It was a wonderful day when I married my college sweetheart. He was everything I wanted in a husband; handsome, athletic, good sense of humor, committed Christian, etc. He was a school teacher and tennis coach, who loved to make others laugh, and so people were drawn to him and his magnetic personality. We became Youth Group leaders at our local church and spent lots of time with high school students. Eventually we started a family and God blessed us with 2 little girls.
May 27, 1989, started out as any another Saturday when we awoke and had breakfast with our girls. Megan was 3 and Kristin was just 9 months old. My husband, Rick, grabbed a piece of strawberry pie before heading out the door. He and one of the students from our Youth Group were going to do some painting on the church exterior. It wasn’t long until a storm was brewing on the horizon and I knew Rick would be on his way home. Suddenly there was a knock at the door and as I opened it, I was surprised to see a police officer standing there who said he had some unfortunate news to share. He proceeded to tell me there was an accident at the church, something about aluminum ladders getting too close to power lines and that two people were electrocuted. One of the people was identified by my minister as Rick, and the other was the student from our youth group. I was in shock as I heard the news along with my two children. The funeral was held at the local church and people lined up out the door and down the street to greet our family. I know God sustained me that day as I greeted hundreds of dear friends, including my husband’s 4th grade students. My heart was broken and I wondered about the God I loved who allowed such a thing to happen. My daughters were very young, so Megan did not understand for some time that Daddy was not coming home. She would ask me every day where Daddy was and when he would be home. Although I explained that he was safely in heaven with Jesus and was not coming back, she could not comprehend it, and it broke my heart to repeat it to her every day. Her Daddy was her best friend and it was difficult to watch her grieve as she accepted the reality of her loss.
November 23, 1952 – May 27, 1989
The next year was extremely difficult, but raising two little girls gave me reason to go on with life. I enrolled Megan in pre-school so she would be distracted from her grief as she played with the other children. I started seeing a Christian Counselor who helped me sort through some of the challenges I was now facing. My family and church friends were extremely supportive and helped me through the darkest of days. Soon after the one-year anniversary of my husband’s death, I put together a scrap book of the memories I had of him for my children to keep as a remembrance. As I completed the final pages of the scrap book, it felt as though a chapter in my life was coming to an end. I distinctly remember the realization that I had a decision to make as to whether to stay in this valley of grief or begin to move forward, and live the balance of my life as the gift that it truly is. And so I asked God to help me figure out what this new life would be like, and for Him to go before me.
Several years passed and I met and dated a fine young man named Bill. He was a strong person with a soft heart, and seemed to love playing with the girls, who just adored him. We soon fell in love, got married, and Bill legally adopted the girls as his own. We soon had another daughter, Brooke, who brought much joy to our lives. She was easy-going and the older girls loved playing with her. Life was good once again.
On May 1, 2003, tragedy struck again. Bill was at a routine doctor visit when the doctor discovered a large mass in Bill’s chest and abdomen. After several tests Bill was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, stage 4B. When we heard the diagnosis I cried for 2 days. Bill was trying to be brave, but I could see the fear in his eyes of his unknown future. I struggled with my faith and asked God if I had not grieved properly the first time, that I had to possibly endure my second husband’s death? But I decided to trust Him even in this, and I felt God’s peace and comfort in unexplainable ways as we traveled on this journey. As we met with the oncologist, there seemed to be a glimmer of hope that his body would respond to chemotherapy treatments. We were filled with anticipation as the tumor started shrinking and things were starting to look hopeful. But soon the treatments stopped working and Bill became a candidate for a bone marrow transplant. His sister’s blood was a match and she generously went through the process of donating her cells for Bill. As he received them we were all excited at the possibility of her cells fighting off the dreadful disease that had been ravaging Bill’s body. But as time progressed, Bill’s body did not respond as anticipated and the doctor advised that there was no further treatment available for Bill except to continue with chemotherapy for now. Over the next year, I observed Bill valiantly fighting for his life as the cancer slowly destroyed his body. On September 19, 2005, the cancer claimed his physical body and he went to be with Jesus. Once again family and friends rallied around and offered support. God provided some special friends who ministered to me in a way that only God could provide. I knew what grief was and perhaps it made me dread it even more, as I once again experienced the ripping apart of the “two that had become one.” There was some relief in the knowledge that Bill was no longer suffering, but in the presence of his heavenly father. However, I was angry at cancer and what it had done to the sweet man who I shared my life with, and how it left my children fatherless once again in their critical years.
Billy Gene Horton
June 15, 1961 – September 19, 2005
As time passed, I felt God’s comfort in a way that the world could not comprehend. My mother passed away just one month before Bill, and then my father followed 2 years later. I was feeling alone as I watched the people I loved the most pass on. God’s care was evident in the way He took care of finances by providing sufficient life insurance to provide for the girls and me. However, as the stock market crashed in 2008 and I watched half of my finances disappear, I truly felt abandoned by any earthly stability I had ever felt. God had my full attention at this point and I cried out for His help. He heard my cry and sustained me and provided for my family in a way that only He could. He sent encouragers to help me along the way. I was involved in a ladies’ Bible Study in my neighborhood and these 10 women, who gathered together with me to study God’s Word on a weekly basis, prayed for me as I struggled with my loneliness, and became my best friends. They were truly like Jesus to me as they wrapped their arms around me and loved on me like only Jesus could do.
As I look back on these difficult times, I am ever grateful for God’s comfort, peace and eventually bringing joy back into my life. In my darkest days of loneliness, He showed Himself to me as The Great Comforter. He held me close to His heart and brought healing to mine. He showed Himself as The Great Provider in meeting all the physical needs of my family. As Job says in Job 42:5, “My ears had heard of you, but now my eyes have seen you.” I have truly experienced God in a way that I did not know before my losses and for that I will ever be grateful.
Most recently I have the opportunity to participate in the leadership of a group at my church called GriefShare. This group is composed of people who are grieving the loss of a loved one. We meet weekly to learn about grief; what to expect and how to handle difficult circumstances relating to grief. It has been a wonderful experience for me to walk along side others in grief and encourage them on their journey.
And last, but not least, God has blessed me with another husband. We were introduced by someone who said he “felt compelled” to introduce us. I see Dave as a gift from my Heavenly Father, the One who comforts me in all my trouble. “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.” (II Corinthians 1:3, 4)
Contact us if you would like to share your story!
We all have a path that brings us to this moment. I’d like to share my story, the ups and downs, what God has done in my life, and a few things I’ve learned along the way.
I was born in Japan, a military brat. I was named Todd Murdock Nigro. I’ve always wondered where “Murdock” came from. I’ve never heard a good explanation. But, I think it’s pretty cool now. My wife says it’s “distinguished”, I’m not sure what that means, but I’ll take it as a compliment.
Sadly, my parent’s marriage did not work out. My mother did her best to raise three children. We didn’t have much and my mother worked most of the time, so I was pretty much on my own from a very young age. I grew up mostly in Utah in a non-religious family in a predominately Mormon environment. I learned that it was okay to not fit in, because we didn’t.
My relationship with my mother was always difficult. She would always want to talk, yell, or lecture us whenever we were with her. I get it now. She had no one but us. My older sister and little brother would gladly let me do all the talking and so I did. I felt the brunt of my mother’s instability. She had come from a very difficult home. Both of her parents were alcoholics and she was the youngest of three. I can only imagine the lack of love, abuse, and chaos she endured. I only wanted to be loved, to have my mom be my mom. This was not what she wanted nor could she be the mom I wanted her to be.
My Uncle and Father
We had an awesome uncle that bought us ski equipment and would take us skiing every weekend. He brought (7) kids by himself ranging in age from 5 to 15. The older I get, the more amazed and thankful I am for what he did.
I remember seeing my dad once per year, usually he would come to visit to go skiing. We’d take him to the highest black diamond runs we could find for the sheer entertainment value. He usually crashed quite a bit, but he kept up with us. We always had fun times with him.
One time he came to visit, I was eager to play catch with him. I had been working on my pitching and wanted to show him how good I was. My mother could not afford for me to play little league so I used to go to the field and pitch to anyone that would play with me. Things just kept coming up, and I couldn’t show him what I could do. I was devastated. I wanted my dad to be impressed by me, his son. For the first 20 years of my life, I really didn’t know my father.
Making Things Happen
I learned that I needed to make things happen in this world. If I wanted to get out of poverty, it was up to me to find a way. If I was to be loved, I had to make myself lovable and remarkable so I could be loved. This belief was reinforced as I worked hard and some incredible things happened. I was always searching for the meaning of life and initially it was to escape from poverty.
I figured I needed to do well in school to get ahead in life. School was easy for me, but I also worked hard when I needed to. All the kids called me “4.0”, usually in a derogatory way. I wasn’t happy unless I beat everyone on a test and finished it first too. Looking back, I was a nerd and accepted my role figuring that it would pay off one day. I wound up being the valedictorian of my high school class.
Becoming a Pilot
I received a mechanical engineering degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. The only thing I remember from my college years was that is was COLD in upstate New York.
I was about to enter the workforce as an engineer, but decided that I’d rather fly airplanes. My father was very kind to help me follow my dream and loaned me the money to get all of my flying ratings. After learning to fly, the economy was tough so I decided to try to join the Air Force and be a pilot. I walked into the mall and the recruiter said, “Everyone that comes in here wants to be a pilot. We haven’t taken anyone off the street for more than 10 years. Right now they are taking away pilot slots from the Academy guys.” I left him my information and went to work as an engineer.
About a year later, I received a call from a very excited recruiter. He told me that there would be a selection board for pilot slots for Officer Training School. I put together a package and was very fortunate to be selected that year. My new meaning in life was to be the best pilot I could be.
During pilot training I met Kristen, who was in flight nurse training. We were married within a year and started our family a few years later — we just celebrated our 20th anniversary this year! So, now I wanted to be a great husband and father — that became my new motivation in life.
I flew the F-15E Strike Eagle (two-seat fighter-bomber) for 8 years, living out a childhood dream which started with Top Gun and watching the F-16’s flying above my high school every day.
You don’t get to pick your callsign in a fighter squadron. I’d had many different nicknames through my Air Force training. At Officer Training School, they called me “Wonderboy.” I looked a bit young, I guess. Then, I was “Alpha” which was kind of boring. I was hoping for something cool like “Nitro.” But, things worked out differently. One of the instructors always spelled everyone’s name backwards and put it on the flight card. Well, my last name, NIGRO, spelled backwards is O-R-G-I-N. “Orgin.” They thought that was kind of funny and that’s what I wound up with. Not the coolest callsign, but better than “4.0”, I was moving up in the world.
I can’t talk and chew gum at the same time. I’m also quite a klutz – things break when I touch them! My wife is surprised that I survived my time in the Air Force, and I am too!
My career spanned the time between the Iraq wars, but I spent about eight months enforcing the no fly zone in Iraq. I wound up being an instructor pilot for the last four years of my service and got out in 2002. We moved to Peachtree City, GA, with our two young boys and I joined my father’s business. We work together checking large construction projects for mistakes before they are built.
Completing Our Family
A few years later, with two young boys we were visiting my wife’s family at Thanksgiving. Many of Kristen’s friends were pregnant, and we had been talking about having another child for months. The subject came up with Kristen’s mother whom we called “Ma”. She gave us this advice: “You might always regret NOT having another child, but you will NEVER regret having another child.” We thought about that and it seemed so true. Our decision was made! Our family was incomplete and Kristen especially wanted a daughter.
By the summer, Kristen was pregnant and it was so exciting. My boys, Tyler and Jake were also interested in their new sibling and asked lots of questions.
