By Michael Anderson

On a Wednesday evening in late December, 1994, our family finished supper and I read from our Advent devotional. It was a lively crew gathered around our dining room table that night, made up primarily of our six children–all eagerly anticipating the arrival of Christmas. Our oldest, Katie, was 12; Trisha–her sister and roommate–was 10, Rachel was 8, Jeremy 5, our youngest daughter Kelly 3, and little Nick just six months. My wife Debbie and I completed the family.

Nick was an especially happy baby, probably the happiest of the six, and with five older siblings there was never a shortage of people willing to hold him. Katie got to him first after supper. While everyone else was involved in kitchen clean-up, she carried him around the perimeter of the activity where he could smile and flap his arms with excitement. At one point she crouched down in a high-backed chair that was facing away from everyone, and held him up over the back like a living puppet. His smiles and laughter–with the twinkling Christmas tree in the background–convinced me to run for the camera. It was the last picture taken of him alive.

I woke up early the next morning, Thursday, December 22. I had to work that day, but Friday we were closed to start off a four day holiday weekend. Our office manager had declared it a casual day, so I dressed in a red sweater and jeans. As I walked down the hall past Jeremy and Nick’s bedroom door, I had a strong urge to peek inside. But being afraid that I might wake one or both of them, I decided not to.

It was a low-key day at the office, with everyone more geared up for the holiday than for work. I was away from my desk at about 9:00 when a coworker called me over saying she had an emergency phone call for me. I went over to her desk, picked up her phone, and was surprised to hear the voice of my neighbor, John, who worked for the same company.

“You better call home right away,” he said in a guarded voice. “I think something’s wrong with your baby.”

“What is it?” I asked, getting fearful.

“I think you should call home. I’m not sure of all the details.”

I ran back to my desk, fear working on my imagination. Quickly I punched in my home phone number and Katie answered. She was crying.

“Katie, it’s Dad. What’s wrong?” I asked.

“Can you come home?” was her only response.

“What is it? What’s wrong?”

She replied that something was wrong with Nick. Then someone else took the phone, and an unknown male voice identified himself as a paramedic. “Your son stopped breathing,” he said. “Your wife called 911, and we’re here now working on your son. Can you come home right away?”

“How’s my son?” I asked.

“Could you just come home right away?”

It wasn’t until I was running across the parking lot towards my car that the seriousness of the situation hit me, and then the tears started to come. All the way home I cried and prayed, only too aware that no one was answering my questions on Nick’s condition. I feared that he was already dead, but no one wanted to tell me over the phone. It was a ride I’ll never forget.

When I got home there were two ambulances and a county sheriff’s car in my driveway, creating a mini-obstacle course. I swerved around them and parked at a crazy angle. Getting out and running to the house, I noticed a number of paramedics just standing around talking. With a sickening feeling I realized none of them seemed to be in a hurry. And then suddenly I just knew. My last bubble of hope burst, and I knew my son was gone.

When I got inside the house it seemed to be filled with policemen and paramedics. Debbie was sitting in an armchair crying. She looked up at me and said simply and with indescribable sadness, “He’s dead.”

I went over to her in a daze. How many times had I heard those dramatic words spoken in movies and on TV, and now my wife was using them in real life in reference to our son. I sat on the arm of the chair and embraced her. Instantly we both began to sob heavily in each other’s arms, letting loose the emotions we had been just barely containing. Our bodies shook and gasped and cried as we poured it all out. It wouldn’t be the last time.

Over the next few days we would learn that Nick died of SIDS–Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, an unpredictable and untreatable fatal illness that mainly strikes babies four months old or younger. And being that he died on December 22 and was buried on December 27–sandwiching Christmas–we would also learn a lot about the delicate blending of celebration and grief.

Debbie and I were determined that Christmas would not be canceled in the Anderson home. As Christians, how could we not celebrate it, regardless of the sadness of our circumstances? Christmas, Good Friday, and Easter are the heart of our faith, and as such we felt they must be commemorated. We continued our family advent devotions. We gathered with relatives for holiday parties–both at our house and away. We continued our Christmas morning tradition of reading the story of Jesus’ birth from the gospel of Luke, followed by the family gathering at the piano to sing Christmas carols. We even arranged to have “O Come All Ye Faithful” sung at Nick’s funeral. In spite of everything, it was still Christmas. And as we told many people during those days, we wanted everyone to know that the death of our son did not detract from the birth of our Lord.

During that same period of time we also had to choose a funeral home, meet with the director, and pick out a coffin. We collected pictures for the visitation, and planned the funeral service. And we cried–a lot. The pain was always there. We couldn’t hide it, and we decided not to try.

One excellent piece of advice we received right away was this: Grief comes in waves. Let the waves carry you, go with the grief and don’t try to tough it out. We followed that suggestion to the letter, and felt that our grieving process was very healthy and complete as a result.

