Page 29: Learning to walk again – Part 1

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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.

May 2016.

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.


Monologue:

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. 

Page 28: Once upon a dream…

Once upon a dream...


The following is a real and true-life experience of my own; nothing has been added or embellished in any way.

Perhaps it was simply the heart and mind of a grieving father, processing the loss of his child – or maybe it’s something much deeper, and much more, as I believe it to be.

 I’ll let you, the reader, decide…


December 2015:

It had only been seven months since my little girl died. My daughter Elizabeth, who was blossoming into a beautiful young lady, ended her life when she was only 15 years old.

After spending most of our time trying to adjust our lives around the hole and vacuum, she left behind, we took our family Christmas vacation – but we were a family that was missing someone.

During the years I was stationed in the Hampton Roads area, my family and I had taken several vacations to Houston. Each road trip was like our own little adventure. But the Christmas vacation of 2015 was the hardest of them all – it was our first one without Elizabeth. It was a bittersweet experience. We were finally taking a much-needed vacation to spend Christmas with Erica’s extended family in Houston; but this time it was just three of us – my wife, our youngest daughter Isabella and me. The fact that there were only three of us is the part that hurt the most. There should have been four.

The road trips were so much emptier without Elizabeth. There was a sad quietness without her presence in the back seat. The typical annoying things, which siblings do to each other on a long car ride, didn’t happen anymore. Instead, Isabella sat in the back seat by herself. She kept a strong, positive attitude, but I knew that not having her big sister, hurt deep inside. The little joyful nuances, of our family treks, seemed to have faded. When I was driving through the different states, I’d see something that looked interesting. “Hey, kids look at that!”, I’d exclaim while pointing to whatever I was talking about. That’s when I felt a wave of grief roll over me and my heart would sink. There was only one kid in the back seat.

After arriving in Houston, we stayed at my in-law’s house, as we had often done. They had two spare bedrooms; Erica and I shared one and Isabella stayed in the other. Our vacations in Houston usually lasted about two weeks. Considering the distance and time invested into traveling there, we’ve always figured that we’d better stay more than a few days, just to make the trip worthwhile.

After a few days of sight-seeing and socializing, we started making final preparations for Christmas Eve dinner, and most especially Christmas Day. This meant last minute shopping to do and a bunch of presents to wrap; all of the typical holiday hustle and bustle that people do at that time of year.

I was exhausted from both the travel and running around town to all the malls and shopping centers. One morning, a couple of days before Christmas Eve, while I was catching up on some much-needed sleep, I remember dreaming.

The dream started out as nothing of particular note…probably something nonsensical and irrelevant. As is the case with most people, when I dream, one dream will slowly roll into another as the dreamscape changes; much of what happens makes no particular sense or has any reasoning behind it.

But this time something was very different. The dream neither continued playing its scene to completion nor did it morph into another, as they so often do.

Instead, I had an experience, which I deliberately reflect upon every time questions of life, eternity and the big “why” come across my mind. I intentionally recall the details and nuances to cast a ray of hope into my heart and re-ignite my perseverance.

While still asleep, I suddenly found myself in a room that was maybe 10ft x 10ft. It was a room that I’ve never seen before. The walls were white and its atmosphere light and airy. It had an overall feeling of pleasantness and was inviting. There was furniture in the room and what appeared to be either pictures or decorations on the walls. I only caught a brief glimpse and saw everything in my peripheral vision.

Before I could even take the time to study the room closer, standing in front of me was my daughter.

I was stunned and staggered with utter amazement. I was self-aware and understood that it was a dream. I knew that in waking reality, Elizabeth was not with us anymore. Because of all this, I vividly remember trying to contain my excitement because I didn’t want to wake myself up.  While I was gaining my composure, I noticed that Elizabeth looked absolutely perfect. Everything about her was right, beautiful and complete.

She was wearing a white dress or gown that fit comfortably and naturally. There was nothing exceptional or decorative about it, only that it looked just right on her. I remember being astonished at the complete perfection of her appearance; her hair had its natural bouncy brown curls flowing down her shoulders. Even her teeth were straight and perfect.

I took note of these little details because, in the months and even couple of years before her passing, Elizabeth had slowly morphed her outward appearance, fashion, and hairstyle to match the dark and depressing tones caused by the battles going on in her mind.

And although she didn’t have a severe need for them, Elizabeth had often complained of wanting braces.

So, as I was looking and taking in every detail of perfection, I also noticed that she had such grace and poise. Not sanctimonious or pious, but instead a total sense of ease, clarity and completeness. None of the darkness or depression which she had struggled with in her physical life was there anymore – it was all gone – instead, she was whole and happy.

As my mind began to accept what my eyes were beholding, I approached Elizabeth, and we hugged. After losing her so tragically and not seeing her for so long, my soul swelled with joy. Her loss had caused such a deep wound to my heart and mind; to be seeing her in such clarity caused waves of healing happiness to wash over me.

Interestingly, Elizabeth was also happy to see me, but her excitement was calm and tempered. I could sense that her happiness came from a position of no pain or mourning; no grief or sadness. Instead, she was simply happy to see me. I remember wondering how long the moment would last. I thought to myself, ‘If I get too excited, I could risk waking myself up.’

Although she was delighted to see and fellowship with me during our brief visit together, she wasn’t concerned or in a rush.  Interestingly, I sensed that fact and knew that she was neither hurried nor anxious about the entire experience. On the other hand, I wanted to hurry up and ask a thousand different questions about life, Heaven and eternity.

With my mind going a million miles an hour, I finally managed to contain my excitement enough to speak. I had so many questions.

The first question that I was barely able to get out and stuttered to ask was, “What is it like when you leave…what happens when you die?”

Before I could finish speaking, it was as if she could sense the full scope of why I was asking. My motivation behind that question was because I wanted to know all the details on what happens when a Believer in Jesus passes on. In the Bible, there are several verses which talk about a Believer being with the Lord at the immediate moment following physical death. (see Luke 23:42-43, 2 Corinthians 5:8, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18)

I grew up hearing these verses, and I firmly believe them. But when it’s your own child that is absent from the body and has passed on to the Lord, it raises a lot of questions, and your faith is challenged.

With Elizabeth fully aware of both my question and intent, she gently smiled and said, “I can’t answer that question while I’m here; I’m not allowed to.”

As she said those words, in my soul I understood the full meaning behind what she was saying. It was such a simple sentence, yet her intent and purpose for saying those particular words were clear. I knew that when Elizabeth said she couldn’t answer the question, it wasn’t because she didn’t know the answer. It was because she wasn’t permitted to give a detailed explanation and my human mind wouldn’t be able to comprehend the ‘mechanics’ of how our spirit enters eternity.

Part of me wanted to press and insist that she answer me – after all, I am her dad, right? As those thoughts passed through my mind, I sensed that I couldn’t insist. Yes, she’s my daughter physically, but spiritually she is no longer accountable to me.

Once I knew I was limited to the answer given, my next question was about Heaven; “Can you tell me about Heaven? What does it look like there?”

When the Bible talks about Heaven, it’s described as beautiful, peaceful and perfect. But I wanted to know how it’s structured. Is it similar to life here on Earth?’

I remember asking this specific question from a perspective of curiosity. I’m a naturally inquisitive person and have always been fascinated by scientific topics like astronomy, chemistry, and physics. As part of my military training and profession, I work in a specialty where the power of the unseen is harnessed all the time. Invisible satellite downlinks and uplinks with masses of data being transferred over the air and traversing thousands of miles across the globe and into space. There is a lot about my job that requires an understanding of energy, the electromagnetic spectrum, radio frequency, solar cycles, and meteorological phenomenon. So, when I asked Elizabeth to describe what Eternity looks like, I was expecting (and hoping for) a technical description.

The moment she answered my question, I could sense that she knew my reason for asking and my attempt to rationalize, with my mortal mind, that I’d be able to handle whatever explanation she gave me; no matter how complex or complicated.

It was as if she knew that I was trying to get technical information on how the topography and structure of Heaven are laid out and how the dynamics of that environment operate.

With a smile, she politely and calmly replied, “Dad, the red is the reddest red, the blue is the bluest blue, the green is the greenest green, and the light is perfect; there’s no shadow.”

I was stunned and humbled by such a simplistic yet pure answer. When Elizabeth answered, I knew right away she understood my hunger for knowledge, but she had deliberately given a short yet accurate description because my brain wouldn’t be able to fathom the size and scope of how that realm is really structured.

Accepting the fact that her description of Heaven was the most she was going to say and the most I could comprehend, I then stumbled over my words to ask my next question.

“Well, who have you met…I mean…have you met…”. As I struggled to articulate the question, I had a running list of all the people in my family who have gone to be with the Lord. Not only did I think of my passed-on loved ones, but I was also thinking about some of my favorite heroes from the Bible.

Names like Peter…Paul…John…David…Moses. Founders and fathers of the Faith who have gone before us long ago and are now in Paradise.

As it was with my previous questions, I knew that Elizabeth sensed precisely why I was asking, and she knew the roster of names going through my mind. She stopped me mid-sentence, smiled, and then pulled me close – “Dad, I’ve already met everybody.”

Relief and joy washed over me. I was ecstatic with the idea that my little girl, met and fellowships with the other people I love and the legends we’ve read about in the Bible.

Not knowing how long this breathtaking encounter was going to last, I quickly thought of the next couple of questions to ask.

I knew that she’s already met everybody, but I wanted to know if they are still aware of what happens here on our side of Eternity. Do those Believers in Paradise have cognition of what us Believers here in the physical, are doing?

With those thoughts racing across my mind, I asked Elizabeth, “Well can you all hear us…can you still see us…do you know what we’re doing?”

Elizabeth, once again already knowing the scope and motivation of my question said, “We can hear it when you pray to God and worship Him.”

Instantly I understood that Heaven rings out and echoes when our sacrifice of praise and prayer are lifted in deep anointed worship before the throne of God Himself.

Staggered by this knowledge and breathless from understanding it, I had a final question for Elizabeth. I wanted to know where this place called Heaven is. A place that we’ve all talked so much about.

Many of us imagine Heaven being up somewhere in the distant cosmos. Often, we look up at the stars at night and picture that one of those pinpoints of light is a positional reference point to Paradise, somewhere in the universe beyond.

Media, books, tv, movie – they all seem to frame a picture of a Believer traveling lightyears into the vast expanse through a dimensional rift leading to the other side. This was why I was asking – I had to know how far away it all really is.

Again, my analytical, and critical thinking mind was expecting a technical answer; perhaps something resembling a complex quantum physics equation or even a line from a science fiction movie.

Elizabeth, knowing I anticipated a wildly complex pseudo-science answer, smiled at me and lightly chuckled; “Dad, it’s a lot closer than you all think, it’s so close its vapor thin.”

When she said that, I knew that she was referencing all the imagery that was going through my mind; imagery which many of us have about how far we think Heaven is.

Elizabeth said those exact words with the specific intent of letting me know that those of us, which still live here in the physical, would be so surprised to know how close it all really is. Heaven is not some far-off place like so many movies and novels portray.

As I heard Elizabeth’s explanation, I suddenly understood that it’s a realm where none of our laws of physics have dominance; in fact, it’s a realm which is superior and yet so close. Everything about it affects the space and time we physically occupy. That realm is a plane of existence where much of what we see here is only a pale reflection of what exists there.

But it’s also not far at all. Therein lies the paradox; it’s here…but it’s not here.

It’s a place which is not understood or accessed through the tools and mechanisms of cold scientific analysis, but instead, it is a realm which can only be touched through a tender heart, hungry with an appetite ignited by innocent faith.

As those final thoughts flashed across my mind, the encounter with Elizabeth suddenly and unceremoniously ended…I woke up.


Monologue

Human beings are a curious bunch. Our thirst for knowledge was imbued into us by our Creator. Nations have spent time and treasure towards financing the research of both the seen and unseen phenomenon within the universe around us. We’ve made space probes, satellites, and radio telescopes equipped with sophisticated sensors and collection devices; all designed to help give us a better understanding of what is going on around us.

I can personally attest to knowing what that thirst for information feels like. It’s an urge I’ve felt since I was a boy and spent over 20 years barely scratching the surface through my occupation.

There is so much more going on than we can even see or comprehend. Trying to get an answer to it all, is like standing outside at night and looking up at the stars through a soda straw…the view and scope of revelation is extremely limited, to say the least. Apart from the lens of faith, the quest for answers is like looking for a needle in a stack of needles.

On the seemingly endless list of mysteries, there is one that surpasses them all – death. What, if anything, is on the other side that experience which nature itself has never reconciled with? It’s something which has been woven into every stitch within the fabric of the physical universe; even down to the smallest particles and the bonds which hold them together. It is the essential premise for the laws of thermodynamics. Simply put, everything breaks down, wears down and eventually decays. This is a state of existence which was set in motion shortly after Creation.

For a living breathing being, death represents the end of something. It is the end of their presence here in this place we call the physical realm. The death of the body is a hard thing to reconcile with. It has such an air of finality to it. Death attempts to take with it all the hopes of the future and all the wonderful possibilities. I believe that we, as human beings, were never meant to experience that harbinger of sorrow. It is an unwelcome aspect of our existence that we as a species have struggled to deal with.

My faith, according to the scriptures, tells me that God created the universe perfect and the world sinless. It was Adam’s choice in the Garden that was the catalyst for chaos; it is why we experience death and pain after so many millennia.

Yet because of His endless love and infinite grace, God integrated a Divine rescue plan. The failings of man, and the follow-on scourge of death, didn’t enter the stage of the cosmos, without God’s knowledge.

There is no distance too great, no chasm too deep, no sorrow too painful or choice too broken that His love can’t reach. Through the sovereignty of His omniscient will, He ensured that the specter of death would no longer have the final word. Instead, God reached out from eternity and stepped into time to restore the hope we had lost so long ago and He removed death’s final say.

“Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”

1 Corinthians 15:55 (NIV)

Page 27: In our darkest hours… – Part 2

Dargest Hours - part 2

 – A picture of the Newport Bridge, located in Newport, Rhode Island, taken at sunset – 


June / July 2015. 

Following Elizabeth’s funeral, we stayed in Rhode Island for about two weeks.

We were surrounded by my extended family, whose company and fellowship was a welcome distraction from our loss.

The command I was assigned to, at the time, would have allowed me to stay longer; they even offered to temporarily give me orders to the base in Newport, Rhode Island. In a few short months, I’d be going right back anyway, to report for officer indoctrination, following my commissioning on September 1st.

