How do you respond when life gets really hard? Do you look for an escape route, or do you face it head on?
Recently, my family and I realized that we’d be faced with these questions ourselves. That is, questions about how to respond when tragedy strikes. There are many ways to respond to the death of a loved one, and we were now up to bat whether we liked it or not. It was about a month ago now that I learned that my oldest sister Stephanie would no longer share holidays with us and watch my kids grow up because she was compressing secret pains about her life. She wasn’t dealing with pain from a death, but a different kind of lonely – a dark place of depression. It was this dark place that led her to medicate her way into a state of numbness. And it was in that numbness that she decided to take her own life and leave behind a family, and in particular a brother (me), that’s now in the batter’s box about to take my best response swing to life.
If I’m honest, it feels like I’ve struck out, and I haven’t wanted to discuss it too much. Literally hundreds of messages, texts, and calls have come from friends and family sharing their deepest sympathy. People I haven’t heard from in years have reached out to stand with us through the pain. Yet, my go to response has been to hit the “like” button. If you’re reading this and I failed to respond to you, please accept my apology…this one has been tough for me. I have to be honest, part of me writing this blog today is for it to be selfishly therapeutic as I continue to work through the pain. In some ways it’s already doing it’s job as I’m only a couple paragraphs in and can’t seem to hold back the tears. But the other reason to share a bit about my journey is to illuminate how responding to tragedy can set us on positive or negative trajectories. Difficult situations can lead us into a place of searching for strength and answers. I’ve now been faced with three losses and each one has had a different response. Despite it’s gloomy emphasis, I hope that this difficult writing can somehow be used to encourage you. My hope is that you’d consider your response as you walk through pain when life hits hard.
In 1998 I lost my best friend, Wilson. This kid was like the brother I never had. We spent everyday of our summers together going to the beaches, fixing up our cheap cars to be race ready, and trying to make the girls in our class laugh. Just typical high school senior guys enjoying life to the fullest if you ask me…
Then, one rainy night Wilson left a party and drove his car off the road to a fatal crash. Interestingly, I was supposed to join him at that party but decided to bail on him last minute to hang out with a girl I liked. I regretted not going with him for years. At the time I didn’t have much of a spiritual faith, and quite honestly, I didn’t know how to respond. Just like a car going too fast on a wet road, his death sent me into a spiral that was soon out of control.
This new life reality of losing a best friend would push me to a new place I was unfamiliar with and spiraled into a place of depression, drugs, and alcohol. Weeks became months and months became years. My life truly began to unwind, and I became a person that was care-free about pretty much everything other than numbing my reality. I’d search for ways to make myself happy, but in all the wrong ways. Looking back on it now, I know it was God’s grace that allowed me to live to tell the story today. Part of me wonders if the next loss I share is the only thing that was able to stop the spiral…
Three years went by until I was faced with my biggest loss yet. I didn’t think it could get much harder than I experienced, but I was wrong. This time it was my dad. Also considered my best friend, my old man and I were as close as it got. I was now 21 and getting ready to move to Colorado from Texas. I’ll never forget the phone call I got when cell phone service finally came back on a road trip back to Texas. My aunt shared how my dad had a heart attack while driving and was now in a hospital in Houston. I got on the first flight from Dallas. I arrived only to learn that the last week of my dad’s life would be spent in a coma in that Houston area hospital.
Talk about scary and devastating! I couldn’t even begin to imagine life without my dad. Yet, something in me knew I needed to find strength for myself, sisters, and mother through it all. The problem was that I didn’t have strength nor did I even know how to find it in such despair. This is what began the search.
I didn’t know it then, but looking back now, I can tell you that God was near in it all. Both when Wilson passed and when my dad passed. The difference this time was that I responded with a journey of search and discovery instead of spiraling and destruction. How does one find true strength, hope, and answers in life? Those were the types of questions I asked while staring at the colorful sunsets over the Rocky Mountains from my new apartment in Denver. I didn’t know exactly what I was searching for, but I did know I was diligent about seeking out the answers. God would answer many of my questions in the years to come after moving from Colorado to Southern California. I had been searching for years, and it was Him that I found; I didn’t even realize I was looking for Him. And, little did I know, but it was He that was actually the one coming after me. The search and thirst I had been longing for was now over. This new found strength in Christ was the conclusion of this deep longing I couldn’t quite articulate. He was the satisfying quench.
Which brings me back to Stephanie. Will we ever be fully prepared to handle life when the rug is suddenly yanked from beneath us? I’m not sure about that, but what I do know is that this time is different. Oh, I’m hurt. I haven’t been able to communicate the hurt as well as I’d hoped. Life’s curve balls send you swinging only to feel as if you’re striking out at times. My pain is deep and losing my sister to suicide is a whole new level of hurt I’m learning about. But, I am also aware that this time I’m not spiraling or searching. And, despite the pain, my relationship with God has anchored me to His love and grace through it all. All of these crucial past, present, and future moments are now examined through the lens of God’s Good News. It’s this Gospel is what allows me to press on (1 Thes 3:2-3). Hear me accurately, I still need support from my friends and family just as much as ever. I also have certainly desired answers about Stephanie’s departure… But to what end?
That’s why this time I choose to surrender.
This time, I’m aware where my strength comes from. Even as I’m super weak, I feel really strong. I can’t explain it much further than that. I do know that as I travel down this road of faith, the more I’m (we are) invited to trust God. He wants me to trust Him in all circumstances no matter how hard it gets, fragile I am, or how uncertain life seems. Whether it’s losing a loved one, facing financial crisis, finding purpose, or believing the best for my kids, God wants me to surrender it all to Him. Surrendering means leaving the outcomes of all situations in His hands and trusting that He is the good shepherd (John 10:11). Surrendering means trusting Him with every aspect of my life. Surrendering means clinging to Him in worship even when life unravels.
So , I’ll ask it again, how do you respond when life hits? Do you look for an escape route or do you face it head on? I can tell you that from my experience, that you do not need to escape or face it alone head on. We have a loving Father that is “close to the brokenhearted and rescues those whose spirits are crushed” (Psalm 34:18). He’s been close to my broken heart, and He’ll be close to yours when you allow Him to be. Surrender to Christ and allow Him to be your source of hope and strength. He desires for more of your heart and can and will be the source of all that you need; searching elsewhere is futile.
So how am I really doing you might ask? Well, I’m sad, hurt, confused, and weak. All the while, I’m also hopeful, trusting more, and even full of strength at times. It’s a strange place I’m in, but even amidst tragedy, Jesus is worthy of all of my praise. He is my source.
If the stars were made to worship so will I
If the mountains bow in reverence so will I
If the oceans roar Your greatness so will I
For if everything exists to lift You high so will I
– Hillsong United, So Will I (100 Billion X)