Language of Loss
When our first child was diagnosed with brain cancer at 18 months, butterflies decorated the oncology wing of the children’s hospital. Their colorful wings adorned the walls and windows, and bedecked doctors’ ties and nurses’ scrubs. When our fourth child was diagnosed with a rare genetic condition, the butterfly was the symbol for the support groups for the condition, both in the US and in Europe. I’ve been intimately acquainted with child loss and the butterfly symbol for many years.
It’s the perfect symbol, really. Just as butterflies are delicate and vulnerable, children with life threatening illnesses are physically fragile and need special care. Brevity characterizes the butterfly’s life, as it does the lives of chronically ill children. The strength of the connection has produced a unique language of loss, a poignant vernacular reserved for those touched with bitter, premature farewells:
“Baby M. became a butterfly last
night and flew to join her friends.”
“Little K. has grown his new shiny wings, forever free.”
“Fly high, butterfly A., we’ll see you again.”
The language shared among bereaved families is a stunning revelation of what our hearts long for and what we innately know about our departed infants and children: Their spirits live on after death. Intuitive perceptions such as these are a gift from God, and proclaim that we are made in His image (Genesis 1:27). Using butterfly-speak when speaking of such losses fosters a warm camaraderie within grief groups and turns attentions away from the great depth of darkness that surrounds the death of children. Even those who profess no religion and would typically deny the existence of the soul readily use this language of loss. I’ve never met a bereaved parent that didn’t welcome an acknowledgement that their child still “flies” somewhere.
A Symbol for the Savior
And the idea is mostly true, isn’t it? What harm could there be in speaking to child loss in these terms? Perhaps this: The spectacular significance of the symbol is overlooked. The butterfly is not merely a symbol of metamorphosis, but of the reality of Christian resurrection.
This universal symbol for child loss also happens to be the traditional symbol in Christian art for the hope of eternal life in Christ Jesus. In the book Signs and Symbols in Christian Art, George Ferguson lists images used over the centuries, along with their meaning. Under the entry for ‘butterfly’ he writes, “It is a symbol of the Resurrection of Christ. In a more general sense, the butterfly may symbolize the resurrection of all men.” In a Christian context, the symbol sheds light on our intuitions. We know our departed little ones don’t grow colorful wings, nor do their souls transmigrate into the bodies of bugs, but their souls do fly, in a sense, to be in the presence of the Lord, until the day He returns and they receive their new glorified body. (Ecclesiastes 12:7, I Corinthians 15)
The Bible illuminates the connection between the butterfly and child loss. What is used as merely an endearing symbol can aid in explaining our heart-felt yearning to continue to speak of our departed children in the present tense. When I’ve used the language of the butterfly without reference to the richness of meaning behind it, I’ve failed to share the whole story. More than a misty-eyed mythology based upon the life-cycle of caterpillars, the symbol of the butterfly magnificently points to the gospel of Jesus Christ and the reality of seeing our babies again.
The same comforting hope for departed children contains a hard teaching for the parents they leave behind. And yet, it must be said. If we want to see our children again, we must repent of our sins and walk with the One who made such a reunion possible, the Lord Jesus Christ. “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.” (John 11:25-26) Special children are selected for an early departure to heaven, but we who are left behind must enter by The Door. (John 10:9) I employ the symbol of the butterfly best by proclaiming the full gospel message, providing hope for children, families, and friends alike.
Beauty beyond Imagination
My son’s gravestone has two butterflies engraved in the top left-hand corner. Beneath the butterflies is the passage from 2 Samuel 12:23, where King David says of his deceased baby, “I shall go to him, but he will not return to me.” I lack the ability to describe how precious this passage is to those mourning a child. As well-intentioned as the butterfly language and symbol are, they lack the power to salve the deepest wounds of child loss. The butterflies on my son’s gravestone are not symbols of something he became, but of the glorious resurrection to come. When I see him again, he will have a new glorified body, the beauty of which is unable to be conceived of by the human mind. (I Corinthians 2:9) As colorful and varied as the butterflies are that God has created for us to enjoy in nature, our glorified bodies will outshine the most extraordinary species. The hope of Christian resurrection is more beautiful than butterflies.