As generous and gracious as the offer was, I had to decline. Our responsibilities tethered us back to North Carolina and the Hampton Roads area. Isabella needed to finish 1st grade, and Erica had a job back in Virginia Beach. Besides, we still had financial obligations, namely the house.

Still, so much of my heart wanted to stay in Rhode Island. I didn’t want to leave Elizabeth. In some strange way, as long as we were there, I felt close to her…yet I knew she wasn’t really there.

The long drive back to North Carolina is still a blur for me. The only memory of that ride, which really stands out, is when we approached the Rhode Island / Connecticut border.

As the ‘Welcome to Connecticut’ sign came into view, Erica broke down in tears at the thought of leaving Elizabeth behind. Each passing mile on our journey back to North Carolina, without Elizabeth, was another micro-step on our road of grief, mourning, adjusting to Elizabeth’s absence and eventually…our healing.

During the initial days and weeks following our loss, we began to feel the real weight of our grief. The colossal width and depth of the hole left behind became painfully real. When we returned back to our house, it no longer felt like home; instead, it felt like an empty shell. The place which was formerly our family sanctuary and a safe place had become ground zero for the most devastating loss imaginable.

Elizabeth’s room was nearly the same way, as when she had left it on the day she passed away. All her earthly possessions were still in their place where she had last put them. Her toys, trinkets, and gadgets…every little token and tome that reflected her unique personality sat untouched and motionless; as if frozen in time as a reminder of better days.

All her jackets and sweaters still hung up in her closet, and her dresser had all her clothes neatly folded inside of it. Her bed remained unused with her blankets neatly folded at the foot. Everything about her room echoed with the silence left by Elizabeth’s absence. Even her soft and gentle smell lingered; a mix of light floral perfume and hairspray.

Her room was right next to the laundry room and Isabella’s room. This meant that every time Erica and I went to do laundry or Isabella would go into her own room, we would be forced to walk past the place which had become a heartbreaking memorial.

The second and third order effects of Elizabeth’s absence permeated and shaped our daily lives. Meals, shopping, and even the most mundane of tasks were reminders that she was gone. Our lives revolved around Elizabeth. Her emotional and mental health needs added an extra layer to that orbit because she was on such a strict schedule of medication. I can’t count how many times Erica and I would suddenly stop and check to see if it was time for Elizabeth’s medicine, only to realize that she no longer needed it. Those moments were bitter reminders of how and why our little girl was gone.

She needed the medicine to keep from hurting herself, but because she hurt herself, she didn’t need the medication. It was a repetitive and vicious cycle of regret, pain, and grief.

Bedtime was also difficult. As the distractions from the day’s events came to a close, we were once again faced with the eerie silence. While the nighttime hours drew close, Erica, Isabella and I would all pile in the master bedroom and watch television for a couple hours before closing our eyes and laying our heads down to rest.

The ripple effect of losing Elizabeth sent shockwaves of both fear and loneliness into every family routine…including bedtime. Our youngest daughter Isabella, who was only seven years old at the time, was too scared to sleep by herself. Before Elizabeth passed away, Isabella would often bunk up with her big sister. She admired and almost idolized Elizabeth; to have her big sister torn away, so suddenly and tragically, had a massive impact on Isabella’s sense of security and safety.

For several months, Isabella was too scared to sleep by herself in her own room so we would let her snuggle up with us. Those times when she was able to fall asleep in her own bed, would often result in her crawling back into our bed while Erica and I were still asleep.

The deep wound to our minds, bodies, and spirits had left our souls feeling raw and sensitive. So much so, that we unconsciously began to filter out the former things which we used to find entertaining.

The types of music we listened to and the movies and television we used to watch, took a sudden and drastic shift. Suddenly we pushed out anything which seemed to graphically depict or glorify violence, substance abuse, greed or dysfunctional behavior.

It was as if our hearts and minds could only process the most innocent and pure of entertainment. Our senses couldn’t handle the harsher varieties.

Instead, our television viewing became a form of a security blanket. In the evenings Erica, Isabella and I would all huddle up together and watch re-runs of old, black-and-white, family-oriented shows from the ‘50s and early ‘60s.

Without us consciously trying, worship and praise music filled our home and car radios. It was a way for us to reach out to Heaven and keep God close to our broken hearts. We desperately needed His healing touch and wanted to invite Him close. My little family and I drew closer to God and leaned on our faith deeper than we ever had before.

The grief and pain, that the loss of Elizabeth carried with it, were something that words can scarcely describe. There was a huge void left in our family. A part of us had been ripped away, suddenly and with no explanation or warning. I knew that to survive, I would have to depend on the Eternal Arms of One who is bigger than the loss.

When my little brother Benjamin died from an overdose in 2004, I tried to walk that road alone. It almost killed me.

I knew that the weight of Elizabeth’s passing would be too much for me to carry on my own; so, I reached out to the one constant which I knew would never fail me…God. I leaned on Him, not just for my survival, but for the survival of my wife and youngest daughter Isabella.

A few short months after we buried Elizabeth’s body up in Rhode Island, I had to go back to my home state once more. I was selected to be commissioned as a Naval Officer; something which had been a heartfelt desire of mine for many years.

September 2015.

I had been in the Navy a little more than 17 years. After climbing the ranks as an enlisted Sailor, I had been selected for commissioning as a Naval Officer. It was a career-long dream of mine, and it was finally happening. My commissioning ceremony was held on September 1st, 2015. It was a big, momentous occasion which was attended by many of my shipmates and friends, who I had served with over the years; even my wife’s brother and his wife drove up from Houston to join us. It was an important event held aboard a battleship-turned-museum…the decommissioned USS WISCONSON (BB-64), located in the harbor near downtown Norfolk, Virginia.

Many of the people who I care about were there…except for one – Elizabeth.

As the guests arrived and every chair was filled, minus one. In the very front row, next to Erica, there was one chair which remained empty. That’s where Elizabeth would have sat. This would be the first significant life event, for our family, which she wouldn’t be attending.

Elizabeth had been a constant presence in our lives for almost as long as Erica, and I had been married. Her fingerprints were on nearly every major family milestone.

From our first apartment in San Diego to our first overseas tour, to our first house in North Carolina…Elizabeth had been part of it all, until now. My commissioning ceremony would mark not only the beginning of a new phase in my military career, but it would also become the first of many special moments, holidays and birthdays where her absence would be sorely felt.

A few days after the ceremony, I would be returning to the place where I had enlisted in the Navy back in 1998. As a newly commissioned Naval Officer, I was ordered to report to Officer Training Command, located on Naval Station Newport, Rhode Island. The irony of it all seemed surreal. Almost 17 years prior, I had left this place as a young man seeking to discover myself. This was the same place I had lost my father and my little brother. This was also the place where my extended family and I had buried precious other loved ones…this was the place where I had laid my oldest daughter to rest.

One day, while my fellow officers and I were on the main parade field finishing our daily physical fitness training, the reality and gravity of it all hit me. The warm September sun was accompanied by a cool breeze flowing off of Narragansett Bay. There I was, the man who had left so many years prior, returning to the same place where so much of my heart had been laid to rest and gone into eternity.

For the rest of my fellow classmates, it was just another training environment.  For me, there was so much more. It had only been four months since we buried Elizabeth in a cemetery, which was only 15 minutes away.

Throughout my military career, I always imagined going to the Naval War College in Newport and receiving training as an officer, but it never occurred to me the long road I would have to travel to get there…yet there I was; back where it all started.

It was a long six weeks of training. Erica and Isabella stayed back in North Carolina. I was by myself in Rhode Island, but I was never alone – God was with me.

On several occasions, when the training day secured, I visited the cemetery. The broken ground of Elizbeth’s grave was still fresh, and the grass was barely growing back. She still didn’t even have a headstone. That was something that Erica and I had a hard time coming to terms with and doing. A headstone represented accepting the fact she was gone, and it was a form of a final goodbye that we were not ready to say.

About half-way through my officer training, I was visited by a close friend and Christian Brother of mine. This is the same Brother who had taken me under his wing, back when we were serving aboard a warship together and engaged in Bible studies with, along with the ship’s Executive Officer, Supply Officer, and Command Chaplain. He is someone who supported me when my uncle had taken his own life, back in 2012.

I took my friend to the cemetery where not only Elizabeth is buried, but where my dad, little brother, uncle, and cousin are also buried. The tears in my Brother’s eyes welled up. The magnitude of so much loss was almost incomprehensible.

November 2015.

Following my training at the Naval War College, I reported for about a month of advanced technical training related to my new career field as an officer. During this season, my family and I pressed into the Hands of One far more capable than ourselves.

While I was in the advanced technical training, I was reunited with yet another old shipmate of mine. A fellow officer, and also a fellow Christian…someone who I had also worked with back aboard my last shipboard assignment.

By a stroke of Divine Providence, he was assigned to the same class as me. His wife became close friends to Erica and was a shoulder for her to lean on as we continued to traverse our road of healing.

My friend and I carpooled to and from class every day. During those car rides, I discovered what a great listener my friend is. We talked and prayed together; sharing in Brotherly fellowship.

I consider this particular season the beginning stages of something vital. It was in this season that a calling from Eternity, which had been placed on my heart as a young boy, began to take shape and form. I knew that as long as I stayed pressed into God, He would reveal to me what the next steps were.

As the final week of advanced training drew to a close, Christmas was on the horizon. This would be our family’s first Christmas without Elizabeth. Erica and I planned a vacation to Houston, Texas so we could spend the holiday with her family.

After a two-day road trip, we arrived in Houston and at Erica’s mom’s house.

While we were there, I had a powerful and compelling experience…one which I cannot shake.

I had a dream which echoes in my mind to this day…


Monologue:

Our hearts were heavy. How does a parent possibly process the loss of their own child – how does a little girl process the loss of her big sister?

In the months which followed, we discovered that we weren’t alone. The road of healing has no road-map. Instead, it’s navigated through trust and vulnerability, accompanied by many tears.

I knew that the size and scope of what we were traversing were too big for myself or family to hold onto. Only God and His healing touch would carry us through.

Ever since I was a little boy, I always felt God’s Hand on my life. I knew that He is always near. Through my early adult years, I pushed against Him. I carried so much pain, caused by traumatic life experiences and all the losses I had navigated through, especially the loss of my dad and little brother; but none of that compared to losing my own child.

Through these darkest hours, there was a Divine Invisible Hand which held us close. Deliberate engagement by seeking our comfort in the scriptures and prayer were the two main things which kept my family and me afloat amid our sea of grief.

In addition to securing ourselves in the healing arms of God, we found comfort in the empathetic company of friends and family who made themselves available 24 hours a day; seven days a week. We were covered with around the clock support by people who genuinely cared for us. Most of them were fellow shipmates who I had served with over the years, including several people from the chain of command aboard the last ship I had served on.

Chief among these people is my friend, and mentor;  the same one who had visited me while I was up in Newport, Rhode Island at Officer Training Command. He’s someone who, to this day, is especially close to my family and I. We spoke on a near-daily basis. His prayers and listening ear were two of the best medicines for my family’s broken hearts.

Sadly, for as many people who showed sympathy and support, there were others who seemed to pull away. For whatever reason, these were individuals who, in better times, seemed to be friends and some are extended family. They never came by to show their condolences, give us a phone call…not even a sympathy card.

A crisis has a strange way of revealing a person’s depth of character and capacity for empathy. In the middle of the battle, there are those who run towards the fight and seek to help…then there are others who shrink back and hide. Tragedies, like the one my family and I were facing, can make some people feel uncomfortable. They don’t know what to say or do. For them, it’s simply more comfortable to step away and try to pretend nothing happened.

But it’s those initial days, weeks and even months, following a crisis that are the most critical.

A piece of advice: If there is someone in your life, whom you even remotely value having a relationship with, I recommend being willing to step out of your comfort zone to be a resource of healing. Don’t feel pressured to say anything. In a loss as massive and horrible, like the one we were facing, there are no words to make the pain go away.

Just listen…plain and simple.

If you’re not a good listener but live close by, at least offer to help out with simple daily things like cleaning, grocery shopping or other household chores. Simple acts of kindness are a priceless investment.

Remember, a friendship which is advertised with words in the good times must be followed through with action in the bad times.

During the weeks and months following Elizabeth’s loss, my extended family in Rhode Island and a few close friends stood by us from the very beginning.

But there are also those who are outside of my family tree and immediate circle of friends who I owe a debt of gratitude that I can only hope to repay, by paying it forward to others who are hurting.

These are special people, whose names and tender acts of love and kindness I’ll never forget. The selflessness and bravery they showed, were instrumental in helping us cross through our darkest valley.

Throughout that first year, as my family and I continued to grow stronger and press into our faith, a purpose and plan began to take shape. Although I didn’t know it at the time, something was forming and rising inside of me. The clarity of what that was wouldn’t become evident until several of months later.

Page 26: In our darkest hours… – Part 1


Saturday, May 16th, 2015

96 hours had passed since Elizabeth died. My wife and I had just lost a daughter – our youngest daughter had lost a sister.

The days and weeks which followed Elizabeth’s passing had become a sleepless and tear-filled blur. Everything was moving so fast; our minds and bodies buzzed with fatigue fueled by grief.

The little girl, who 15 years prior I had helped bring into this world, was gone.

As parents, Erica and I were suddenly absent a child; someone whom we had been responsible for. Every aspect of her life was part of our parental decision-making process.

Elizabeth was our oldest child. That mere fact was a center of gravity for our family. The emotional and spiritual struggles which she wrestled with only deepened the orbit. But, in a sudden collision, our world was spun out of control, and our family climate was forever altered.

We were stunned and reeling from the shock of losing her.

So many choices to make, so much to get done and very little time to spare. Each decision and task were a painful and chilling reminder that my eldest princess was gone from this world.

During those initial days, we were surrounded by friends and family. Erica’s extended family had come from Houston, Texas and several of my fellow military warriors, who I had the pleasure of serving with, were also there; one of whom I consider a close brother-in-arms.

The day of the memorial service, I wore my dress blue uniform. So did my military friends. Our deputy sheriff friend came by the house in his squad car and escorted us to the church where the service was held. As we neared the intersection leading to the church, he put his lights on and stopped traffic so we could proceed to the church parking lot.

