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They were the words every mother prays she will never hear.
Words I had told God I could never bear. "I'm so sorry," the doctor whispered, "we couldn't save Thomas."
I grabbed the doctor's hands and searched his steel-blue eyes for one fragment of hope. "There must be some mistake," I said desperately. "You must have my son confused with someone else in the accident."
But his tear-filled eyes told me he had nothing else to say. From a place deeper than I knew existed within my soul, a slow, wailing groan began to rise. Suddenly drained of all strength, I fell to my knees.
The groan became a wild cry. I couldn't silence the resounding "No!" that escaped my lips and echoed down the hospital corridor.
My face felt hot. My heart pounded violently. But my body was as lifeless as the cold tile floor beneath my knees. I silently screamed, "Where are You, God? How could You let this happen? I thought we had an unshakeable understanding! I trusted the promise I've read countless times-that You will nevergive anyone a greater burden than they are able to bear."
That promise, standing like an invisible guardian over the most vulnerable part of my heart, had secured my faith in my God.
A visibly sorrowful nurse stood beside the doctor and helped me to my feet. "Do you need something to calm you?" she asked quietly. "I can give you a mild sedative." "No, thank you," I whispered.
She was the same tall, slender nurse who had met me at the emergency entrance at 4:15 that chilly October afternoon and ushered me into a small, softly lit waiting room. I never realized why she was taking me there, or why a hospital chaplain was waiting to meet me.
I still remember his gentle countenance and comforting voice. "Hello, Susan, I'm Chaplain Gary. I'm here to wait with you until some of your family arrives." He took my hand and led me to a burgundy upholstered chair. He pointed to a phone on a nearby table. "Please feel free to call anyone you need to contact, local or long distance," he encouraged.
I couldn't stop staring into Chaplain Gary's compassionate brown eyes. I wondered if he sensed the unsettling questions that were suddenly flashing like neon lights in my mind: Why am I being given all of this attention? How does he know my name? Why has he been called to assist me?
I fully expected to be told at any moment that my eighteen-year- old son, Thomas, had been treated and would soon be released to go home. Nothing up to that point had prepared me to think anything but positive thoughts.
OUT OF THE BLUE
That same October morning of 1990, I'd stepped onto the back porch of our log home, steaming cup of coffee in hand, and found myself mesmerized by the beauty of the most perfect autumn day I'd ever seen. An azure-blue sky stretched across the heavens like a fresh, brilliant canvas. Not one cloud embellished God's perfectly glorious firmament.
A blue norther had blown into East Texas the day before, ushering in the first cold front of the season. I pulled an old blue quilt around my shoulders and whispered a simple prayer of thanks for the morning, for the peace that warmed my soul: "Thank You, Father, for the beauty You bring to my life. As I stand here in this moment, all seems right with the world."
I lingered in the crisp air, drinking in the serenity of a new day.
Later that afternoon, my phone rang. It was Thomas's friend, Allen. Thomas had gone to visit him earlier in the day and said just before he left that he'd be home around four o'clock.
"There's been an accident," I heard Allen's familiar voice say. "I don't want you to panic-I think everything is fine." He explained that he'd been driving his own vehicle behind Thomas's blue Chevy Blazer and had actually witnessed the collision.
"Is Thomas hurt?" I asked in a frantic voice. "Where is he? Has an ambulance been called?"
Allen calmly replied, "I think he may have a broken leg. An ambulance has taken him to the hospital. I would like to come pick you up and drive you there, if that's okay." I gratefully accepted Allen's offer.
DARK CLOUDS GATHER
Sitting in the private waiting room of the hospital, I felt slightly dazed-as if I'd missed something in between Allen's phone call and this surreal setting. I gathered my thoughts and swept my questions aside long enough to respond to Chaplain Gary's suggestion.
"Before I make any phone calls, I'd like to go to my son and pray for him," I said, feeling confident that he or the hovering nurse would honor my request.
"You can't go in there now, sweetheart," the nurse quickly interjected. "The doctors are very busy taking care of everyone who was involved in the accident. Go ahead and make your calls."
It's my nature not to concern anyone unnecessarily, and I wasn't sure anyone needed calling, but I went ahead and dialed every phone number I knew by heart. I left messages and prayer requests on the recorders of family and friends, and at my church's office. I couldn't reach anyone-not even my husband, Harvey, who was driving home (without a cell phone) from an Oklahoma business trip. I felt certain Thomas and I would be home long before he arrived.
As more time passed, I tried to dismiss worrisome thoughts. I pulled a small Bible from my purse. I read and whispered familiar Scriptures. Then I closed my eyes and silently prayed, "Lord, Your grace is sufficient. When I am weak, You are strong. You are my Victor in every battle. Please take care of my son."
For what seemed like hours, the ever-gracious chaplain sat with me. At one point, he reached out and took both my hands. His eyes glistened. I sensed urgency in his voice. "Can I pray with you?" he asked.
In that moment, the small waiting room became my hallowed sanctuary.
