About David & Nancy Guthrie
David & Nancy Guthrie have a twenty-something son, Matt, and have had two children, a daughter, Hope, and a son, Gabriel, who were born with a rare genetic disorder called Zellweger Syndrome and each lived six months.
They host weekend “Respite Retreats” for married couples to spend unhurried time with other couples who understand the devastation of losing a child, to learn from each other, encourage each other, and experience together renewed hope for the future.
Nancy has written a number of books, including Holding On to Hope: A Pathway of Suffering to the Heart of God in 2002, where she offered many of the lessons she learned from this sorrowful experience. Since then, she has continued to write books that reflect her compassion for hurting people and her passion for applying God’s Word to real life.
After more than 20 years with Word Music, David Guthrie launched the very first “church musical publisher just for kids,” Little Big Stuff Music. He works alongside Rob Howard in writing and recording kids’ musical projects that serve the church and proclaim the gospel.
PEEK: I also feel like I got a little glimpse of what unconditional love might be, what it might look like. With Hope it was evident to us early on that she would not grow up and so much of our care for our young children, if we really examine it, we are thinking about the future. With Hope we knew there wasn’t going to be that long term future for her. Did that cause us to cut corners on our care for her,or our love for her? No, it didn’t.
EASLEY: Serving as a pastor, I have presided over a lot of funerals. You expect to bury grandparents; you expect to bury a parent; unfortunately you expect to bury your spouse at some point, but it’s not right; it doesn’t seem fitting to bury a child. Probably the hardest tragedy for any human being to go through is a loss of a child. We continue our interview with David and Nancy Guthrie, hearing their incredible story of losing not one, but two children in the journey that this has taken them on with their walk with Christ, and what it means to live in a fallen world and to understand God’s blessings in the context of a fallen world.
Tell us about her funeral.
DAVID: Well we had a graveside service first, a burial, and had dear friends gathered around and our pastor there.
NANCY: There’s nothing that feels right about putting your child’s body in the ground. That was probably my lowest experience, to put her body in the ground and walk away.
E: You are burying potential. You’re burying all these things. David, you mentioned you were going to help your children grow up, go to college, find a mate, and all that stopped.
N: Plus, we’d spent six months caring for her body and now we’re putting the body in the ground.
D: I mean we had a sense because of the difficult few weeks leading up to her death, that it is time and there is a mercy, and now it is over. As we had the burial service and we walked away from the grave, I remember having this strong sense and then saying to Nancy, “I really thought that our faith and the way we’d been walking through this up until now would make this hurt less;
D: that it would mitigate the pain of this moment, of walking away from the grave.” Maybe it did, but you couldn’t tell by me. It didn’t feel that way; it felt like the full brunt of sorrow at that time. So that threw me a little bit because I thought, “Ok, we’ve been working on this six months of her life, so certainly there’ll be a hard day or two, but it’ll be ok.” Until you experience that and people who are hearing this, know this to be true, you don’t really know to anticipate that.
E: You don’t have any idea how you’re going to respond.
N: It was the day after the funeral that, that really came home to me. It was a Sunday morning and we went to church and all the family begins to leave and the funerals over. I remember saying to David, “I think I understand for the first time in my life why people take drugs.” I’ve never felt a pain that I’ve felt willing to do whatever it takes not to feel it before. That day, my way of dealing with it was going to bed. I just wanted to try to sleep it away and I figured out that I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t eat it away, or feel it away, or shop it away, or travel it away, or busy it away, or anything. You just have to feel this load of sorrow, you know, that for me mostly came out in tears. I just felt like I had this huge reservoir of tears inside that had to come out in some senses. They’re still coming out; it’s not like they did then, of course. Faith doesn’t eliminate sorrow. I think a lot of times we have the sense that tears somehow reflect a lack of faith and it simply isn’t so. We’re human and when you lose something or someone you love, it hurts.
E: And we grieve differently. There’s some well inside of us that we have to spend out. David, did you grieve the same way?
D: No. It’s so true. Everybody going through grief, we’re individuals; we bring our personalities; our temperament to it; there are some real commonalities, but for Nancy and I, we had to learn a little bit how to do this, together and individually. Nancy, as she said, a lot of her grief came out in tears and while I would have said at the time, “Oh, I understand that. That’s not surprising.” The when and where part was surprising to me. It was often unexpected. Where in the past it would have taken a pretty identifiable event to cause tears to flow, they could come at anytime. That was hard because there were a lot of adjustments for me; as a guy we want to make it right; we want to fix things; when Nancy’s sad I want to make her happy. I had to realize that really wasn’t what was needed here and even if it were I wasn’t capable of changing her and she explained to me, “Those tears need to come out. Don’t stop them.”