We picked the name Ellie for our precious daughter. She couldn’t wait to join us and was born about seven weeks early. Ellie’s birth was uneventful until she was supposed to cry. I remember seeing the nurses take Ellie to the warmer and the tension rose as she didn’t seem responsive. I quickly became so scared. Ellie was purple and didn’t look very healthy and she wasn’t crying. All of a sudden, she sprang to life. Within a few minutes, everything appeared to be normal. She was breathing on her own and her color improved rapidly. Our little Ellie had arrived!
She weighed only 4 ½ pounds and was so small. She needed to stay in the neonatal intensive care unit for one week. We drove up to see her every day and spent the entire day with her. They didn’t allow us to stay overnight. Ellie was growing and doing much better each day. One day we brought Tyler and Jake up to see her. The boys weren’t allowed in the NICU, so I brought Ellie over to the window where the boys smiled and made faces at Ellie. They were so excited to have a baby sister.
I will never forget the day Ellie came home. We couldn’t wait to bring her home to join the family. She was so full of life and brought us so much joy from the very beginning.
I want to share with you how fantastic our three kids are.
Our oldest son Tyler (age 17) is a sweet, sensitive, and compassionate child. He is an accomplished musician and athlete, but more than anything, he was an incredible big brother to his little sister Ellie. When Ellie was little, he looked after her, played with her, and loved her with all of his heart. I’ve never seen a young boy as patient and loving to a baby.
Our middle child is Jake (age 15). He has a charming personality and will make friends with anyone. He has a heart of gold and is so much fun to be around. He also loved to play with Ellie.
Finally, Ellie (age 6) was my sweet little daddy’s girl. She and I just “got” each other. She thought I was funny and wanted to be like me. I’ll never forget our talks in bed about her dreams and her struggles. She gave the warmest welcome home every time I came through the door. We shared a love for encouraging others. Here’s a little story that I’ll finish later.
Ellie was always watching people. One day, she noticed that I was leaving encouraging sticky notes around the house for Mommy. She informed me “Daddy, where is my note?” She was irresistible! I began to write her notes and leave them where she would find them. I always wrote her one because it made her so happy (even if Mommy didn’t get one sometimes).
Ellie learned and wanted to give back. She began to write notes and cards to everyone. She took it to a whole new level! Her nice words are on all the neighbors’ refrigerators and were delivered to her swim team coaches. She always had time to write a nice note.
In early January 2012, when Ellie was six, I came home for lunch. Just before I left, I was walking out of the garage to my car and I saw Ellie run across the driveway as fast as she could. She darted around the back of the house. I walked up to the car and saw a sticky note on the window. It touched my heart and I put it over the tachometer.
Ellie Brushing Her Teeth!
This short video captures Ellie’s sweet spirit. Thanks for the laugh, sweet little Ellie!
A Terrible Day
It all began as a normal Friday. I woke up and got ready for work. Ellie inspired me to write her a note of love. The night before she said, “Dad, I wish you would write me a note, I haven’t seen one in awhile.” I left the note in the usual place on the wall where I knew she would find it and left for work.
I came home for lunch. I walked in the door and greeted Ellie sitting at the table. She smiled at me as she always did and I looked over her shoulder at the work she was doing. My wife left for the store to grab a few things.
I grabbed a snack from the refrigerator and asked Ellie, “So how is your day going?” She beamed, “Thanks for the note!” She jumped up and showed me where she had been hiding the notes she received under the kitchen bar counter. She liked having secret hiding places for important things and it seemed she treasured these notes. I came up with an idea at work that I wanted to start, so I went up into the office and began to work at the computer. I was sitting there for about 5 minutes. I had no idea my world was about to change.
Then it happened. I heard a gun shot. I jumped up and ran right into Ellie standing at the top of the stairs. She said “I’ve been shot.” I picked her up and carried her downstairs. I called 9-1-1. The next 20 minutes was a blur of chaos as our house was filled with emergency medical personnel. We had to remain outside and that’s when my wife returned.
Someone came out and said they were getting ready to move her to the hospital and that we should make our way there. As we drove, I was afraid, but I convinced myself that modern medicine could surely fix our sweet little Ellie.
We arrived and were ushered into a private waiting room. There was a knock at the door, and a doctor walked in. The doctor sat down in front of us and with compassionate eyes and voice said, “I’m sorry, Ellie is dead.” I was dazed and felt so helpless. How could this have happened? It had been less than an hour and my life was completely out of control.
Time stood still. After ten minutes or so, a nurse knocked on the door and said they had prepared Ellie for us to see her. We wanted to see our sweetie. It was so scary. I had never been to a funeral in my life. I had never lost a person close to me. I was a 42-year-old man facing death for the first time in my life and it was MY DAUGHTER. I held my wife’s hand as we stumbled into the back room. The curtain was pulled and pushed aside and there she was.
After some time, my wife wanted to call her family and left the room and I found myself alone with Ellie. I moved in close and kissed her and held her sweet little hand and just lost it. This was the ultimate low point in my life.
Then, right when I needed it, I noticed a hand on my back. It felt so soothing and comforting. It wasn’t too hard or too soft. It was exactly what I needed to get through my pain in that moment. After I had regained some composure, I looked to my side and there was a gentleman with a stubbly beard next to me. He didn’t say anything, but his hand said it all. It was on my back and it meant the world to me. I said “you sure do have a tough job,” and he just replied that it was difficult at times and he let me be in the moment with my daughter. I felt the hand of God through that nurse’s hand. I was comforted and not alone in my moments of deep anguish.
After leaving the hospital in shock and arriving at home, we had a family meeting. I did my best to rally everyone. We could get through this. We had to stick together and make sure that we didn’t let this accident destroy us. I made sure that the boys knew this was an accident and no one was blaming anyone. We all seemed to be somewhat stable for a bit when we got home. Of course, everything was about to get much worse.
I didn’t sleep that night. It was the longest night of my life. I just wanted the sun to come up again. Our family, friends, neighbors, and community rallied around us with support for which we are eternally grateful. Our church went way beyond anything we ever could have expected, loving us incredibly even though we were irregular attenders. We made it through the visitation and memorial service.
So what did happen? One of my sons was shooting at some squirrels with a pellet gun out of an upstairs window. This was not an approved practice. He got distracted and put the gun down, pumped and loaded. My other son picked up the gun, not knowing it was loaded. Ellie was accidentally shot in the chest.
A day after Ellie’s memorial I woke up with a phone call from my father. He asked me not to read the paper. I agreed to honor that request, but fear struck me very hard.
Now, up until this point I had felt like I was doing a reasonable job of keeping things together and supporting my wife and kids. But, at the same time, I was dealing with that terrible voice in my head. “How could you let this happen?”, “You are a failure”, etc. This same voice had told me for most of my life that “You are not good enough”, “No one will ever love you”.
Being in the military, I believe in the concept of the Pilot in Command. The ultimate responsibility for our family rests with me. I am the leader and needed to keep us safe. I had failed miserably.
It was later in the day, and I was alone at the computer. I became curious and went to the newspaper’s website. This article became the turning point in my life.
It didn’t say it in so many words, but it was clear that all the blame was on me. It implied that I let my daughter be killed in an environment that was so dangerous. For me, knowing that I am responsible for my home, this all fell on my shoulders and drove a stake through my heart and my guilt. I was weak already, but this was a blow that my mind could not withstand. Despite the insensitive, false statements and lack of fact finding that was strewn through the article, it couldn’t be fixed. I had no strength and just wanted to give up.
I usually sought comfort and support from Kristen and I was totally out of control mentally. I just wanted to be alone. I walked downstairs and closed all doors behind me. I went into the bedroom and locked the door. I went into the bathroom and closed the door. I went into the little room with the toilet and closed the door. I curled up into a ball and hid behind the door and just sobbed. I was so afraid that anyone would find me and I didn’t know what I was going to say. I was thinking how to just leave this unbearable situation. I knew that Kristen would eventually come. But, how could I let her know what I knew – it would surely bring her the same pain I was experiencing. I wasn’t sure she could deal with this, and I couldn’t deal with it either. I had lost all hope. For the first time in my life, I could not solve my problem and had no idea what to do.
I don’t even know how long I was there in the deepest low of my life. After a time, Kristen did come and helped me off the floor and just kept asking what was wrong. It was the hardest thing for me to build up the courage to tell her. She had the strength to listen and tell me that I was such a loving and caring father. She encouraged me and let me know how much she loved me. I just sat on the floor and she went to get me some water and tried to regroup herself. I knew that Kristen had tried her best but she couldn’t save me from myself or from this situation. We were both just trying to survive at this point.
It had been a long search over the years. I was around so many churches and learned so much about God and Jesus. Many people seemed to have peace and live lives in such a loving way. Ellie used to pray the sweetest prayers for me and our family. I wanted to be a part of it, but I just didn’t understand it and didn’t know how to open my heart. But, I knew now that it was the only way. I needed God’s love and His forgiveness. I was so tired of trying so hard to be a good person, and knowing that I could never be good enough. I didn’t want to be in control anymore.
I felt God’s hand reach down to me and fill my heart with His love. I told Him I was sorry, thanked Jesus for dying for me, forgiving me, and giving me the gift of eternal life. I gave my life to Jesus! I called my pastor, father, brother, and a friend and had them come to my house. I declared my faith to them and we prayed.
Things changed and I want to let you know what God has done in our lives!
Probably the most significant thing that occurred was that both of my boys accepted Christ and we were all baptized within a month. Kristen has been a Christian since childhood, but her faith has been strengthened through our tragedy as well.
God started teaching me.
Two Amazing Lessons
It had been three long weeks of very difficult days and nights since Ellie died. Somehow we found the strength to bring our sons to a swim meet in Atlanta. It was a long day. We were all tired after the hour long drive back home. Ma, Kristen’s mother, had stayed behind to watch our dog Maverick, and the two new puppies, Slider and Goose (did I mention we are Top Gun fans?)
When we arrived, Ma informed us that Maverick had bit her hand while she was trying to bring him in. He was barking at a neighbor and she tried to retrieve him. He apparently turned and took a large bite in her hand, puncturing her skin in several places. There was a long trail of blood through the garage and down the driveway.
My initial reaction was one of anger and responsibility. I was mad and felt that the responsible thing to do was to find a new home for him or take him to the pound. As I began to verbalize my plan, Kristen quickly resisted. She was upset too, but Maverick was Ellie’s dog and she wasn’t ready to write him off. The situation escalated rapidly and I had learned that trying to discuss anything further would likely just make things worse. So, I exited to our bathroom and decided to regroup. I called my brother and vented. I was frustrated and didn’t know what to do. Kristen and I were not communicating with each other and it was getting worse. I just tried to figure out what to do at this point discussing it with my brother.
After the phone call which lasted about an hour, I came out and discovered that Kristen was gone. The car was not in the garage and no one knew when she left or where she had gone. She had never done this before. She was somewhat unstable and this was very scary. I didn’t know what to do. I decided to go inside and check on Ma’s hand. I went to the store to pick up some medical supplies. It started raining as I arrived home and parked at the end of my driveway. Kristen still was not home. She had been gone for several hours.
While parked in the driveway, I looked in my side mirror and saw a light that was moving around and getting closer. I wasn’t sure what it was. I got a bit nervous and the light came closer and closer. Then, a large man came up to my window and shined his flashlight into my window. I rolled down my window and looked up in horror at a policeman standing in the rain.
I lost it. I didn’t want this man to talk, because I didn’t want to hear him say, “I’m sorry, sir, your wife is dead.” I began to just wail and cry, yelling “no, no!” This could not be happening. I had just lost my daughter, I didn’t want to lose my wife too. This was just too much for me and I cried and cried. I must have seemed like a madman as I just cried and carried on for what seemed like forever.
Finally, I calmed down and the policeman finally spoke. He said “Sir, I found your wife, she was parked near the lake. I approached her and she was obviously upset and crying. After identifying her, I was aware of your situation with your daughter. I told her that she needed to move on, and it was probably best if she went home. She pulled away and I decided to follow her. Unfortunately, I was called away on another problem and lost her. I came by here to see if she made it home.”
