Sunday, August 27, 2006. The sun beats down steadily but not oppressively on the streets of Pamplona. It’s a lazy Sunday afternoon in Spain, the kind of day siestas were made for.
The traffic on the streets—if you can call the occasional car “traffic”—is also lazy, relaxed, and unhurried, with one exception. A silver van speeds down the avenue, pausing only briefly before shooting through a red light.
In the back of the van a young girl is spread out across the seat, her head cradled in her mother’s arms. “I need you to breathe, Allison!” the woman says. “Keep breathing!” But Allison is breathing, the deep breathing that’s past sleep, the coma from which she will not wake up.
The sun shines on a lazy afternoon in Pamplona as the girl’s parents speed down the road toward the end of their world.
The girl in the back of that van was our daughter Allison. That afternoon she suffered a massive brain hemorrhage, caused by a condition she had—unknown to us—from birth. A cerebral malformation such as Allison’s (the surgeon explained to us later) invariably leads to hemorrhage, often fatal. Sometimes the hemorrhage is triggered by a blow to the head or by physical exercise; sometimes, as in Alli’s case, it is seemingly not triggered by anything.
We had no warning. Allison was, as far as we could see, a normal, healthy 13-year-old—active and happy.She helped teach a Sunday school lesson about heaven that morning. When we came home from church, the rest of us went to our rooms upstairs to change into comfortable clothes while Allison stayed downstairs to get her little sister something to eat. Shortly after, she cried out for help. We found her slumped over the table; her words were slurred as she told us that her legs were numb, that she couldn’t lift her head. Was she in pain? No. Had she eaten something? No. Perhaps a cool cloth on her forehead—but then she passed out.
We had her at the hospital within 15 minutes. A flurry of activity; an anxious wait in the hall; a conference with a nurse. Allison’s pupils, the nurse said, were already completely dilated when she arrived at the hospital, an ominous sign. They were taking Allison to the hospital across the street for an emergency operation; the hospitals were connected by a tunnel, and we could walk with them.
The surgeon spoke with us there. The situation couldn’t be worse, he said. He frankly didn’t believe an operation would help, but he would operate anyway—sometimes the bodies of the young do surprising things, so they give them every chance to perform a miracle on themselves. . . .
The rest was waiting. After the operation, Allison was on life support; it wasn’t inconceivable that she would recover, but it was unlikely. Her older brother and sister, Nate and Amber, came to the hospital late in the afternoon to see Allison and tell her goodbye. A doctor asked us for a conference and carefully broached the subject of organ donation. And we waited.
People from our church came and waited with us. Neighbors and friends stayed with our other children. Our friends and family around the world prayed. At my parents’ church in the United States, the planned service was scrapped and replaced with an hour of prayer.
A friend called from Romania that night. “She’s gone,” I told him.
The next few days were a blur: talking to doctors, planning the memorial service, meeting family members at the airport. Crying, praying, remembering. Trying to sleep. Consoling our kids. Wondering whether anything in the world made any sense.
Jodi and I are Christians, from Christian families. Since we were young, our goal has been to learn about Jesus Christ, to live in a way that would reflect His presence in us, and to share our faith with others. We each have spent more than 40 years in that life—attending church, listening to sermons, studying the Bible. Before moving to Spain, we worked for 10 years as missionaries in Romania. We have watched God take care of us in all sorts of difficult circumstances.
Yet on one of those first nights after Allison’s death, as we were alone in our bedroom, Jodi asked me through her tears, “Is it all true? Is any of it true? Is there a God, and is Alli with Him? Oh, it needs to be true.”
I had no answer; I had been feeling exactly the same myself. Forty years of faith, distilled in this moment to a single paralyzing thought: Is any of it true? Is there really a God? Or is this the way faith began, with hurting people who invented a God they desperately needed?
My doubt caught me by surprise. There is no promise in the message of Jesus Christ that His followers are exempt from suffering; on the contrary, the Bible advises us that God’s people can expect to suffer. And it’s not as if I was unacquainted with death, even the death of children. I’d cried with and comforted others who had suffered that kind of loss and had my faith strengthened as I saw God’s presence in their lives. So as terrible as the death of a child is, objectively speaking it should not have challenged my faith.
But there was nothing objective about the death of this child. This child was Allison, our own Allison. And losing her somehow changed everything.
How will we go on?