E: Couples have got to hear this in everyday life, not just about losing a child, that you can’t fact away a feeling, is the way I often tell people. For instance just because “Okay, honey, Okay Cindy, because you feel this way let me tell you the facts behind this.” You can’t fact away a feeling and we process differently. Now many couples divorce; there’s a high percentage of couples who lose one child and will separate. Did conflict arise during this time?
D: There’s no doubt that this kind of sorrow, this kind of loss, and for many people there’s added trauma that may have caused the death.
D: Yes, so many factors and no doubt it puts a new stress and strain on a marriage. No marriage is perfect anyway and when this tidal wave hits you, it exposes where the foundation may have been shaky before, so definitely it throws off your equilibrium. One way I like to say it is, if you’ve been married for any amount of time as a couple, you’ve kind of worked out some communication methods and some shortcuts and you kind of fill in the gaps for each other; it kind of all works. You think we’ve got a great marriage. We communicate really well. What I found happens is this throws off the whole axis of your communication, so it takes a new kind of commitment and the difficult thing is you’re doing it when you’re the weakest, individually. It may sound as you hear those kinds of descriptions, “Wow, how does anybody make it through grief?” However, what we have found is that this kind of experience as a couple really gives you an opportunity to grow closer believe it or not. I think of it like the stories you hear of soldiers who’ve gone through a war together. They may have not known each other beforehand and they spent a short of time, but it’s so intense, and it’s a shared intensity and they’re lifetime friends. They grow very close or there’s also sports teams, and that same kind of thing can happen. Nancy and I realized we needed to lean on each other through this so it was a blessing. When I felt tapped out, she was a little stronger, and vice versa.
N: I think one of the reasons couples struggle under a load of grief, is that we don’t understand that the essence of grief is a deep loneliness. The whole reason we got married is so that we wouldn’t be lonely, right? So we can tend to think if I’m this lonely, he or she must not be being there for me in the way I need them most and so we can start in the midst of grief saying, “You know he won’t cry with me,” or “He won’t talk to me about it,” and “that’s what I need,” or “She’s crying all the time; doesn’t she know I want to have some fun?” But mostly heightening the expectations of each other and what I would say is an inappropriate expectation that our spouse by their very presence and their response to our grief should eliminate the deep loneliness of grief. Once we recognize, even if my spouse is perfectly responding to me, whatever that is, responding to me in the way that is perfect for me, I’m still going to feel desperately lonely in the midst of grief. That helps to lessen or make more appropriate our expectations.
E: There’s times, Nancy, when you needed David to just be there or whatever, and there’s times, David, when you needed Nancy to be there and obviously as we do in any situation in life we meet each other needs the wrong way. So if I’m feeling really hurt and lonely and whatever, and he’s not availble; she’s not available, how does that work?
N: Well we realized for one thing, that we were still expecting each other to read each others mind, to know what we needed and David was talking about being pushed into new territory so like never before we realized we just needed to be willing to state, “Here’s what would be helpful. Here’s what I need.”
D: It’s a secret revolutionary method we’ve come up with and that’s, “Say it.” (Laughter)
N: So for example, it was an issue for us at times when I was crying. Often times it was at the end of the day, I’d get in bed and we’d watch something on TV, or maybe turn the TV off, maybe I’d felt like I’d held in tears all day that needed to come out and I’d start to cry.
N: David sometimes would kind of ignore that;other times I felt like he would move in to comfort me in a way that I felt the pressure to stop crying. Then I’d realize, “Okay, I’m feeling annoyed by how he’s responding,” but not only have I not communicated to him what would be helpful, I don’t think I’ve ever thought through it clearly, so that’s not fair. I told him at one point, “You know when I’m crying like that, it would help me if you would just reach over and put your hand on me and that lets me know that you recognize I’m sad, but you’re not also trying to get me to stop. You know, Michael, that began to help then, and here sixteen years later it’s still working.
D: That was huge.
N: It sounds so simple to say; it’s embarrassing to say; but it’s actually very significant.