I got out of the car and we walked into the empty garage. The police officer took out his notepad and began to ask me questions. I was still a wreck but had caught my breath. I kept thinking that I was so glad that my wife was not dead, but she still could be. No one knew where she was and I was so scared. After talking with the police officer for ten minutes, he told me that they would keep an eye out for Kristen, and to call if she came home.
I went inside and realized that I had survived something incredible. I gave Ma the medicine and our doctor friend came over to look at her hand. While we were doing that Kristen arrived and she slipped into the bedroom and went to sleep. I didn’t know what to do, so I just got the boys to bed. I crawled into bed and made it through most of the night.
In the morning, I was a mess. What do I do now? I had experienced an incredible emotional trial. I just prayed to God to help me find a way to deal with this. As Kristen awoke, I asked her if she wanted to go to church. It was Sunday, and she agreed. We didn’t say a word to each other as we got ready to go. We drove to church in silence and walked into church.
The music was playing but I was not listening. The tears just streamed down my cheeks and I prayed. I missed the first half of the sermon as I kept in my prayer. Then, I felt several ideas enter my mind and I wrote them on the offering card.
The first idea involves unconditional love. This is a bit complicated. God convicted me in that moment. I hadn’t loved Kristen unconditionally. I didn’t know how and I didn’t understand it in the context of my relationships with anyone, perhaps with the exception of my children.
I believe we get to see unconditional love in its purest form at one particular instant in time. When my children were born and I looked into those beautiful eyes, my heart overflowed with love. These babies could not take care of themselves. They did not ask for anything or give anything. Yet, my love poured out into them, expecting absolutely nothing in return. The love was a true unconditional gift. That’s the kind of love that God, our Father, has for all of us, His children. I am to love God the same way. I am to love people the same way. In marriage, I am to love my wife the same way.
The other idea that I learned was to live without fear. In my mind, my wife had died. I felt the pain and the anguish of that reality for five minutes. I had processed it and I knew that I could survive it. God showed me that there is nothing to be afraid of. I would have gladly sacrificed myself for Ellie and for my wife. God was right there with me providing comfort in the midst of great trials. When keeping an eternal perspective, life is so short, and there is nothing to be afraid of.
We still have Maverick. It turns out he has some lower back issues that cause him pain when you try to pick him up. We didn’t know that then and he has been a great dog since.
I’d like to let you know how God has worked in my wife’s life. In my experience, everyone grieves differently. With that said, I think that a dad can’t understand the grief of a mother. Mother’s carry, deliver, and nurse their babies. Dad’s support the mom through all of that, but there is a world of difference! In my case, I was at work for most of the day, while my wife took care of Ellie and the boys. We grieved differently and experienced completely different losses. I lost my sweet little daddy’s girl, and she lost her daughter whom she spent all day, every day with. She lost a life that grew inside of her, something a dad just can’t understand. She lost her identity as a homeschool mom. I can’t even imagine her pain.
About 18 months after Ellie passed, Kristen decided to get a job and worked at a cafe. Soon after, she decided to reactivate her nursing license and enrolled in a Nurse Refresher Course.
Kristen now works at the Cancer Treatment Centers of America serving cancer patients as a nurse. She helps others with grief and sadness in ways that were different than hers, but with the same empathy that comes with pain.
How am I doing?
Life has become exciting again. I wake up wondering what God has planned for me. I know that life is not easy, but I don’t expect it to be. I am motivated and energized to share my heart and love to the world. I try to love God and love people in all that I do.
I’m not even recognizable from the previous me, but that’s not all bad. The old me was ruined and broken faster than I thought possible. My world had shattered. Little did I know, but Ellie had planted a seed in me that would save my life and birth a new me. Ellie loved Jesus, prayed with me and for me, and shined God’s love into my life. Her joy for life and faith is a constant inspiration and will never be forgotten.
I miss Ellie. I wish she was here and we could enjoy each other. I remember her every day. But, I would not want to be the old me. I’ve found a richer life that I had never known. I’ve found a profound sense of purpose and compassion. I know that I’ll see her again in Heaven because that is promised to all who give their lives to Christ. I live in the moment of every day, enjoying the people and blessings in my life more than ever before.
Heart of Compassion
God has given me a heart for the grieving. Kristen used to be a hospice nurse many years ago before we had kids. I always wondered how she could do that kind of work, it seemed so hard. Now I facilitate a GriefShare group and seek to bring comfort to those who have lost a loved one. It’s an incredible experience to watch a small group of people transform over the course of thirteen weeks. The first week is full of tears and brokenness and by the end of the course, friendships have formed through laughter and walking together, not alone, through the valley of grief.
One of my favorite scriptures is:
“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.”
– 2 Corinthians 1:3-4
We founded a ministry called Ellie’s Way that provides comfort to thousands of people who are suffering the loss of a loved one. We do that through our website, care packages, and online groups.
We receive many messages of thanks, but this one is my favorite because it illustrates a story of pain and joy from a bereaved mother named Kelly who received one of our care packages. The package contained a memorial necklace that had her daughter’s picture on it.
“As my daughter checked the mail today. I heard her yell, ‘Mommy, somebody got a package!’ Here at my house, we love packages! So we sat down and opened it, and each piece I pulled out was a blessing. I am struggling especially this week. When I unwrapped the necklace and I saw her face, her beautiful little face, I felt it… I don’t think that I have felt that feeling in so long, it was like I saw her again. I was excited, it was that excited feeling you get when you haven’t seen someone in awhile. The feeling where you have missed them so much and you are so extremely elated to see them. Just for a second I had that feeling. Thank you! You gave that to me even if it was just a second. That second was fabulous. I can’t tell you how you have impacted me. Ellie has a wonderful family. She is so lucky. So is my daughter to have a heaven friend like Ellie. From my soul, thank you so much. You have changed a part of me forever. All my love.” – Kelly
Letter to Me
Here’s an exercise that has helped me keep focused on what’s important no matter what life brings me.
I imagine myself in twenty years. I’m an old man who is diagnosed with cancer. I’m told that I have six months to live at most and there is nothing the doctors can do. Despite this bad news, my current health is good. I have no limitations – except the knowledge of what is growing inside of me and that I’m dying.
What would I tell myself to do with the “good” time I have left?
Fast forward six months. I’m a frail old man in bed, writhing in pain from a cancer that just won’t stop. I’m not sure how many more hours or days I have left. There is not much good news regarding my health and I’m limited to a bed. Despite this situation, I have people taking care of me as best they can.
What would I tell myself to do with the “good” time I have left?
Rewind to today. I’m a middle aged man. I’m assuming that I have more than twenty years to live, but as our six-year-old daughter’s death has shown, I could die tomorrow. Who knows? Despite this bad news, my current health is good. I have no limitations – except the knowledge that I am going to die someday.
What would I tell myself to do with the “good” time I have left?
Here’s a Letter to Me
Dear Me (old and now),
Life is a gift. Your children, family, friends, neighbors, and strangers are all gifts to be savored. Although some days may be full of hardship and sadness, each breath, heartbeat, and thought illustrates this beautiful gift of life.
Don’t forget the times that you felt most alive. Those were times when love was abounding – when your love was flowing to the world. In the time you have left, keep finding outlets to love and to serve.
Remember the power of right now. Each moment is a blessing to be enjoyed. Look for beauty in people and the world. Be present. Remain hopeful. Share life.
Follow the example of Jesus Christ. Love God with all your heart, soul, and mind. Let God fill you with love, compassion, joy, and peace.
Many people ask me, how are your sons? I prayed without ceasing that God will find a way to use this terrible tragedy for His glory. God has worked a miracle.
My older son, Tyler, is getting ready for college. He has done very well in high school and is interested in studying music and business.
I was talking with Jake over a round of golf, and I asked him what he thought about sharing our story. He told me to just share what happened. “That’s what I do, Dad!” He has many friends and is excelling at school and everything he does. He told me that he feels like he has a wonderful family and has had a great childhood. He’s shared that other kids seem to have much bigger problems. When his friends complain about their parents, siblings, or whatever, he tells them “Do you think it really is that bad?” I’m so thankful for my son who is a fine young man. His story is just beginning, I don’t know what God has planned, but it will be interesting to see.
Here’s a story about how something small and seemingly insignificant can become a treasure.
I was finally getting around to cleaning up my desk, and I found a piece of paper. It was a “To Do List” that I wrote presumably in early January 2012, just before Ellie passed away. The items on the list relate to buying Ellie’s cello, setting up the kids swim meet, and getting the address to pay Nathan (Ellie’s cello teacher).
Ellie must have seen the list, and she added an important item at the end.
I just wanted to finish the story about Ellie’s last sticky note. The sticky note in my car is something that I treasure, an unbelievable gift from an incredible daughter.
Seeing Ellie’s gift to me got me thinking more about my dad. I had lived most of my life without him. He invited me to come work for him during a summer when I was in college. I enjoyed getting to know him and our relationship has grown ever since. For the past 12 years I have worked with him – just the two of us in an office. It has been a true blessing to know my father.
Although I still find it hard that my mother abandoned her role as a mother a long time ago, I’ve grown very close to my father. Ellie’s death revealed to me the depths of my father’s love for me. Despite his grief, he was able to make up for my inability to work effectively for months after Ellie’s death. At the same time, he patiently supported me and loved me through the most difficult time of my life. He drove me home when I broke down. He has listened to me and given me encouragement. He’s loyal, compassionate, generous, full of integrity, and loves God. He brightens my day with his fun loving spirit and I know how fortunate I am to have such a caring father.
My nickname for him is “The Catcher” because he’s always been there to catch me when I needed him most. It’s been 35 years since I was disappointed by not being able to play catch with him, but I’m thankful to have so much more than impressing my dad, I’ve found his love! Inspired by Ellie, I gave this baseball to my father at a devotional breakfast.
The Wise and Foolish Builders
My life as I knew it was destroyed by a terrible tragedy. I had built my life around idols such as money, family, marriage, security, and achievement. The storms of life happen and test our foundations. Jesus said the following:
“Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.” – Matthew 7:24-27
What is your house built on? How will you survive the big storms of life? I have found a richer life through my personal relationship with Jesus Christ. He has helped me rebuild on the rock with a solid foundation that will help me through any storm, even a deadly one. Our Father is the ultimate “Catcher”, He is always available, full of love and compassion.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” – John 3:16
Would you like to know Jesus?
I’d like to share a short prayer of salvation. Will you pray this with me?
“Father, I’m so sorry for the sins of my past and I want to turn away from them and toward You. Please forgive me. I believe your son, Jesus Christ, died for my sins and was resurrected from the dead. I invite Jesus into my heart to lead me from this day forward. Thank you for the gift of life and the hope and promise of an eternal heaven with You. I pray that love, compassion, acceptance, and peace will blossom in me as your presence lights my soul. In Christ’s name, I pray. Amen.”
If you prayed this prayer sincerely, you are now a follower of Jesus! We’d love to hear about it and learn more about you. We encourage you to find a local church where you can be baptized and learn more about God through the Bible.
Writing has been very helpful to me as I’ve worked through my valley of grief. Thank you for taking the time to read my story. I hope that there is something here that encourages you on your journey. I’d love to read about your story and what you’ve learned on your path of life. (Leave a Comment below).
In the first year after Ellie’s loss I put together some Thoughts on Grief and Loss. Grief is as unique as a fingerprint. I’ve learned a few things that have worked for me and perhaps a few things will resonate with you.
If you would like to share your story, receive encouragement, ask spiritual questions, learn more about a relationship with Jesus, or request prayer, please visit our Pastor’s Corner.
Feel free to share this with anyone who might benefit.