As Erica, our youngest daughter Isabella and I walked into the church, our friends and family followed close behind us. My warrior-brother sat close to my family and I. During the memorial service, my wife and I wept; it was another step in the surreal goodbye we were forced to say to Elizabeth. A couple of songs, which were special to her, were played on the church sound system while the pews were filled with many of her high-school friends and their families. There were so many people that there was standing room only.

After the service, so many of Elizabeth’s friends came up to Erica and I and hugged us. The sadness and pain in their eyes echoed our own.

Monday, May 17th, 2015

A private viewing was held at the funeral home the next day. Erica’s family joined us, along with my warrior-brother. His presence was a point of solidarity amid the painful chaos. The entire time he managed the phone calls and daily taskings that my wife and I had neither the patience or heart to deal with.

I remember walking into the viewing room where Elizabeth’s body was laying. As I walked in, my heart raced, and my breath was shallow. The last time I had seen her was five days prior. Considering what had happened, I didn’t know what to expect.

Turing the corner into the viewing room, the first thing which caught my eye was Elizabeth’s thick beautiful hair. The warm dark brown color was showing through the last bit of maroon hair dye Elizabeth had used a few weeks prior. She wore a long green dress that our neighbor friend helped pick out. As we walked up to the table where she was laying, Erica and I began to weep uncontrollably.

Looking at our little girl lying there, it was a tangible and very real reminder that our daughter was really gone. Erica and I stood by Elizabeth’s body for a few minutes; Isabella joined us moments later. As a way for us to connect with Elizabeth, even though she had already departed, Erica and I placed in her folded hands a small family photograph and Isabella gave her big sister a little plastic figurine of Elizbeth’s favorite fairy tale princess.

Our family had been broken…so were our hearts. This would be the last time we would look upon Elizabeth, on this side of eternity.

Meanwhile, my warrior-brother stood close by and slowly ushered in the other close friends and family who were there to show their respect.

As the viewing came to a close, Erica and I spoke to one of the funeral home directors. Following the viewing, would be the actual funeral and burial up in Rhode Island.

The director explained to us that, within a matter of hours, Elizabeth’s body would be transported, via airplane.

Erica broke down and began to cry. “She’s going to be all alone…on an airplane…by herself.” The heart of a mother was breaking for her lost baby. Erica and I felt so helpless and powerless; everything about what was happening was counter to our parental and nurturing instincts. We were still trying to take care of and look after our child, even though we knew she was already gone.

Erica’s tears and pain were mine as well. We both wanted our little girl back. We both hoped that we would wake up from this living nightmare.

Even though we lived in North Carolina, we were not from there. Aside from our neighbors and a few friends, we had no roots or connections there. Erica is from Texas, and so is the rest of her extended family. I, on the other hand, am from Rhode Island, where the rest of my extended family is also.

For years, Erica and I planned to move to Texas when I retired from the military. Back in 2010, we bought a house near the Virginia/North Carolina state line, because my duty assignment had stationed us in the Hampton Roads area. We didn’t have deep relationship roots nearby. No family and our closest friends were either our neighbors or some of the fellas I had been assigned with.

The heartbreaking decision of where to bury one of our children never factored into the equation: yet there we were…faced with that terrible choice. Were we going to bury Elizabeth there in North Carolina? A place where we were only transients and didn’t have any family?

What about Texas? Sure, we planned on moving there and calling the Lone Star State home someday, but where exactly in Texas? It’s a very big place and, at that time, our plans to move there were just a faraway whisper.

The tragic irony of having laid to rest so many others in my family in one location led Erica and me to a painfully logical choice. Elizabeth was going to be buried somewhere I had become all too familiar with. A place which had been visited too many times by others in my family, for the same reasons we were laying Elizabeth to rest. Elizabeth would be buried in Rhode Island.

I called my oldest uncle and told him about what Erica, and I decided. He agreed that we had made a sensible choice in the most senseless of situations.

There was so much to be done, and much of it actually needed to take place up in Rhode Island.

My uncle selflessly took it upon himself to liaison with the funeral home in Rhode Island and was willing to make some tough choices for us: picking the burial plot and choosing a casket.

Tuesday, May 18th, 2015.

Early that morning, Erica’s family had started on their drive back to Texas. My cousin (who is really more like my older brother), flew down from Rhode Island to join Erica, Isabella and I on the 11-hour drive from North Carolina to Rhode Island. Our grandmother, Nanny, was expecting our arrival and she had everything prepared at her house, for our stay. I would be returning to the place of my origin and roots. The same place where I had lost my father so many years prior. This time I’d be returning to bury my daughter.

While we were on our journey towards the final stages of saying goodbye, the magnitude of Elizbeth’s passing was having a rippling impact back in our local community. Her former classmates at the high school she had attended wanted a way to express their grief and say goodbye as well.

Out of concern, the school faculty had expressed trepidation about memorializing Elizabeth; they didn’t want to draw attention to how she had died or glamorize suicide, but at the same time they also wanted to be delicate and respectful of Elizabeth’s memory.

As we were driving north to lay Elizabeth to rest, the school and student leadership decided to organize a butterfly release. That afternoon, thousands of delicate little wings rose to meet the warm sunshine and fluttered in the breeze toward heaven.

Wednesday, May 19th, 2015.

The day of Elizabeth’s funeral. The warm sun and mild ocean breeze seemed to almost soften the somber and sad feeling that hung in the air.

I made some last-minute phone calls to my uncle, who had been coordinating many of the specifics with the local funeral home. Erica and Isabella got dressed up; I wore my dress blue uniform. As we drove to the cemetery, my heart was pounding. I had taken this ride before, and I knew every turn and detail. Every time I had gone there, it hurt; but never this bad.

Each funeral had brought with it a hope, that it would be the last one caused by the same thief who had stolen all the others.

Yet, there we were, heading to a place which had come to represent many of the unfulfilled hopes and dreams within one family.

As I pulled into the cemetery, I could see the rest of my family had arrived, as well as a few of the people who I knew from church, growing up.

Alongside I saw the hearse. My heart sank; I knew that in a few short moments, Erica and I would say our final goodbye to Elizabeth.

I parked the truck, and we walked over to the grave site where the rest of my family was standing. Awkward greetings were shared between us. We all knew why we were there – we had done this before. Everyone looked tired; each time something like this happened, it took a piece from all of us. The only thing we could do was stand and be strong for one another. A stiff upper lip and a sense of solidarity were the only things that helped us hold onto our collective family dignity and kept our emotions from coming unglued.

The funeral home had set up a small table with a few of Elizabeth’s photographs, as a way to give a visual memorial. The funeral director walked up to me, gently shook my hand and explained what was about to happen. He then shared a few words with the rest of my family before we proceeded.

“Mr. Mattera, I’ll need you and someone else to come and assist us.”, the funeral director said as he opened the back of the hearse. Slowly he rolled Elizabeth’s casket a few inches out. My cousin (the one who flew down to North Carolina and rode back with us) walked up next to me.

“I’ll need you two gentlemen to get on that side while my assistant and I get on the other side, and we will lift together.”, the funeral director instructed.

The funeral director and his assistant grabbed one side of the casket, my cousin and I grabbed the other. With one of us on each corner, we lifted and pulled my daughter’s casket out of the hearse.

I can think of a thousand horrible things in this world that no father ever wants to do…being a pallbearer for their own child is undoubtedly one of them. It’s an experience which left a massive scar on my heart, and one I’ll certainly never forget.

After a few short paces, in unison, we placed the casket onto the lowering device. My mother’s pastor shared a few short words and said a prayer.

A short while after the eulogy, the guests began to slowly leave. My aunt and uncle had arraigned for a quiet reception a few miles down the road, so they went on ahead. Erica and I stayed behind at the gravesite a few more minutes.

As the groundskeepers walked up to lower the casket, tears welled up in my eyes. My lip quivered, and body trembled. I snapped to attention and slowly raised my right arm, forming a salute.

“I love you Elizabeth…I love you…d-d-d-daddy loves you.”, I stammered as tears rolled down my cheeks.

This was my final goodbye to Elizabeth – but somewhere deep down, amid the howling winds and torrential rain which plummeted my soul, a small but unquenchable, white-hot flame of hope crackled and burned. It was as if that little flame defiantly resisted against the raging storm. I knew this wasn’t the end…in fact, it was far from over and the beginning of something so much bigger.

Death no longer has the final say…the grave has lost its sting.


Monologue:

For a parent, the death of a child is a reminder of how illegitimate of an intruder death really is on the human experience. Somehow over the years, humanity has become uncomfortably accustomed to elders preceding their juniors in passing through that invisible veil; in fact, we expect it and accept it as a normal part of the cycle of things.

Yet there is still an internal reminder of how foreign death really is. It pings deep within all of us, every time a loved one dies, no matter how old they were or how expected the passing was.

Still, we celebrate the life of those who lived long and fulfilled lives. We grieve their loss and miss them in their absence, but their passing is an accepted fact.

On the other hand, the death of a child resonates deeply with anyone who has a heart. A child dying is completely counter to the accepted order of things. It is a parent’s worst nightmare. Children are to be nurtured, protected and guided…they are our greatest legacy, for they carry with them a piece of us into tomorrow.

In addition to the massive and nearly indescribable grief, I felt from Elizabeth’s passing, there was a painful irony which surrounded her funeral. In that very cemetery, are the corporeal remains of precious loved ones, including my own father and little brother, who lost their battle to the same invisible darkness which had lied to Elizabeth and stolen her from us. Their lives had been cut short, leaving behind so much unrealized potential and so many unfulfilled dreams.

For my family and I, the weeks and months following our deepest loss would be some of our darkest hours. The complex waves of emotions which came crashing would solicit a variety of physical and psychological responses.

Our family had suffered a major loss. An irreplaceable part of our lives had been ripped away from us. There was an unexplainable vacuum left by Elizabeth’s absence; the silence she left behind echoed loudly. Her empty room and all her worldly possessions were a constant reminder that she wasn’t there anymore.

For 15 years Erica and I raised and nurtured that little girl. Everything about our lives was tailored and adjusted to the fact that there were four people in our family. Then all of a sudden there was only three. Little things, that most people take for granted, like grocery shopping, laundry, and cooking all of a sudden served as a reminder that someone was missing. We no longer bought Elizabeth’s favorite foods, our grocery list became smaller, her clothes weren’t in the washer and dryer, and our nightly family meals became nearly non-existent.

In fact, after Elizabeth’s passing, our house ceased being a home. A home is supposed to be a place of peace and safety; instead, our worst nightmare had taken place, right at the very center of it all.

I spent many nights waking up crying in my sleep from the nightmares caused by the things I saw that terrible day. They never really go away…the nightmares just happen less and less.

Through it all, there was one constant: God.

He is truly near the broken-hearted in their darkest hours.

During the following year, we discovered how near He really is…

Page 25: “All The King’s Horses and All The King’s Men…” – Part 5

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Tuesday, May 12th, early evening

A mother’s broken heart; a little sister’s pain…

My house had become a crisis scene. Two hours had passed since I made the 911 call. A few of our neighbors, the pastor of a local church, and a friend who was also a deputy in the county sheriff’s department, were the only familiar faces there to comfort me during those dark and terrible moments.

I desperately wanted my wife, but Erica was on her way back home from work, and everyone said not to call her…I was warned that it could lead to something worse.

After, what seemed an eternity, one of our friends saw Erica’s black car coming down the road towards the house. Everyone braced themselves for the inevitable. As Erica was pulling up to the house, she noticed all the cars and people. The driveway was blocked by one of the county vehicles, so Erica pulled her car to the side of the road, next to our mailbox, in front of the house. When she saw the emergency response vehicles, her first instinct was to wonder what was wrong. Her heart pounded, fear swept over, and her mind began to race…

‘Why are all these people here at my house? Why is there an ambulance? What happened? Is Matthew o.k.? Are the girls o.k.?’

As she was getting out of the car, our deputy sheriff friend took me by the hand and said we needed to go tell Erica what happened.

I was so terrified, barely able to comprehend the size and scope of our loss and what I had seen; how was I going to tell my wife, my best friend and the mother to our children, that one of our babies was gone?

My friend put his arm around me and held me close as we walked up to Erica. Before we could get all the way to the end of the driveway, Erica asked: “What the heck is going on?”  Looking around puzzled and searching for answers, she saw two of our neighbors there, who were also mothers and her friends. The look on their faces said that something was terribly wrong.

Erica looked back at me. The look of sorrow and anguish in my eyes triggered a mother’s instincts. Our friend, who had walked up with me, put his arms around both of us and gently told Erica that something terrible had happened to Elizabeth. Bewilderment and fear flashed across her face, “What do you mean something bad happened…where is she?”,Erica asked.

With a tone of sorrow and regret, he pulled Erica and me even closer and said, “Erica, Elizabeth’s gone…”. As the words exited his mouth, he looked back at me, as if prompting me to explain what those awful words really meant. I could barely comprehend what was happening, much less form the words, and yet somehow, in a painful whisper, I spoke.

Not wanting to believe what had occurred, she looked over at her friends, when they looked down with tears streaming in their eyes she understood. As the truth took root in her heart, she nearly collapsed into my arms with the wail of a mother’s broken heart. Together we stood there, at the end of our driveway, holding each other closer than we ever had before. We were walking through the darkest hour imaginable for any parent, and the only people we had to lean on were one another.

As Erica and I held each other, our friends gathered and formed a circle around us, as if to somehow help absorb some of the pain and to let us know we were not alone.

While we were huddled together in our embrace, Elizabeth’s body was being loaded up into the coroner’s van and slowly driven away. At that very moment, Erica and I looked up and caught a brief glimpse of the van; tears of sorry and anguish poured. Our little baby was in there, and there was nothing we could do to save her.

Our neighbor hugged Erica and asked her if she wanted to walk over to their house so she wouldn’t be exposed to the scene; Erica accepted the invitation. Shortly after that, the first responders slowly began to leave. Their departure only seemed to confirm that there was nothing else to do. This simply echoed the terrible finality of what had happened.

While everyone else was leaving, my friend (the deputy sheriff) walked back from the house and talked with me. He told me something that to this day still echoes in my mind. He said to me that one of the other sheriff deputies, who were there to assist, had found the keys to the gun safe…they were next to Elizabeth.