Allison was the fourth of six children. Each of those children is priceless, each unique; why does Allison now seem to stand out from the rest? We know that she wasn’t perfect, but it’s hard for us now to think of any meaningful way in which she wasn’t. Her life seems to us like a cut jewel, exquisite from whichever way we look at it. Perhaps it’s just a trick of memory that now makes Allison seem so special. It doesn’t feel like a trick, though; it feels like having your eyes opened to the plain truth. It’s as if her death has cut and polished our perspective so that we can see her accurately for the first time.
Allison, more than anyone else I know, had the gift of appreciating the moment. She loved making friends, giving back rubs and foot massages, spending money, making things out of beads and glue and string, and fishing with her dad. I think Allison probably came as close as anybody could to living each day without any regrets.
Somehow, no matter where Allison was, it seemed she was always surrounded by all of her favorite people. She smiled easily and gave bone-crushing hugs. She loved to help out. If the family was watching television and I asked if someone would go to the kitchen and get their lazy father a drink, the other kids barely had time to hold their breath and try to look invisible before Alli jumped up and said, “Sure!”
Allison had an intuitive and uncommon sense of what’s important. She liked to play games, but she didn’t care about keeping score. She never showed any indications of trying to be the smartest person in the room, or of caring who was. When given the choice of spending 15 minutes on chores or an hour taking care of her little sister Andrea, she always chose the time with her sister.
Allison was best friend to Andrea, who has Down syndrome. “What’s going to happen to Andrea when I die?” Jodi would occasionally fret, and Allison would always respond, “Don’t worry about that, Mom! When I grow up, Andy can live with me!”
She was best friend to her little brother Nick and spent more time with him and Andrea than she did with her older siblings, though she was closer to their ages. (Nick was four years younger than Alli; Nate, Amber, and Anna were two, three, and five years older.)
She was best friend to her sister Amber, a friend Amber could confide in and not compete with.
She was best friend to her cousin Kendra and her friend Breanna (with whom she had contrived intricate plans about how they were going to spend the rest of their lives together). Another of Allison’s stateside friends, before having heard of Allison’s death, described Allison in a school assignment as one of the people who had most influenced her life. A lot of us would now say the same.
Allison was also best friend to two classmates in Pamplona. Adjusting to a new school while learning a new language was a challenge for Alli, as it was for all of our kids. But she was soon friends with all the girls in the class and planned to invite them all for a big birthday party in February. “This will be so much fun!” said the class’s most popular girls. “But don’t invite them,” they said, pointing out two classmates. “Nobody likes them.”
“Of course I’ll invite them,” said Allison. “They’re my friends like everybody else. Everyone’s invited.”
“Well, if they come, we’re not coming.”
And that’s how Allison came to celebrate her thirteenth birthday with two friends and enough food for 15. That, too, is how there came to be three unpopular girls in the class for the rest of the year instead of two.
After the party, Jodi asked Allison if she felt bad about the girls who didn’t come, if inviting these two friends had been worth it. “Oh, yes!” said Allison, her eyes shining. “We had the best time ever!”
That was Allison.
She did feel bad about the friends she lost that day, and it was hard for Jodi and me to see the frustrations she faced at school in the following months. But we’re so glad now that she did the right thing. We’re so proud of her.
We miss her so much. It’s hard to imagine how we’ll be able to go on without her.
Within a few days after Allison’s death, we were weary, and weariness soon became our normal state. We had a hard time sleeping at night—and an even harder time finding a reason to get out of bed in the morning. We had no energy for some of the simplest tasks and little motivation to attempt major projects.
You’ve heard people who suffer great loss compare the experience to a punch in the stomach or a kick in the head. You’ve heard it so often you don’t hear it anymore. It’s lost its impact; it’s a cliché. Yet I can’t describe our emotional state better than to say that each morning, one second after we awoke, we had the wind knocked out of us by the thought, “It wasn’t a dream. Alli is gone.” It is like a kick in the head. It knocks you off balance; it takes away your desire to move on.
We didn’t wish we were dead, but we didn’t really care if we kept on living either.
The Father’s compassion
Despite my newfound doubt, the first place I looked for answers to my questions and comfort for my grief was the Bible. This makes sense if you consider the Bible a supernatural book. Where better to turn in times of trial and doubt if not to the Word of God?
If, on the other hand, you think that the Bible is just one of man’s many feeble attempts to search for God or to create Him after his own image, you may find it incomprehensible that I was turning to it even as I was asking myself whether any of it was true. Remember, though, that the Bible was for me the most natural place to look for answers. And I didn’t want to reject it blindly any more than I wanted to accept it blindly.
