I’m sitting here in a coffee shop down the street from my house trying really hard to find a way to express what Happy Are the Heartbroken means to me. I believe this verse speaks to the lost. Lost relationships. Lost potential. Lost futures. Matthew 5:4 says, “Happy are people who grieve, because they will be made glad.” OR as the NIV version says, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” This verse is how you know God is real because no human in their right mind would manufacture such an unpromiseable promise. For blessings and happiness to follow in the wake of loss is an oxymoron. To be happy when you’re heartbroken has to come from the LORD. He is the only one who can make good come from tragedy. Happiness from heartbreak. Based on the events of my own life I know this to be true. Happy is possible even after suffering great loss but doesn’t come right away. Matthew 5:4 and 5:6 are key to the process of grief and recovery. This blog post shares my grief part or as I like to think of it--the lost part of my life. The next blog post on Matthew 5:6 will be the recovery/found part of life after death--Happy Are the Hungry. Since I’m not the only person affected by the events 13 years ago I write this in the hopes others grappling with their own grief can know the comfort and happiness supernaturally offered to the heartbroken.
Mere weeks before July 28, 2006, my parents revealed my dad was retiring and they planned to move from Washington to Alaska to join us in Anchorage. This would be the last summer he would come to Alaska to fly low-level wildlife surveys for the government. (NAP flying as Sean would say for those in the military. Which is short for Nap of the Earth flying low to the ground.) He also flew for high-altitude forest fire contracts in which he would fly an air traffic controller up high above a fire for hopes giving them a chance to direct the bombers and jumpers who flew to put out the fire below.
Rachel, my sister, newly graduated from college lived in Anchorage down the street from us. She had moved up the Thanksgiving before and in June, my brother, Ralphie, and his wife, with their two adorable toddlers followed. That summer was a blessed time of connecting with each other and my parents over card games and cook outs in the land of perpetual sunlight. Yet we were living a storyline straight out of Hollywood—one last mission, one last ride and somehow a key character dies. Everyone watching the movie knows “the Gipper” won’t gonna make it. Maybe from the start. Maybe just from the musical cues but real life’s not like that. For us, there was no soundtrack announcing death's arrival. There was no whisper in my soul saying, “Death is coming.”
Friday, July 28th was just another day of 24-hour daylight in Alaska. Rachel ate breakfast with our dad and two other pilots, Rick and Ian, and then dropped them off at the airport for short practice flights they doing as they prepared for some NOAA wildlife surveys off the coast that next week. The twin engine Aero Commander’s two GPS tracking systems stopped reporting at 7:38pm 15 minutes from Anchorage by air out over the waters of the Kenai Peninsula in Turnagain Arm. The ELT, Emergency Locator Transmitter, did not go off. We found out later the company did not pay to have it fully installed and integrated with the airplane GPS systems.
To our everlasting dismay, the company mechanic waiting back at the hanger called the company Chief Pilot instead of reporting it to FAA and Airport Authorities. He’d been waiting for the pilots to get back so they could all go to dinner, so he was watching the GPS trackers online when they both stopped. He also didn’t call the family of the pilots. We knew nothing of what happened until Saturday morning. We eventually found out the company wasted those precious first hours when authorities should have been looking for a downed airplane altering and destroying maintenance records.
Unfortunately, necessary upkeep on the plane hadn’t been done to try to save money as the company owner was in the process of trying to sell the company. The survival equipment with rafts cold water life suits had also been removed from the plane because the owner hadn’t paid to have the equipment updated and recertified. To make matters worse, when the Chief Pilot, staying there in town was called he waited to do anything. Some say he finished his round of golf. Some say he went clubbing. Maybe both. At 10pm, he got in another company airplane and flew around a bit to see if he could spot the plane and only after he did his flyover did he call the FAA and airport to report a missing plane..
At 12 midnight, the Coast Guard was called out and they mounted a search and rescue over the waters.
They could still see because of all the sunlight but found nothing. Fruitlessly, for over two weeks, the Coast Guard, Alaska Air National Guard, and Civil Air Patrol searched for any signs of life or wreckage. At the end of that time, the Coast Guard called my mom, sister, brother and me together to report their findings.
The kindest, most gracious gentleman broke the news to us. If the company had followed proper protocol and notified them right way, there might have been a chance of rescue. And if that hadn’t been possible, definitely wreckage recovery. But due to the 4+ hour delay in notification and without the survival equipment there was no chance of finding anyone alive with the weather conditions and temperature of the water. He added: with the way the tides work in Turnagain Arm a downed airplane would be swept out to sea to end up anywhere from Alaska to Japan. Either that or because of the speed at which the tides flowed the weight of the plane would have taken it straight down and buried and completely covered in Glacial Silt.