As soon as I heard that, my knees gave out from underneath me. “Oh my God! How? How could she have found them?”,I exclaimed in shock. As waves of sorrow crashed over me, I wept in disbelief. My friend and the other deputies explained to me that most likely, Elizabeth went looking in the closet for the gun safe keys. When she couldn’t find them in the house, she waited until I was in cutting the lawn in the back yard, before she went through my truck looking for them.

I kept thinking to myself, ‘How could this have happened? I’ve already lost so many people already…this can’t be happening. This is not real…maybe it’s just a horrible dream’. As soon as the thought of the entire experience being ‘just a dream’ crossed my mind, waking reality in all its raw and unforgiving vividness, came crashing back into my state of delirium. Gut-wrenching grief and agonizing sorrow overwhelmed me like an ocean swell.

After a while, the only people who remained where our friends: the deputy and neighbors, the firefighter and my wife’s friend.

In a small town, like the one we lived in, there isn’t a special team of people who come and remediate a scene like the one which had unfolded in my house.

There were things that had to be done. Hard things. The aftermath of what Elizabeth’s fatal choice had to be fixed. It was a task which took a special kind of courage. Without having to ask, friends and neighbors stepped in to help. I made my way to the neighbor’s house and meet up with Erica. Isabella was dropped off by a sheriff deputy shortly after my entering the neighbor’s home. Confused and scared Isabella walked over to us while we sat in the living room. Together, Erica and I embraced our youngest child and explained to her that her big sister was no longer alive. Cries filled with fear and pain came out of her, her little body shook in our arms as the words soaked in her mind.

That was the night that our house had ceased becoming a home. Something awful and unimaginable had happened there – but eventually, we would have to go back. While Erica and I waited across the street at the neighbor’s house, there were calls to make. People came by our neighbor’s house as the news of Elizabeth’s death rocked the foundation of our small community. Disbelief and tears flowed from everyone’s eyes.

I needed to call my chain-of-command, close friends and family back in Rhode Island. Each one of those calls would seem like I was reliving the moment all over again. By the time I hung up the phone with each one, I was drained and in tears. Some of the phone calls were made that day…others wouldn’t be until the following morning.

The phone calls…

Of all the calls I made that day there are a few which really stand out:

I called a close cousin of mine…but he’s really more like my brother. It was he who had lost his little sister, eight years prior, to the same darkness which had taken Elizabeth. He and I spoke for a little while, he cried with me and asked if there was anything he could do. I told him that I needed two things; tell the rest our family what happened and come see me as soon as he could.

The second call was to a buddy with whom I was working with during that particular season. He’s a guy who I had become very close to and share a lot in common with. He was there next to my wife and me in the days which followed. Being a fellow military member, and having traversed his own set of losses, he knew exactly what to do…just be there – plain and simple. Over the course of about a week and a half, I leaned on him for some of the simplest things…because everyday life and its mundane tasks were too much to handle.

The other phone call I made which sticks out in my mind, was the one made to a friend who I had become close to when one of my other uncles (one of my dad’s older brothers) had taken his own life, during my deployment in 2012.

My friend and I had served together aboard a warship, and he was part of that Band of Brothers that God had brought into my life so many years prior.

That night, when I called him and told him about the awful thing that happened, he stayed with me on the phone and prayed with me. He had become close to not only me but to my wife and kids as well. He knew the struggles we were going through; the pain, heartache, and turmoil that Elizabeth had been wrestling with. He and I stayed on the phone for over an hour, talking and weeping. Before we hung up the phone, we agreed on a date which would be best for him to come see me.

The next day I called my grandmother. That call is something which still causes emotions to rise up in me when I think about it. My cousin, whom I called the day before, had already passed the tragic news to everyone in our family, including our grandmother. “Hi Nanny…it’s me Matty”, I said, with tears in my eyes. I could hear and feel my grandmother’s sorrow and empathy on the other end. “Oh, Matty…you poor boy…”. As soon as I heard those words, the tears poured from my eyes. I tried to hold them back, but I felt like the same little six-year-old boy I was back when my dad took his own life over 30 years prior. Nanny was all too familiar with what I was feeling. She had already lost two sons and two grandchildren to the same self-harm which took her great-granddaughter…my Elizabeth. Of those sons she lost, one was my own father, and one of those grandchildren was my own brother. Nanny knew my loss…she felt it, and her heart broke for me and with me.

After I got off the phone with Nanny, I called my one of my uncles (my dad’s oldest brother). As my dad’s oldest brother, I’ve always viewed this particular uncle as the senior biological relative to whom I could call in a crisis. Not only that, but he also knew the sting and heartbreak of losing a daughter and two brothers to the same darkness which had overcome Elizabeth.

By the time I spoke to my uncle on the phone, my cousin had already briefed him as well. My uncle was expecting my call.

Hearing my uncle’s deep calm voice on other the end of the phone somehow made me feel stronger. I knew that he understood my pain and the hard decisions I would be faced with in the coming days. Even though my own loss probably brought back a lot of hard memories for him, my uncle didn’t let it show. He listened and gave me counsel on what were some of the most painful decisions any person or more specifically, a parent, has to make.

In the initial days following Elizabeth’s passing, a multitude of people came by the house to offer their condolences and drop off food and flowers. I remember there being mountains of casserole dishes in the kitchen and dining room and the entire house looked like a florist shop.

The first week was a buzzing blur of activity. Several of my military buddies from work also rallied around and offered whatever help they could, and Erica’s parents and siblings came and visited us from Texas.

Painful decisions…

When a person dies, there are harsh and painful decisions that need to be made. Sometimes, those decisions are made by someone who’s been designated in writing via a will. In other cases, the responsibility falls on the next of kin. In our situation, Erica and I had to make the hard decisions for Elizabeth, our own child. These were ugly and even morbid choices; stuff that no parent ever thinks about.

But there we were. Erica and I were faced with making decisions to questions which seemed to have crawled out of our worst nightmares.

Things like: was Elizabeth’s remains going to be buried or cremated? If there was to be a burial, where were we going to lay her body to rest? If we decided to have a burial, what kind of casket would Elizabeth’s body be laid to rest in? Which funeral home would handle the arraignments? Would we have a memorial service? If so where would we hold the service? How did we want the service to be structured? Was there going to be a viewing? Considering how Elizabeth had died, was a viewing even possible? If there was going to be a viewing what outfit was, she going to be laid to rest in? And so on and so on and so on…

These were all just some of the difficult questions Erica, and I would have to provide answers to, and we had a very limited amount of time to make these decisions.

Each time we were presented with one of these questions, our hearts sank, and the grief would crash over us. I remember mounds of paperwork had to be signed; every time I put pen to paper, my eyes would well up with tears, and my heart became overwhelmed. It was surreal and painful.

None of these problematic decisions could have been made on our own. Erica and I depended heavily on our close friends and family.

One of the hardest decisions was where to lay Elizabeth’s body for final rest.

This was when I relied heavily on my uncle back in Rhode Island. Erica and I knew for sure that we didn’t want to bury Elizabeth in North Carolina. I’m from Rhode Island, and Erica is from Texas. Besides our neighbor friends, we had no real connections there. Even though we knew that our daughter was no longer there physically, we didn’t feel comfortable for her body to be laid in a place full of strangers.

My uncle and I spoke on the phone several times during that week. He helped me figure out some tough decisions…what kind of casket and which funeral home. In a twist of painful irony, experiences such as this were sadly familiar to my family and me. We had laid to rest so many others who had passed in the same self-destructive way. Because of this inconvenient and painful familiarity, we had become unwilling experts in a subject which is too taboo and too painful for most families to even comprehend.

In the middle of our most difficult and darkest hour, there was one decision which seemed to provide an eerie sense of simplicity. Erica and I decided that Elizabeth would be buried up in Rhode Island, in a place which has become sacred ground to my family and me.


Monologue:

Following the phone calls to some of my closest friends and family were the calls to and from extended friends and even acquaintances. The news of our loss traveled fast within the network of people who had known us throughout the years. Social media was flooded with condolences and words of encouragement from people who we hadn’t spoken to in a long time.

 During my writing of this particular experience, I’ve had to call back those special people who were with us that day. People who were with my wife and I during our darkest hour; they stood as mighty oaks in a storm and let us lean on their branches as the winds howled, the rain poured, and the terrible lighting flashed.

 Traumatic experiences, like the one I’m sharing now, exact a toll on the human mind and memory. Science has proven it. Countless mental health professionals have studied it.

Seconds seem like minutes, and minutes seem like hours. Time itself seems to slow down, and the field of view narrows to only a few feet. Sights and sounds, outside of that immediate field of observations, become the mere whispers of your worst nightmare.

The mind will involuntarily form mental pictures and flashbacks of the traumatic imagery.

The human soul will remember the emotional trauma and feel it all over again.

The body will produce symptoms such as panic, rapid heart rate and racing thoughts, which can be triggered by sights, sounds, and smells.

Page 24: “All The King’s Horses and All The King’s Men…” – Part 4

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*** NOTE TO THE READER: THE FOLLOWING CONTAINS VERY RAW, GRAPHIC, AND PAINFUL DETAILS SURROUNDING MY DAUGHTER ELIZABETH’S DEATH ***

Tuesday, May 12th, 2015 – late afternoon. 

That was the day I found my little girl, Elizabeth, dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound…

The oppressive darkness Elizabeth had been wrestling with for nearly four years had come to reap its final toll and steal my baby.

That day would bring with it pain and anguish that I didn’t think was even possible to experience. It was a day which felt like I was reliving the horror of finding my dad moments after he had shot himself, albeit over 30 years prior. It was the day my most precious loved one, and valued treasure would take with her, a piece of my heart forever.

The heightened drama and turmoil that Elizabeth was walking through had reached their destructive climax. During her last couple of weeks alive, it was even more imperative for either Erica or me to be home before Elizabeth got off the school bus. We didn’t feel comfortable leaving her alone at the house.

There were too many things there that she could use to hurt herself. In the past Elizabeth had tried to harm and even kill herself: hiding shaving razors so she could cut herself, taking a leather belt and trying to hang herself in her own closet, taking a string of Christmas tree lights and then trying to hang herself from a ceiling fan, and running into the kitchen to stab herself with the biggest knife she could grab – and these were just the attempts, Erica and I knew about.
God only knows how many other times Elizabeth tried to end her own life. The battle with an unseen dark oppressor, shrouded in suicidal and self-destructive behavior, was the primary catalyst for why she had been hospitalized on three separate occasions.

So, in addition to the precaution of either my wife or I arriving at the house before Elizabeth came home, we also made sure that our firearms were locked away and secured in a gun safe. Only Erica and I knew the combination to the safe and the location to the only set of override keys. We agreed that those keys would never be stored in the house or on our person. Instead, Erica and I hid them in an enclosed and discrete compartment, inside my truck, which I always kept locked.

I can remember that terrible day like it was yesterday. As soon as I pulled into the driveway, I locked my truck, walked into the house, then walked into my closet and changed out of my uniform and put on some old jeans and a t-shirt. I turned off the closet light, shut the door, headed into the garage and drove my green riding mower out onto the yard so I could mow our lawn.

After about half an hour of mowing, I was coming up along the side of the house, to cut the last few rows of grass on that particular side, before moving along to mow the back and then the front yard. I was driving the mower up from the back portion of the side yard and towards the front, which faced a small road that ran through our neighborhood.

Elizabeth’s school bus was lumbering along and pulled up to the front of our house. I slowed my riding mower down, lowered the throttle to idle, and waited for Elizabeth to walk off the bus.

The rumbling of the school bus diesel engine and the clacking noise caused by the bus doors opening and closing could be heard over the sound of my idling mower.

Elizabeth stepped off, walked across the front of the bus and started heading up the driveway. As the school bus slowly pulled away, Elizabeth looked towards me, and we both made eye contact. Her head was hung low, and she seemed exhausted. I eagerly smiled and waved enthusiastically at her. Considering what she had been wrestling with emotionally during the previous few days, I wanted to cheer her up. Elizabeth waved back and softly smiled as she headed into the house.

As soon as she walked inside, I looked down at my watch and figured I had about another half hour, or so, of mowing before I’d be done with cutting the yard. After I was done mowing the lawn, I planned to pick up Elizabeth’s little sister, Isabella, from school and then take both the girls out for a burger and fries at the local drive-through. Of course, all of that was dependent on what time I got done with my yard work.

I continued cutting the last stretch of yard on one side of the house and then proceeded to cut the back and then the front yard. Finally, after several passes and turns navigating both trees and flower bed borders, I was done mowing the lawn. I had just enough time to shower, change my clothes, and then take Elizabeth with me to pick up her little sister from after-school daycare. I would have to save the detailed edge trimming for the next day.

I pulled my riding mower back into the garage, pushed the gear-shift lever into park and turned off the ignition. I walked up the stairs leading from the garage and into the kitchen; that’s when I called out for Elizabeth.

“Hey Elizabeth, it’s almost time to go kiddo…we’ve got to go pick up your little sister from school.”, I said out loud.

No response… ‘but maybe she didn’t hear me,’ I thought to myself, so I tried again.

“Elizabeth…we’ve gotta roll sweetie!”.

Still, I heard nothing.

I walked down the hall and into the girl’s rooms and then checked their bathroom – they were both empty.

‘Maybe she’s upstairs in the loft, playing video games,’ I thought to myself.

So, I went and checked, but she wasn’t upstairs either.

I went back downstairs and called out for Elizabeth again…no response. I walked into the dining room and stepped onto the back patio. ‘Elizabeth…time to go.”, I called out.
Still, I heard nothing.

‘Hmmm…maybe she was outside in the front yard,’ I thought. So, I walked back through the kitchen, opened the door leading into the garage and looked around…she wasn’t in the garage either. I walked through the garage and past the tractor, still warm and smelling like freshly cut grass.
My eyes squinted as they adjusted to the afternoon sun. Walking up the driveway, I shaded my eyes with my hand and looked to see if Elizabeth had walked up the road, but I saw no sign of her.

I turned around and walked back towards the front of the house and then to the side…but still, no sign of Elizabeth.

At this point, I began to become concerned. A whole list of scenarios ran through my mind.
Did something happen at school that made her upset?
Did she run off?
Was she merely visiting her friend at the house up the street and forgot to tell me?
Maybe she was just playing a joke and was hiding.

Where was she?!?

Not able to find Elizabeth outside, I decided to walk back towards the front of the house and go back inside.
Walking up the front steps, something in my gut told me to check the master bedroom. As soon as I stepped through the front door, I looked into our master bedroom which was only a few feet away…perhaps she was in there.