Learn More About Ellie’s Way
Ellie’s Way Website – www.elliesway.org
Our mission is to comfort the grieving. We do that through our website which has many resources. In addition, we offer several grief gifts including our care package and memorial necklace.
Ellie’s Way Facebook Page
“Like” our Facebook page and you’ll see comforting quotes, articles, and discussion questions.
Ellie’s Way Grief Connections Group
Join our group and you’ll be connected with over 1,500 other people who are grieving the loss of a loved one. We encourage each other daily and hold regular “Share Your Memories” events.
Malaikye’s Legacy Lives On!
by Rachel Marie Rodriguez
There comes a time in your life when you see your existence through a whole different set of eyes. Sometimes, through tragedy you find a deeper appreciation for this thing called life and all it entails.
On August 12, 2011 my life was to take a life shattering turn. I received a phone call that my grandson Malaikye was taken to the Emergency Room after an apparent fall. For 3 long days we prayed and prayer for a Miracle. A Miracle that would open our baby’s eyes and eventually be able to have him discharged from the hospital. My faith remained as I knew God was hearing our emotional pleas for Him to breathe life into our baby who was being kept alive by a ventilator.
Sadly, that Miracle didn’t come and we had the painful task of having to say goodbyes to our precious Malaikye. Witnessing my son Daniel fall to his knees on the hospital floor in disbelief, agony, and emotions crushed me to my core.
As a parent, all I wanted to do was bring some sort of comfort to my son. What could I say? What could I do to take this away from him? Absolutely nothing. This was a double edged sword for me. I had lost my grandson, and in a way, I was losing a part of my son. I knew he would never be the same. He adored his little boy and I always absolutely beamed with pride as I would sit back and watch him be a father to his “little monkey”. The only thing I knew to do was to Pray and remind my son of God’s Promises.
On August 15, 2011 our Malaikye entered the Gates of Heaven. But, not before he changed the lives of four people in desperate need. My son Daniel in the powerlessness of his grief, chose to donate Malaikye’s organs. Our baby was used by God to save the lives of four strangers. The reality of this is that God did grant a Miracle that day. In fact, he granted four! He answered the fervent prayers of parents, grandparents, sisters, brothers and friends of these recipients. And for this, we are eternally grateful that others did not have to suffer the loss of their family member. The ages of his recipients ranged from 9 months to 65 years old.
You see, throughout this journey from day one our family has been a testament of a Family of God. Where there was reason to unleash our anger towards all those responsible, we held our tongues, and continue to do so because we KNOW that God will reveal all in His Timing. After a long an emotional fight for justice, the person responsible for taking his life was sentenced to 25 years to life.
It was agonizing to remain restrained in a courtroom for 3 years, but it is one of the truest of testaments that we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us! If it were not for our faith and trust in our just God this could have turned out so differently. We continue to walked confidence fully knowing that God would administer justice according to His perfect will.
Today, the judicial part of the journey is over and the murderer has been held accountable. For many, this would leave someone numb and filled with rage over this loss. I chose to persevere and find some positivity. I have chosen to honor my grandson’s memory through acts of service. In his memory I became a Donate Life Ambassador. I am grateful to embrace the platform this gives me to not only share Malaikye’s story but to bring awareness to the beauty of organ donation. Yes, my grandson is the face of child abuse; an epidemic plaguing our country, but also on a positive note, he is the face of Hope given through organ donation. Today, we live life knowing Justice was served for Malaikye. Our court journey may be over, however, I continue to come alongside other families as they await their turn for justice.
In honor of my grandson, I have taken a hobby of mine and am using it to bring joy to others. I make memorial pieces such as bracelets, key chains and necklaces for those who have lost loved ones. Being of service and learning how one of these handmade pieces brings a smile to a loved one’s family is a form of healing through my own loss. Spreading the Love of Christ as it was so freely given to me at my time of tragedy, now it’s my turn at paying it forward to help another family just beginning to walk their painful journey. In all things I do, I do to honor Christ first and foremost. I pray my actions always reflect what I so believe in. I know I will see my grandson one sweet day…for Eternity.
My son Daniel is an amazing young man that even with this constant pain over his loss, he remains a young man of integrity, strength, and positivity. And for that, God has blessed him with his own sense of renewed life in the form of the birth of another son; Daniel Jr. I cannot say how very proud I am of my son and his decision to save others in the midst of his loss.
Since Malaikye’s passing we continue to live life. It’s not easy because grief comes to visit us. Some days are definitely harder than others. Days like his birthday or the anniversary of his passing are still emotional. I have made it my purpose in life to continue to share him with whomever God has placed in my path. So as the anniversary of his passing quickly approaches, we celebrate the life of a perfect little boy that I was honored to be grandmother too. Some ask, “How have you been able to endure such a horrific tragedy and keep your faith intact?” To this I reply, I must remember that I am not alone for the Lord is by my side. He has not forsaken me. He has guided me – without my being aware at times. I have seen and felt God in all of the ways that people have reached out to us and have felt strengthened by the numerous prayers lifted to the heavens on our behalf. He works through others to provide loving support, guidance and healing. I have felt His comfort, remember His promises and I take one step in front of the other.
I have to keep it real and say there have been times that I feel I have taken huge steps backwards but we must be thankful for a God who shows grace and turns us in the right direction. The Word of God is alive and living in each one of us if only we believe. If you haven’t taken the time to put the Word in your spirit, then it cannot feed your soul and body. So, take the time to put on your spiritual oxygen mask and inhale the promises of a loving Father, who wants to revive you and see you thrive and prosper. You mean more than the world to Him. So much so, that He sent His son Jesus to die for you (John3:16)
God has held true to His Promises. He never gave me more that I could handle. He gave me strength in my weakness. He strengthened my Faith and was a lamp post to my feet in time of need. I have come to learn that there are many things God did not promise. He does not promise Justice on earth. God keeps score. He promises to heal the wounded, reward the faithful, and punish the wicked (2 Corinthians 5:10). But He doesn’t promise to do any of that until after heaven and earth are remade without the curse of sin. He promises justice. He does not promise swift justice. One sweet day I will be reunited with my beautiful grandson. But, in the meantime I will wait patiently and love life and embrace God’s grace given to me on a daily basis.
Contact us if you would like to share your story!
Hope After Suicide
by Nancy Wickett
The phone rang. It was 7:34 am. I grabbed it before it rang the second time. (Had I been asleep, I wondered?) It was my husband, Don.
“Is Philip in his room?” he asked.
“Is the van home?”
“Yes, why?” My heart started beating faster.
Don blurted out… “I just got this email he sent to all of us and it says, ‘Goodbye Forever…’”
My heart sank. I dropped the phone. I quickly went to the hall–Philip’s bedroom door was OPEN! He was gone. I told Don to come home and get me.
I’m not sure how I got through the next 8 to 10 minutes waiting on my husband. I prayed. Philip lived alone in an apartment, but he had stayed the night with us. And we spent a lot of time talking and listening to him. He had been depressed. I assured him that things would get better.
We arrived to Apartment E, and his door was locked. We banged on his door and no answer. I told Philip we wouldn’t be angry at him–“PLEASE open the door…”
Don went to get the manager to open the door. Philip was lying face down on his living room floor. He had used a gun to kill himself. I will never forget that horrible sight. It is embedded in my mind forever. My precious baby boy was was dead. Philip was 23. It was Thursday, March 1, 2007.
I was in shock! How could I go on living without Philip in my life? I saw him almost every day. He was my youngest child. I knew he was ill. He had been seeing a psychiatrist for two years and had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. He also talked about suicide but always promised he would never kill himself. I prayed for Philip — without ceasing it seemed — to be healed.
Philip started showing signs of depression when he was 20. He had moved out of our house and into his own apartment about one mile away. We thought he might just be lonely in his apartment. He still came home every day. He also complained about back pain and leg pain. Sometimes he walked with a noticeable limp. He said the medication helped at times and other times it didn’t.
He began talking about suicide. We were frantic. We met with the psychiatrist who told us Philip was too bright and his IQ was too high; assuring us that Philip wouldn’t kill himself. I didn’t buy that. I begged Philip to see another psychiatrist, but he liked this doctor and wouldn’t change. I listened to Philip tell me he hated his life and how he wanted to die. I prayed with him and for him. I promised him that those feelings would pass. Things would get better. He would have days that were a little bit better every once in awhile – that was such a relief to see! But then, the blackness of depression would drape over his whole body again. And I would see my son drown. I couldn’t save him. My love wasn’t enough.
The perfect storm was brewing. A relationship with a girlfriend ended. Philip had a well-paying job at a computer company, but he was unhappy there. He just quit showing up for work. After attempts to get him to come back, the company fired him. Philip was involved in a car accident. He called me to pick him up because his car would no longer run. We assured him that night that he could drive another vehicle and that everything would work out in time. Apparently we didn’t convince him.
I worried about Philip, and he knew I did. I shared my faith with him often. He knew I prayed for him. I actually told Philip I could never live without him. He promised me that I wouldn’t have to.
I am hesitant to say I lost Philip, because I didn’t really “lose” him. I know where he is — Philip is healed now in Heaven. He is no longer in pain and has no more tears. “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” Revelation 21:4
After he killed himself, I never thought I could go on. I barely did. I was in shock, and that protected me for a long while. I was a walking zombie for over a year. Even after that first year, I couldn’t stop sobbing. All I could think about was Philip, and how desperately I missed him! It was the worst pain imaginable. The days were long and lonely – the nights were the same. I either slept all the time, or could not sleep for many days. I gained 50 pounds. I was agitated and mean-spirited towards my family. I hurt them. It was a miserable time.
As a suicide griever, I would face the stigma of suicide often. The pastor had told us that God was waiting for Philip with open arms. I held onto what he said. I found out that many church-goers were raised to believe that anyone who dies by suicide goes to hell. I reminded them that this is not based on any Bible scripture. Suicide is not an unpardonable sin. Healthy people do not want to die. People who complete suicide are ill.
I questioned what I could have done differently and I blamed myself. Even though Philip had left us a long handwritten letter full of love and many caring thoughts, I was still left with the question, “why?” Suicide grief includes a lot of guilt and shame along with the pain and suffering.
Someone asked me if I had forgiven Philip. “Why?” I asked. “He was ill” …would I need to forgive him if he had died from cancer? I thought. I gave the question more consideration. No mother should ever have to bury her child…ever… No parent should have to. Philip was ill, yes. I still had to forgive him for the pain he had put me through. But even more, I needed Philip to forgive ME for failing him as a Mom. I was supposed to protect him from all things bad and evil. I was supposed to keep him safe. I could not fix his problems and make things all better for him. I needed God to forgive me too. I did so many things wrong. So pleading for Philip’s forgiveness and for God to forgive me was overwhelming. It was very easy to forgive my son Philip for completing suicide. He didn’t kill himself to cause me pain. He did it to end his. I forgive him. I also had to forgive myself.
The legacy Philip left was one of love. Philip won’t be defined by the way he died, but in the manner of how he lived. He was high-spirited and loved others in a big way. Sometimes he hugged me full force and tried to lift me up as he squeezed, or sometimes he would just gently kiss me on the forehead when he said goodbye. Everyone knew Philip for his sense of humor and the way he could make you laugh. He was generous. He would help just about anyone in need. He was so compassionate and kind. He was a computer wiz and an amazing singer. He was loyal to his family and stayed in close contact. He was 6′-4″ tall, and I looked up to my son in so many ways. I am very proud of him.
Since Philip’s suicide, I have been active in the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention “Out of the Darkness Walks” with my husband Don, raising $1,580 to date for TEAM PHILIP HAGAN WICKETT. (www.afsp.org)
I have also found that people do not like to discuss suicide even though it is the second-leading cause of death for people ages 15-29. It happens every 40 seconds around the world. I try to offer other grieving moms encouragement, hope, understanding, and empathy on Facebook support groups called Mothers of Suicide and Mothers Against Suicide.