I didn’t really want to reject it at all. But easy answers didn’t appeal to me either. Allison was gone. What does the Bible really say about that? Are the answers it offers authentic, trustworthy? I knew that a drowning man will grasp at anything that looks like a lifeline; I wanted to be sure that the one to which I was clinging was the real thing. And so I read the Bible, more thoughtfully than ever before.
As I had been surprised by my doubt, I was surprised now by what I found in the Bible—not one surprise, but a series of surprises.
I was surprised to find how directly the authors of the Bible spoke to my own situation. These weren’t detached philosophers and theologians; they were real people who struggled with real doubts and pain, as I had. I found in these men a community of fellow sufferers.
I was surprised that I had never seen that before.
I was surprised to find that I was learning more about God in my sorrow than I ever had in times of joy. “The Bible was written in tears,” said A. W. Tozer, “and to tears it will reveal its best treasures.”
And I was surprised to realize how many wrong assumptions about God I had to unlearn.
One of my first surprises in the days after Alli’s death came from Psalm 103, a psalm of King David. David knew what it was like to be in the pit. He not only lost three of his children, he also shouldered the burden of knowing that he was at least partly responsible for each of their deaths. Here, halfway through Psalm 103, David describes God’s love:
. . . as the heavens are high above the earth,
so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
so far he removes our transgressions from us.
As a father has compassion for his children,
so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him.
For he knows how we were made;
he remembers that we are dust (vv. 11-14).
When I had read this psalm in the past, I had always noticed two illustrations here for the infinite nature of God’s love: the distance between heaven and earth and the distance from east to west. Now, though, it occurred to me that the next line of the psalm— “As a father has compassion for his children”—is not the start of a new paragraph or idea but is, in fact, the third in the series of images. As the last item on the list, it’s the most important, the one the others lead up to; it’s the most familiar and yet the most dramatic expression of God’s limitless love.
“As a father has compassion for his children.” As I read this, I was struck by the implication that God shares my grief. My thoughts about Allison are His thoughts. He loves her, too, even more than I do. He gave her special personality to her; having given her life, He now mourns her death.
God is in this with me. He is not aloof, detached, controlling everything from afar, untouched by His own decisions. He doesn’t say, “You’ve got to suffer—never mind why.” He is deeply involved, personally affected. “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his faithful ones,” another psalm tells us (116:15).
And he knows how I feel right now. God knows what it’s like for a father to see his child die. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus cried from the cross, and His Father heard and did nothing. I’ve heard a lot of sermons that emphasize the price Jesus paid on the cross, totally separated from and abandoned by God; I don’t know that I’ve heard any that focus on what it cost the Father to turn from His Son.
How could He do it? I wondered. How could He hear His child cry for help and not respond? The words of John 3:16, a verse I’ve known by heart since I was 3 years old, now spoke to me in a new way: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son . . . .” I had never before understood so clearly what God’s love for the world cost Him. “God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 john 4:9-10).
As high as the heavens above the earth, as far as east from west, as profound as a father’s love for his children.
It took the death of my daughter for me to begin to understand the love of God.
This insight into God’s compassion didn’t answer all my questions. I found it to be a comfort, though; and looking back now, it seems to me that the comfort I received was far more meaningful than any answer could have been. Because at that point in our grief, we didn’t really want answers. We wanted Allison back. Answers, even if I could get them, would not dispel my grief; answers are a poor substitute for a daughter.
It wasn’t an answer we were lacking, but a presence, a person. And you can’t replace a person with a doctrine. So the presence of God, while not the presence we were craving, was the right sort of response. It was more a hug than a word of wisdom. And as in the case of all of those struck with grief, a hug was what we needed most.
Every day I struggled to deal with a world without Allison. As I struggled, I began to read Psalm 103 daily. And each day—or nearly so—I noticed something that I had never seen there before. None of the things I learned proved the existence of God or fully explain the problem of suffering. None of the things I learned dispelled my sorrow. I didn’t learn how to get over the loss of Allison or how to move on to lead a normal life. Sorrow is my normal life now. You don’t get over the loss of a child—ever.Nor would I want to. My grief reminds me that Allison was important, and losing her an irreplaceable loss.
Still, the more I read and reflected over what I read, the more I learned about God and about life—not just despite my loss, but because of it. And in time, the things I learned helped me to get from one day to another.