E: The key I think here is, “I don’t know what I need right now.” That’s huge.
E: Cindy and I have this thing. I’ll walk in the door and I can tell when I’m coming up the stairs what kind of mood she’s in. Before I even open the door, I know exactly the mood she’s in. I can take a look at her in the office and confirm it. Leave the woman alone may be the approach. Other times it’s, go sit down and just say, “What’s going on? How’s your day?” But that’s thirty four years of marriage and working at it. You guys had a crash course, one hundred ninety-nine days of intensive care, in this new situation and Matthew is also in the background. He’s there when she’s born.
D: He took her up to his second grade class to show her off shortly after she was born. He was overhearing all the conversations that we were having with friends and a lot of them were challenging. They were certainly new for him. It’s hard to even describe what those days were like because they were filled with the mundane stuff of life that we all go through, but everything was charged with a new awareness of our own mortality, of a new kind of eyes looking to God asking, “What are you doing and what do you want from us? What does this mean? What’s the bigger picture? We had a sense that people were leaning in watching, curious, fascinated, horrified.
E: All points in between.
D: We were busily living our own life trying to still give Matt the life of a eight or nine year old at that time and all the things that that entails. We were also continually asking God to give us energy and the wisdom to glorify Him in this process.
N: One of the most significant experiences I had with Matt, was in second grade and he goes to a Christian school and so everyday at the end of the day they prayed. So what do you think they prayed? His whole class was praying that God would heal Hope. I‘ll never forget him coming out to the carpool one day after second grade and he immediately looked at me and said, “Mom, should I expect God to heal Hope or not?” I knew why he was asking that. That’s what was being prayed everyday and I just said to him, “Well Matt, I don’t know. We know that God can do anything. He spoke the world into being. He can do anything.” But I also know that no child has ever lived past infancy with this syndrome. “Here is what we do know: is that Hope is in God’s hands, whether she’s here with us or whether she’s there with Him, we can trust Him with her.” That was part of the struggle of this honestly, that people of faith, we have a very limited prayer vocabulary in regard to suffering; we really only know how to pray for God to take the suffering away.
E: Even in that as a pastor who’s prayed with scores of people, it’s “God, I know you are able to do things.” Our prayer is: “Are you willing to do this? And is this the right thing to pray for?” We can be even as the professional minister, we can be chastised for not believing in God. Talk a little bit about that because it’s not a “little engine that could” faith; the more faith we have in God, then the more I think He’s going to perform for me; I think I can, I think I can. It’s a positional faith that whatever you do God, help us to accept it?
N: Well you asked earlier about asking the question why; that’s something we’ve continued to do in what I hope is a fruitful way during that time and in the years since, and that is to look at the Scriptures. We see over and over again the good purposes that God presents in the Scriptures in regard to suffering. I mean, in fact I love it because as we go through the Scriptures, so many times it will talk about an experience of suffering and it will actually use the words, “This happened so that.” So think of Paul when he says, “To keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in the flesh.” So he saw a purpose.
E: That passage disturbs me because that’s a messenger of satan sent from God, if you look at it carefully. That’s one for another day.
N: Yes, I love talking about that, but many other places. This “happened so that,” like in I Corinthians 1, So that you rely more fully on God and not on yourselves.
E: But lets stop and say this, even if we don’t know the “so that,” we still have to live by faith, right?
N: And what living by faith is saying is, “I may not understand His purposes, but I welcome you to accomplish them because I believe they’re good.”
D: Nancy mentioned earlier that Philip Yancey book that was discussing the “why question” and he was saying, “I think it’s more helpful many times for us to ask “to what end?” So we do look to God and say, “We want to understand; we want to be aware; we want to be able to respond to your purposes, but I think sometimes what that does is it causes people to say, “Ok, therefore there must be one hidden purpose out there for which God has allowed or caused suffering in my life.” It’s almost like we go on a treasure hunt, a scavenger hunt to find what is that one thing and I believe that God has a multitude of purposes in all that He’s doing, so what gives us peace ultimately can’t be our certainty that we’ve figured out exactly what God’s specific purpose was. Our peace comes from the belief and the trust that God is God and He is sovereign overall including everything in my life, good or bad, and that He is love. We mentioned earlier that sense that maybe we thought our faith would really prepare us for loss and it wouldn’t hurt, but it’s really important to follow that and say, “What it does do, is that it confirms our hope.” Faith is something that we need, not all the time necessarily. We don’t exercise it all the time. We need it when we don’t have sight.