I thought it was mere kindness that periodically brought the same attentive nurse back to the waiting room. She checked my blood pressure and then my pulse.
"Have you been able to reach any friends or family members yet?" she asked.
I noticed her concern. I'd been in the waiting room for almost two hours.
"Not yet, but some of them will be home soon and listen to their messages. There's really no need for anyone to come. I'm sure we'll be going home soon."
She knelt beside my chair and touched my arm ever so gently. "Honey, you need to understand that this was a very serious accident. We need a miracle."
Fear suddenly gripped my heart, but I refused to believe anything negative. I mustered enough faith to respond, "We serve a miracle-working God. It's going to be okay."
Despite my words, I knew I could no longer postpone telling Thomas's only sibling, my daughter, Kelly, about his accident. I was afraid she would panic, so I called my son-in-law at work and asked him to go home and tell Kelly in person. He assured me he was leaving work immediately and they would be on their way to the hospital as soon as possible. The 130 miles between us suddenly felt like a million.
In the next moment, my dear friend Sonja appeared in the doorway, accompanied by her father-in-law. I stood up to greet her, but instead I collapsed into her open arms, allowing my tears to flow freely.
The nurse's most recent words had changed the atmosphere in the room. They had landed with the impact of a flaming meteor in the middle of my trembling heart. I asked Sonja and her father-in-law, Lynn (who was a pastor), to pray with me. The nurse and the chaplain left the room just as my friends and I joined hands and dropped to our knees.
For the first time, I allowed myself to think Thomas could die. Within moments, the nurse returned. Her words were sharp, clear, and somber. "The doctor is coming to talk to you." I looked squarely into her intense brown eyes and said, "I don't want to talk to the doctor."
Somehow, I already knew. Before the doctor spoke his fateful words, I knew. My Thomas was gone.
BENEATH A FALLEN SKY
I whispered a private request to another friend who had just arrived. She took my arm and led me to a nearby restroom. I splashed icy water across my face, hoping it might keep me from throwing up. It didn't.
When I was finally able to leave the restroom, I stumbled into the hallway. My pastor and countless friends were waiting for me, their eyes brimming with tears of silent compassion- but I felt as alone as I've ever been in my life. My head throbbed as if it would surely burst. My legs seemed too weak to move. I staggered a few steps, weaving like someone who had been drinking. My friend Sonja saw what was happening and rushed to my side. "Lean on me," she said. "Lynn and I will drive you home."
Leaving the hospital that cold October night, I whispered six words to my friend: "I'll never be the same again." My words ascended into the night sky.
I wasn't fully conscious of my words, for I was focused on the grim task at hand: going home to wait for my husband and my daughter, neither of whom knew what they were about to face.
How would I explain what I didn't yet fully understand? When Allen called to tell me about the accident, why had he told me only that Thomas might have a broken leg? That's why I wasn't worried when I first walked into the emergency room. Was he trying to spare me the unbearable truth, or was he telling all he knew? For now, I had no real answers-only the vague remembrance of the doctor's words, explaining that Thomas had suffered extensive internal injuries.
It had been daylight when I entered the hospital. Now night had fallen, and the weight of its vast blackness covered me. I sat in the backseat, crouched against the car door with my head pressed against the cold glass window. I had no words. I had no tears. Only emptiness. How could I go home? Where was Thomas now? My eyes searched the endless, ebony cosmos. I spotted one single star that shimmered brighter than the millions of others surrounding it. It seemed set apart, alone, like me. Was Thomas there, somewhere among the stars?
All the way home, I watched the star glimmer and dance, as if it had a secret mission. What holds that star in the sky? I wondered. It appeared to be traveling the same road I was, never leaving my sight. I convinced myself it must be a new star in the heavenlies, meant to guide me to a place I'd never been before. A single thought became a mysterious command: "Keep your eyes on the star."
Beneath my fallen sky, it was all that was visible. One star, one thought, leading me back home.
I walked up my porch steps into a dark house. Our cozy log home, lovingly built by my husband one log at a time, had sheltered us from many storms. But how could it possibly shelter us from this flash flood of grief that was about to pour down upon our lives? I flipped the switch just inside the back door, only for the bulb to blink one last spark of light.
"I'm out of lightbulbs," I told Sonja. "I'll have to get one from a lamp."
Once there was light in the kitchen, Sonja said, "Tell me where to find the aspirin for your headache." I opened a drawer and grabbed a bottle while she poured me a small glass of water. The moment I swallowed the aspirin and water, a wave of nausea hit me full force. I needed to lie down.
The phone was ringing and I could see headlights approaching from the back driveway. Sonja's husband, Mike, arrived first. I asked him to watch for Harvey and meet him outside. He wouldn't understand all the cars. "Please excuse me," I told Mike and Sonja, "I just can't talk to anyone right now. I need to go to my room."
Bo, one of our two salt-and-pepper schnauzers, followed me down the hallway and into my room.
