The last photograph taken of Elizabeth
Norfolk Zoo – Mother’s Day weekend – May 2015
Yesterday, as I sat in my truck getting ready to leave the parking lot of the military base where I work, I looked at the clock. The numbers on my touch screen display read 15:45…3:45pm for all the civilians out there. The strong low rumble of my F250’s diesel engine played like a bass laced soundtrack while the San Antonio sun, soaked its way through the driver’s side window tint. I looked at the digital numbers on the screen, pondering the heaviness which weighed on my heart – my subconscious mind was recalling nuances and details from a slice in time, which to this day echoes with loss and sadness.
I thought to myself, “Five years ago today, at this exact moment, little did we know that we were spending our last full 24 hours with our oldest daughter Elizabeth. That evening would be her last sunset, our last meal together, and our last time tucking her in to say goodnight.” Slivers and flashes of memories from that day came flooding back. I closed my eyes and could see little details and pieces of conversations as if I was right there, back in our old house in North Carolina. Sitting there in the truck, I could feel my heart race, my breathing becoming heavy, and my eyes begin to fill with tears. My lower lip quivered as a clear memory of Elizabeth’s beautiful face raced across my mind’s eye; “I miss you so much Elizabeth…why…why did you leave us?”, I scarcely whispered as tears escaped my closed eyes and rolled down my face.
If I could only have those last few hours back. If I could only tell Elizabeth how much we love her, just one more time. Her life was so full of promise and potential – talented, intelligent, and beautiful – and yet it was all stolen away from her when she left this world far before God intended.
The sudden and tragic passing of Elizabeth has forever impacted and changed our family. As I look back over the last five years, I can’t think of a time in my life where I’ve not only cried and prayed so much but in my journey of healing, I’ve also learned so much. I’ve discovered uncomfortable truths and hidden flaws about my character and areas of my life which were difficult to face at first, but by surrendering to God’s process of healing and growth, each day I’ve become better, stronger, wiser, and healthier. The white-hot pain caused by Elizabeth’s passing has become an unending and unquenchable fire and fuel for the forge in which God has been refining my soul.
In that fire so much gets burned away and yet so much becomes revealed. The stupid, trivial, and insignificant things that once occupied my time slowly began to fade away into ashes and smoke. Life suddenly became something as instant and sudden an on and off switch; one moment you’re here…the next moment you’re not. In a nanosecond, it can all be over.
Inside the furnace of refinement, I’ve seen that the greater the flaw the hotter the heat and the deeper the impurity the more time in the fire. The refinement process is just that – a process; one which continues throughout a lifetime. Refinement never ends, because when refinement ends so does growth. And when we stop growing, we stop becoming an outward life-flowing fountain and turn into a bitter self-centered drain.
My refinement process is far from over – but I’m a lot farther along in the journey of healing and purpose than I was even a year ago – and certainly lightyears ahead of where I was five years ago when my heart and soul was shattered upon the jagged rocks of hopelessness where so many others in my family had fallen.
These past five years have been a whirlwind. Changes, growth, and movement beyond what Erica and I had expected in those first days, weeks, and even months after Elizabeth had gone. Together, we look back and see how we have become different, both as individuals and as a couple. Different in a good way; different because we’ve had to navigate the worst terrain that any parent has to traverse, the death of a child – from suicide. A loss like that carries enough pain and heartache to last a thousand lifetimes.
A heartbreaking, soul-crushing crisis like the one we’ve faced has a unique way of drawing out the very best or worst in people. Our journey of healing and growth has also sharpened our awareness of human nature and the people around us. In and through these past five years we have been blessed by warm acts of kindness and empathy from people who were either strangers or acquaintances and sadly we also felt the cold callousness and even vitriol from some family members and people we thought were friends.
Throughout these five years, our relationships and circle of people we orbit around have morphed and changed for the better. We had experienced something traumatic, so to heal we engaged in an aggressive and determined journey of healing through faith, therapy, and prayer. We surrounded ourselves with the best minds in the mental and behavioral health community and immersed in the process of total rehabilitation. The progression was invasive and sometimes even painful – like being in traction because every bone in your body is broken after skydiving with a failed parachute.
We learned a lot about ourselves through it all. Values, beliefs, attitudes, and perspectives began to change while a vision and purpose for our lives began to form and become clear. As that vision began to gain 4K clarity and definition, so did our drive, tenacity, and sense of focus. Our primary motivating factor of pursuing a life of healthy thinking and excellence was (and always is) the memory of our daughter Elizabeth and the unshakable hope that we will see her again. Her life is far too valuable and sacred to be simply relegated into a woeful memory surrounded by cheap platitudes, shallow sentiments, or dysfunctional patterns of grieving.
With the unrelenting dedication to moving forward, comes inevitable changes. Changes that some colleagues, friends, and yes even some family members may not understand or worse even resent. That’s ok. It’s not their journey, it’s not their healing, and it’s not their Elizabeth. She was, and always will be, our daughter. Erica and I raised her…we nurtured her…and tragically we buried her.
On the flip side of all the challenges, Erica and I also saw people from within our family, community, and military network of friends rally around and hold us up when we were too weak to stand. Before Elizabeth passed away, many of these special people were either casual friends, coworkers, and some were even strangers – but on that terrible day, when the fire roared and the waters crashed, God stepped in and brought with Him a special cadre of human souls who to this day, I will never forget.
You know who are – you are the ones who ran towards the flames and flood and helped my family and I carry a burden than no one should ever have to carry. Thank you.
As I head into May 12th, 2020 – five years since my precious Elizabeth took her own life – I think back and see how far God has brought us, and then I eagerly look to the horizon. I trust that the Almighty will bless me with long life and many happy days as I serve Him in the purpose for which He created me.
I’ll see you again someday sweetie. Until that time, daddy has work to do here. I love you Elizabeth – always.
Full Speed Ahead…