As soon as I crossed the threshold from the hallway into the master bedroom something caught my eye. I saw that our walk-in closet door was wide open, and the light was on.
I thought to myself, ‘That’s weird, I shut the door and turned off the light before I went to mow the lawn.’

As those thoughts were running through my mind, I looked down and saw Elizabeth lying, face down, on the closet floor. Her feet, legs, torso, arms, and shoulders were inside the closet while the top of her head was in the closet doorway between the closet and bedroom. Briefly, from a distance, I could see the rest of the closet looked like it had been ransacked and was in shambles, but I was more focused on Elizabeth and wondering, why she was just lying there.

I paused for a second or two, and stood there confused…why was she on the floor? My first instinct was to call out her name again…so I did. “Elizabeth, what are you doing? We’ve got to go.”

Nothing…no response.

I knew something was wrong. The first thoughts that ran through my mind were: Did she try to hang herself again? Did she attempt to overdose on all the medication she had been prescribed?

If either was the case, I knew Elizabeth was going to need immediate emergency medical attention. I would need to call 911 and begin conducting CPR until help arrived.

I walked toward the closet, knelt down and gently shook her shoulder. “Elizabeth, what are you doing? Are you alright?”. Again, there was no response.

Fear began to swell over me like a tsunami. My mind quickly raced a million miles an hour, and my heart rate jumped until I could hear it like a drumbeat in my ears and my whole body felt as if it was one massive pulse. I could feel the adrenalin spiking – everything was starting to feel like it was moving in slow motion.

While I was still down on one knee in front of Elizabeth, I noticed a Bible was lying open right next to her head…on its pages was, what looked like, dark red splotches of ink or paint.

I knew something terrible had happened.

Getting down on both knees, I slid my arms, up to my elbows, underneath Elizabeth’s armpits, so I could lift her up, roll her over, and then lean her back.

As soon as I had enough leverage, I started to pick her up – but I wasn’t prepared for what I saw next. I was met with overwhelming horror.

“OH MY GOD!!! ELIZABETH…NOOOO!!!”, I wailed in agony.

What I saw was so terrible, so horrible, so morbid and so graphic that it hurt my mind and eyes; it sent searing pain into my soul.

On the floor was the handgun safe. It was open, and Erica’s 9mm pistol was laying on the floor. My thoughts ran wild: ‘Oh my God…how did she get into the safe? Did she pry it open? Did she somehow figure out the access code?’

Adrenalin fueled my instincts; I leaned Elizabeth back, jumped up, reached into my pocket, grabbed my cell phone and called 911. Desperately, I fought panic and fear. My head was spinning, and I could barely breathe, but I did my best to stay focused.
The only things that kept me able to function, in spite of the horror, were the grace of God and my years of military training. I knew I had to remain calm enough to call for help, check for vital signs and then try and save my daughter.

With the phone in my left hand, I knelt back over and brushed Elizabeth’s hair to the side so I could check for a pulse on her neck.

My heart was pounding so badly that I couldn’t tell if it was Elizabeth’s pulse or mine. Seeing how severe the damage was, I knew that there was little chance of survival, but my heart hoped regardless. I was willing to do anything so my little girl could live again.

The phone must have rung maybe only two or three times, but it felt like forever… “911, please state your emergency”.

I pleaded with the dispatcher and told her to get someone there right away…my little girl had just shot herself.

Meanwhile, the dispatcher calmly asked me if I knew how to check for a pulse and signs of breathing…I told her I did.
Leaning over and bending back down on one knee, I put my hand back on Elizbeth’s neck to check for a pulse…nothing. I put my finger under her nose and then my ear next to her mouth, to see if she was breathing…still nothing. I even put my hand on Elizabeth’s chest to see if I could detect any signs of a heartbeat or breathing.

I was trembling and shaken up so badly by the adrenalin that I could barely stand. As I leaned over and placed my hand on my Elizabeth’s chest, I lost my balance and accidentally shifted my body weight. The pressure of my hand pushed down on her chest, and I could hear the final breath of air that my little girl had drawn in, being pushed out.

I couldn’t be strong anymore. The reality and magnitude of the devastation and hopelessness started to hit me like an avalanche from hell. Tears poured from my eyes, my breath came in small gasps, and my emotions became unglued.

“My baby…my baby…my baby…please, God, …not my baby!”.

On the other end, the 911 dispatcher, who could feel my heartbreak and agony, did her best to keep me calm.
I told the dispatcher I didn’t want to be alone. I asked for one of the deputies by name. Someone who knew my family and had become a friend to us. In his off time, he’s a youth pastor at a local church, so he had the opportunity to speak and try to help mentor Elizabeth a few months prior. He knew about the issues we were wrestling with as a family.

The dispatcher reassured me someone was on their way, and that she would also relay the message to our deputy friend as well.

Moments later (which seemed like an eternity) one of the sergeants from the sheriff’s department came to the front door. As soon as I saw her, my strength left…she pulled me close and held me as I wailed and wept; my whole body was shaking, and I could hardly stand.

“Oh Jesus, oh Jesus, oh Jesus…oh Jesus…we need you…we need you!”, she prayed as she hugged me. Even in my darkest hour, Heaven had somehow placed with me, a fellow Believer, who could feel my pain and anguish…someone who could pray and cry with me.

Shortly after the responding deputy sergeant’s arrival, the rest of the first response team was on the scene in front of my house. Soon after they arrived, the other deputy friend of my family (the one who I asked for by name) also pulled up.

He was off duty when he got the call but, miraculously, he had just driven by our neighborhood when he got the message from the 911 dispatcher.

I saw the team of paramedics walk up the steps and they asked the sergeant where Elizabeth was lying. They had their first aid kits and an artificial electric defibrillator (AED). As soon as I saw it, I knew what it was…we have them aboard our Navy ships, and I’ve been trained on to use one.

For one split second, hope flashed across my mind. ‘Maybe she’ll be alright…maybe they can fix her…maybe my baby will be o.k.’, I thought to myself.
When the paramedics walked back out the front door a few minutes later, I saw the look on their faces…Elizabeth was gone. Nothing they could do could save my precious daughter.
Waves of sorrow and pain rolled over me again. I kept repeating to myself “My baby…my baby…my baby…oh God, my little baby”, as the tears flowed, I continued to tremble from the heartbreak.

Meanwhile, a couple of my neighbors could see what was unfolding, and they knew something terrible had happened. We were a close-knit little community comprised of a handful of families which looked out for one another. We were all friends and, in many ways, like an extended family. When they saw the emergency, they sprang into action to help.

Two of the neighbors came over. One is a firefighter friend of mine, and the other neighbor is a friend of my wife. Both were very close to us and intimately knew the challenges my family had been navigating during the previous few years.

My neighbors assessed the situation and tried, as best they could, to see how they could help. My other friend (the off-duty deputy) helped me into the garage and asked my wife’s friend to go inside the house, get a wet washcloth, a clean pair of pants and a fresh shirt for me to wear. Meanwhile, I just stood there staring off into space in shock. I remember that I kept repeating, “My baby, my baby, my baby…”.

I couldn’t believe what had happened. I had just seen Elizabeth alive only a short while prior. I told my deputy friend how she got off the bus and waved at me. My mind was buzzing and reeling; the size and magnitude of what I had just seen were surreal and felt like a living nightmare. While I was standing in my garage, in a state of shock and despair, my friend helped me change out of my clothes, which were covered in Elizabeth’s blood and he helped me wipe my daughter’s blood from my arms and hands.

As soon as I was changed, he opened the garage door again. My driveway and front yard were swarming with the team of first responders, a crisis response counselor and the pastor of a small country church, which we had been attending during that time.

Erica wasn’t home from work yet, and I desperately needed her to be near me. I wanted to call her, but everyone said not to. They knew that telling Erica what happened could have led to further catastrophe.

I remember trying to make sense of what I had just seen. It felt like everything was a blur and a haze…like the worst nightmare imaginable, but I couldn’t shake myself awake…because I was awake. It was waking reality which had taken a graphic, raw, and horrific turn for the worst.
So many questions ran through my mind at once…Was it all just a horrible dream? How could this have happened? How was she able to open the safe? How come we didn’t see this coming? Is she really gone?

Nothing made sense, and the world seemed to be spinning out of control. My instincts, honed by almost two decades in the military, kept telling me to stay calm and take charge, but the agony caused by the horror of my daughter’s suicide was breaking me.

There was nothing to take charge of; my daughter was dead…she shot herself in my closet, and I found her. The damage was sickening, and there was absolutely nothing anyone could do to put my little girl back together again.

While I sat there in my garage, my heart and mind could barely comprehend the size, scope, and magnitude of what I had just seen and walked through. My home and my family had just been assaulted by an evil and dark malevolence which had a dual track purpose: kill and devastate. The war, which had been waging on the unseen battlefield of Elizabeth’s mind, had come to a sudden and violent end; and there I was standing amongst the smoldering ruins and the precious fallen.

Erica was still at work, and Isabella was still in school…they still didn’t know about the horrible thing that happened. How was I going to tell them the worst thing they would ever hear? How was I going to explain that Elizabeth wouldn’t be coming home anymore?

Nothing could have prepared my wife and me for something so horrible, terrible and heartbreaking as the death of our own child.

We were living a parent’s worst nightmare, and the road we were about to travel was going to be long, hard and painful…


Monologue: 

I can remember these moments as if they occurred yesterday and recall every detail when I close my eyes. They solicit an emotional response: my heart beat increases, anxiety builds within my gut, my palms feel cold and clammy, and my armpits begin to perspire. As the images flash back across my mind’s eye, I shudder and tremble. They are vivid, horrific and sickening memories of a living nightmare which I had to endure.

First my dad, then my little brother, then all the other people in my family and now my little girl. I felt like I was being chased down by an evil sadistic predator, which had been following inches behind me through the years, in order to repeat its same hideous and vile plan of self-hatred and self-murder; and this time it decided to pollute and exploit my little girl’s mind and cause her to kill herself.

Over the course of nearly four years, my wife and I leveraged every resource, at our fingertips, to help Elizabeth win her war on her unseen mindscape against an invisible foe.
Any counter-offensive we tried to wage had proven ineffective because the adversary didn’t just reside on the biochemical and psychological planes alone. There was a third tier to the enemy’s position and strategy which had gone undetected and untreated.

By themselves, and absent of that vital third component, all the best-trained minds in the behavioral health field and all the best medicine and therapy couldn’t save our daughter and make her well again.

None of the world’s ‘answers’ provided a solution; they only gave a temporary reprieve in what had become a cat-and-mouse game. A game where the very life of my beautiful daughter had been at stake and was now gone.

Page 23: “All The King’s Horses and All The King’s Men…” – Part 3

all the kings horses part 3


It was the last two weeks of April 2015.

No amount of comforting or reasoning worked. Her mind was obsessed with thoughts of desperation, helplessness and an oppressive yet unnamed sadness. Elizabeth was consumed with just one thing; the fact that her boyfriend had broken up with her.

In many ways, the entire fiasco was a drama that we were all too familiar with, yet there was also something eerily different. Elizabeth’s emotional storm carried in it a strong presence of despair and hopelessness. As a family, we had been through more emotional and behavioral breakdowns, than I can remember…but not like this one.

The dark clouds seemed to bear down and oppress; as if to trying to squeeze out every last bit of life from Elizabeth’s heart and soul.

For nearly two weeks Elizbeth was on the verge of crying, and she had lost any motivation to come out of her room, socialize or even eat. The inky black depression had taken hold of her, and it was worse we than we had ever seen.

It had become a disruption to any of the order we’d managed to rebuild during the previous month and a half. Erica consulted with Elizabeth’s therapist, who recommended we minimize our daughter’s access to social media and electronic communication devices (laptop, cell phone, etc.). This was so we could give Elizabeth a temporary reprieve from whatever was going in between her and the boy she liked.

As expected, when we tried to implement that plan, Elizabeth was upset and became emotionally unglued. “But how will I talk to him…I NEED to talk to him!!!”, Elizabeth desperately pleaded.

My wife and I tried to explain that she could talk to him at school, but when she came home from school, she needed to take a break from whatever was going on between the two of them.

Meanwhile, something in my gut told me there was something deeper going on. Considering the traumatic journey of drama, we had already navigated with Elizabeth throughout almost four years; I was, unfortunately, familiar with the precursors and signs of Elizabeth getting ready to have an emotional meltdown.

Although I could see Elizabeth demonstrating some of the same familiar pre-meltdown indicators (like the ones that could lead to another hospital stay), there was an added layer of unexplainable desperation and panic. The tension and anxiety were building to a crescendo; looming devastation was forming on the horizon of my daughter’s mindscape.

I had seen my little girl have some extremely violent fits and had witnessed what irrational defiance looks like, but what was taking place was different. There was a sense of impending doom surrounding the entire dynamic.

Finally, I asked Erica to find out what the matter was and sit with Elizbeth and have some ‘girl talk’; perhaps Erica could connect on an emotional level and see if she could find out what was wrong and how we could help make everything right.

Being upset about a break up is a typical teenager response, but for Elizabeth, experiences like that were especially challenging due to her emotional and behavioral needs.

Elizabeth’s change in behavior caused by a breakup didn’t explain her unusual and uncanny despondence and apathy. Her climate was rapidly transitioning from being anxious and obsessed; to acting withdrawn and hopeless. It was a volatile combination of powerfully negative emotions.

One evening I decided to get to the bottom of whatever was wrong. It was Thursday, April 30th. Erica and Isabella were in the master bedroom watching t.v., and I was in the kitchen helping Elizabeth with the dishes.

Ever since we had picked up Elizabeth and her boyfriend from school a couple of weeks prior, I had a question burning over and over in my mind, and I wasn’t sure how to ask it…I also wasn’t sure I wanted the answer.

As much as I was nervous about hearing the potential answer, I knew it was my duty as her father to ask the tough questions.

“Elizabeth, I need to ask you something…did something happen between you and your boyfriend? Did your relationship go further than it should have?”,I succinctly but gently asked.

Elizabeth paused for a moment and looked away in embarrassment. Then, nervously, she quietly told me the truth. Her explanation of what really happened confirmed what my gut instincts had been telling me the day I picked Elizabeth and her boyfriend up from school.  She had given something away – Elizabeth had lost her virginity.

