January 1st, 2016.
After spending about two weeks down in Houston, Texas with Erica’s family for Christmas, we drove back to our house up in northeast North Carolina. The weather in Hampton Roads was cold and wet and seemed to mirror our internal emotional climate.
This was going to be the start of our first year without Elizabeth; a reminder that time continues to move forward. This was just the first step into living our new reality without her.
The distractions of the holiday season were gone, and my family and I continued to face the pain and emptiness left behind by Elizabeth. She had been woven into every layer and aspect of our family.
Elizabeth’s room sat empty, just the way she had left it the day she passed away. The door remained shut; it was too painful to walk near her room and nearly unbearable to walk inside it.
That’s when the waves of grief would come rolling in like a tidal surge. The stage of the initial shock after losing Elizabeth had already passed; by this point, we were dealing with the aftermath of trying to adjust to the fact that she was gone.
The traumatic and horrific images in my mind, caused by what I had seen that day, complicated the entire healing process. The smallest and seemingly innocuous of things would trigger a flashback – I certainly couldn’t watch movies or tv shows depicting graphic violence or blood.
Whenever my mind would conjure up the terrible memories, my hands would shake, I’d hyperventilate and weep uncontrollably. Many times, Erica was there to soothe and comfort me when this happened. She would hold me close as my heart raced, and my entire body became rigid. I would subconsciously bring my hands up to my face as if I trying to block my eyes from seeing something terrible. My fists would be balled up so tight that my knuckles turned white. I’d sit and rock back and forth until the emotions ran through and left me exhausted and drained.
Then there were the nightmares. My sleep was so restless that I’d accidentally wake up Erica. Countless times she had to shake me awake because I was trembling while mumbling and whimpering. I’d wake up startled with tears in my eyes.
All of these are just some of the classic symptoms of PTSD.
I knew that ‘just dealing with it’ and trying to carry the pain and grief wasn’t sustainable or healthy for my family or me.
My commute to and from work was either spent listening to sermons, Christian music, or in prayer – often accompanied by tears. The drive was about an hour, one way – by the time I got near the base, I dried my eyes and cleared my mind for work.
Once I got to work, my mind was clear enough to engage my daily tasks – although I was easily agitated and restless. My mind would always wander elsewhere. Not only was I having to traverse this unwelcome road of mourning, but so was Erica and our youngest daughter Isabella. In addition to my own wellbeing, I was concerned for theirs as well.
Our world had been flipped upside down and turned inside out, and we were trying to figure out how to put everything back together. During the initial days and even weeks following the heartbreaking loss of Elizabeth, time seemed to freeze; but as we continued to walk through the grief and embrace the healing process, we saw that the universe kept moving forward. A key and vital part to that forward movement was my family and I seeking counseling. Not generic ‘how-are-you-feeling-today’ advice, but intentional and focused therapy designed to address every aspect of our grieving process and the internal mental trauma.
And so, as time marched on, we found ourselves watching February slowly come upon us. It may be the shortest month on the calendar, but for my family and me, it’s the longest… February 9th is Elizabeth’s birthday.
February 9th, 2016 was on a Tuesday.
Everything about that day seemed heavy. It had only been 9 months since she had left us. For 15 years, that was a day of happiness and joy in our home; a time to remember and celebrate the life of our oldest daughter.
Yet this time, there was no celebration. The silence Elizabeth left behind was especially loud on her birthday. Erica and I knew that the road of healing and wholeness was going to be a long one, experienced through an open mind and a willing heart accompanied by many tears. That particular moment was just the first of what will be a lifetime of birthdays without Elizabeth.
February slowly rolled into March. By now my family and I had been seeing our counselor regularly. We were not only hungry for help in dealing with the feelings of loss, grief, and sadness, but we wanted to find the strength to leverage our experiences for a positive and higher purpose. So, I immersed myself in the therapy and healing process.
Many hours were spent not only talking through the events surrounding Elizabeth’s passing, but also the other traumatic experiences that I’d been carrying in my heart and mind for years. Those counseling sessions were necessary and healing, but they also weren’t easy. Besides the grief and immense sadness, probably the most challenging side-effects from all the trauma were the anxiety/panic attacks and nightmares caused by the raw and graphic imagery I’d seen the day Elizabeth died. It was a lot for my mind and heart to process.
Although nothing was going to undo what had happened, only a holistic and comprehensive approach was going to be able to help me navigate the experience. Not only did I want to come through it all successfully, but I also wanted something positive to come from it as well. I knew that Elizabeth taking her own life was certainly not what God wanted, nor was it in line with His perfect will. I also believed deep in my heart that He can make good come from any situation.
I knew that God was going to use this, as well as all the other losses and challenges, for our good and His higher purpose – but the question was this – would I let Him?
Therein lied the paradox of healing: was I willing to steward the turmoil by turning it over to Him and how was I supposed to do that?
I was going to have to traverse each day, moment-by-moment, and face what had happened. The experience of losing Elizabeth wasn’t going away, so being in a place of denial wasn’t going to fix anything. The wounds caused by her passing were deep…very deep. In order to properly heal, it meant being honest with the size, scope, and depth of those wounds and then being willing to allow God into those same broken places so He could heal. That process took vulnerability, and intellectual honesty only found via a humble heart and an open mind.