E: It seems to be the only time it’s real to me is when there’s an in between. There’s no place to turn, that’s when I have to choose to trust God.
D: Our faith keeps us from despair because we believe this life that we’re experiencing right now; it’s not all there is. Our hope is in our belief that God gave life to Hope, and gave life to you and me, gave us the gift of life in the first place. He is the one that will perfect that life and without that we don’t have hope.
E: Phillips Brooks in the 1800’s wrote a devotional, Candle of the Lord. I’ve heard people talk about how you go through suffering and pain, and trials, so that you’ll learn something you would not have learned otherwise. Yes, I like that, but it’s also keechy to me; it’s a little bit..(unfinished thought). I came across this: The reason we are lead into trouble and out again is not merely that we may value happiness the more, from having lost it once and found it again, but that we may know something which we could not have known except by that teaching, that we may bear on our nature some impress which could not have been stamped except on natures so soften to receive it. It’s not just that I’m going to learn something I didn’t know, but through this grief and tragedy, in my life, chronic pain or whatever it is, anyone who’s listening to us; we’re softened. It’s like, “Okay, Lord now, spiritual uncle, “What do you want from me?” I often say, “I don’t ask God why; I ask Him, “How do I live? How do I go forward,” which is like Yancey’s “To what end.”
We’ve been talking with David and Nancy Guthrie about a number of their books in particular on this broadcast about losing their little daughter, Hope. The story doesn’t end there. To continue with your journey:You have buried an infant now; you buried a child who lived one hundred and ninety-nine days; you’re working through grief; you’re working through loss, family dynamics, all these things and it doesn’t stop. Somewhere in there you decide “Okay, are we going to have anymore children?”
N: Once we had Hope and we knew she had Zellweger’s Syndrome, and she had that because evidently David and I are carriers of the recessive gene trait for that syndrome; we also knew that, that means whenever we have a child, that child will have a twenty-five percent chance of having the fatal syndrome. So we had our healthy son, Matt and we had Hope, who had hit these twenty-five percent odds of having the fatal syndrome, and we had a difficult decision to make about whether or not we would have more children. Honestly, Michael, it wasn’t a simple decision. Some people might immediately say, “Oh gosh, I would never want to take that chance.” But I realize when they hear our story, and perhaps imagine the pain of it, it’s harder to imagine the joy of it and that her life did bring us a lot of joy. So we didn’t immediately say, “No, it would be the worst thing in the world to have another child who lived with us a short time, like Hope did.” Also our lives aren’t just us and there was our son, Matt, who lived in a house for six months waiting for a sibling to die and then a lot longer in a house with a really sad mom, which I promise you, it could not have been fun; there was also our parents to think about, and as hard as it is to lose a child, I think it’s doubly difficult to watch your child lose a child. We had nothing in our bag to pull out to fix it and so we decided to take surgical steps to prevent another pregnancy, so you could imagine our surprise to put it mildly, to learn about a year and a half after Hope died that I was pregnant. We weren’t just surprised; we were afraid.
E: Of course!
N: When I first discovered this, there was this cautious sense of joy, like here’s this thing we have ruled out and God has clearly overruled it.
N: Perhaps He’s done so because He’s going to give us another healthy child to raise and enjoy which we didn’t expect. Honestly, at that point our family didn’t feel complete and so that possibility was a joyous possibility, but significant, but then there was also this hit in the gut like, “Wow, you mean you might be asking us to love and lose another child? To go through this again?”
N: That seemed overwhelming. So we went through prenatal testing because we decided it’s going to be helpful to know which way we’re going and we discovered the child I was carrying was a boy who would also have the fatal syndrome.
E: So we continue on this journey of faith; this journey of things we can’t see or understand or have all our why questions resolved. We trust in Christ; we trusted His Word; we walk closely to Him even when it does not make sense. You can find out more about the Guthrie’s writings, two in particular are: Holding onto Hope and When Your Families Lost a Loved One: Finding Hope Together and we hope you’ll take a look at them. Thanks again for listening. Join us next time for the third part of our interview with David and Nancy Guthrie. This is Michael Easley inContext.
Listen to Part 3 with the Guthries.