“A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.” Proverbs 17:22 [ESV]
Our home has always been one characterized by joy and laughter. We find humor in almost everything, and we delight greatly in evoking laughter in one another. The day of the accident I promised Katelyn, Kristen and Sophie that we would find our way back to joy. I promised them we would smile and laugh again, but I had no idea how we would get there. In those moments, it was unfathomable that this oppressive pain we were only just beginning to feel the full weight of could possibly lift enough to allow any joy, let alone actual laughter.
My first laugh…
The day after the accident we found ourselves over 24 hours without sleep, and needing to get back to Huntsville. It would have been unsafe for either Scott or me to drive at that point, and the thought of being trapped in the van for hours on the same course we had so traumatically driven the day before was unbearable. A family friend graciously agreed to come get us in his eight passenger jet to take us back to Huntsville. It would be a 26 minute flight, rather than a three and half hour drive, we were so thankful. Neither Kristen nor Sophie had ever flown, so when we told them we would be flying, Sophie expressed some apprehension. In what was probably not one of my better parenting moments, I told her it was a win/ win situation, “we’ll be there in 26 minutes, or we’ll be with Sarah, either way we’ll be fine.” She hesitantly agreed to go. It was such a blessing to not have to go through a commercial airport, we walked straight out to the jet and boarded. Scott and I sat in the back seats in the tail, Sophie sat knee to knee with me, Kristen was knee to knee with Scott, Katelyn was then back to back with Sophie, and Katelyn’s boyfriend was back to back with Kristen, and right next to the door. After what seemed like a prolonged period of taxiing, we finally took off. While we were still climbing in a somewhat steep ascent, we began to turn to the right. As we turned, suddenly the door of the jet flew open revealing mostly sky, and earth far below. Katelyn’s boyfriend, who was sitting right next to it, quickly grabbed it and pulled it to. He was unable to actually close it or latch it, though, so he held it in place as best he could and looked back to Scott and me for help. Katelyn, assuming her boyfriend was about to be sucked out of the jet, was frantically clinging to his arm and telling me to do something. Scott just sat leaning back with his arms crossed, no reaction at all. Sophie and Kristen were silent, just looking around to see what was going to happen. To everyone’s surprise, mine included, my reaction was to laugh. The pilot and co-pilot had headphones on and couldn’t hear us talking, or me laughing. As Katelyn’s boyfriend’s panic grew, we all, with the exception of Scott, joined together in repeatedly shouting toward the cockpit, “The door is open!” Finally, after what seemed like several minutes but was probably only seconds, the co-pilot heard us and told the pilot. We then turned back to the airport and landed safely. When we landed, Katelyn looked at me with a smirk, and proclaimed with a stern accusatory tone, “I thought you had prayed us down! [to our demise]” All of which evoked more laughter from me. Our friend re-latched the door, we then took off again and had an uneventful flight, safely landing in Huntsville 26 minutes later. I still look back on that event with such great gratitude. When laughing seemed so very unthinkable, this story was one of the few that possessed the power to make all of us laugh, not a little superficial laugh, but a genuine hearty laugh. If you were around us at all in the early weeks after Sarah’s departure, you no doubt heard this story as it was a lifeline of laughter for us.
From the very first moments after the accident it was vitally important to me that our remaining daughters know we as a family would have joy and laughter again. Their lives and joy had not “ended” because Sarah’s physical life had “ended.” I was and am strongly convicted that the restoration of Scott’s and my joy and laughter is our testimony to our girls and others that the Hope which we profess is real and certain. We can experience joy and laughter because we know Sarah is safely home rejoicing in the presence of our Lord and Savior. Laughter has returned to our home, we laugh often and heartily. We have the joy of Christ that enables us to laugh despite the persisting, indescribably deep pain of Sarah’s absence.
I have heard many who have lost loved ones, particularly those who have lost a child, express deep guilt over experiencing joy and laughter. I am convinced this is yet another cunning strategy of our adversary. With his choice weapon of lies, the enemy clamors to convince us to stifle even the faintest glimmers of joy that begin to glisten in the darkness of grief. He whispers, “your joy and laughter would surely mean you are not appropriately or adequately grieving your loved one.” If that lie is not effective, he may whisper, “others will think you are fine, that your heart is no longer shattered,” “if they see you laughing they will question your love for the one who is gone.” Or, “how can you laugh now or enjoy this when your loved one doesn’t get to experience it?” Any thought that implies we must not laugh or experience joy while in the valley of the shadow of death is a flaming arrow from the father of lies (Eph. 6:16). Each moment of joy, whether in the valley or not, is a precious gift of God’s grace, peace and mercy. But in the valley, moments of joy bathed in His grace are the “good medicine” that strengthens and refreshes us to withstand the ongoing waves of pain that continue to take our breath away (Prov. 17:22). The enemy targets those moments and our joy because he knows they are vital to our faith and witness.
As believers we are called to rejoice in Him and His salvation. Through the power of His Holy Spirit indwelling us, His eternal joy can prevail over our temporal anguish. Perhaps first appearing and experienced only as glimmers, and then fleeting moments that gradually run longer and deeper. Our greatest and most elaborate joy here on earth pales in comparison to the joy our believing loved ones are experiencing in the presence of our Lord and Savior. Their joy did not end with their physical deaths, but was instead transformed into uninterrupted, never-ending, eternally perfected “joy inexpressible and full of glory” (1 Peter 1:8). As Scott has said many times, if Sarah could come back, she wouldn’t want to. She has fully tasted and knows the richness of His presence. Her faith has become sight, and I’m confident she is exuberantly worshipping Him at this very moment. There is no place she would rather be. She is experiencing eternal joy, and I greatly rejoice in His gracious promised provision of that for her and us. Because of this certainty, the Hope of His salvation, I can and should rejoice in this very moment. As I choose to rejoice, His joy penetrates the shroud of my grief, shining forth its light even in the deepest pit of affliction and pain. The restoration of His joy in us is both blessing and obedience, and contrary to the accusations of the enemy, it is absolutely not a cause for guilt or shame.
The restoration of joy and laughter does not indicate “healing” of the gaping wound of Sarah’s absence. The pain of my child’s absence is ever-present and often excruciating. I desperately long for my child, my arms and my heart ache for her. But we “do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope” (1 Thess. 4:13). Praise God, through His Hope I can rejoice, because I know with certainty I will see her again. In the meantime, pain and joy will continue to collide, weeping and laughter will co-exist, and suffering and Hope will endure in unison. Until eventually, on that glorious day, “He will wipe away every tear from [our] eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things [will] have passed away” (Revelation 21:4).
“Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.” Romans 12:12 [ESV]
“Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have broken rejoice. Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit. Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.” Psalm 51:8-13 [ESV]
“….for the joy of the LORD is your strength.” Nehemiah 8:10 [ESV]
Katelyn, Kristen, Sarah & Sophie ~ Fall 2016
Artwork: Sarah Harmening