As with most days that change a person’s life forever, May 21, 2008, began as a rather ordinary day. There was no foreshadowing that the events of this day would test the bonds and faith of the Chapman family. No one expects the loss of a child. The Chapman story shows us how to hold tight to faith and family in the midst of healing.
Steven and Mary Beth Chapman were in their house while their three youngest girls, Shaohannah Hope (Shaoey), Stevey Joy and Maria Sue, played in the yard. Their 17-year-old son, Will, drove up the driveway in his old Land Cruiser. Nothing unusual.
Maria, who had celebrated her fifth birthday just a week earlier, was excited to see her brother. She was anxious to ask him to lift her onto the monkey bars, so she hurried toward him. Shaoey told her youngest sister to stop running, but Maria kept going, determined to reach Will. From behind the wheel of his vehicle, Will did not see her in the driveway.
Shaoey and Stevey Joy could do nothing as they watched the Land Cruiser hit Maria. Everything happened at once. Noises. Shouting. Pain. A cacophony of unanswered questions filled the air. They were drowned out by the sirens of emergency vehicles in the yard.
The Loss of a Child
As the paramedics placed Maria in the helicopter for the hospital, Mary Beth knew in her heart that her daughter was gone. She hoped rescue workers would somehow resuscitate her little girl. As Steven and Mary Beth approached the trauma room where Maria lay, they hoped God would breathe life back into her limp body. They knew God could heal, but they also accepted the fact that His will would determine what that healing would look like.
Mary Beth recalls, “Somehow in that unthinkable moment it became clear to Steven and me that we were standing at the very door of heaven, placing our little girl carefully in the arms of Jesus, desperately trusting that she would be safe there. Steven and I bent over and kissed Maria’s forehead. My hand shook uncontrollably as I stroked her face and tucked her hair back behind her ear one last time. Then we walked out to meet our friends and begin our long journey of grieving.”
The Journey of Grief
Three years have passed since Maria’s fatal accident. The Chapman family has been shaken to the core. However, their faith in God and love for each other remain solid. Steven and Mary Beth have been keenly aware of the need to guide their kids through their grief and confusion. To a large degree, they’ve done this by simply being real with their kids. They shared openly and honestly as they’ve grappled with their own painful emotions and unresolved questions.
“We really don’t have any idea what we’ve done right the last [three] years as parents,” Steven says. “I think it’s just been being honest with them [the children]. That is the only thing, if we’ve done anything right as parents.”
Even as they grieved, Steven and Mary Beth focused on the individual needs of their children. Their daughter Emily was engaged and planning a wedding; their son Caleb was graduating from high school; Shaoey needed their comfort; and Stevey Joy had just graduated from preschool. Then there was Will.
He and Maria had been especially close, and he saw her as a special gift in his life. Yet he was the one behind the wheel of the Land Cruiser. He was now reeling with guilt and grief. Steven and Mary Beth knew that their son’s entire future lay in the balance.
“How do you grieve the loss of a child, but literally try to save the life of the other?” questioned Mary Beth. She and Steven wrestled with what to do.
Being Real with Your Kids
During the early years of their family life, Steven and Mary Beth made up their minds to be the first to talk with their kids about life’s important issues. They believed that this would give their kids a healthy point of reference for everything that touched their world. Because their family was accustomed to this type of communication, it equipped them to talk openly during their season of shock and grief. Although fear and anger may have been expressed, blame had no part in their discussions. Instead, God gave Steven, Mary Beth and all their children an overwhelming love for each other.
They were a hurting family with a Maria-sized hole in each of their hearts. Their healing has not been a one-time recovery experience; rather it’s been an ongoing, daily one. Through the support of his family and the wisdom of his counselor, Will is finding healing. Mary Beth is inspired by the fact that Will puts both feet on the ground and moves forward every morning.
“It’s a story to steward,” Mary Beth would tell Will. “And you can choose to trample it, or you can choose to steward it well and try to help as many people [as you can].” Will has assured his mom that he’s committed to holding on to God and to his family, trusting that God cares for him through every chapter of his life story.
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Answering the Hard Questions About Loss
One day young Shaoey came crying to her mom and said, “This is hard — why do we have to do this?”. Rather than pretending she knew why Maria was gone, Mary Beth admitted that she didn’t have any answers — other than the fact that God had asked them to walk this loss of a child out together.
Grappling with the “whys” of life is not new to Mary Beth. She was diagnosed with clinical depression in 1991 and has shared openly about her battle with depression and the struggles she’s known both in her faith and in her family life.
In her book Choosing to See, she writes: “I still have awfully dark days. I wish God would take my depression away. But so far He hasn’t, and perhaps that is because He’s using this as a way to keep me dependent on Him.”
Mary Beth now sees how her struggle with depression has grown into the faith she has today. She says that it ultimately prepared her to withstand the storms that devastated their family in 2008.
Through all of this, she has learned to be comfortable with asking the big questions in life — “Why does God allow suffering?”; “Why did this happen to us?”; “How should I respond?” — so her kids are comfortable with their own questions. Rather than pretending to have all the answers, Mary Beth invites her children to share in her faith experience as they grow together.
Grieving Together and Being Together
As the Chapmans continue to move forward, some days are dark and confusing. Mary Beth says, “It’s been like a free fall of faith. At the same time I try to answer those simple, childlike questions, I’ve landed on a firm foundation.” Her landing may have seemed difficult at first, but Mary Beth has found a faith that is solid enough to support all the unanswered questions and pain her family faces.
Today, she admits to slowly climbing out of the low place where she has been living. With each passing day, Steven and Mary Beth more fully realize the strength found in faith and family. The lyrics to Steven’s hit song “I Will Be Here” are being proven in the crucible of Chapman family life. Holding tight to each other through the loss of a child, they’re finding there’s safety in knowing that “through the winning, losing and trying, we’ll be together.”
“Together” is how they’re making it through each day. They’ve found a new appreciation for one another and for the faith that knits them together. Just days after the accident, Emily and her fiancé, Tanner, together with Caleb and their closest friends, surrounded Will to help carry the weight of his sorrow.
Mary Beth writes: “Emily and Tanner slipped away, and when they came back, they had gotten a basin of water and some soft towels. While the rest of us surrounded Will, they knelt and washed his feet, praying that the Enemy would not get a foothold in his soul, praying that God would give Will peace and rest.”
Holding Tight to Faith
Mary Beth says, “Our whole goal has not been to live [life] out perfectly, but to live it out struggling, live it out battling, and in the end, to just succeed in not letting the Enemy tear this family apart.”
When everything is stripped away, kids know what is genuine, and in this season of exposure, the Chapmans have found a rock-solid faith that is real. Because of their authenticity, their family has grown closer together and closer to God.
Their girls may still play dress-up and dance like princesses, but instead of believing in a “happy ever after” fairytale in this lifetime, the whole family focuses on the truth of eternity.
“God is sovereign, and He knows the number of our days,” Mary Beth says. “Maria did not live a short life; she lived a full life,” and the Chapmans are grateful to have been a part of that fullness. They are choosing to live out their story the best way they know how — together.
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