It was a warm, summer morning in New Bedford, Ohio. Soft breezes gently swayed the leaves on the maple tree in the front yard of our home. It was July 17, 1986. I had the day off work. It was promising to be an enjoyable one with my family.
The children were up out of bed, and Jonathan, our 1-year-old, was bouncing on my knee.
My wife enjoyed one of those peak moments of life that morning: Jonathan said "Mama" for the first time.
Later that same morning Daniel and Mary Ann, our two older children, watched as I adjusted the brakes on our Pontiac. In spite of busy fingers, dirty faces and countless questions, I completed the job in record time.
Then the children stepped back so I could test the brakes. I got in the car, shifted to reverse and slowly began to back up when I felt an abrupt and unexpected bump.
The children screamed.
What toy had I run over? I wondered.
So I continued to back up, expecting to see a smashed little red wagon. Instead I saw, there in the driveway, the lifeless body of Jonathan.
I jumped out of the car, and as I ran to my youngest son many questions raced through my mind. How could this have happened? How did he get under the car without my seeing him? I thought Jonathan was still in the house! How would I tell my wife? How could I comfort the children when I had just killed their brother?
My wife came running as the children looked on stunned. We stood there, numb in shock and grief, as we realized Jonathan was dead. What could we do? Where could we go for help?
Seek God, I thought. But then I wondered, Will God support me when I have just killed my son?
We called paramedics and accompanied our children into the house. A day that had begun so pleasantly had become a nightmare.
Tragedy Becomes Real
We live in a world of tragedies. We read of them in the newspaper and see them on television. We think they happen to other people but not to us. I know now, as the police reminded me that awful day, that these things can happen to anyone. The grim reality is that, even as you are reading this article, someone somewhere is experiencing a tragedy similar to ours.
How can we deal with such devastating circumstances? How do you pull through without your life disintegrating? Can you ever again enjoy life after such a tragedy, or are you doomed to suffer through an endless series of nightmares?
From experience I can say that, yes, you can eventually enjoy life, even after the worst of tragedies. Eventually the pain subsides. If handled properly, the memory of the tragedy can serve as a motivation that will bring positive changes to your life.
Perhaps this article—a message from one who has been there—will bring hope and encouragement to people who have experienced similar trials.
Time and Chance
The first thing that comes to mind in the aftermath of a tragedy is the big question why. Why did this happen? Why did it happen to me? Why did it happen to my loved one?
On the heels of those thoughts and emotions come the if-onlies. If only I had done this or not done that. If only I had known my baby was under the car.
But the reality is that I did not know. If I had known, the accident would not have occurred.
King Solomon pondered these questions when he set his heart "to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all that is done under heaven" (Ecclesiastes 1:13). After his study of the vagaries and uncertainties of human experience, he concluded that "time and chance happen to them all" (Ecclesiastes 9:11).
Time and chance had paid us a visit. Jonathan, whom I had last seen as a bouncing baby in the house, was lured by curiosity to creep underneath the car. Why didn't he come to the side of the car where I was working so I would have been aware he was there? Why did he crawl beneath the car where I couldn't see him? How did he get there in the first place? Why did he have to be positioned in the path of the tire the moment I backed up?
God intervenes powerfully for His people on many occasions. But, as Solomon pointed out, time and chance affect us all.
Help is Promised
When time and chance happen to His people, God sometimes chooses not to intervene when He sees that His intervention would not work to our ultimate good. Nevertheless, He promises that "all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose" (Romans 8:28).
Furthermore, God promises we will not suffer anything that is not common to man or more than we can bear. Most important, God always provides a way of escape to endure such trials (1 Corinthians 10:13).
These promises are certain, and my family found great comfort in them. Yes, God allows trials for our ultimate good, but He always provides a way out. Often in the aftermath of a tragedy we find ourselves in a state of shock. We need something as solid as a rock to anchor to—and that rock is Christ (1 Corinthians 10:4). Friends can help, but ultimately God is the One who sees us through and heals our wounds.
Jesus Christ knows that a natural human emotion is grief. We mourn when a loved one dies, especially when one dies unexpectedly. In the hours just before His crucifixion, Jesus told His disciples He would "go away"; He would die. "But because I have said these things to you," He said, "sorrow has filled your heart. Nevertheless I tell you the truth. It is to your advantage that I go away . . ." (John 16:5-7).
Can you imagine how the disciples must have felt when they heard their Leader say this? But then He gave the key to overcoming tragedy and overcoming long-term mental and emotional distress: ". . . For if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I depart, I will send [it] to you" (John 16:7).
Jesus was sending help, and that help would guide, strengthen, comfort and empower His people at all times, especially when they were in trouble. This helper is none other than the very power of God, the Holy Spirit (Romans 15:19).
Luke wrote that the brethren in the early Church, after experiencing great persecution and witnessing the martyrdom of Stephen, "had peace and were edified. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, they were multiplied" (Acts 9:31; see also Acts 4:1-31; 5:17-42; 6:8-15; 7:1-60).
Paul wrote to Timothy to urge him "to stir up the gift of God which is in you through the laying on of my hands. For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind" (2 Timothy 1:6-7).
During a time of tragedy, more than anything else we need love, comfort and a strong, sound mind filled with wisdom to maneuver through the emotional jungle. Such help is readily available. God promises His Spirit and a liberal supply of wisdom to those who ask Him (Luke 11:13; James 1:5).
