On what was supposed to be a fun evening celebrating a friend’s 30th birthday, Sally’s world changed forever in August of 1986. She and her husband, Pat, and their two daughters, Kristin (3 1/2) and Sarah (1 1/2) had recently moved to Ventura and were loving life.
Even though the birthday party was for an adult, little Kristin was very excited about going. She eagerly asked if there would be balloons and cake. She picked out twin outfits for she and her little sister to wear. As they drove to the party, Pat was joking around as usual, and Kristin was teasing her parents by pretending to be asleep. Sally played along, taking note of her beautiful little girl’s fun spirit and braided hair. Sarah really was falling asleep when suddenly, Pat screamed and Sally saw a big blur coming toward them.
The next thing Sally remembers is waking up on the ground with emergency personnel around her. One of them told her that she had been in an accident. A woman grabbed her hand and asked if she was a Christian and began to pray for her. Even though this tragedy would shake her to the core, God revealed His presence to Sally from the very first moments that she began to face what had happened. She began to ask about her daughters, still dazed and not realizing that Pat had been with them, too. She was told that the girls had already been taken to the hospital. An ambulance soon transported Sally as well. She shared that ride with the drunk driver who had hit them.
Once at the hospital, Sally could hear Sarah screaming in the next room. She was told that they were putting stitches in Sarah’s face. Sally’s mother’s heart wanted to comfort her daughter, and at the same time she was disturbed that she couldn’t hear Kristin at all. Sally also began to realize that Pat had been with them in the car and asked, “Where’s my husband?” Evasive at first, a doctor finally told her that Pat had died. Sally says, “Pat and I had been so close. We’d been together ten years; married for six.”
The medical staff encouraged Sally to call some friends, who immediately joined her side when they heard the news. Sally was told that she needed to sign some papers so that Kristin could be transported to another hospital for brain surgery. Sally thought about the possible future for Kristin, thankful that she had experience working with children with brain damage. It never occurred to her that her “charming, precious, outgoing, beautiful, fun kid” might not survive the accident.
At one point, Sally’s friends were praying for Sally and Sarah, and she objected, “No, you need to pray for Kristin. Sarah and I are okay!” Sally saw the looks in her friends’ eyes, and she knew. After praying for the courage to ask the question. The doctor’s reply still haunts her, “I’m sorry. Your daughter expired.” What a crushing, hollow word to hear about your three year-old daughter who was so full of life!
When Sally was able to go home, she found herself in Kristin’s room, yelling at God – so angry about her profound loss. As she sought to move forward for the sake of her daughter, Sarah, she began to encounter a wide variety of responses from those who knew her and some who had never met her. She is grateful for those who touched her broken heart in meaningful ways: the neighbor who mowed her lawn when he noticed the grass growing; the friends that listened and loved so compassionately; the woman who had lost her husband and all three of her young children who wrote to her and so many others who brought comfort in the midst of her heartache.
But along with those comforting touches, there were also painful encounters. Sally noticed when friends avoided eye contact and interaction with her. It felt as if people thought that what happened to her was contagious! Sally bore the stabbing feelings when people repeated clichés because they didn’t know what to say: “You’ll remarry;” “You’ll have more children.” No one could replace the relationships she had lost. One of the most repeated phrases she heard was, “God needed another angel in heaven.”
Some well-meaning people shared Bible verses, that were true, but Sally couldn’t hear them at the time: Romans 8:28, “…in all things God works for the good of those who love Him…” and Jeremiah 29:11, “'For I know the plans I have for you,' declares the LORD, 'plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.'”
The most helpful human interactions during that season came from those who leaned in, those who listened, those who didn’t try to fix it or sum it up.
Ultimately, though, where Sally found the most comfort was her time with God – time to pour out her anger and to be ministered to by the only true source of hope and healing. She identified so much with the Psalms of David as he, too, wrestled with God about what was happening in his life and found peace and comfort in the process.
Ironically, Sally now loves Romans 8:28 and Jeremiah 29:11. Over time, she has seen so many good things come out of the horrible losses of that tragic day. God has brought beauty from the ashes. And, all these years later, another meaningful layer of comfort has been given to she and Sarah, and Sarah’s entire family (a husband and four children). Pat’s childhood friends have given them an all-expense paid trip to Louisiana where Pat grew up. The friends will take the group to the places where Pat frequented and share memories so that Sara can see a part of her daddy’s life first-hand. These thoughtful guys planned this beautiful gift 33 years ago at Pat’s Memorial Service and have waited for just the right time to present the opportunity. The family leaves this week!
Editor’s Note: Sally did re-marry (Glenn) and had three more daughters (Katie, Jenny and Kelly). Sally beams as she says, “Sarah and her sisters are so close!”