I finally feel like I can reach out to others and offer hope. I am becoming more involved with a suicide prevention program, HeartlLine of Oklahoma. (www.heartlineoklahoma.org)
Also, I have begun to share my life as a volunteer tutor. I have helped two elementary girls with reading skills in the last three years at Whiz Kids. (www.whizkidsok.org)
Things are easier. The pain is less raw; it has softened. My mind is not consumed with thoughts of Philip like it once was. I miss Philip and think of him often every day. I think about all the things Philip is missing and that makes me sad. I always assumed that his bipolar disorder was temporary. But I will never know for sure. I only know that I hated to see him suffer with such despair and anguish. He is now at peace with God.
We have a picture above our mantle I bought several years before Philip died. You see Jesus’ face embracing someone in a hug. Underneath that the caption reads “Come to Me!” With the Bible verse “[I will] bind up all the brokenhearted… [and] comfort all who mourn…” Isaiah 61: 1-2
No one will EVER replace Philip in my life. He is my son. I know the true meaning of being brokenhearted. Suicide grief over a child is horrible…and seems unbearable. Only God makes it bearable.
I could not have survived without God’s comfort He provided me. I never thought I would smile or laugh again. I’ve been blessed to have family stick by my side and love me when I wasn’t very lovable. I am so thankful for that. I have a grateful heart. I survived the horrible suicide of my son and this grief journey. My surviving child James and his wife have blessed me with two amazing little granddaughters. They bring me much JOY! It’s awesome to be their Nana! I never thought I would feel joy again. I do!
I will never “get over” Philip’s suicide. I am not the same person. I would rather go the rest of my life missing Philip than never having him in my life at all. It is such a blessing to be his Mom. I will miss him forever.
If you, or anyone you know, feels hopeless or depressed or just needs to talk to someone…PLEASE CALL the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
Contact us if you would like to share your story!
by Jennifer White
On July 19th, 2011 my brother, Andrew, called me. I was getting ready for a meeting, so I didn’t pick up his call. He texted and told me to call him as soon as possible. I leaned against the wall of the bathroom in my apartment, part of me knowing my world was about to shatter. My mom, Joanie, had taken her own life after a long battle with mental illness and alcoholism. Suicide burst into my life, like an intruder, breaking things I thought I’d have forever, stealing my sense of security and knocking me to the ground.
In the beginning my mom’s suicide was a shadow cast over the memory of her life and the future of mine. It felt like the only way to define her life and the only thing that had ever happened in mine. As time passed, the shadow began to recede and I realized suicide was the ending, but it wasn’t my mom’s whole story, and it certainly wasn’t going to be my entire story. I decided I would put suicide into it’s proper place in both of our lives.
When I think of my mom’s life now I think of her laugh. I imagine her, head tilted back, eyes closed. Her laugh was never loud. It was gentle and contagious. I think of how she always seemed to know if one of her friends was going to be alone on a holiday. How she’d send food if she couldn’t be with them herself. I think of all the lives she touched, through her work as a nurse and through her friendships. Suicide is what happened in the darkest moment of her life. I wouldn’t want my life to be judged by the things I’ve done in my most despair-filled moments, so I won’t judge my mom’s existence by her suicide either. My mom’s death is now an event that happened. It is the most horrifying, terrible thing that I’ve experienced, but it is not the only thing. I have also graduated from college, changed careers, gotten married, adopted a dog and bought a home. I’ve experienced heartbreak and rejection, turmoil and other stresses. My mother was mentally ill and an addict, but she also loved children. She was always the first adult on the ground to play with a toddler and the first friend to buy a onesie for a baby on the way. She was often difficult to be around because her depression was so dark and masterful, but anyone who ever had one of her chocolate chip cookies knows they will never taste a cookie that good again in all their life. And that’s who she was. And that’s the greatest lesson she could give me and the one I apply to my grief most often. We are all multi-faceted, dynamic creatures. We all contain darkness and light. I hope my life won’t be defined by my darkest, private moments or the most visible, generous ones. I hope it will be defined by my journey in between and through those moments.
The most painful part of my grief is the knowledge that I will never see my mom again. I will never hear that laugh, or receive another gift from her. I don’t have any more opportunities to fight with her or to work through our differences. She will never meet my children or know me as an adult. That’s the pain that takes my breath away, that knocks me down in the middle of a song or the smell of a stranger on the street.
Two years after my mom’s death I started volunteering in memory of her. She taught me the importance of giving back to others and I thought volunteering might help me connect to some of the positive memories that were hidden beneath the tragedy of her suicide. One day I volunteered through the city of Los Angeles to clean up an elementary school. I was assigned to paint crew. I spent all day painting a huge wall blue and I remembered a story my dad had told me about my mom, a story from when they were young in their careers as a surgeon and a nurse, my mom had volunteered to paint Sesame Street characters on the wall’s of the children’s ward. Remembering that story made me feel deeply connected to my mom. To the woman she was and the mother she was to me, not to the way in which she died. As I drove home from volunteering that day I realized I could capture the experience I’d had that day and give a version of it to other people. I created Hope After Project, a program where I build memorial community service projects inspired by people who have died. These acts of community service help those who are grieving honor their loved ones in a positive, productive way. Every Hope After Project is custom built based on the needs of those who are grieving and the life of the person we’re remembering. We’ve planted flowers in memory of a husband, socialized shelter cats in memory of a brother, cared for trees in memory of a father, served meals to cancer patients in memory of a mother and spent time with homeless youth in memory of a son. Hope After Project gives me the opportunity to walk beside other grievers and to make the world a better place in memory of some incredible people who I never got to me in life, but who I feel so connected to.
At Hope After Projects I’ve seen grievers turn corners and connect with people who will become friends. I’ve seen families change in front of my eyes as they plant flower bulbs that will bloom, or thrust rakes into the ground, or chat with cancer patients who share the same diagnosis as their deceased loved ones. I build community service events in memory of peoples’ loved ones and then I watch as they lift rocks, or paint walls or feed animals, all while feeling the freedom to say their loved one’s name whenever they want, or take pictures with new friends, cry without explanation or close their eyes against the rays of the sun.
Sometimes people ask me if Hope After Project helps me see the “good” in my mother’s death. The answer is simple and it is no. What Hope After Project does for me is put my grief, the pain of my mother being gone and the fact of her suicide in it’s rightful place. I call it the grey space. It’s a place where the memory of my mom’s laugh doesn’t negate her alcohol induced rage. It’s a place where she was infinitely generous and made a decision to take her own life. It’s a place in my soul where I can watch healing occur and feel tremendous gratitude to be exactly where I am without feeling happy that my mother is dead. It’s the place where I heal.
Visit Jennifer’s website, www.hopeafterproject.com, to learn more about memorial community service projects that help the grieving find hope.
Contact us if you would like to share your story!
July 22, 2003 – December 25, 2012
Promise and Beauty in the Darkness
by Natalie Bacho (Abby’s Mom)
It seems surreal to be sharing our experience of loss. With life, loss is inevitable. During our 20 years of marriage, that four letter word has entered our life in different forms.
We’ve lived through pet loss, the passing of grandparents, and job loss. Then there are the more intimate losses. We had two miscarriages, Steve’s father passed very early in our marriage, his mother 12 years later. My mother passed at age 68 in 2010. Our parents are loved and missed. Each loss was difficult as it carries its own circumstance and journey.
This is how life works in the big scheme of things. However, life wasn’t supposed to unfold the way it did for us on December 22, 2012. Something this horrible doesn’t happen to our family. It shouldn’t happen to any family.
When we were asked to share our experience, it was humbling to say the least. We are also grateful. We always view any opportunity to speak of our daughter as a gift. Our lives now are very different. Any given day is a mystery as to how it will unfold. Will the day bring tears or triumph? Plans may unexpectedly change because we hit a wall of grief. Nothing is certain anymore. Nothing is as it once seemed. Nothing that is, except for God’s grace. Without this, we can’t fathom how we could live through every parent’s worst nightmare.
Steve and I are the parents to three beautiful daughters. Three girls with very distinct and different personalities. We were always amazed at how children can be related and still be opposites. Same environment, same rules, nurtured the same, but each have such different spirits. As our daughters grew nothing could be more evident. Our children are just who they are. They are ours to teach, guide, and love. Who they are on the inside is who God has created them to be.
We were thankful. We were also frazzled, hopeful, stressed, and doing the best we could as parents. I’ve always said, there’s no guidebook on how to do this. You follow your heart and pray. Sometimes you make mistakes and sometimes you get it right. You have unconditional love from your children and they have yours. There’s promise and beauty in that. There’s promise and beauty in so many things if we are open to it. Even through the darkest moments, if we try and see the light there is promise in this as well.
December 22, 2012 is a day that will never just be 3 days before Christmas for our family. After the hustle and bustle of getting ready for the holidays we were dedicating a day to be together. My dad had just arrived the day before to spend Christmas with us. The girls were very excited. Steve had been working late hours leading up to the end of the year. We decided to slow down and have a day of fun. First stop, a couple of hours at the skating rink. They were just learning this new activity. Still a little wobbly but they were getting the hang of it. I can see the day play over in my mind like watching a movie. I can see their big smiles, laughter and excitement for the days to come. A perfect way to start a well deserved break.
Next came Saturday evening Mass. Our choice to attend church on Saturday wasn’t unusual, but I don’t have an answer as to why we made this decision. Maybe it was one more chance to reflect on Advent and the anticipation of Jesus’ birth. It was a quiet hour in church together as a family of five. I have a very vivid memory while we sat in our pew. Charlotte was 5 and could fall asleep anywhere. Her tonsils were enlarged and had been for some time. A date had been set to have her tonsils removed after the first of the year. She had fallen asleep on my lap and was snoring like an old man. We received a couple of sideways glances as her snores seemed to echo in the sanctuary. Abby got the biggest kick out of this. Trying not to break into a full laugh, she stifled her laughter to a giggle.
During this time, Abby did something that I will treasure forever. She rested her head on my shoulder as we sat side by side. When I sit quietly with my memories, I can feel the beauty of this moment. I can feel the weight of her head as her thick blonde hair brushes my neck.
By this time everyone was hungry. Next stop was dinner at one of our favorite local restaurants. We enjoyed our food as we talked about the day. Abby loved this place because it had one of her favorite items on the menu. Anything fried!
We decided to tour a local neighborhood’s Christmas lights before heading home. This was a yearly tradition while listening to our favorite Christmas music. Another decision that can’t be explained, I volunteered to drive. The rationale was that I was more familiar with the neighborhood. Not a decision that I would normally make. As we look back on this night, we know without a doubt, God was with us. He was there and has never left our sides. Even when we pulled away, He stayed.
The next few moments are embedded in my memory. We were not far from the neighborhood. The light was green as we entered the intersection. In an instant there was a deafening booming sound. Then an immediate extreme hard jolt that caused our bodies to violently jerk as our minivan went into a jarring 360 degree spin. I lost all bearings as to where we were or what had happened. When the car stopped spinning it was smoking but still running. I was disoriented and confused by what had happened. I knew it was horrible. At the same time, I was trying to convince myself everything was going to be ok. It couldn’t be as bad as it seemed.
I instinctively turned to look behind me and the first sight was Charlotte slumped over in her car seat. I called her name with no answer. Then I looked at Steve who was sitting directly behind me. He had blood coming from his mouth. He was making a groan that I had never heard before. I took a quick glance towards his legs and could see pavement. His door was completely crushed. He couldn’t answer me as I kept calling his name to grab Charlotte.