As a father, it was a hard thing for me to hear. Through all the turmoil and all the stress of nearly four years of psychological and spiritual drama, I hadn’t even considered, what Elizabeth was telling me in that moment, to be even a remote possibility of things I needed to worry about.

One thing for sure, I didn’t want to do was get upset; that would only make matters worse. I didn’t want my daughter to feel any lower than she already did. I didn’t want her to think I was ashamed of her – because I wasn’t. It took a lot of courage for Elizabeth to share that with me; it also showed that she trusted me as her daddy, and I didn’t want to betray that trust.

I hugged Elizabeth closely while she leaned my shoulder and cried. She was weeping tears of regret, sorrow and shame. Her little heart was traversing terrain that is difficult even for some adults. In that moment, I was my little girl’s rock and shelter. I wanted to reassure her that nothing, ABSOLUTLY NOTHING,  she could ever do would stop me from loving and accepting her as my precious daughter

Quietly, in my mind, I prayed and asked God for wisdom. I knew I needed Divine direction on how to navigate the situation.

After a few minutes, I knew that this was something we needed to discuss with Erica. Gently taking Elizabeth by the hand, we walked together to the master bedroom where Erica was watching t.v.

“Erica, there’s something we need to talk about…”, and so I began to explain, as delicately as I could, what Elizabeth had told me. Erica took the news with absolute grace and poise. As a young girl, around Elizabeth’s age, she too had a similar experience. For nearly two hours, Erica, Elizabeth and I talked, cried and hugged. Erica and I poured out grace and reinforced our love for our daughter. We wanted to let her know, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that she was our pride and joy…no matter what.

The next day was a Friday. I knew it would be difficult for Elizabeth to go back to school, considering what she had told Erica and I the night before. We both decided that it would be best if Elizabeth stayed home from school for the day and that perhaps having an extended weekend would give her enough time to process everything she had shared.

Sometime late Friday morning, I took Elizabeth to grab a snack, and we went for a quiet drive. I knew she wanted to keep talking and share what was on her mind. After a couple of hours, we pulled into a small park and picnic area a few miles up the road from our house.

Elizabeth and I sat, talked and listened to music. She shed tears, and I wept with her. I would have done anything to take away the pain and turmoil she was carrying.

Mother’s Day Weekend 2015.

It had been about 10 days since Elizabeth had courageously confided in her mom and me. Although the air had been cleared regarding what had been tormenting her, Elizabeth’s mind and soul were still in turmoil. She was having a difficult time accepting the breakup and an even harder time navigating the inevitable and ruthless bullying that followed. Rumors travel fast in a small-town high school, and kids can be so vicious and cruel.

Erica and I did everything we could to ease the pain that our daughter was carrying. We wanted to break the cycle of hopeless thinking and shame that our daughter was trapped in.

The Saturday before Mother’s Day, we all went out as a family. We spent the day at the Norfolk Zoo and later that evening we went to see a movie that Elizabeth had desperately wanted to watch. The day seemed to end on a good note, and the war which was being waged on our little girl’s mind appeared to have entered a cease-fire.

The reprieve was only temporary. The next day was Mother’s Day, but it didn’t come with the usual honor and happiness which that day is supposed to bring. The darkness had returned to haunt Elizabeth. Her climate and mood were distant and hostile. There was something ominous and foreboding in the air, and I could see it in her eyes when we talked.

When we asked Elizabeth to tell what was wrong, she responded with anger and curses. It was almost like she was pushing us away – like she resented us and our help.

I tried my best to explain that it was Mother’s Day; a day to show appreciation and honor. Somehow, what I said seemed to make a difference, albeit slight. Elizabeth apologized to her mom and me; she knew that the way she was acting was wrong and she wanted to do something to make it right.

After a little while, Elizabeth quietly approached Erica and gave her a simple token of love and appreciation. Elizabeth had made a handmade card for her mom; inside she wrote a poem. The poem was the words from the heart of a little girl; a little girl who loved and adored her mother.

It would be the last physical token of affection and adoration that Elizabeth gave her mother.

Monday – May 11th, 2015.

I headed off to work before everyone else was awake, and Erica got the kids ready for school. Monday unfolded uneventfully, and that evening after dinner we all regrouped as a family to discuss the day’s events. After a little while, Isabella (my youngest daughter) was getting ready for bed, while Elizabeth was in her room and Erica was in the master bedroom. Erica was going through some of the bank records online and noticed some strange charged in the credit card. Erica knew who did it.

“Elizabeth, I need to talk to you…”.Erica asked Elizabeth if she knew anything about the charges: Elizabeth staunchly denied them. As Erica tried to get answers, the situation quickly escalated, and Elizabeth was becoming hostile and emotionally unglued.

She became so upset that she tried to bolt out the front door, but I was able to keep her from running outside. “Elizabeth don’t do this…we’ve been through this too many times…you know what happened last time you started having a meltdown. Please, you don’t want to go back to the hospital again. Please, try and get control.”,I pleaded desperately.

None of us wanted to a repeat of the last three hospital stays, and we certainly didn’t want to have her committed for an inpatient stay for six to eight months. I assured Elizabeth that she wasn’t in trouble for the credit card charges; that her mom could easily send the stuff she ordered back and then get a refund. After a few minutes of talking, Elizabeth calmed down. It appeared that I had broken through the dark emotional frenzy.

Tuesday – May 12th, 2015.

Once again, I headed out for work before the sun came up and Erica made sure the kids got ready for school. Isabella’s school bus came first; around 6:30 am. Elizabeth’s bus arrived about 7 am and then Erica would head off to work shortly after…that was our normal routine. But this time the routine would be turned on its head.

Right after Isabella got on her bus and headed off to school, the emotional and behavioral chaos returned. Elizabeth refused to get on the bus. She sat on our front porch yelling and an emotional tirade. Erica was rushing to get ready for work; but because Elizabeth missed the bus, Erica would have to drop her off at school, adding extra time to her already 45-minute commute to work.

As Erica pulled into the school parking lot, she told Elizabeth to hurry into school because she was already late for school, and Erica was even later getting to work. “Let’s go Elizabeth, you’re late for class, and I’m very late for work!”, Erica scolded.

Elizabeth paused for a moment, leaned over and hugged Erica, “I’m really sorry mom…I love you”.

Later that day, I got home from work early. I like getting to the house before Elizabeth did. Because of the challenges we had been navigating, Erica and I were not comfortable leaving her at the house unattended for too long. Plus getting home early gave me the chance to catch up on my chores around the house before the Erica and Isabella got home.

I pulled into the driveway, made sure my truck was locked, and went into the house to change out of my uniform. I had a bunch of outside chores to do; we had a huge yard, and it grew like crazy in the warm North Carolina sun. I walked into my master bedroom closet, hung up my uniform and put on a t-shirt and pair of jeans. As soon as I changed, turned off the closet light, shut the door and went into my garage to fire up my green riding mower.

It usually took me about an hour to cut the grass and another half an hour to trim the weeds and edges around the house and flower beds. About halfway through mowing the lawn, I was finishing up the last row of grass on one side of the house. As I rode the mower along up the yard toward the front of the house, I saw Elizabeth’s school bus pull up. I slowed the mower down, put it in park and turned down the engine to an idle.

As Elizabeth walked off the bus and up the driveway, she looked over at me. I smiled and waved, and she casually waved back at me.

When Erica dropped off Elizabeth at school that morning and hugged her; when I waved hello to her after she got off the school bus that afternoon – these were the final moments we’d share with her and the last time we would see our precious daughter alive on this side of eternity.

What was about to unfold would be sheer horror, agony, and heartbreak beyond words…


Monologue:

I thought coming home from work early provided an added layer of protection. We didn’t feel comfortable with Elizabeth being home by herself, especially in light of the fact that she was experiencing such deep emotional distress.

Elizabeth had tried to hurt herself in the past; cutting herself with razors, attempting to hang herself with a belt and a string of Christmas lights and tried to stab herself with a butcher knife. Erica and I were on constant alert and always maintained a state of vigilance. We had taken every conceivable precaution.

Still, I’ve played those final moments over and over in my mind every day…what if, what could have been, what should have happened, and what could have happened.

They are agonizing reminders of what followed shortly afterward.

Since I was six years old, my heart has had to bear the burdens of many losses, of which the passing of my dad and brother were the most painful – until we lost Elizabeth.

The morbid and graphic details of what I saw that day are the hellish images nightmares are made of.

What I’m about to share of the next several pages is the most painful tribulation any parent could ever endure.

Page 22: “All The King’s Horses and All The King’s Men…” – Part 2

all the kings horses blueberry pies


Early spring 2015.

The wind blowing off Tulls Bay still carried with it the last remains of winter’s chill and the cold grey Currituck County sky was slowly surrendering to the warmth of the spring sun.

Erica and I continued to keep a watchful eye on Elizabeth, who seemed to be slowly improving. It appeared that she was tracking along in the right direction, after attending a church youth retreat about a month prior.

For a short (and I mean very short) period of time, Elizabeth began to have a positive outlook on life. She was becoming increasingly interested in strengthening her relationship with God. Elizabeth’s emotional climate seemed to lighten; she was seeking to become more engaged and conscientious of what really mattered; her faith, her wellness, and her family.

It appeared we had reached a turning point. It was as if whatever darkness that our little girl was wrestling with had gone into remission. As Elizabeth continued to demonstrate healthy behavior, we started extending trust and privileges to Elizabeth; cell phone use, social media (albeit limited) and even a relationship with a boy that she liked.

Elizabeth told my wife and me about the boy and how they had been talking to each other for a few weeks. My wife and I wanted to encourage Elizabeth to have healthy relationships with the opposite sex, so we supportively listened and gave our feedback. Everything seemed like it was going well; so well in fact, that at one point Elizabeth wanted us to meet the boy she was interested in. Now considering Elizabeth’s past behavioral and emotional challenges, we approached the situation with caution. We didn’t want her to lose focus, or worse yet, control of her emotions throughout the experience.

One day, sometime towards the end of March, Elizabeth asked if her friend (the boy she liked) could come over the house to visit for a couple of hours. To show support and trust, my wife and I said yes…with one exception – there would be adult supervision close by.

I remember the boy’s dad dropped him off. The dad seemed like a nice guy, and his son was quiet yet polite. The young man shook my hand and exchanged all the proper courtesies, complete with “yes sir” and “no sir” following all of his responses. His dad and I talked for a few minutes, and I assured him that I’d be there to make sure that everything was above board and supervised.

Elizabeth and her boyfriend hung out downstairs in the living room, while I was upstairs only a few yards away. I gave them a straightforward ground rule: they had to stay in the living room and be where I could see and hear them at all times.

Some may call this approach old fashioned or overprotective, but I used to be a teenage boy; I know how they think. Given enough time and distance, kids will find a way to act inappropriate and irresponsible. Not only were there normal teenager hormones and immaturity to keep an eye on, but there was the added layer of Elizabeth’s emotional and spiritual challenges.

Considering what she had faced in the past, it was in her best long-term interest for us, as her parents, to have some comprehensive and reasonable controls in place.

After a couple of hours, the boy’s dad came back to the house to pick up his son. Everything seemed to have gone smoothly. In my mind, at the time, it seemed like my daughter was going to be ok after all. It looked like her behavior had normalized, and she was genuinely beginning to improve.

Looking back now, I can see how Erica and I were desperate for Elizabeth to have healthy, normal interactions with boys. In our desperation, we were slowly letting our guard down.

We didn’t see the nefarious intent of the evil, self-destructive malevolence lying in wait, like a predator hiding in the shadows, waiting for just the right moment to take down its prey.

As the days and weeks passed, the color and life of spring slowly bloomed. The days became longer and warmer. Soon it would be time to do the seasonal landscaping touch-ups and cut the lawn. With each passing day, Elizabeth seemed to be on a steady course of gradual improvement. She was trying to stay focused at school and her behavior at home.

In spite of it all, something nefarious seemed to be lingering just around the corner. Even though my wife and I were encouraged by the slow appearance of improvement, we were still cautious…in the back of our minds, we were quietly walking on eggshells and waiting for the other shoe to drop.

The last 10 days of April 2015.

My youngest daughter had turned seven years old, earlier in the month and I was about to celebrate my 37th birthday. On the surface, things seemed to track along steadily in the right direction for our family’s overall wellbeing.

Elizabeth was continuing to stay engaged with her school work and had even joined an after-school poetry club, which Erica and I were happy about. The poetry club seemed as if it would be the perfect outlet for Elizabeth to express herself and use her artistic talents.

One Friday afternoon, on the way to pick up Elizabeth from the after-school poetry club, she texted her mom and I and asked if we’d willing to give her boyfriend a ride back to his house since he was also part of an after-school program. I didn’t see a problem with that, so I said o.k.

After Erica and I picked up our youngest daughter Isabella from the elementary school, which was just down the road, we headed to the high school to pick up Elizabeth and her boyfriend.

We pulled into the high school parking lot, and I parked my truck; I walked through the front door, into the lobby and then the front office. “Hi, I’m here to pick up Elizabeth Mattera…she’s in the poetry club,” I said to the receptionist.

The receptionist paged Elizabeth over the school intercom, and I waited. After a few minutes, I saw my daughter turn the corner and walk down the hall towards me; her boyfriend a few feet behind…something about their mannerisms and climate triggered my internal senses.

I’ve always been a student of human behavior. I study body language and can pick up a lot of easily dismissed emotional nuances. I believe it’s a survival skill which I’ve slowly honed over the years, especially considering all the dysfunction I had to navigate during my childhood.

Little sub-conscious details, that often go unnoticed by other people, ping loudly in my conscious mind. I can almost ‘smell it’ when someone has an ulterior motive, if they’re being manipulative or if they’re trying to hide something.

So, as soon as I saw Elizabeth and her boyfriend turn the corner and start walking down the hallway towards me, my gut told me something was off; the energy and vibe I was picking up from their body language said that something was wrong.

It was almost as if there was a manufactured hurriedness being employed to cover guilt or shame. Elizabeth was in a disheveled rush, acting as if she had missed some urgent appointment, but at the same time there seemed to be nervous anxiety; as something happened, that shouldn’t have.

Meanwhile, her boyfriend could barely make eye contact when he saw me. I was in a hurry, so I chalked his lack of engagement to him being an introverted teenager, but something inside my core told me a there was a different reason for his timid composure.

Elizabeth, her boyfriend and I all walked back to my truck. As we drove down the road, I had this sense that something had taken place between the two, but it was being hidden in plain view.

