When the doorbell rang at 2:30 a.m., I knew it was not good. I threw on my robe and rushed down the stairs. Standing at our front door were a state trooper and a chaplain. Once my husband, John, and I were seated in our living room, they told us our 20-year-old son, Samuel, had been hit by a car and died instantly. I burst into tears and went numb as we heard the details of the accident. After the trooper and chaplain left, John and I held each other in disbelief and sobbed. The following days were a blur.
We didn’t know it at the time, but Samuel’s death set us on the most difficult trek of our lives, one that challenged our connection in marriage. Here are specific areas that were rough and how we made it through.
John and I grieved so differently that an emotional chasm developed, causing us to drift apart. During those first weeks, I deeply resented it when John was able to laugh. It seemed as if he were betraying “our” grief. One choice we made that first week was to acknowledge that we grieve differently and to try to let each other cope in whichever way worked.
Our son died Nov. 8 — just before holidays of Thanksgiving and Christmas when families traditionally gather. We got together as usual with my cousins on Christmas Eve, and I actually smiled. I remember it well because I hadn’t smiled in weeks and my face felt different. I then gave myself permission to laugh, too. I knew my son would want me to be happy. After that, I wasn’t upset with John for being able to smile and laugh, because I knew I needed to express joy and happiness, too.
Glimpse of being on the same page
Three months after Sam died, John and I went to the coroner’s inquest. This legal inquiry is required when the cause of death is unknown, violent or “unnatural.” We knew Sam’s death was an unintentional accident. He was in the wrong place. Before we went to the inquest, we agreed to write a note to tell the 22-year-old driver we forgave him. We wanted it written ahead of time to give to him in case we could not talk to him. The young man who drove the car that hit our son was at the inquest. After he told the jury what he remembered, he got up to walk out with his father and sister. I stood up to give him the card. He cried and said he was sorry. We cried and hugged him and told him we forgave him. Going through this hard thing together was healing for John and me.
After Sam died, I knew I needed some professional help. I went to a few counseling sessions and then asked John to join me. He went with me because he realized he was struggling in his grief and we were drifting apart. He agreed that we needed outside help. Our counselor helped us be intentional about spending time together and sharing our feelings. She encouraged us to give each other grace and not demand too much of ourselves or each other. Going to counseling together regularly helped because it provided an environment to talk about things as they came up.
Gift of a getaway
Eight months after Sam died, friends let us use their cabin in northern Wisconsin. God knew we needed some uninterrupted time together. During the long weekend, John told me I had pulled away from him — in every way. He was right. This happened because I had no reserves left. Our other kids had various needs that pulled at me. Grief and sadness zapped my energy.
We reconnected, but the cycle of drifting apart and coming back together continued. I could have prevented some of this cycle by choosing to share my feelings and urging John to open up about his.
Tears are a gift from God
My heart was very fragile. It didn’t take much at all for me to cry. I often went for a walk alone after dark when I could weep and pray unseen. Tears are part of grieving, and letting the tears flow with my prayers brought healing.
My tears were always near the surface, but John had a hard time expressing himself. I couldn’t understand how John didn’t seem to have anywhere near the grief I felt. What helped was that we had the habit of praying together before John went to work. Our prayer time often became the time we could and did cry together. My life was not anything I imagined — that’s because no one imagines death and constant heartache.
My best friend gave me a journal. She said journaling helped her after their 16-year-old daughter died almost two years earlier. My first entry was one week after Sam’s death. I wrote when I was sad, which was a way to release all the pain in my heart. Rereading it recently, I realized how low I was and how far the Lord has brought John and me. With God’s grace I chose repeatedly to keep my marriage commitment to John and to trust the Lord even when many things in my life did not make sense.