Hannah was in the third row with Abby. She was reaching for me and crying. My dad was moaning in pain as he sat beside me in the passenger seat. Immediately, I started to hear voices. These were strangers who seemed to appear out of nowhere. These voices started yelling at me to turn the car off. I tried, but what my mind was telling me to do, didn’t connect to my hands. After a few fumbled tries I turned off the smoking engine. The passenger side wasn’t impacted and doors started to open. These heroes began helping us out of the van. Someone grabbed Charlotte as she regained consciousness. I was able to crawl across the passenger seat and stand. Hannah was then beside me by the aid of these angels helping us. As I grabbed Charlotte from the arms of a stranger, I began to ask about Abby. I remember a woman coming up to me and as she wrapped her arms around us she started to pray.
I kept checking Hannah and Charlotte and repeatedly asked them if anything hurt. Hannah started to complain of left leg pain. I knew she needed to be examined. My dad was in a great deal of pain with his back. Within minutes but felt like hours, the sounds of blaring sirens arrived. I remember thinking this is very bad but at the same time, this can’t be happening.
I never saw Steve again until I visited him in ICU. In a moment similar to being struck by lightning, in all of the confusion I suddenly realized I had not seen Abby. I started frantically asking people where is Abby? With Charlotte in my arms and Hannah by my side, I ran back and forth between anyone I could find with a uniform pleading with them have you seen my daughter Abby? A rescue worker told me he thought she was in one of the ambulances. He led me to a rescue vehicle with an open door. As we approached it, I looked inside and saw a sight I will never forget. I saw a team working tirelessly doing chest compressions on Abby’s small limp body. I’m a registered nurse. I knew what that meant. The parental part of me couldn’t comprehend what I was witnessing.
From this moment, it was as if we were thrust into this unfamiliar, unfathomable world with no escape.
When I’ve allowed myself to look back, I can see the light of Jesus guiding us. Some moments more clear than others. The ER nurse’s name was Martha. Not a common name but a name that held a lot of meaning. Martha was my mother’s name. She lost her battle to lung cancer 2 years before. Her presence was very much missed, especially during the holidays. She was there. God was allowing me to feel the comfort of His presence through our nurse’s name.
God provided love and strength as friends and neighbors came to the ER. He was there as the police informed me there were witnesses who had seen a large truck run a red light causing our accident. God was with Abby and Steve as family waited for their arrival to Atlanta hospitals by helicopter. Something as small as noticing one of Abby’s nurses wore zebra striped clogs (her favorite print), told me He was there. He was present as family came while we waited and prayed.
As it became medically clear that the injury Abby suffered was brain death, there are no words to describe what that realization is like. The reality of the situation was crushing. Abby’s inevitable death was being discussed without Steve. While I had 3 days to hold her, pray over her, talk to her, tell her how much we loved her, Steve was fighting for his own life. However, in a strange way, I never felt alone.
Abby was bigger than life. She was determined, strong willed, and compassionate. She loved being with family and always wanted to be on the go. She craved the spotlight and let her imagination take her from the stage to the classroom as she pretended to be a teacher. Abby admired and aggravated her older sister. She protected and mothered her younger sister. She was a good friend and kids seemed to be drawn to her. Abby had a beauty and smile that lit up the room. Her contagious laugh could brighten the darkest of days. She was discovering the vastness of God’s promises through her weekly religious education classes. She was not perfect. We had our arguments. She could be difficult. Her fiery spirit could leave you fuming. Her compassion for others was just as fierce.
Knowing Abby’s heart and who she truly was under her shell and knowing what only a parent can know of their child, it was never a question that Abby would want to give life to others through organ donation. She would want others to live, to laugh, and to love. With my 2 sisters and aunt (my mother’s sister) by my side, I watched as Abby was wheeled out of the ICU room to give the most precious of all gifts on Christmas Day, the gift of life. Before letting her go, I studied her. I wanted the impression of everything about her embedded in my mind.
It would be 4 weeks before Steve would know we had lost Abby. He had been in a medically induced coma to give his body a fighting chance. There were moments that were unclear if he would survive. Looking back, there is no answer as to why or how I could function. Only the love shown by family and friends and God’s grace can answer that.
Just as there is no guidebook for parenting, there is no reference on how to do this. Nothing to give answers to the heart breaking questions. It’s true what other parents of child loss share. It is a physical pain. Your mind can’t process much. I believe this is another way God’s grace allows your spirit and body to catch up with each other. Everything is different, family dynamic, relationships, marriage. Steve and I didn’t face this together. Our grief has never been in the same place. He had to recover physically before his grief process could begin.
The one thing we had together was our faith. Who else could we turn to? Who knew our fear and our pain with no words? How could we explain the loss of Abby to her sisters when we didn’t have the answers? Only God could carry us through this, individually and as a family. The generous giving of strangers was a way God provided in many forms. Through financial, spiritual, and personal means our family was being cared for. There are no words for the gratitude we have for so many. These gifts sustained us and gave us hope that through the darkest of days, a light was still leading the way.
This light and force kept tugging at us. Through the rawness of the loss of our daughter, we knew that Abby’s life mattered too much to just end. Our circumstance was out of our control, but we could control what happened next. Lives had to be touched by Abby’s precious life. There was no other option. We would start a foundation to help others in Abby’s honor. Children will know her as their friend and she would continue to make people smile.
With our dedicated family and others who were placed in our lives for this reason, Abby’s Angels Foundation was created in August of 2013. This foundation encompasses everything Abby and emulates her spirit. Hand made bracelets originally created by Abby’s cousins, whom she adored, are the foundation’s symbol of our faith and Abby’s life. Nothing reflects Abby more than an accessory and a little bit of bling.
Proceeds from the sales of the bracelets help fund the mission of Abby’s foundation. Purchasing a bracelet supports Abby’s Closets. These are special spaces that provide school supplies to underprivileged students. Wearing a bracelet shares Abby’s life and creates awareness of the dangers of distracted driving for all age groups, especially teen drivers. The work will continue to evolve and be on the go, just as Abby was in life. The work will keep her present in our lives and in the lives of others.
Sometimes it’s unclear as to how we got to this place. Other days it is very clear. Moments take shape like hills and valleys. Some parts of the day can be positive and productive. Other parts fall into pieces and are painfully confusing. You can’t anticipate what will bring joy and what might bring tears. You breathe in and out. You take each day literally one day at a time.
Honestly, we don’t know how to be a member of this club called child loss. We didn’t want to join. We want our daughter back to watch grow into who she was meant to be. We want to hear all 3 of our daughter’s voices tell us good morning each day. What we want and what we have planned doesn’t always come to be. We will always miss Abby every moment of every day. It may not be for us to know why this happened and why our lives took such an unexpected turn.
What we can do is mention her name everyday and talk about her as we laugh and cry. Through memories, we remind Hannah and Charlotte of their lives together. We can still parent her through the work of her foundation and feel her strong guidance. We can help others through her giving spirit. We will continue to pray and seek God’s grace and light through the darkness. We will turn to our faith and the promise of being together as a family of five, enjoying our days together once again.
Contact us if you would like to share your story!
by Lourie Formby (Ella’s dad)
“Arise, shine; For your light has come! And the glory of the Lord is risen upon you. For behold, the darkness shall cover the earth, And deep darkness the people; But the Lord will arise over you, And His glory will be seen upon you. The Gentiles shall come to your light, And kings to the brightness of your rising” (Isaiah 60:1-3).
The Spark that Lit the Flame
Friday, January 25, 2013 was a beautiful winter day. The blue sky was clear with a slight cool breeze and temperatures in the mid-60’s for most of the day in central Mississippi where we call home. My wife, Julie, called me early in the day to remind me of our meeting with friends later that night at The Back Door Restaurant, one of our favorites, located about 25 miles away in Columbia, Mississippi. I arrived home around 4:45PM and rushed in to shower and change clothes prior to leaving for our social event that evening. As we walked out, we talked about our plans for the next day, which included working in our flower beds, attending our 5-year-old Ella’s first Upward Basketball game at the church, and then taking her to the birthday party of her best friend, Gracie.
That particular evening, we decided to take our original 1940 Chevrolet Master Deluxe Sedan, aka “Ole Bess”, a car I had purchased 20 years prior. It was ideal for the short drive we were making and with a full moon rising visibility would not be an issue. We arrived at the restaurant as scheduled and had a wonderful visit with close friends of ours. As we started to leave at approximately 7:50PM, I stopped and showed my friend my car, and we talked for about 10 minutes. We hugged, said our goodbyes, and all piled into Ole Bess for the ride home.
As we made our way through the small town of Columbia, all three of us were in awe of the brightness of the full moon. Ella was the first to comment saying, “Look at the moon guys!” We all talked about how beautiful it was and the fact that it was so brilliant that evening.
As we turned onto Hwy 44 heading east, we again discussed the plans for the following day while Ella continued to comment on the moon. I began telling her that the moon would dance through the trees and follow us all the way home. About 10 miles into the drive, I made a remark to Julie that it was very unusual to not see very much traffic on this highway. We had scarcely passed any vehicles since leaving the city limits of Columbia. Just about the time I said that, Ella reminded us that it was Friday night, and that she would be sleeping with her Mommy (a new tradition we had started a few weeks before). She added, “Daddy, you’ll have to sleep in the guest room, because you snore!” We all laughed and continued our small talk.
It was at this point I noticed a car approaching from behind at a very high rate of speed. I glanced down at my speedometer, and Ole Bess was holding steady at her top speed of 50 MPH. As the car moved within 100 yards or so, I looked at Julie then glanced down to my left and said, “Honey, this fool is going to attempt to pass me on a double yellow line!” I began to move my car off the road to allow the person room enough to pass if they chose to.
Those words had barely left my mouth when the approaching car impacted ours at such a high rate of speed that it threw Julie and I forward violently. Our car was lifted and began spinning out of control. I yelled, “Hang on!” All I could hear were Ella and Julie screaming in pure terror. I turned the steering wheel hard left to correct the clockwise spin, but the car was uncontrollable. Then I saw a huge oak tree directly in front of us as my car came out of the spin. I attempted to miss the tree, but the car slammed into it, ripping off the right side of the car as it absorbed some of the impact. We hit a second oak tree head-on which caused the car to violently flip, throwing Julie out the passenger side door. The antique car did have seat belts in the back but not in the front seat mainly due to the fact that they could not be installed easily.
As the car stopped, I was stunned. The car was lying on its right side trapping Ella and me inside. I yelled for Julie but she did not answer. Ella awakened and began screaming again and crying for her Mommy. I grabbed for her and unbuckled her seat belt in the darkness. I could smell gasoline and knew we needed to get out of the vehicle as quickly as we could before it ignited. I yelled for help because my left arm was broken and I could not open the driver’s door, which was now directly over my head.
Finally, a good Samaritan yanked the door open from above and assisted me in getting myself and my daughter out. Once out of the car, Ella seemed fine for the moment, so I ran towards my wife’s lifeless body about 20 yards from where the car came to rest. As I rolled her over, her entire front skull was visible and looked as if she had been scalped. Her eyes were half opened and fully dilated. She was not breathing, and I yelled for someone to please call 911. I remember whispering something to the effect of “She’s gone!”
I then ran back to Ella, and it was at that moment a lady said, “Mr. Formby, I am one of Ella’s kindergarten teachers!” When she called Ella’s name, Ella ran to her. It was then that I began to hear my Julie moaning in pain, so I ran back to her. She ask me to roll her on her side because she was having trouble breathing. I kept begging someone to please call 911, and they reassured me help was on the way. In what seemed like hours but I finally started hearing the sounds of sirens coming in the distance.
Within about 25 minutes after the collision, Julie was airlifted to the local hospital by helicopter, and Ella (still thought to be okay) and I were transported by ground ambulance. But on the 25 minute drive to the local hospital Ella began seizing. She would never recover from her injuries and succumbed to chest and head injuries on Monday, February 4, 2013 at 10:29 AM.
