick-skinned person, I was surprised that I actually felt hurt at times as people tried to comfort us in our grief. Looking back thirteen years later, I’m surprised at how much the intensity of grief has faded; it felt so powerful and all-consuming at the time and for many years after.
Rhonda: How much it physically hurts. I grew up thinking grief was emotional labour, but it is physical labour too. It is all-consuming labour. I was also taken back by how lonely and isolating it was. Even though our friends and family grieved with us, no one truly understood what we were suffering, because we were the only ones who could grieve for Cameron as his parents. And even then, there were times when Rick and I had to grieve apart.
I was happy to grieve and to mourn because that was the only thing I had left which I could do for my little boy.
Another thing that surprised me is how much I wanted—needed—to talk about Cameron with those who would listen. And how much I needed to cry in order to survive and to function. And how happy I was to grieve and to mourn because that was the only thing I had left which I could do for my little boy.
Rick: The loneliness of grief surprised me too. Rhonda desperately needed me to understand her pain and emotions. I can see how couples can be torn apart by grief if one (or both) feels the other isn’t traveling with them in grief. And in reverse, I was surprised how much I needed to feel Rhonda’s care for me. I was surprised, and relieved, that even in the deepest grief, I still felt God’s goodness and love.
TGCA: What was most helpful to you at the time of your loss?
Rick: In the immediate stages after loss, I found it most helpful when close friends were present to listen but didn’t try to talk us out of grief. One of my best friends came to our home, picked a quiet place to read notes he’d taken at a talk on grief, then, saying nothing, he went to our kitchen, did all the washing up, then stayed in the house and listened when I needed to speak.
Rhonda: Yes, he (Ben) was amazing. A gift from God, in every sense. It was helpful when people acknowledged our loss and acknowledged that Cameron existed. It was helpful when people realised he could never be replaced. It was helpful when friends and family told us that they would never forget Cameron. It was helpful when people acknowledged that we were parents, even though we didn’t have our baby.
Friends and family who sat with me, listened to me, looked at Cameron’s photos with me, prayed with me, wept with me—those who didn’t shy away from my pain but who were able and willing to watch me grieve firsthand—they were the ones who helped me the most during the time of our loss.
Even now, I feel teary and thankful when I remember the precious ones who cared for me and loved me.
Even now, I feel teary and thankful when I remember the precious ones who cared for me and loved me in this way. Journaling also helped me immensely in that first year. Articulating my feelings on paper helped me to untangle the cloud of pain and emotion that had descended upon us, and it helped me to process my grief and to accept our loss. I ended up sharing a lot of my journaling online; this helped others to better understand the valley in which we walked, which in turn helped us.
And above all, I remember that, every night, Rick would pray The Lord’s Prayer with me. I would cling onto him, and we would both cling onto the words given to us by Jesus himself. Day after day, those words would keep me afloat.
TGCA: Conversely was there anything that was said/done at the time of your loss that you found unhelpful?
Rick: There were some specific expressions we heard a lot that, while intended helpfully, caused us wounds. Any sentence containing, ‘move on’ felt like an insult. Why are we expected to ‘move on’ from his life? He should be with us. I found it hard to hear people say, ‘God will bring good from this’, or ‘because of his death, I’ve been able to have gospel conversations.’ I would mentally scream and think, ‘but God could have brought good from his life instead. You could have had that conversation anyway!’ Hearing stories of other people’s loss was a mixed bag of helpfulness and unhelpfulness. It was a comfort to know other people understood and had survived their experience of grief, but because I felt so emotionally overwhelmed, I didn’t have the capacity to care for others if their grief was raw also.
Rhonda: People instinctively shy away from death and grief in conversations, because they fear causing added hurt. But it was the silence that hurt. Even to this day, it hurts when friends or family members gloss over the fact that Cameron lived and died. Or worse—when someone forgets about him altogether. It was also difficult during those first couple of years because my desire to grieve openly and wholeheartedly clashed with the taboo nature of death and stillbirth in Chinese culture. Relatives considered it strange that we would want to have photos of Cameron around the house, or that I would share such private intense feelings online. It anguished me to feel that my own family wanted me to somehow suppress my grief and to ‘stay positive’. That one sentiment alone added so much pain to my grief—pain that I could’ve done without.