This concluded our efforts to find the missing men. Ian’s wife spent longer looking for the plane. For three straight months, she led a search and rescue party up and down the beaches near the last reported GPS signal. Divers scanned the murky waters and dredged the silty bottom to no avail. To this day, no sign or sighting has ever been reported. It’s like they’d vanished into thin air.
Death is like this club you join that no one ever wants to be a part of, and you can’t ever unjoin.
Every person I talked to for weeks, whether I knew them or not, felt they had a right to dissect and discuss the missing plane. It was in the news for weeks. And the State Troopers did an investigation into the disappearance of the men. Then there was a trial by jury to determine if their disappearance constituted a death. In addition to feeling exposed to the world, in Death’s Club you learn all this new lingo. Like the difference between a funeral, memorial service and a celebration of life. (To me, it doesn’t matter what it’s called, it’s just a really awful party you have plan.) You get schooled in the business of the law, collecting life insurance policies and filing for death certificates. It’s both tedious and upsetting. While you mentally stumble around trying to wrap your head around the absence of a person you relied upon and care for, you still have to keep living. You still have to work, eat and sleep. Decisions have to be made and conversations have to be had, though half your brain is still stuck on July 28, 2006 and the entirety of your heart is broken.
So where does the happy come in? How does God keep that unpromisable promise of Matthew 5:4. How can a person be happy when their world has been upended and their heart is broken? The key is in what God offers those with a broken heart. He offers comfort. I’ll remember forever were these four instances of undiluted sympathy. These are the examples I want to emulate. I want to be like them when sharing the pain of loss with others. My mom’s sister, Kathy, came out from North Carolina the week of the funeral. She’ll never know how much her hugs were a balm to the soul. My cousin, Leah, was only 6 at the time but she had the best response regarding the loss of her Uncle Ralph. The only thing she said was, “This sucks.” Short and to the point. She called it like it was. (Rachel thinks, and I agree, this would make a terrific Hallmark Card. Instead of the inside of the card being blank, it could say, “This Sucks.” The outside of the card could be the part that’s blank and you just fill it in depending on the scenario.)
Rachel also had a friend from college in Washington, who just happened to be up in Anchorage taking a vacation with her family the weekend of the crash. Liz had scheduled to spend all day Sunday with Rachel. She bravely did not cancel her plans but waded into the grief with us. Truly God-sent. She spoke little. Wasn’t demanding or pushy. She just listened as we talked about our dad and waited for information from the Coast Guard. None of us were capable of doing much that day. Liz was just there with whatever we needed. Graceful and gracious, she always managed to be ready with a cup of hot cocoa or tissues for our free-falling tears.
In another instance of undiluted sympathy, my three college roommates, who also lived in Washington got together and had a bouquet of flowers sent to my house the day after he died. They weren’t flowers for the funeral to be put on display. The flowers were for me, for my dad whom they knew from all the years visiting our home. My parents had always treated my roommates as their own kids and now my friends were sharing in our loss. The kindness behind those flowers spoke volumes without saying a word. Those sweet flowers, straight talk, and kind gestures were part of the comfort God offered. They brought smiles and peace.
Happiness took longer to come. For me, happiness came when I started to realize I am a better person for all we went through. I am stronger emotionally and way more empathetic than I ever was before my dad’s death. I understand what it means to have your heart ripped out. I also know it’s possible for a heart to heal--albeit with an ugly scar I am proud to carry. The years I spent floundering after his death gives me an unshakable strength to get through any loss I’ll ever face again. I am also comforted by the fact I believe I’ll see my dad again in heaven. I know he is not stuck somewhere in a plane forever. He is no longer lost. I will find him again in heaven.
In addition to the comfort God offers us and others after a great loss, He also gives us the opportunity to take the comfort we’ve been given and share it with others. II Corinthians 1:3-4 says, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.” I am happier now than ever because what we went through can be used to help others. I do this with my kids. I am able to share the comfort God shared.
My favorite book the kids’ therapist gave us to help the kids cope with their grief over the loss of their parents when parental rights were terminated was Tear Soup by Pat Schwiebert It’s a children’s book about a woman grieving the loss of someone close. She spends most of the book crying alone because everyone else was uncomfortable with her grief. Until one day a friend comes. She brings two pots to the kitchen. Each woman places in her own pot all the memories of the person they lost. And then their tears fill the pots. By sharing their loss their burden was halved. They comforted each other. Not a tear was wasted.
I cried while the therapist read the book. My kids didn’t. They’re too young to understand the blessing in comfort received and comfort given. But I did. I have made my own Tear Soup. I’ve cried enough tears to fill a pot. And now I get the honor of comforting others as they make their own Tear Soup. No tears wasted. All hugs appreciated.
Photo Credits: Ross Parmly, Caleb Woods, Kelly Sikkema