Our Ministry Beginnings
The day after Ella passed away, I was contacted by a co-worker asking if it would be okay for his church to establish a memorial fund to assist us in paying our medical bills. I kindly said, “No, I don’t want to do that, but, if you wanted to start a children’s ministry, I would support it 100%.” Towards the end of that same week, my cousin sent me an email stating that Ella’s name meant “torch” or “bright light” in the Hebrew and Greek languages respectfully. This gave me an idea. I contacted the two individuals heading up the Ella Marie Formby Memorial Foundation: Children’s Ministry and asked them to change the name to Ella’s Light: Children’s Ministry.
A few days before we had Ella’s funeral, I began researching ideas for a website, logo, and the possibility of creating a 501(c)3 (nonprofit) organization. The last week of February, 2013, we met with the church accountant to discuss and make plans for the donations they had received for the ministry. We thus began to pursue 501(c)3 status which was obtained March 15, 2013. God was absolutely affirming that He was blessing us and this ministry. Within 45 days of conception, we had incorporated the ministry, filed for nonprofit status, and begun building a foundation that would have the potential of reaching thousands of children in need of the love of Jesus Christ.
Children, starting from birth are exposed to both positive and negative teachings and behaviors that they will carry with them for the rest of their lives. Our ministry believes that if we can plant the seed with our children, the love for Jesus Christ can grow in each child’s heart.
Ella’s Light Children’s Ministry, Inc. was created to keep Ella Marie Formby’s memory alive by ensuring that as many children as possible hear God’s word, come to know Him, develop a love and personal relationship with Him, and learn to serve Him through Christian programs and events provided by this ministry. Jesus told us, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (Matthew 19:14).
All donations to Ella’s Light will provide resources to rural churches that would not have the adequate means to provide Christian programs and events to reach these children. These resources will provide age appropriate bible studies and materials as well as activities for children at their biblical learning level. We understand that each child is uniquely different and God has gifted them to learn differently, therefore we pray our support to the rural church body will provide numerous opportunities for them to learn using their God given intelligence.
The Take Away
I have often stated that this has to be the worst pain and heartache we have ever endured, but we both understand that God had a purpose. Although we may not ever see the full reasons for Him to allow our only child to leave us, one day we will know.
This month will be the two year anniversary of that night that changed countless people. Since then, we have grown a children’s ministry that is located in Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Texas, Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia, Florida, and in foreign countries such as Syria, Africa, and Peru. God is working to save lost souls for his kingdom. With His help and direction we will fulfill His mission by sharing our light in an ever darkening world. If you would like to help support our ministry, please feel free to visit our website at www.ellaslight.org and get involved.
I have often thought about the needs of the poor and down trodden children in our communities. When we volunteer to help those in need, we are building rewards in heaven that will last for eternity, would you not agree? WE WANT CHILDREN LIVING SCRIPTURE NOT JUST LEARNING SCRIPTURE!
Contact us if you would like to share your story!
Interview with Steve Slotemaker
Steve, what is your loss story?
Simply, the loss that my daughters–Grace and Chloe–and I are enduring is the death of Bridget, their mom and my wife.
To tell the full story of the loss is more involved and really requires an ongoing conversation. God blessed us with a second pregnancy in early 2008. Bridget’s experience with the second pregnancy was noticeably different. Usually extremely energetic, Bridget was so tired she couldn’t participate in social outings. She slept a lot and started complaining of chest pain as the pregnancy progressed. She felt a hard lymph node near her collarbone. Later she started getting blood clots. The trips to the E.R. became so frequent for her that she called it her “Cheers Bar.” (For those who remember the sitcom, the theme song contained the lyric, “…where everybody knows your name.”)
In early May, the mystery of why this pregnancy was so difficult would be answered. I was in New Orleans sitting in a conference room with my cell phone buzzing time and time again. Finally I looked at the screen and saw my Bridget on the screen. Ducking out of the room, I answered the call to hear the news that no husband and father wants to hear.
“Babe, I am at the hospital again. They did an ultrasound and said that my gall bladder is enlarged and needs to come out. They also said that my liver looks ‘angry’. They want me in for surgery tomorrow morning to remove my gall bladder and to look at my liver. They think my liver is shutting down since I am so jaundiced.”
I flew home immediately and arrived shortly after midnight. Bridget was in our bed coughing constantly and rocking and writhing in pain. Portland hadn’t seen the sun in months and months, yet Bridget’s skin was bronzed from the jaundice. We cried. We kissed. We hugged. We prayed, boy did we pray!
Early that morning we went to the hospital for her surgery. Bridget was carted off to surgery and I waited hoping for a miracle. Hours later the surgeon asked to speak with me and Bridget’s mom. We were told that Bridget’s gallbladder was removed and that visual inspection identified cancer in her lungs, gallbladder, liver, and elsewhere within her abdomen. The surgeon confirmed our worst fear, she was terminal with 12- to 18-months to live.
This started our loss.
Bridget would be placed on chemotherapy that considered her pregnancy and would endure the pain of cancer, nausea of chemotherapy, depression of a terminal diagnosis, grief of knowing she wouldn’t raise her 2½ year old daughter, she might not know the outcome of the baby she was carrying, and leaving behind a husband she loved completely.
In June, about six weeks after diagnosis, the neonatologists advised that we should take the baby out immediately. Due to the chemotherapy and cancer, the baby was shrinking in size and wasn’t getting the nourishment needed. The placenta was deteriorating due to the chemotherapy. Chloe was born by c-section at six months and weighed one pound and two ounces.
Over the next seven weeks, I would spend my days with Bridget and our 2½ year old daughter, Grace. At night, I would visit our extreme preemie, Chloe, in the NICU. I would watch one of loves of my life slipping closer and closer to death while the other love of my life was in the NICU grabbing on to more and more of life.
August 12, 2008 was the last day I would spend with Bridget. Here is the email I sent out that night.
Do not fear, for I am with you. — Isaiah 41:10.
Today we were informed by doctors that Bridget had an infection in her port, an enlarged right half of her heart, decreased kidney function, and decreased liver function. The next step would be to take out her port and fight the infection with antibiotics. The ICU doctors requested that the surgical oncologist remove the port. This surgical oncologist is the same doctor who fixed Bridget’s hernia a little over a year ago and also who removed her gall bladder and informed us of Bridget’s stage IV cancer. Bridget adored the surgical oncologist. The surgical oncologist took a while to arrive at the hospital. When she did, and after she reviewed Bridget’s most recent CT Scans, she asked that family be gathered.
The bottom line was that removing the port would be fruitless, in the doctor’s opinion. The status of Bridget’s cancer had worsened over the past couple of weeks. The cancer in her liver and lungs had not abated with the medication. Since delivering Chloe, Bridget’s cancer has been on a rampage. Bridget’s life, in the doctor’s opinion, was being supported by medical intervention alone. Bridget was clear with the family prior to her being diagnosed, and continuing through her struggles with cancer, that she did not want her life maintained in the state that she was in. Bridget was eager for the spoils of Heaven and fought the cancer willingly out of her love for Grace, Chloe, and the rest of her family. As a result of the inevitable course, my love for my wife, her desire to be with her Savior, and her desire to die a death without pain or protraction, the choice was made to terminate all medical intervention. Within a couple of hours Heaven had another angel.
Bridget died at 10:30 PM on August 12th, 2008.
We are so thankful that God placed her in our lives. Bridget is the most beautiful person I have ever known and I, Grace, and Chloe will forever long her presence.
Steve, Grace, and Chloe
What was our loss? I lost my best friend, we lost my girls’ mother, I lost my sounding board, I lost my cheerleader, I lost someone that accepted me unconditionally, we lost the womanly presence in our home and in our lives, I lost someone to pour my love into without shame or concern, I lost my helpmate, I lost my spiritual partner, I lost my social connector, I lost my travel partner, I lost our planner, I lost my motivation to achieve to please her, and believe me I could go on and on.
What would you want everyone to remember about Bridget?
I want people to know and remember that my wife both lived and died beautifully. Everyone was drawn to a friendship and a love for Bridget because she was incredibly genuine and engaging. She had physical beauty that caught people’s attention initially. It was the beautiful way in which she lived that engaged people for the long-term. She would embrace you in conversation and genuinely listen and care. Bridget had a fun humor, cast her friendship and love widely, served happily, and was incredibly humble.
Bridget died beautifully too. As Bridget’s anesthesia was wearing off from the surgery when they found all her cancer, the surgeon told Bridget she had terminal cancer. The surgeon told me that Bridget gave a bright smile and said, “Thank you doctor, I know.” That day we were comforted by Bridget as we hoped to comfort her. She embraced our daughter in her hospital bed and read her a book. Bridget didn’t want to die, so she lived while she could. Cancer didn’t take away her smile, her personality, or her love of God.
I was witness to the love of my life serving others. She served our unborn daughter by suffering mightily through chemotherapy in an effort to give life to Chloe. I can’t imagine knowing I was going to die and that the remainder of my life would be lived in pain from cancer, medication, and chemotherapy. It would be so hard knowing that I couldn’t raise my child and that the chemotherapy and cancer might result in the death of the baby within me. Bridget persevered in faith. She trusted in God. And in the end, it was divine intervention that brought about the life of Chloe.
Bridget lived a most beautiful life and she died beautifully, too.
What have you learned through this experience?
I’ve learned that while I have walked through the valley of the shadow of death, God is with me. God doesn’t promise us a fairy tale life. Suffering is always redemptive to those that believe in Christ. My wife suffered physically, emotionally, yet was resolute spiritually; she was redeemed at death. My suffering, and the suffering my girls have in not having a living mother, will also be redeemed.
I believe that there are few things in life that test you–that you suffer through–like the death of a spouse when you have young children. I’ve been emotionally tested through grief and loss; physically tested through working all day then handling all the household duties; and spiritually tested as I have argued, doubted, and questioned God’s love for me and my family.
I’ve flirted with faithlessness. It offered no better balm to the suffering and far less hope.
I’ve learned that God works in ways I don’t understand at the time, but start to understand in retrospect. I and others have struggled with why Bridget wasn’t diagnosed earlier. Their arguments are often based on the belief that an earlier detection of Bridget’s cancer diagnosis would have resulted in earlier chemotherapy treatment thereby extending Bridget’s life.
An early diagnosis would have resulted, potentially in a few additional months, maybe a year of fighting cancer for Bridget, but the chemotherapy treatments that early in the pregnancy would have resulted in losing the baby. If left undiagnosed, Bridget likely would have died from liver failure within weeks and Chloe would not have been afforded the time to grow within Bridget’s womb to a viable size.
I believe that God’s divine intervention orchestrated an outcome that allowed for Bridget to receive her desire that the baby within her survive. No other timing of the diagnosis would have allowed Chloe to survive. As frustrating and devastating as Bridget’s cancer diagnosis and death were and is, the journey she took was timed to provide Chloe life.
I love that God answered Bridget’s prayer that the baby survive, that God gave Chloe her life, and God gave me the joy of serving Chloe as a newborn. I love God’s oversight of Chloe through the cancer that took her mother’s life. However, I still struggle with why God allowed Bridget to be stricken with cancer or why God didn’t choose to miraculously heal Bridget. My rest is only in knowing that my ways are not God’s ways and God’s ways are better than my ways (Isaiah 55:9).
I’ve learned that I can accomplish more than I ever thought possible.
When Bridget died of terminal cancer, I was staring at a life without my wife, with a 2½ year old, and with an extreme preemie in the NICU. While I had a tremendous amount of help, the tasks before me were extraordinary.
It has been so rewarding to be an only parent to Grace and Chloe. Don’t get me wrong, I would much prefer Bridget to be alive and with us. But, to be a part of nearly every bedtime and every bath has been a blessing. I love that the girls run to me when they are hurting. I’ve made nearly every breakfast and school lunch. As a result, I am far closer with my girls than I would otherwise be. The work has its rewards.
