My husband, Mike, and I are the proud parents of three boys and a girl who were all still living at home while working their way through school in 2012. Our oldest, Josh, was working towards his masters in biology. James, our middle son, was studying computer science. Joel was finishing up his third semester of college and had just settled on studying engineering and our youngest, Judi, was preparing to apply for nursing school. We had no idea that when God called us to move to Huntsville in 2009 and told us we would be launching our kids into adulthood there, that our youngest son, Joel, would be launched straight into Heaven.
Joel was 20, thoughtful, intelligent, tender, and joyful. He had an enthusiasm for life that was contagious and never lost his boyish sense of wonder. His relaxed and playful demeanor put everyone around him at ease. He could heartily laugh at himself then tease you with a wholesome grin that left you feeling disarmed and genuinely loved. He had a way of putting his arm around you, listening intently to your heart and making you feel like the most important person in the world.
As a little boy, Joel purposely set time aside from exciting boy things like playing dinosaurs, sword fighting, and building legos with his brothers to play doll house with his little sister. As a teen he was becoming a proficient classical guitarist and filled our lives with a beautiful, soulful song called “Night’s Sorrow” which he played constantly; while working math problems in his head, while writing English papers, while watching “Everybody Loves Raymond” reruns, and while waiting for video games to load. Constantly.
Joel spent most of his last day at home studying for finals and, of course, playing his classical guitar. I woke up before Joel that morning to give myself time to practice my little harp before he filled our home with his worshipful song. When Joel woke up, he joined me in our hearth room and I excitedly demonstrated how I had learned to play “O, Come Let Us Adore Him,” my first Christmas hymn. “Oh, yeah, I learned that one years ago,” he teased while playfully calling me a “nube” with his disarming grin. He was proud of both of us.
My plan for the day was to decorate our Christmas tree and to set up my large collection of Fontanini nativity figures. Joel surfaced from his studies in the music room periodically throughout the day for a breath of fresh air and to visit with me while I unboxed and set up my nativity collection. That afternoon, he stood in our kitchen and surveyed the work I was doing with the Christmas decorations. Smiling, thankful, full of longing and anticipation, he said, “Normally it feels like Christmas, but it doesn’t yet because I still have these final exams.”
Later that afternoon, a new friend Josh had met playing football Thanksgiving weekend came to our door to see who might come to a birthday party he was putting together for a friend. And about 4 PM, Josh and Joel grabbed our Apples to Apples game excited about making new friends and drove an hour to the little town of New Hope, AL. The party tragically ended early that evening when an assault rifle was fired into a group of kids there. Several were injured. Our youngest son, Joel, ran straight into the loving arms of Jesus.
Everyday Joel is experiencing in Heaven must feel like all the best holidays plus your birthday rolled into one. Our days, especially our holidays, since our last day with Joel are filled with longing and anticipation for Heaven’s arrival. We are thankful when we survey the redemptive work Jesus has done on the cross for us, and we smile when we set our eyes on the preparations Jesus is making for us in His Father’s house, but it doesn’t feel like Heaven yet because we still have these final exams.
From the very beginning I could easily see Joel smiling happily in Heaven and believed with all my heart that God loved us, was good, and was sovereignly working all things together for our good, but the second evening, I had a long moment where I questioned if God understood how painful His choice to allow Joel’s death was for us. Was He sensitive to our hearts? Did God really feel the pain and suffering a parent experiences when His own Son, Jesus, suffered and died on the cross for us?
It was then that we realized we had a choice. We could turn to God with our questions and sorrow or go to a very dark place. My husband, Mike, asked me privately, “How is your hope?” I was stunned to realize my hope had been so crushed that I didn’t know what the word meant any more. Mike gently pointed me towards an eternal perspective. Jesus had not come to give us a life free of earthly sorrow. He came to share in our suffering and die for our sins that one day our “Night’s Sorrow” might be swallowed up by Heaven’s joy.
Choosing to turn to God with our sorrow and place our hope in an eternal perspective was not a one time decision. It was often a moment by moment intense like final exams struggle with our volition. I needed people who understood to lend me the light of their faith and heavenly hope and point me to the cross and our eternal perspective.
At first, I was afraid attending a grief support group would only make our grief worse. When our pastor told us about GriefShare and how it features 13 video seminars made up of short clips of respected grief experts, pastors, and counselors, we decided to give it a try.
To our relief, we learned were not alone, our overwhelming emotions were normal and we weren’t going crazy. Each person in the videos shared stories of how they struggled with grief and what helped them. We learned from their hard-won wisdom and helpful suggestions how to work through our own grief in healthy ways.
The group members began to feel like family after a few short weeks. We all understood the pain of losing someone we dearly loved and were able to encourage and show compassion towards each other as we discussed how to handle our “Why?” questions and regrets, how to find the strength to keep going and hold onto our faith in the dark and other relevant topics from the curriculum.
The short daily exercises in the workbooks helped me to find comfort in God’s Word and slowly begin to untangle my shattered heart. Hearing how God was ministering to others in their suffering gave me the encouragement I needed to keep turning to Jesus, our ultimate source of hope and comfort.
Near the first anniversary of our son’s death, we attended GriefShare’s special “Surviving the Holidays” Seminar and learned practical strategies for how to navigate the holidays while grieving. We were invited to stay for our first candle lighting service there and to attend their 13 week program a second time through.
Towards the end of our second semester, I began to notice several group members’ growing faith and hope. I couldn’t see my own progress, but the light I saw in their eyes encouraged me to attend GriefShare a third time through and to eventually start a group of our own.
We heard a pastor say, “God is near the brokenhearted. If you want to be near the heart of God, be near the brokenhearted.” I think most people imagine like I did that attending a grief group would only make their grief worse. We do bring tissues to our meetings, but most of our conversations are actually filled with smiles and laughter because they revolve around how we are learning to live lives filled with the hope of our growing eternal perspective.
Our group members are often surprised by how much they learn and humbled by how God uses their faith and perseverance to encourage others. I am constantly amazed by the stories of how God is protecting, providing for, guiding and faithfully comforting each group member. GriefShare has given me a front row seat to little and big miracles of faith and hope and light each semester. God’s heart is tender, He is sensitive to our pain, knows the brokenness one bereaved parent feels for another, suffers and grieves with us, tenderly cares for us and carries us through all the years.
We still have these final exams, and our holidays are especially filled with longing and anticipation for Jesus to return and take us Home to be with Him, but we are learning to trust our caring Heavenly Father with our “Why?” questions and regrets and to turn to Him for the strength we need to keep going and hold onto our faith in the dark because we have experienced His nearness in our brokenness and fixed our eyes on the great love He has shown us through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross.
If you would like to know more about GriefShare, or other grief resources you may visit our GriefShare page on our church website @ RedlandHills.org/GriefShare
In His Love,