Holding onto the pain would have consumed me. I tried that back when my little brother Benjamin died in 2004. When he passed away, I futilely attempted to drown my sorrow in things that only deepened my sense of loss and abandonment. This time there was too much at stake and on the line! The loss of Elizabeth and the details surrounding her passing were too raw, real, emotional, personal, and sacred for us to try and handle un-strategically or alone.
That meant only one thing – Erica and I would have to be in agreement and alignment as to what our next course of action was. And that’s what we did. Through the counsel of some very wise friends, including our therapist, Erica and I began to walk down this journey of stewardship-and-healing together.
As we approached the spring of 2016, I started to feel emotional strength slowly return. Something was beginning to stir up in my soul. We had an unexplainable resilience and determination not to let our experience go unused. Not only did I feel it, but so did Erica.
In our pain, we discovered a passion for leaning on God more than ever before. We had become hungry for His healing, and in that healing, we knew that we’d discover His truth and higher purpose.
Whisper-by-whisper we began to hear God’s still small voice.
As the one-year mark of Elizabeth’s passing began to draw close, I knew I had to do something to honor her memory. I thought and prayed hard…it had to be something which symbolized life. That’s when I felt God speak softly to my heart – ‘Plant her a tree in the back yard’ flashed across my mind.
So, on Thursday, May 12th, 2016, I went to the local home-improvement store, headed into the garden section and started to look at the trees. I walked up and down, row-by-row until I found the right one. It was a little red dogwood tree. The leaves and blossoms were starting to form, and on the small information card attached to the trunk was a picture of scarlet leaves and light pink flowers. Those were a couple of Elizabeth’s favorite colors…I had found her tree.
Along with the tree I bought some flowers that I wanted to plant around it and three flat paver stones to lay on the ground, sort of as a memorial site to my little girl.
My goal was to get that tree securely planted in the ground before the afternoon school bus drove by the house. The last time I had seen Elizabeth alive, was a year prior when she walked off that very same bus. Although it was a year later, I wanted to plant the tree at a time when she was still breathing.
I pulled my truck into the back yard, dropped the tailgate, grabbed the shovel and began to break the ground. The clay soil was hard and unforgiving. It was back-breaking work; each shovel strike only seemed to move a few inches of dirt. Tears welled up in my eyes with each thrust of the blade. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see one of my next-door neighbors walk towards me. I looked up, and he asked if I needed some help. I politely declined; I needed to do this myself…there was too much meaning behind it. Judging by my emotion, he must have known why I was planting a tree.
Pausing for a moment to see my progress, he then insisted that I at least borrow his post hole digger. “It’ll make breaking through that hard clay a lot easier,” he kindly said. My hands were sore, and blisters were beginning to form. The clock was ticking, and I only had a short while before the school bus drove by.
After a moment, I took my neighbor up on his offer and borrowed the tool. “Take your time; no rush…you can put it against the side of my shed whenever you’re done”, he replied.
The post-hole digger made cutting through the clay much easier. Finally, the hole was big enough to plant the tree. I lowered the root ball into the ground, filled it in with garden soil, and added some fertilizer.
As the I shoveled in the last bit of dirt, the same yellow school bus, which had dropped off Elizabeth for the last time exactly one year prior, slowly lumbered by.
I looked down at my watch. At that exact moment one year earlier, I had seen Elizabeth alive for the very last time.
Elizabeth’s little tree stood tall in its new home; the breeze picked up and rustled through its tender branches and buds. I stood there with my back aching, hands blistered, covered in dirt, and tears streaming down my cheeks. “I did it Elizabeth…I planted your tree…now it’s time for mommy, your little sister, and I to take the next step”, I quietly whispered.
A severe wound requires extensive recovery. Injuries which take away a piece of the person, like the loss of a leg, require not only healing but also intense therapy and rehabilitation. Slowly, through many tears, doubts, and frustration, the person learns to walk again, even if it’s with a limp – each limp is not only a reminder of what was lost but a silent witness to the unstoppable combination of a tenacious heart and unashamed faith.
The loss of Elizabeth was a gaping wound which had ripped away a piece of our hearts and souls. Life for us had forever been redefined, yet somehow pain and trauma which should have crushed us only kindled a fire inside my heart. In the span of about 30 years I had been through more than several lifetimes worth of heartache and loss, but this time it was different. This had become my existential moment. Everything I had walked through growing up, and everything Erica and I had been through since we were married, fused into that one nexus point of indescribable searing hot pain. It was in that furnace that a new hunger was forged and an unquenchable desire to never quit.
I wanted to fight back – I needed to fight back. But fighting back meant I would have to heal and grow strong first. I would have to learn to walk again…and then I could eventually run in the race set before me.
The only way God was going to use all of that trauma for a testimony was if I was relentless in both my faith and action. I had to partner with God…and that meant being willing to let Him in and start to triage and treat all the brokenness and hurt that I had carried for so long.
Every wound and every scar needed to be willingly surrendered to Him because that’s where the healing process begins.
In the two years following the one-year-mark of Elizabeth’s passing, doors began to open, and connections were woven which would be essential to fulfilling His purpose for our lives and the task that He set in front of us. Inches turned into feet, feet turned into yards, and finally, yards became miles. With each passing day, I grew stronger – as did my family. Slowly our purpose came into focus, the trauma converted into triumph and beauty was exchanged for our ashes.