So, rather than ask questions, I decided to lighten the mood. I dismissed what my gut instinct was telling me and figured they were just being awkward, nervous teenagers, as is the way many teen boys and girls act when parents are around.

To be friendly, I made light, small talk with Elizabeth’s boyfriend. Meanwhile, I could tell he was nervous and uncomfortable. As we pulled into his driveway, Erica and I said it was nice to see him again and Elizabeth told him she’d see him tomorrow.

The last few weeks of April drew to an end, the spring rains slowly gave way to the warm May sunshine, which gently courted the first blossoms of spring. Meanwhile, Elizabeth’s emotional and spiritual climate also began to change. The progress and upward momentum we had seen during the late winter and early spring had started to stall.

Suddenly, and without warning, our daughter began a rapid descent into depression and disorder. The wicked and vile presence of self-hate and self-harm, which had been lying in wait just out of sight in the periphery, had canceled its withdrawal and returned with an unholy and grievous objective.

By the end of April 2015, the battle for my oldest daughter’s sanity and wholeness was in full stride. It was only going to be a matter of days before the enemy would mount a catastrophic offensive.

All the medication Elizabeth had been prescribed and all the counseling she had received would not be able to prevent the bombardment against her mind and soul.


Monologue:

To promote stability and a sense of normalcy regarding Elizabeth’s interactions with the opposite sex, we allowed supervised interaction and even encouraged positive activities, like watching a movie, playing sports, even sitting and talking. We chaperoned all encounters; although we stayed far enough away, so we wouldn’t embarrass her.

 Because of the previous behavioral and emotional meltdowns which resulted in three separate hospital stays, my wife and I were very reluctant whenever Elizabeth would engage with boys. Her interactions with peers, in general, was enough of a challenge, but whenever a boy was added to the mix, it was a volatile concoction just waiting to explode.

 Despite our best efforts, it was as if we were using a teaspoon to shovel sand at an impending wave of doom. Nothing we did seemed to fix our precious daughter’s mind and soul; we were fighting a battle with tools that had little effect on an opponent which couldn’t be seen, smelled or touched. 

 The battlefield was in a place that can’t be perceived through natural eyes or fully understood apart from a mindset of faith. The medication and counseling were only a temporary hindrance to a cunning and ever-evolving essence bent on only one course of action…kill, steal and destroy.

 

Page 21: “All The King’s Horses and All The King’s Men…” – Part 1

all the kings horses and all the kings men


Mid-September 2014. My 14-year-old daughter Elizabeth had completed her third hospital stay in just three short years.

September was halfway over, and autumn was in full color. The northeastern North Carolina air was crisp, and the gentle breeze carried with it, the earthy smell of oak and maple leaves which were lying on the ground. The days were becoming shorter and shorter; the sunsets seemed to set the sky ablaze in a bold palette of bright red, orange and deep indigo. The sound of geese flying over Tulls Bay signaled the slow but inevitable approach of winter.

Meanwhile, countless counseling sessions and a whole pharmacy of behavior-altering medications seemed to barely stem the tidal force of whatever destructive and self-loathing malevolence was holding my daughter’s mind a captive slave.

Within a few days of checking out of the hospital mental ward, my wife and I took Elizabeth for a follow-up appointment with her therapist.

We gave the therapist the folder which contained the notes from the hospital stay. Inside was a detailed account of what was observed; all the nuances and anomalies, which along with all the previous behavior history, gave the doctors what they thought were the makings of a firm diagnosis for our daughter.

We cautiously hoped we’d finally found a cure for our little girl, but something in my heart told me that we only had a two-thirds solution. It was almost as if there was something, just out of view, which none of us – the doctors, therapists and certainly us as parents, were seeing.

“Mr. and Mrs. Mattera, I’ve taken a look at the notes that the hospital gave during Elizabeth’s last stay, back in September. Based on these, the other notes from previous inpatient treatment, and our weekly therapy sessions, it seems we have a definitive diagnosis.”,Elizabeth’s therapist explained.

“Ok, well…let’s have it”, I frankly asked, as I intently leaned forward on the couch.

“Well, it seems that in addition to the ADHD and depression, the mood-disorder Elizabeth has been struggling with, is actually Bi-Polar Disorder,” the therapist explained.

So, we finally had a name, or at least we thought we did. A diagnosis of Bi-Polar disorder meant a change in treatment tactics; new talk therapy approaches and yet another change to the anti-depressant/mood altering medication cocktail my daughter was already taking.

It was heartbreaking to watch the side effects the various medications had on Elizabeth. There were mornings when she was too sick to get out of bed because the nausea was so severe, or she would be lying on her bed in the fetal position, whimpering from the pain caused by the migraine headaches. There were days, my wife and I felt like our daughter was being used as a pharmaceutical guinea pig.

Every time a new prescription was issued, we would look at the side effects and long-term effects. Some of the stuff we read was just downright alarming. Some of the medications even had the potential to cause the same suicidal thoughts that we were trying to prevent in the first place. We were desperate to do anything the doctors said, just to keep our daughter safe, and see her get better.

In spite of the ‘official’ diagnosis of Bi-Polar, the new routine of counseling and the changes in her medication, nothing really seemed to change for Elizabeth. It was as if we were playing a game of ‘whack-a-mole’ with whatever it was that was tormenting her soul.

Sometimes there would be days and even weeks when everything seemed like it was tapering off and going away. But those very brief seasons wouldn’t last very long.

Just as things seemed to normalize, the torment would return. It was as if some dark and brooding essence was playing a game of hide and seek; adapting to each new method and tactic of treatment.

As 2014 drew to a close, things seemed to be at a stalemate.

Elizabeth didn’t have any violent outbursts per se, but there was still an underlying current of turmoil simmering just below the surface.

Erica and I started to get emails from Elizabeth’s high school superintendent, notifying us that she was having several emotional outbursts in school and that her behavior and academic performance was of particular concern to her teachers. Eventually, my wife and I had a conference with the faculty and discussed, in great detail, Elizabeth’s mental health needs and the exhaustive steps we had taken to manage them.

Meanwhile, Elizabeth’s emotional and behavioral health continued to change for the worse steadily. The dark moodiness was becoming less introspective and inward; instead, the self-hate and anger were beginning to point outward, to my wife, me and our family order.

Elizabeth started to show a fascination with the paranormal and occult. In fact, she told Erica and me one evening, that she and her friends had practiced with a ouija board a few months prior. Elizabeth also started hanging out with kids at school who seemed to share the same occult interests, and she was beginning to pick up some of their habits and beliefs.

The things she was talking about and becoming obsessed with were disturbing and unsettling; topics like witchcraft and demonic entities. Elizabeth was becoming more and more hostile to anything related to the faith my wife and I believed in and had woven into our family fabric.

Not wanting to ignite another emotional outbreak or cause another hospitalization, my wife and I mostly left the entire topic alone. We had been told by the therapist to ‘pick our battles,’ and this was one battle that we were not ready to engage in…in more ways than one.

One afternoon, I came home from work a little early. Elizabeth had already been home from school for at least an hour. I walked into the house and immediately smelled like burned paper.

“Elizabeth, did you burn something…like in the in the microwave?”,I asked.

“No dad, I burned some food on the stove”, Elizabeth replied casually, but with a hint of nervousness that only a parent can detect.

Pausing to sniff the air one more time, I said out loud, “Hmmm…that’s strange…because it actually smells like burnt paper…not like burnt food.”

Looking my daughter square in the eye, I said, “I think something else happened and you’re afraid to tell me…since I already know that something else really happened, why don’t you just tell me the truth. You’ll feel better, and I promise I won’t be upset.”

I had to ask a few more times, but finally, Elizabeth fessed up and told me the truth.

“Ok, dad…I…was burning…I was burning my…I was burning my Bible”, Elizabeth hesitatingly admitted; her head held low, barely able to make eye contact.

It took me a moment to process what she had just said. I half thought it was a joke and that she had really burned some homework in a desperate, yet not unusual teenager response to an overdue school assignment.

“Say that again…you did what?”,I puzzledly asked.

“I burned my Bible dad…”, Elizabeth responded, with a little more confidence.

I took a moment to absorb what I had just heard my daughter say. I struggled to wrap my mind around it. I stood there and just shook my head. Not because I was mad at her, but because I couldn’t believe how far this had gone. I couldn’t help but wonder where it was going to end up.

My wife and I always tried to maintain a keen awareness of God in our home. Although we didn’t go to church EVERY Sunday, we still kept a strict dignity and reverence for Him; this even included prayers over meals and at bedtime.

With all that being said, I didn’t want to aggravate the situation any further. Getting mad at Elizabeth would have only resulted in an emotional meltdown; possibly worse. Instead, I explained to her that burning things in the house is dangerous. I told her that I didn’t want her playing with fire.

Elizabeth was a little taken back by my response. I’m sure she half expected me to get angry or give a long lecture on how burning a Bible is wrong: I was too emotionally tired for either.

But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t concerned about what happened. Later that night, I spoke to my wife and explained the events which had transpired earlier that day. Erica was shocked and understandably concerned.  Unlike me, my wife didn’t grow up around church, and God was just an occasional whisper in her childhood home. It wasn’t until we got married that we had started to engage on a road of relationship with our Creator.

So, Erica, shocked and upset by the news of our daughter’s disturbing behavior, asked me what we should do. I told her that we should just stay steady and even-keeled on the whole issue…the last thing Elizabeth needed was a fourth hospital stay.

In the days and weeks following Elizabeth’s Bible burning incident, she became more and more bold with her rebellion. Her depression, despair and dark mood were starting to take on a tone of anger and hostility.

One evening, it came to a boiling point. Erica and I were going to tuck-in both Elizabeth and Isabella for the night.

During that week, Elizabeth was grounded from her electronic devices for some infraction; exactly why she was grounded, I don’t remember. The point is, that when Erica went into Elizabeth’s room to tuck her in, Erica saw that Elizabeth had, in her possession, one of the devices that she was supposed to be grounded from.

Erica told Elizabeth to hand over the device; Elizabeth defiantly said no.

“Matthew, come here please, Elizabeth has a device that she’s grounded from, and she’s not handing it over.”

I walk into the room: “What’s going on?”,I asked. I could see Elizabeth’s emotional climate was beginning to change and that the situation was inches from becoming volatile.

Erica replied, “Elizabeth has been grounded from her electronic devices for the next week, but I found her with one of her gaming devices…when I told her to hand it over, she refused and became very disrespectful.”

So here I am being called in to mediate and diffuse the situation.

Taking a moment to assess the situation, I explained to Elizabeth that it would be much easier on everyone if she just handed over the device. I told her that further misbehavior would only make matters worse and reminded her of what the therapist had advised us to do if she ever became non-compliant or hostile. (Following the last hospital stay, Elizabeth’s therapist and psychologist had recommended long term residential treatment if there continued to be violent outbursts or destructive behavior.)

Elizabeth pondered what I was telling her; the thought of going back into a hospital for long term (6 months or more) treatment did not appeal to her at all.

Reluctantly and resentfully, Elizabeth relinquished control of the device. Erica and I walked out of the room to further deescalate the situation and allow Elizabeth time to calm down and reflect.

Meanwhile, our youngest daughter, Isabella was still in her own room settling in for bed. Considering the potential volatility of the situation, Erica told Isabella to go and settle into the master bedroom and watch TV quietly.

I waited in the kitchen, anxiously trying to sort the whole situation out. I could sense something was wrong. The atmosphere in our home was thick with tension and hostility, that it was almost paralyzing. I felt powerless and afraid. For nearly four years my daughter had been held hostage by something unseen which was bent on causing mayhem, pain, and destruction.

Our family and home had become a battlefield which was constantly smoldering with no sign of reprieve or surrender. Cease-fires would be short-lived; the enemy never really conceding…only tactically withdrawing just to regroup and reorganize for its next attack.

I knew that what we were fighting against was much bigger and more profound than what any of the doctors, therapists or we as parents were able to deal with; at least not from a physical or secular standpoint.

Standing there against the kitchen counter, the entire weight of all we had been navigating as a family, the fire and hell we had been enduring, and the torment my little girl had been suffering came crashing down on my shoulders like a massive boulder. My heart…no…my very spirit began to cry out from within me.

Tears started to well up in my eyes, and my lip began to tremble. My hands slowly shaking as the battle fatigue was setting in.

Erica walked up beside me and wrapped her arms around me. I began to pray; my voice trembled as tears streamed down my face.

“Father…we need your help…this is too much for us. What is going on? I know you’re bigger than everything that’s been taking place in my family. Jesus, help us…please…nothing is too big for you.”,I tearfully prayed.

I continued to repeat my appeal to Heaven…there was nothing left for me to do. We had tried everything else. Nearly every course of action had been explored, except for one. No solutions were found from the medical or psychological experts; there was one sphere of influence which had gone untouched…the spiritual.

While in the kitchen, I prayed and poured out my heart to God. Erica was with me, Isabella was in our room, and Elizabeth was in her room.

I was praying aloud…loud enough where Elizabeth could hear me from down the hall.

Looking back now, reflecting on all this and then writing down what happened next, I’m able to understand that what we were wrestling against, wasn’t merely just a biochemical abnormality or a mental health anomaly.

From her bedroom, Elizabeth started to yell.  Her words were full of taunts and insults against everything my wife and I were praying for and Who we were praying to.

I stood there in disbelief, hands shaking and voice quivering. I hadn’t seen anything like this before. None of the previous outbursts and emotional meltdowns were ever so bold, defiant, or irreverently targeted like this one.

The entire episode seemed to last about 10 minutes. Finally, as I ended my praying, cleared my throat and wiped the tears from my eyes, the noise from Elizabeth’s room also stopped. Erica and I walked in to check on her. Elizabeth was laying on her bed, tired and exhausted…the tantrum and drama had worn her out. She was half asleep and half awake.

Erica sat next to her for a few minutes and gently soothed our little girl. I walked out and went to check on our youngest daughter, Isabella.

That night, everyone eventually settled in and went to bed. It took me a while to fall asleep though. What I had seen and heard earlier that evening was causing a lightbulb to turn slowly come on with a faint glow. My suspicions were confirmed…I now knew that there was something much bigger going on.

In the late winter and early spring of 2015, I started to engage in my prayer life and quiet time with God a lot more.