A second helpful piece of advice came through our reading, and that was that each person grieves differently–in different ways, at different times, to different degrees. Therefore Debbie and I decided we would not place expectations on each other. We each “allowed” the other that uniqueness–to have a good day when the other was having a bad one, to not cry when that was all the other could do, to be interested in something else when the other could only think of Nick, etc. Grasping that reality saved us from a lot of additional stress.

One evening we came home and, to our surprise, there was a message on our answering machine from a counselor with an organization called Focus on the Family. He expressed sympathy, promised prayer, and said he’d call back.

I looked at Debbie. “You called Focus On The Family?” I asked.

She shook her head. “You didn’t either?”

“No,” I said. “How did they…?”

Our 12-year-old daughter Katie spoke up. “I called them one night last week. They were closed, but I left a message on their voicemail. I figured you wouldn’t mind since it was an 800 number.”

The counselor did call back a few days later and talked with Debbie and Katie while I was at work. Focus on the Family also sent us a little “care” package. It contained some literature, a resource list, an excellent booklet by Pastor Chuck Swindoll, and Dr. James Dobson’s tape series, “When God Doesn’t Make Sense,” based on his book of the same name. We were very blessed by their compassion and generosity, and Debbie and I devoured the material. It was soothing medicine to our broken hearts.

Our church also rallied around us at that time. We were members of a very small congregation, but their collective heart was huge! We felt so loved, watched over, cared for, and provided for. Many meals were brought over, cards came in the mail, there were calls and visits, even some errands were run for us. For the first ten days or so–because of the amount of food made for us–every meal at our house was a buffet. There were so many options to choose from. Whenever anyone got hungry, all you had to do was grab a plate and browse. People couldn’t do enough for us.

Nick’s visitation was held on December 26. The line of people wishing to express their condolences stretched out the door of the funeral home and down the street. Debbie and I stood for 2 and ½ hours receiving hugs and sharing tears. Afterwards people commented on how difficult and tiring it must have been for us to do that. It wasn’t hard at all, it was selfish! Each person who hugged us seemed to impart a little more strength. Each tear shed by someone else felt like one less tear for us. The longer it went on, the better we felt.

About a week after Nick’s death the county sent a public health nurse to check up on us. She asked us about our physical and emotional health, our relationship, how our kids were doing, and our support base.

We told her how our faith was sustaining us, how we were reading the Bible and praying together, crying together, and reading lots of material on death and grieving. We told her how our church was caring for us–calling, visiting, providing meals. We told her how generous they had been with us financially–that all funeral expenses had been completely covered by their donations.

She was flabbergasted. She told us, “I’ve been doing this for 20 years now, and I’ve talked to a lot of people, but I’ve never seen support like this before. You two are very fortunate. This kind of support is very rare.”

It made us even more appreciative of our friends, our church, and our God.

Many times in the ensuing months people would say to us, “I don’t know how you guys do it. I don’t think I could handle something like that.”

We always responded, “We couldn’t without the Lord. I don’t understand how anybody could apart from God.” We wanted to make sure they didn’t think of us as stronger, superior people; because then we would get the glory and God would be left out of the picture. We weren’t surviving because of our resources, but because of His.

The Lord reached out to us in a wide variety of ways during that time: besides Focus on the Family’s generosity and our church’s kindness, we also felt the love and compassion of old friends with whom we had suffered broken or strained relationships in the past. They called or came to the funeral, and old differences melted away.

Unbelieving relatives began to seriously consider the reality of a living God. My mother-in-law was home alone one afternoon, feeling very sad, when she turned on the radio and reached KTIS—a local Christian radio station.  She was very encouraged by the music and Bible readings, and has been closer to God ever since. The really unusual thing is, she had never listened to that station before–never even knew it existed! She lives alone, and has no idea how her radio dial ended up there! I think I know.

I had opportunities to share my faith at work that I wouldn’t have had otherwise, while Debbie was able to talk to two women who had abortions hidden in their past, and help them on the road to healing. We even had a Christian telemarketer promise to pray for us!

Through Nick’s death we learned that, in spite of the pain of living in a fallen world, God is faithful. He doesn’t insulate us from tragedy and heartache, but He is always there with us–giving us the strength to endure whatever comes our way. We realized many times over that people who have no faith actually need to see Christians experience and survive serious suffering, because that clearly demonstrates for them the only sure foundation for life.

Life can be unfair. In fact, Jesus promised us that we would have trouble in this world (John 16:33). Pain and suffering should come as no surprise to any of us. Christians aren’t better than anyone else, but we are better off. The very next words Jesus speaks in that passage are filled with hope, encouragement, and triumph: “Take heart! I have overcome the world.”

Each year when Christmas is again upon us, it brings sad memories of Nick—yet also the joyful realization that Jesus Christ is bigger than all the pain this world can dish out. For us this season is a reminder that we will one day see the Lord face to face, and there in heaven we will hold our son again.

 Mike Anderson   copyright 1996             

(I wrote this story years ago for a magazine submission.  Reading it over again now I realize my style has changed somewhat and I would write this a little differently today.  But I decided to leave it as is)