Most mothers who have an adult child with mental illness (MI) and young children share the same fear. Losing a loved one.
Years ago, I asked my second graders to write their worst fear. Most of the eight year old children were afraid of losing a parent. I can relate to that fear. My worst fear is that my son, who has MI, will be missing.
If your child with MI is a prodigal, you may feel that no one understands your pain. But any parent would have some inkling of the trauma you experience every day. Just the thought of losing a child can elicit a gut-wrenching response.
That’s why the news of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370’s disappearance and Washington’s massive mudslide is so riveting. We’re captivated by the mudslide tragedy and follow CNN’s coverage of the missing airplane. Expressions of distraught loved ones convey the horror they feel. Tears seem to bleed disbelief that their loved ones are gone. We shudder to think of them enduring such sudden loss. Any parent, who has lost a child even for a few minutes, can imagine the horror. We can understand their desperation. So we pray for an end to their nightmare.
I experienced the terror of a missing child when Chris was only five. His teacher had chosen me to be one of the chaperones for their field trip to the zoo. As we strolled past all the animals, my hand stayed locked onto Chris’s tiny hand.
We spotted the birds of prey. The northern bald eagle captured my attention. It seemed safe enough to release Chris’s hand for just a second to snap a picture. But I was wrong. While focusing on the eagle, a huge mob of children and parents surrounded us. Chris got swallowed up in the crowd. When he didn’t see me, he thought I’d left him. So he went looking for me.
I took the picture and reached out to grab Chris’s hand. A sea of unfamiliar faces surrounded me. None were Chris’s!
Sheer panic instantly set in. My heart began to pound. I desperately searched for him, screaming his name. “Chris! Chris!”
Tears clouded my vision. Thoughts of what may have happened to him assaulted me.
Please God, please let me find my son.
Miraculously, I spotted him hiding behind a bush. He had been afraid that a stranger might take him. So he hid. My son was safely reunited with me. What relief!
Twelve years later, Chris was missing again. This time it happened during his first psychotic episode.
Chris’s fractured emotions caused him to have mood swings. His negative mood swings usually had a sad or depressed tone. But one week that type of mood swing was distinctly different. Chris seemed very angry and full of rage. It seemed like he wanted revenge. Things quickly escalated.
We were returning home from a trip to the mall. When I pulled into the driveway, Chris stepped out of the car and ran away.
I sprinted into the house to get help. “Howie, Chris is missing!!! Help me find him!” I screamed.
We drove off in different directions. As I searched in our neighborhood, fears tormented me.
This can’t be happening! This is a nightmare. Why didn’t we get him to the hospital? At least he’d be safe there. If he kills himself, he’ll be with the Lord. Oh, I can’t bear to think about that. I’ve GOT to find him.
Praying aloud pacified me enough to hold it together.
“Oh Father, please help us find Chris. Protect him. Guide me. Help me know where to look.”
I decided to stop home to see if he had returned. And found evidence he had come home briefly. Long enough to knock over his brother’s drum set and trombone. He’d also taken a computer off the desk and placed it on the floor.
I hopped back in the car to resume my search. Emptiness filled the pit of my stomach.
How is this ordeal going to end?
Once again I stopped home. A message on our answering machine revealed his location. A neighbor called to say he was there. Chris had been accusing us of abusing him. Thankfully, the neighbor called us and not the police. It must have been evident that Chris wasn’t in his right mind.
Gratitude filled my heart for his safe return. A sense of peace replaced the emptiness in my stomach. But that wasn’t the happy ending. Only brief relief from the chaos of his MI.
The parable of the lost son gives us a picture of a parent’s pain. In the story, the prodigal son came to his senses and returned home. Luke 15:20 hints at the father’s vigil.
“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.”
How did the father see his son while he ‘was still a long way off?’ He’d been staring into the distance, scanning the horizon every day hoping for his son’s return. Can you picture him straining his eyes? Spending endless hours peering into the distance? Do you know what he felt?
Many parents don’t know what’s become of their missing child—their vulnerable child who has MI. Can there be any comfort?
During my two experiences, I found comfort in the knowledge that God was with Chris. My heavenly Father knew Chris’s location and had the power to protect him. God also protected me emotionally and mentally. While Chris and I were apart from each other, nothing separated us from God’s love.
“For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 8:38-39
Steve & Annie Chapman sing of a parent’s prayer when their child is a prodigal.
‘Turn Your Heart Toward Home’