There was a little country church, a couple of miles down from where we lived, that we had been attending, for a few months on and off. They had a small youth group, about a dozen or so kids around Elizabeth’s age. Some of these kids lived in or near our neighborhood, so she knew most of them. Although Elizabeth was resistant to going to church, there was something about being around her peers that drew her to attend the youth group.

Sometime towards the end of February 2015, the youth group took a three-day trip to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina for a youth rally. Elizabeth wanted to attend, and gladly we said yes.

Three days later, our little girl came back excited and refreshed. She told her mom and me all about the fantastic time she had and how she learned so much.

Elizabeth said that she wanted to live her life for God…to discover what He had created her for. For me, this was another sign confirming that the things she had been wrestling with, was far more than what the professionals and we thought.

For about a month and a half, things started to look up and improve. Elizabeth was becoming more focused in school, and her behavior at home was better. There seemed to be an overall clarity, and the brightness seemed like it was starting to return to our little girl’s eyes. As if almost overnight, Elizabeth was even beginning to change her preference in music and fashion.

In and of themselves these are just superficial things, but they had become the anthem and uniform for the dark depression which had dominated her. All of that was beginning to change for the better.

Elizabeth began wanting to do a nightly devotional, geared toward teens before she went to bed, and she even joined the church choir.

The seed of hope had been planted in her heart, and it was beginning to sprout; little buds could be seen, we knew we just had to keep watering and feeding.

But we forgot about the weeds. There were influences which were still in orbit around our little girl; there were still holes in the wall and shield that we were trying to build up around our family.

The enemy; that dark and foul essence which has sought to kill, steal and destroy, was not going to give up so easily.

Like a super-virus which seems to disappear only to adapt itself to every form of treatment and then return, the enemy conducted its tactical withdrawal and regrouped its formation.

Every other assault was going to pale in comparison to what was going to happen next. A brutal attack on our little girl was going to take place…unlike anything we had seen before.

It was only going to be a matter of weeks before I would see the very definition of horror, pain, and heartbreak.

We were about to live our worst nightmare…


Monologue

It seemed that every ‘solution’ and treatment offered by the secular experts were lacking in something. It was as if their only answer was to throw more medication and more therapy at the problem. But somewhere in my gut, I knew that these were only partial answers. The prescriptions were an attempt to manipulate and manage the physical aspects, while the talk therapy only scratched the surface of the unseen portion. There was a third area which was being avoided. To address that area would mean the experts acknowledging that human beings have an eternal component imbued by a Creator – an immortal and invisible, yet very real SOUL.

None of the drugs Elizabeth was prescribed were like taking an aspirin. These were some of the most potent behavior altering prescriptions available. They were designed to impact the brain and its intricate network of inter-woven synapses, cells and a carefully balanced array of chemicals which it needs to properly function. It’s the most advanced computer in all Creation, designed to act in collective synergy, enabling it to become the bio-chemical neural host for our consciousness; a place for our mind, will and emotions…a seat for our soul.

The same also goes for the behavior therapy. Please don’t misunderstand me, I believe there is excellent value in talk therapy, and that it is a powerful asset in helping clarify and balance the way we think and view the world around us. Talking to a trained professional gives us the advantage of having an expert, third-person perspective on whatever issue we may be wrestling with.

There are lots of people who are successful in navigating their road to recovery and wellness through these two assets; medication and therapy.

But there are also those whose struggle goes deeper. People who have a wound which is caused by an issue far more complex; an issue were secular treatments alone are like giving an over-the-counter pain killer for a headache, which is actually caused by a tumor. The headache has a root cause which can’t be seen by the unaided human eye, but instead can only be seen through the mechanics and lens of something which harnesses the power of something invisible, hence the MRI machine.

The mind, will, and emotions are what comprises the human soul. These are physically intangible yet very real things which can only be measured through second-hand observation. Sure, the electrical activity (known as neural oscillations or brainwaves) can be measured, but the detail of the actual thoughts cannot be. Nor can the fine details of someone’s feelings be measured. There may be secondary symptoms which can give clues or indications, but the granular nuances of a person’s mind, will, and emotions reside on a plane which is immeasurable and unverifiable with our unaided human eye or secular systems of analysis.

That plane is at the edge of human awareness and natural understanding. It’s a level of reality higher than this, seen only through the eyes of faith.

Page 20: Tale of a Princess – Part 5

tale of a princess part 5


September 2014. We had come back from our family vacation in Texas, where my wife is from, a few weeks prior.

School had been in session for a few weeks. Our youngest daughter, Isabella was in 2nd grade and our oldest daughter, Elizabeth, was in 9th grade.

Erica had invited her mom to come back and stay with us until at least Thanksgiving. Erica was planning on going back to work, and we thought that having her mom around, would be a help. Plus, the kids would have the chance to spend some time with their grandmother.

All the arraignments were made, and my mother-in-law joined us on our road trip, from Texas back to North Carolina.

Once we got back and settled into the new school year routine, everything seemed to be o.k., but there was still an underlying tension and uneasiness in our home environment. Elizabeth’s behavior seemed unfocused and distracted, almost from the very start of 9th grade. The atmosphere of her behavioral climate seemed to steadily churn with an underlying sense of agitation and moodiness.

Bear in mind, Elizabeth had already been hospitalized two times already for the same set of issues, albeit they had yet to be diagnosed. The first hospitalization was back in March 2013 and the second was in July of 2014, about a month before school starting again.

Both hospital visits yielded the same effects. Elizabeth would leave the hospital only slightly improved, and we would be handed her patient discharge file, which contained the same repetitive notes, but we were not given any solutions.

Regardless of the names which the hospital mental health professionals had ascribed to Elizabeth’s condition, and the ‘roadmap-to-recovery’ which they provided, it all proved to be futile and of no avail. The continued regimen of medication and talk therapy only seemed to act as a half-built levy against the flood of whatever unseen and allusive dark oppression which consumed her mind.

On a Sunday afternoon, in mid-September, the dark storm clouds of depression and self-destruction were quickly beginning to form in our house. We had just finished Sunday dinner, and I was heading upstairs to relax and watch T.V.

Erica was in the master bedroom with her mom, Isabella was in her bedroom playing, and Elizabeth was sitting at the kitchen table, playing on the laptop computer.

For at least a week or so, Elizabeth’s emotional climate was teetering on a low simmer. Whatever was haunting her mind had been slowly building, but it hadn’t boiled over…yet.

One of the things that always seemed to be a trigger for that emotional boil-over was Elizabeth’s interactions with her peers…especially boys.

We could almost set our clocks to the pattern and rhythm of the infatuation, which became an obsession, which would then turn into an emotional Molotov cocktail of rejection, depression and often self-destructive behavior. This volatile mix, in combination with her circle of peers who also had similar issues, had a dramatically negative effect on her school work and our family life.

Well, on this particular September Sunday afternoon, it was all about to boil over – VIOLENTLY!

I had just barely reached the top of the stairs and was about to walk into the family game room so I could watch T.V., when all of a sudden, I heard Erica loudly scream.

“MATTHEW!!! Get down here now! Elizabeth…no…stop! Matthew…HURRY…she has a knife!!!”

Running, and nearly stumbling, down the stairs I turned the corner and saw my wife trying to wrestle something out of my daughter’s hands; my mother-in-law was standing off to the side asking Elizabeth to stop.

“What’s going on?!?”  I questioningly exclaimed as I walked into the kitchen. To my shock and horror, I could see that Elizabeth was holding against her chest a huge 10-inch butcher knife.

My mind sprang into action. During the early years of my military service, I had been trained in certain things such as physical restraint techniques and how to disarm someone, but I NEVER IMAGINED I would someday be forced to employ those same techniques on my own little girl.

Carefully I started to disarm Elizabeth, which was no easy task. In the effort to pry the knife away from her, I wanted to prevent her from accidentally stabbing herself or me. Straining, I pried the knife away. It was as if I was wrestling against the dark malevolence itself, which had suddenly emerged from the shadows it had been trying to hide in since Elizabeth’s last hospital stay, almost a month prior.

Handing the knife to Erica, I restrained Elizabeth…for her safety and ours.

“Erica…quickly, get her medicine! She needs to take her medicine!”, I shouted as Elizabeth screamed incoherently and violently flailed. With my arms around her, in sort of a bear hug, I brought Elizabeth out of the kitchen, away from all the other sharp objects, and into the living room.

Suddenly, she let her legs go limp from underneath her. Following her to the ground so she wouldn’t fall, I held her close to keep her from flailing and wiggling. “Hurry up Erica…I don’t know how much longer I can hold her!”, I yelled. At this point, the adrenalin had almost finished running its course, and my arms were starting to get weak. The single-track, laser beam focus provided by over a decade of military training began to lose its edge, and the insanity and horror of reality came into focus.

‘Oh my God…my little girl was mere seconds away from stabbing her self’, I thought to myself. Images of the butcher knife blade plunging, to the hilt, into her or me kept flashing across my imagination.

With my arms beginning to tremble, I continued to hold Elizabeth, while she was screaming and wailing. As I sit here and write this, I find myself once again pausing to reflect and remember. In the quietness of my office, I can painfully hear in my mind, the sound of my little girl’s voice, as she articulated the words of death, despair, and self-hatred: “I wanna die! I wanna die! I wanna DIE!!! I don’t wanna be here anymore…make it stop! Pleeeease, make it stop! Pleeeease! I can’t do it anymore…I wanna die!”

The words still echo in my memory, as if it was yesterday. As a father, hearing the sound of such deep pain, which haunted my own little girl, is heartbreaking.

After a few minutes, Elizabeth started to calm down; at least enough to where she was able to take her medicine.

I slowly helped her up off of the floor, but still held her close, just in case. Meanwhile, we all knew what was going to happen next.

Erica called Elizabeth’s therapist and told her what happened; she explained in full detail what had unfolded and then proceeded to listen. “Uh huh…yes, she just took her medicine now. It seemed like something was bothering her for the past few days, but we didn’t expect this.” Erica explained. “But she just got out of the hospital a little over a month ago. Uh huh…ok…alright then. We’ll do that. Thank you. We’ll call you as we get an update”.

The conversation with the therapist was over, and Erica hung up the phone.

“Matthew, Elizabeth needs to go to the hospital…right now,”  Erica told me. She then went on to explain, that the therapist advised her that, based on the behavior that Elizabeth demonstrated, it was time to take her to a larger, more robust facility, which may be better equipped to treat and diagnose whatever the issue was.

I thought to myself, ‘Oh man…not again…we just went through this’, but I quickly agreed with Erica. In my heart, I knew she was right. The alternative was far too dangerous.

Erica asked her mom to stay with Isabella, while we took Elizabeth to the hospital which was about a 45-minute drive away, in Virginia. We pulled in the parking lot and walked into the emergency room. After a while, a doctor came and spoke with us. Erica and I explained, in detail, what had happened and that we were there, based on the recommendation of our daughter’s therapist. We gave the doctor the name and number of the therapist, in case he needed to get further details or clarification.

After a few hours of waiting in a private room, just outside of the ER, a decision was made: Elizabeth was going to be admitted into the psychiatric treatment ward for observation and diagnosis.

Erica and I had been through this drill before, we knew the routine. Fill out the paperwork, answer a series of medical and behavioral history questions, sign the entire stack of paper and then wait…and wait…and wait.

Meanwhile, Elizabeth sat in the chair next to us; she looked like she had been through a war.

I remember Erica filling out the mountain of paperwork, while I sat and looked at Elizabeth through the eyes of a brokenhearted father. It was torture to see her going through this, and it was exhausting on our entire family. I gently reached out my hand, palm facing up, to show Elizabeth that I loved her and that nothing was ever going to change that…I was her daddy, and that’s what daddy’s do. They love their children and walk through hell with them if that is what it takes to keep them safe…and to keep them alive.

Elizabeth put her hand in mine. She was so tired and so beaten down by the darkness that had been haunting her mind, that she could barely look up at me.

Through her weary, bloodshot eyes, I caught a glimpse of the little girl who just wanted everything to be ok. I looked at her and gently whispered: “I know honey…it’s ok…everything’s gonna be alright…we’re all gonna get through this together.”

Finally, Erica filled out the last sheet of paperwork and handed me the clipboard so I could make my final few signatures as well.

With all the necessary paperwork completed, the attending nurse brought us into the next room. The nurse gave us a small pamphlet containing all the information about the ward schedule and the essential numbers to the main hospital, psychiatric ward and the nurses’ station.

Erica and I hugged Elizabeth one more time and told her how much we loved her…that everything was going to be ok.

Somewhere in our hearts, we believed this would be the hospital stay where a solution would be provided to ease our daughter’s torment. Through several resources, we had been told that this was it…this was going to be the place where a comprehensive way ahead would be given; and in time, peace, order, and serenity would return to both our child and home.

This would be the place where all the previous diagnoses would coalesce, and Elizabeth would receive her ‘official’ diagnosis. All the labels and all the names which had been used by the other hospitals would be cataloged and parsed as sub-symptoms under a greater cause. With, what seemed to be an official diagnosis given, Erica and I engaged in managing the treatment plan in the hopes that Elizabeth would eventually break free of the chains and shackles which held her mind, sanity and peace hostage.


Monologue

The ritual of Elizabeth having an emotional meltdown, followed by a violent outbreak, which was then followed by her being checked into the hospital, had become an unwelcome routine in our family. It tore our heart out, every time we had to say goodbye. Everyone in our little household; Erica, Elizabeth, Isabella and I….all four of us, were the victims of an invisible assailant; our souls carried wounds caused by an unseen war.

By this point, it had been hard for Erica and me to hide these outbreaks from our youngest daughter, Isabella. At the time all this was unfolding she was about six and a half years old and could hear and see everything that was happening with her big sister. Too many times, Erica and I would have to tell Isabella to go and play in her room and shut the door behind her; just to keep her protected from the hell and chaos which had held our entire little family hostage.

During the outbreaks of violence and strife caused by the veiled darkness which was suffocating her big sister’s mind, our youngest daughter Isabella would run and seek refuge either under the blankets in her room or hide in our, her parent’s, room.

The ripple effect was becoming bigger and more profound in our family. The outbursts were becoming more violent, the drugs more potent, and hospital stays longer and more frequent.

This would become Elizabeth’s last hospital stay. The mental health professionals said they had seen enough of a behavior pattern to name and treat our daughter’s problems accurately.

Another round of medication was prescribed, and a more robust therapy plan was implemented…it seemed like we had a roadmap to recovery.

But recovery is not where this road would lead…