The Journey of Processing Pain
How a Christian couple dealt with the unexpected death of their only daughter
Nineteen years ago in March, our only daughter left for work in the morning, never to come home. We remember that day as though it were yesterday. Every painful detail that forever changed our lives and our family. The difference today is that instead of being consumed by the horror, we acknowledge the pain and consciously move forward, still trusting that God knows what is best.
On March 14, 2002, Misty left for work with her husband of two years. They lived in Ringgold, Georgia, near the Tennessee border, and had planned to go in extra early because my husband, Mike, was flying down from Albany, New York, that day for a weekend visit. We lived in Schroon Lake, New York, where Mike was the vice president of Local Church Ministries with Word of Life Fellowship.
However, during Misty’s early-morning jog, their Weimaraner ran off into a nearby field. Her search for the dog put them 45 minutes behind schedule. They had no idea what that extra time would mean for them.
Within seconds of merging into the five lanes of business traffic on Interstate 75, Misty and Bryan entered a wall of fog so dense it reduced visibility to less than one car length. Vehicles began to veer off in all directions at speeds of 70 to 80 miles per hour. Their car hit a wrecked tractor-trailer in front of them, while a truck rammed into them from behind. Their Dodge Intrepid became sandwiched between the two in a twisted heap.
The domino effect of all the crashes precipitated a 125-car pileup, including 20 tractor-trailers, that shut down I-75 for hours. Emergency medical workers labored tirelessly to take care of the wounded and clear the wreckage. Amazingly, only four people died at the scene, one of them being our precious 24-year-old daughter.
At 7:48 a.m., our Misty entered the arms of her dear Savior, while her husband was spared from death by a thread. When Bryan woke up in the hospital, Mike had to tell him of his wife’s death. Five days later we were sitting at a funeral service for Misty with 1,300 people in attendance. Even with life-threatening injuries, Bryan miraculously shared a testimony about the treasure his wife was to him.
Our daughter loved Jesus with all her heart. My husband likes to describe her as “just an ordinary girl with an extraordinary God shining through her life.” Strangely enough, the last words Misty had shared with her Bible-study group the night before her death were these: “I just can’t wait to look into the face of my dear Jesus!” She was prepared for her homegoing. We were not.
Comfort in Lament
We weren’t ready for Misty to be snatched from us at age 24. It felt like our hearts imploded. Grief spread into every corner of our lives and affected each one of us differently. We soon found there was more than one way to process the loss of a family member.
Grief and pain of any kind are real, deep, and often inexpressible. Simply put, grief is the response to the separation caused by death. Yes, there are stages of grief, which include denial, anger, depression, and acceptance. But many factors play into the various ways individuals process their pain.
As I looked at some of God’s greatest leaders, I realized a person’s godliness is not diminished by the emotional lament he or she expresses due to loss. I thought of Job, Moses, Miriam, Gideon, King David, Jeremiah, Mary, and Peter. Even the Lord Jesus wept over Lazarus.
I found great comfort in the laments of the prophets during the most bitter days and nights grieving over our daughter’s absence. In particular, the prophet Jeremiah’s words addressed my pain, particularly his book of Lamentations. Chapter 3 describes his desperate feelings in detail.
His vulnerability reminds us that grieving, lamenting, and emoting over our deep losses are crucial to the healing process. God wants us to be authentic about our emotions and run to Him with our brokenness, our hopelessness. Like Jeremiah, we can be fully honest as we cling to Him.
To paraphrase the prophet, “You have plunged me into darkness, turned against me, broken me, weighted me down with a heavy chain, pulled me in pieces, made me desolate, filled me with bitterness. I have no more strength and hope” (vv. 1–20).
Honestly articulating his hopelessness and anger toward God forced Jeremiah to refocus his heart on the Lord and Deliverer of his life; and in doing so, there is comfort: “This I recall to my mind, therefore I have hope. Through the LORD’s mercies we are not consumed, because His compassions fail not. They are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness. ‘The LORD is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘Therefore I hope in Him!’” (vv. 21–24).
Misty’s death took an immeasurable toll on us and our two sons. We journaled. We talked. We listened to Christian music. We talked to counselors and took grief seminars. We held each other in the night and wept. We lay in bed some mornings, paralyzed by the thought of getting up to meet another Mistyless day. We took nature walks and hikes and stood by the ocean. We went to her grave and cried bitterly. Sometimes we remembered some of her humorous antics and laughed. And we often came upon treasured letters she had written to us. I have read through all of her journals and even started writing a book.
It’s important that people who grieve give themselves permission to lament. We faced what we called the hopelessness of memories and unfulfilled longings, as well as conflicting differences in the ways we grieved. Mike remembered the past, like Misty’s hand in his, her first words and steps, and her snuggling under his arm.
I grieved for the future woman she would never become, the songs she would never write, the family events she and Bryan would never attend. We were not surprised to learn that many parents who have lost a child develop marital issues. Even though we had been in full-time ministry for 30 years at that point, we both had difficulty embracing the will to go on.
Yet God is faithful. He gives us time to grieve and lament, and then He helps us rebuild our lives.
After the accident, Misty’s little purse was retrieved from her crushed car and given to us. Tucked behind her credit cards was a small card her daddy had given her several years earlier when she had been going through a difficult loss of her own.
On the card were these words from Jeremiah: “For I know the plans I have for you . . . plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future” (Jer. 29:11, NIV). God continues to remind us He has a future and a hope planned for each of us.
Life on this Earth often involves pain and suffering. Job said, “Man is born to trouble, as the sparks fly upward” (Job 5:7). None of us knows when our time here will end. But God has a plan. For those of us who know Him personally, eternal glory awaits; and that is a hope worth clinging to.