TGCA: What advice would you give Christians seeking to care for other Christians who have suffered infant loss?
Rick: Grieve with those who grieve. Don’t imply that Christian hope, which is real and good, should make them feel anything other than what they are feeling.
Rhonda: Our inclination as Christians is to quote verses from the Bible in our messages of condolences. While we know that all Scripture is God-breathed and useful in all circumstances, you want to avoid suggesting that somehow the Bible verse makes everything better. An easy way of avoiding this is to simply switch the message around. For example, instead of saying ‘I’m so sorry for your loss, but remember that we know that God works for the good of those who love them.’, you could swap the order around and write, ‘God works for the good of all those who love them, but I’m so sorry for your loss and I can’t imagine how painful it must be right now.’ The first message implies that the biblical truth magically fixes everything. The second message acknowledges that it is possible to trust God and still grieve. By doing this simple switch, you avoid the risk of diminishing your friend’s loss and pain.
Alternatively, consider not quoting any of those popular Bible passages at all, and simply tell your Christian brother and sister that you are weeping with them and grieving with them. Truly, those were the cards that I found the most comforting.
TGCA: With the benefit of hindsight. What would you tell your past self in regards to your loss?
Rick: Don’t place any expectations on yourself for how you should be coping or what you should be feeling. Just live the experience. Work hard to make sure your partner feels that you understand and are grieving with them.
Rhonda: Over time, your heart will begin to mend. You will never ‘move on’ or ‘get over it’ as some people might tell you to. Cam is a part of you and will remain a part of you forever. There will always be a part of your heart that holds all the sadness and tears for Cam.
Over time, your heart will begin to mend. You will never ‘move on’ or ‘get over it.’ But by God’s grace, you will smile again.
But, by God’s grace, you will smile again. You will laugh again. You will sing and dance again. You will feel joy again. You will find purpose in life again.
It will never be the same as before. You will learn to rejoice and grieve at the same time. You will learn to live with both tears and laughter. You will never, ever forget Cam, and you will miss him forever. You will always carry tears in your heart. Every day. But even so, your heart will begin to mend. It will rebuild itself into something new. Something that is stronger and even more capable of love than before. You cannot fathom this now, and that is okay. But know this to be true: your heart will not remain shattered forever. Praise be to God, who will sustain your every step and who ‘so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life’ (John 3:16).
TGCA: What Biblical truths held you fast?
Rick: On the first night Rhonda asked me, ‘How does God comfort?’ I replied, ‘Through his promises and his people.’ God’s promises do comfort. God promises to care for us, to provide for our needs, he promises that he is good and working for our good. He promises that Jesus has defeated death and brought life and hope. We knew all that before we lost Cameron and we needed to know it beforehand to hold onto it in our grief. God’s people brought wonderful comfort. Not necessarily by pointing to particular bible verses but simply by their presence, their practical care, and the knowledge that they were praying.
Rhonda: God is in control. Cameron is with God. We will see him again. These three truths kept me sane and allowed me to get through each hour of each day.
TGCA: What are some helpful ways to pray for those who have lost a child?
Rick: Pray that the grieving parents’ relationship will hold together. Pray they will have the resilience to cope. Pray that they will know that God is upholding them even while they rail against him in anger and despair.
Rhonda: Pray that they turn towards each other in their grief. Pray that God will sustain their every step. Pray that God will surround them with loved ones who will grieve with them and weep with them and love them the way they need to be loved.
Born in Hong Kong, Rhonda Mason is a designer, writer, and visual artist. She is the author of Life Without Cameron, a memoir of love and loss. Her manuscript for this book received a Commendation in the 2009 Young Australian Christian Writer of the Year Awards. In her spare time, Rhonda likes to document her everyday life through words and imagery. You can visit Rhonda’s website at www.rhondamason.com.au.
Rick was born in Sydney and raised in Sydney Anglican churches, Rick has been a Sydney Anglican Minister since 2010. He is currently serving the saints at Rouse Hill Anglican Church, reaching out with Jesus’ love to Sydney’s north west and beyond. Rhac.org.au