Outside my bedroom door, I heard the faint bustling of footsteps. Hushed voices filtered through the walls. Occasionally, I could hear bits of conversation. "What can we do?" "Is she okay?" "Where is Harvey? Does he know yet?" The sounds grew louder as more people filled our sprawling home. Bo, who always barked whenever he heard strange voices, never whimpered and never moved from his vigilant position near the bedroom door. The way he stood sentinel at the door told me he felt my intense grief.
I'm normally a people person who loves the company of friends, but this time was different. I didn't have the strength to go through the motions of cordial greetings. I didn't want to see anyone before I held my husband and daughter.
THE VOICE OF DARKNESS
I was thankful friends were in the house, especially those who respected my privacy. But alone in my room, I felt as if I'd fallen into a bottomless cavern that no one else could enter. The sky had fallen upon my world and there was no comfort to be found. I slumped to my knees beside my bed, and then lay facedown on the beige carpeting. In the dark silence, I waited for my family to arrive.
I was screaming inside, but I couldn't speak. I was disoriented, my mind invisibly suspended above my black pit of grief. I couldn't pray. I couldn't think.
I didn't know it then, but I was experiencing the first waves of shock. Wave after wave hit, intermittently jarring me against the reality of what had happened and then plunging me into the depths of indescribable pain. I fought against the facts, the fear. But the reality was that Thomas wouldn't be coming home or sleeping in his bed. Not that night. Not ever. I asked God, "How could my son-so energetic and vibrant, so happy and full of dreams-not be coming home? Lord, this can't be! He's only eighteen!"
As I lay facedown on my bedroom floor, I blatantly reminded God that I'd served Him faithfully for many years- that I'd committed my life, my family, and a full-time speaking and singing ministry to Him. "Have I done something wrong, God? Have I misunderstood Your plan for my life? Aren't You supposed to protect what belongs to You? Is everything I've believed a sham? What about Your Word, Your promises? If this is what comes from serving You, then what's the use? I thought I knew You. I thought You knew me. Now, I don't know anything. I believed the words in my Bible that said You'd never forsake me. Well, where are You now? If You're here, speak to me!"
In our most vulnerable moments, Satan loves to torment us. He must love it when we doubt God. We offer him easy access to our thoughts when we find ourselves reeling in grief and disbelief. I can't say that the heckling voice I heard next was audible, but the taunting phrases pierced my soul with a brazen and deafening ferocity.
"Heartsong Ministries?" the jeering began. "That's over. You don't have a song in your heart now, do you? And you never will again."
"You think you were called to give joy to people? Well, where is your joy now? Do you think you'll ever feel joy again? I think not! Where was your God when you needed Him today? He let your son die. Your ministry is over. Your joy is over. Your life is over. Everything you've ever trusted and believed in is a lie."
I lay motionless, too weak to speak, too weak to fight. The words were true. I had nothing left. My beloved Thomas was gone.
THE VOICE OF TRUTH
Looking back now, I realize that I was in a ferocious battle between life and death. Not only was I facing the loss of my son, but I was also facing my own spiritual death if I believed the lies of darkness.
I will never forget what happened next. I could feel an inner strength rising from the deepest well of my soul. It was a peculiar kind of strength. To this day, I still have no words to describe it. When I say that I was weak, I literally mean that all physical energy had left me. But in that moment, I grabbed the edge of my bedsheets and slowly but steadily pulled myself to my feet. Although my flesh was weak, the persistent and formidable power within my spirit prevailed.
There, in the shadows of my bedroom, I clenched my fist and shouted to the darkness, "You've made the wrong mama mad! If I believe anything I've read in God's Word or any of the words I've sung, then I believe that my son is with the Lord. I will see him again. Hear me now! As long as I have breath, I will sing. And I will speak. And as long as I live, Thomas's life will have meaning and change lives."
As powerful as that moment felt, the next one found me sitting on the floor, staring into the empty darkness. I remember repeating, "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me." But the words sounded like a hollow noise coming from someone else.
I suddenly felt childlike-helpless, confused, and afraid of the dark. I stood up and turned on my bedside lamp. My bedroom door opened.
Excerpted from Grieving Forward by Susan Duke Copyright © 2006 by Susan Duke. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted September 28, 2006
For anyone who has lost a loved one, especially a child, 'Grieving Forward' is a must read. You must discover how Susan Duke turned her life of suffering and hurt around, from the loss of her son at the tender age of 18, to crawl out of the low pit of grief, and with faith in God to reach a high plateau of helping others with a ministry of grieving seminars. I was amazed at how thoroughly Susan covered every phase of the grieving process with a cure for each one. It is eloquently, realisticly and compassionately written, and even shows how we can experience outright miracles if we turn our aching hearts to God during times of tragedy and grief. I know about such miracles. I can speak with authority about it because I lost two of my sons about two years apart. I experienced many of the same emotions Susan Duke so comprehensively covered in this book. I know it will be a great healing tool for countless thousands who are grieving over deceased family members, close friends and associates. You're moving out and moving up when you make the move to read 'Grieving Forward.' It will give you a renewed affirmation of God's existence and His precious love for us. I recommend it highly.
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