The first step toward a healthy recovery from debilitating tragedy is to accept the reality of what happened. This is a necessary step, even though it may seem easier, at first, not to face it.
Reality can be excruciating, even nightmarish, but it is necessary to deal openly with events and discuss them, especially with your immediate family and close friends. You need not be ashamed of your emotions.
I remember recounting the event to a close friend and finding great comfort in doing so.
In our case the whole family was at the scene of the accident. Two of our children saw their beloved younger brother die. The experience was traumatic for them, but children have an amazing ability to come to grips with abnormal circumstances if they are simply told the truth. They accept reality and God's promises with an inspiring innocent faith that adults would do well to develop.
Our children immediately accepted and were soothed by God's promise of a future resurrection for their little brother.
Knowing the truth about life after death was of great comfort to us and gave us hope. We knew our son would live again. This reassuring knowledge helped us accept the reality of what had happened.
Pitfalls to Avoid
In charting your way through the maze of emotions, you need to avoid certain things. Otherwise you may cause yourself much additional pain.
The first thing our pastor told my family when he arrived at our home was, "Whatever you do, don't start blaming each other or God." I will be forever grateful for this wise counsel. It helped us avoid many pitfalls.
It is only natural to want to blame something or someone for what happened, but that is a useless, unproductive waste of time. No matter how much blame or accusation is leveled against something or someone, it will not change the reality of what occurred. It will only extend the emotional anguish and prolong the process of accepting what happened.
This, of course, does not mean that if criminal activity were involved appropriate legal action should not be pursued, but leave that to the lawyers and courts. Don't allow a court of accusers to convene in your mind. It will only perpetuate the misery.
It is especially important not to accuse or lay blame if a member of the family appears to have been the cause of the accident. In our situation this was the case. This could have been fertile ground for accusations, blame and hurtful arguments. However, we realized we needed each other's encouragement and comfort, not accusations. This realization saved us untold grief and greatly strengthened our relationship.
The grim reality was that our situation was exactly as Solomon described—a product of time and chance. As the police officer told me that day, sometimes no matter how careful you are accidents will happen.
Dealing with Emotions
At times like this many strong emotions come forth, ranging from anger to guilt, from anxiety to utter despair. These are entirely normal during bereavement. It is important to bring and keep them out in the open until the healing is complete. Make sure communication stays strong in the family. Discuss the tragedy as often as necessary to allow each family member to come to terms with it.
This is especially important with children. They may be little, but their minds hold an amazing capacity to discern fact from fiction. They find comfort in facts but feel insecure and distressed when they hear vague answers.
Emotions are a natural reaction to human experience. They help us develop sensitivity and compassion for others. We begin to understand why and how God is sensitive to our needs.
Allowing Tragedy to Change You
After you have accepted the reality of what has occurred, it is important to ask yourself some questions: How can this help me make positive changes in my life? What can I possibly learn from this experience that will improve my life and the lives of others? What could be the reasons God allowed me to suffer like this?
Notice the words of Paul in his second letter to the Corinthians: "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort" (2 Corinthians 1:3). This is an apt description of God, and in the next verse the apostle gives one reason God allows us to suffer: He "comforts us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God" (2 Corinthians 1:4).
These are insightful words indeed! God expects us to use our experiences to comfort others in the same way He comforts us. In the process of doing so we find the greatest comfort of all—joy. You will find joy as you reach out to others, comforting and encouraging them with the sensitivity you have to their circumstance because of your own experience.
The amazing thing is that you will find this will speed your healing process like ointment in a wound. This is why Paul could say: "I am exceedingly joyful in all our tribulation" (2 Corinthians 7:4).
The second great benefit that can come from a tragic experience is an unrelenting motivation to enter God's Kingdom. The death of a loved one should naturally fill us with a sense of obligation and responsibility to seek that Kingdom—if not for our own benefit, certainly for the benefit of the deceased.
For me, the death of our son has served as the single biggest motivation in my life. It has helped me focus on what is most important: seeking first the Kingdom of God (Matthew 6:33). When we seek the Kingdom of God, He promises us an abundant life (John 10:10). A better and more meaningful family life is sure to result when you focus on the Kingdom of God and use your experiences to help others by showing compassion and encouraging them.
The final step is to look to the future. The Bible is replete with promises of a future life for the deceased. Jesus himself said, "He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live" and that "the hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear His voice and come forth" (John 11:25; 5:28-29). The prophet Ezekiel saw the resurrection of the dead in a vision from God and graphically recorded it for us in Ezekiel 37.
I remember my first thought when I saw my son dead in the driveway: He will live again. He will be resurrected to life.
It is important to talk about the deceased as years go by, to keep them a part of the family. We have had many inspiring discussions with our children about our son and their brother and what things will be like in the new life. They know and understand God's promise of a better life in this world to come.
Zechariah prophesied a time when "old men and old women shall again sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each one with his staff in his hand because of great age. The streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in its streets" (Zechariah 8:4-5).
This is most assuredly not a description of Jerusalem today, but it is the sure reality of the world tomorrow.
Time and chance are a reality we face. They are simply a part of life. But, with God's loving help, His healing comfort, tragic experiences can motivate us to a more positive and abundant life, one that is focused on the Kingdom of God. GN