I never thought I could do this much and enjoy it. God has blessed me with two amazing girls and a disposition that enjoys serving them daily.
Read more of Steve’s writing about his walk through the valley of grief here:
Medium.com – Steve Slotemaker
Contact us if you would like to share your story!
Interview with Daphne Greer
November 27, 2002 – July 16, 2008
Daphne, what is your loss story?
It was summer, July 16, 2008, to be exact. My son, daughter and I were on our way to daycare and work. We commuted 25 miles each way every day and were about 15 miles from home when suddenly, we hit a farm truck in the middle of the highway.
After the car came to a stop, all I could hear was my 3 year old son, Hunter, crying hysterically in the back seat. I looked up, my windshield was shattered and driver’s side door was caved in. I tried to open my door, but couldn’t. I climbed out the passenger side door and immediately unbuckled Hunter, consoling him as best I could. I looked and saw my daughter, unconscious in the back seat. The farm truck driver immediately came to help, as did a woman who stopped at the scene, taking care of my daughter, applying towels to her injuries.
Hunter and I sat holding each other on the side of the road waiting for help to arrive. Not knowing the extent of Lydia’s injuries, we prayed out loud together for Lydia, pleading to God to save her and make her okay. These were the longest moments of my life. Trembling from shock, I tried to call my husband but was unable to dial the phone. Thankfully, the other driver was able to dial the number for me. With my husband on the phone, I told him we had been in an accident and he needed to get there fast. Before I knew it, my in laws arrived and took care of Hunter, as I was loaded in the ambulance.
My husband got there just as Lydia was loaded into the helicopter, in which he then drove an hour to the trauma center. Already in the ambulance and unable to move, the commotion of the responders and loud sounds of the propellers were frightening.
I was taken to the nearest hospital, in the town where I worked. They took blood, urine, x-rays, and cleaned the deep glass from my arm ending with a plethora of stitches. I suffered a broken elbow, as well as severe lacerations to my upper arm and head. The entire time, the nursing staff was excellent and took care of my every need. I remember talking with them saying, “I just want my daughter to be okay”, incessantly asking them, “How is my daughter.” Thinking about it now, I never received an answer.
Before I knew it, a couple of hours later, my husband came in the room. He looked up at me sobbing, his eyes swollen with tears falling and said, “Sissy didn’t make it.” In a moment I will never forget, I began to scream and pleaded for this not to be true.
After several hours, I was able to leave, yet before we could go, we were told we had to tell our son. The chaplain led us to a little room where my husband and I had the difficult task of telling him about his sister. We then were drove home by a co-worker of my husbands. I remember sitting in the backseat, in grey issued hospital sweats, heavily medicated, and not sure of what had just happened.
For days and weeks after, I felt like I was living a dream. I could not fathom what had happened as I waited for her to walk through the front door.
What would we want everyone to remember about Lydia?
Lydia was my firstborn child and a vibrant little girl, so full of life and love. She had a love for dancing, shopping, and fashion. She was very outgoing and her big personality could entertain an entire room. I like to call her the glitter glue to our family. She was the sparkle, the glitter and glue that has held us together.
Much like her grandmother, Lydia was a girl who loved to shop, eat cinnamon rolls, drink hot chocolate, and explore what the world had to offer. She loved the spotlight, as her singing and dancing was a daily occurrence in the house. She loved people, friends, and was a social butterfly. She was a creative soul who taught me not to worry about what others think and to be comfortable with who God made me to be. She was known for her mismatched style, yet she took pride in her appearance and doing things on her own. She loved to draw and made beautiful artwork, leaving many notes and pictures around the house for us to find, long after she passed.
Lydia would often talk about God and want to know when she could meet him and go to his house. She was fascinated by her family members who passed long ago, having a deep desire to meet her great grandparents, often requesting to go to the cemetery to see them. I would smile and tell her God is always with us and how wonderful Heaven is, but that she had long life to live on earth before then. Little did I know, her time here would be brief.
What impact do you want to leave on the world?
After the years have gone by, I want others to see how God has worked in our lives, as well as Lydia’s. Lydia was an old soul and looking back, there were signs all around me of what was to come and , yet I wasn’t able to connect the dots.
I want to be an example for all those hurting out there due to loss, to see that it is possible to live a happy life, live with a passion and purpose. Being a family struggling with faith during those first months, we have found our true reason for being and want to show others what God has done for us during this time. By bringing joy and serving others, we can find that purpose. God still has a plan for those of us that are here; we must live to the fullest.
Most of all, I want people to realize that there can be a positive side or sweeter side to their grief. If we focus on the beautiful life that lived and keep legacies alive, incredible things can happen.
After a lengthy career in law enforcement, my focus has now changed. I was not the same person anymore and didn’t have the same heart for my job as I used to. I now find my passion in helping and serving others, recognizing the true meaning of this life we have been given. In losing Lydia, I was thrust into a devastating world of heartbreak, yet there have been remarkably positive impacts on my life as well. From new friends and relationships, to closed doors and new opportunities, life has taken me on a new path of self-discovery. I hope others will see this and get a glimmer of hope during times when the world turns dark.
What lessons could people learn from your life?
Bad things do happen to good people. After 14 years in law enforcement and having a fairly good life free of tragedy, I never dreamed that losing a child would happen to me. But it did. One thing I would want people to know is the importance of slowing down and listening to God and let him guide your path. Listen to what he is saying and telling you. Don’t get so consumed with everyday life that you miss those moments. Moments with God, moments with your children, moments with your family are the things that really matter. Re-evaluate your life and priorities. After going through this, looking back, I clearly see that God was with me, and how he worked in our lives, both before and after the accident.
It’s okay to smile through your grief. As time passes, it’s okay to laugh, to enjoy yourself, don’t let the devil of guilt consume you. We are still here for a reason. It’s time to live life with purpose and passion. We all need to look deep inside and find what really motivates us and makes us happy. For me, I wanted my daughter to be remembered. It was a scary first year as people did forget. I have relied on God, trusting that he will direct my path and it will be okay. I know He will make triumph out of tragedy, and He has.
Lydia’s Love was started in 2011, a non-profit that provides birthday parties to homeless and needy children. This has been a rewarding and heartfelt experience. Seeing joy in children’s lives during hard times, as they feel and know that they are special, is priceless. It has also been a wonderful way to get the community involved. From churches, to school groups, to families and organizations, Lydia’s Love has given others a positive avenue to volunteer and give back in.
In addition, I recently started blogging. Something new to me, but something I felt a calling to do. It’s called Grieving Gumdrops:-The Sweeter Side of Grief. It’s about my writing and reflections on my grief, as well as highlights those other people, books, blogs, organizations, etc., that have found meaning or a positive sweeter side of their grief. In the midst of this, I am also working on a memoir, wanting to share my story as God has wanted me to. During the past five years, I have kept a journal and now looking back; God has been with me all along and has done some miraculous and amazing things. I can’t wait to share.
Contact us if you would like to share your story!
Interview with Mark and Linda Triplett
I’d like to introduce you to two friends, Mark and Linda Triplett. They are fellow bereaved parents who are making a difference in the lives of so many. After reading an article written by Linda, I contacted them to learn more about their ministry. We have corresponded many times over the past year, sharing our interests in serving others and aviation. Mark and Linda inspire and show all of us that “Love Never Fails”. Thank you for sharing your story and your son, Adam, with us.
Mark and Linda, what is your loss story?
The loss in our life is the future that we dreamed of for our son Adam, from the time he was a just a little boy. After receiving a free ride in a friend’s airplane, Adam announced that he wanted to be a pilot when he grew up. He was only five years old then and we both knew that he would achieve it. Linda grew up in a family that loved to travel, so a pilot in the family was perfect! She began collecting jewelry that was of aviation themes.
Linda would tease Adam that she was going to plaster them all over her shirt and be standing at the window facing the plane that he would pilot for the first time. We both envisioned it; us facing the window looking directly into that little window on the airplane and seeing our handsome son in his uniform sitting in the pilot’s seat.
Our hearts would almost burst with pride at Adam’s hard work, his focus on his dream and having achieved it! His big dream was to be a captain of a 747 by the time he was 30, and we do believe that if he would have lived he would have accomplished it. We regret never having the opportunity of sitting in a passenger seat of a commercial airplane that Adam was piloting.
April 24, 1974 – August 4, 1997
Another huge loss was never having the joy of being grandparents to his babies. He loved family, he loved his grandmas and grandpas and we couldn’t wait to show him how much we would love our grandchildren; children he would never have.
The final incredibly painful loss was that Adam’s sister, Katrina, lost her best friend in the world. She lost the brother that always talked about visiting her home on a Saturdays, playing cards, and watching their children play together. We have watched out daughter grieve the loss of Adam for almost 17 years now, grieving the absence of his presence at the birth of her daughter Morgan and her son Adam. Katrina is an “only child” now. We see deep sadness in her eyes at every holiday.
Our story of loss is filled with the feeling of being robbed of a life with Adam in it.
Editor’s Note – Mark has created a wonderful web page dedicated to his son. Click here to learn all about Adam.
What would we want everyone to remember about Adam?
The most important thing we can think of is to just remember him, his legacy, and his life.
If someone remembers him, they remember his sense of humor, incredibly big heart, strong Christian faith, and very conservative beliefs. They would remember his colorful, warm personality and that he was an accomplished, talented trumpet player. We remember his dedication to hard work, and the way he honored his mom and dad with all of his life and work. Anyone that remembers Adam, remembers an incredible man.
After Adam died, Linda’s father gave us a note that now hangs on our fridge that says, “Nobody has lived a short life that has done it with unblemished character.” That is what everyone will remember about our son.
What impact do you want to leave on the world?
We want to live forward with the hope of helping others in this hellish grief we call ‘the loss of a child’, to take the darkness of sorrow and suffering and bring light of hope and healing to those, like us, who must live their futures without their son or daughter. We want to gift the world with Adam-like grace and service.
What lessons could people learn from your life?
It is our hope that it is that no matter what the circumstances, for grieving parents to understand that they can get through the storms of grief and come out on the other side, stronger, more compassionate, and more appreciative of what we all have right now.
What is LNF Ministries?
LNF Ministries is a non-profit, grief-support ministry that was initially founded to give scholarships to college freshman in the fields of Aviation, Music or Missions, three of Adam’s passions. A few years later it readjusted into a ministry to bring comfort to newly grieving parents. That readjustment included the creation of what we now call “Love Baskets.”
Love Baskets contain resources on the grieving process, our books and comfort items. The Love Basket package is sent to parents and families that we find through the daily local obituaries, pulling the ones that have surviving parents, searching for a mailing address and finally, mail 6 – 8 weeks after the death.
We assemble the packages, print out a specially created card with the child’s name, prepare the postage to be attached and take them to the post office to be mailed. We started this ministry on Adam’s birthday, April 24, in 2003 and as of the end of 2013 we had sent out over 1500 baskets. The saddest part of that number is that 90% of the names come from only one newspaper in one city – ours. And there are many that don’t get sent because we simply can’t find an address to send them to.
These Love Baskets began because we wanted to let moms and dads starting this horrible journey of grief that they are not alone. It is such a lonely time. There are very few people that understand. There are even less that stand by your side as years go by.
The numbers of supporters typically drop off after about 6 weeks and for sure after 3 months. Nobody “gets it” unless they have been there. That’s when the ‘aloneness’ becomes more intense and frightening to grieving parents and family.
We receive thank you letters and the number one response is that when they felt so alone and abandoned, our Love Basket arrived and let them know that they in fact aren’t alone, that someone does understand and cares.
We fund LNF Ministries by generous donations and 100% goes to the ministry work, with no salaried workers. All is done with volunteers. We keep up our supporters up-to-date with Newsletters on our web site at http://www.lnf.org. We are a non-profit 501c3 organization in Minnesota.