When Life Takes Your Song

By Roger Sullivan 

I grew up loving music.  Most of it was centered around church, but old-time country music was popular too.  My mother, however, wanted to expand our music exposure, so when I was a preteen, we went to a production of “The Messiah” at a nearby college.  After high school I started playing guitar and singing with some friends, and that exposed me to folk music.  One of my most enjoyable courses in college was music appreciation.  Later, I married Shirley, a gifted musician, who started playing piano at age four and later majored in music at college.

That talent came in handy once we entered church ministry, because she satisfied one of the most important attributes of a pastor’s wife — she could play the piano. (The other most important attribute was that she knew how to stay reserved and out of any church drama!)  Hearing our three daughters sing together was a pure joy for me.  Another enjoyable experience happened when Shirley formed a quartet group.  We sang together for about 10 years and then reunited to sing on many occasions for years after that. Singing for me was spiritually uplifting, enriching, and fun.

As years passed, many doors opened for me in church ministry and in numerous other ways for all of our family.  I was pastoring a good church, teaching as an adjunct professor at our state Baptist college, and was chairman of the Baptist state operating committee.  Shirley had a great job teaching high school music where she was appreciated and loved.  She also played most Sundays at our church.  Our oldest daughter, Leslie, had realized her dream of going to medical school.  Our second daughter, Ashley, was a sophomore at LSU and loving being involved in Baptist Student Union (Baptist Collegiate Ministries now).  Our youngest daughter, Joy, was a high school senior.  She had worked in the state legislature for two summers, was the parish Forestry Festival Queen, and a national officer in Future Homemakers of America (now Family, Career, and Community Leaders of America).  Many times, I told Shirley that anyone would love having one daughter the likes of which we had three.  It seemed that in many ways we were all living a charmed life.

And then everything changed.  We all had been involved in a fun-filled family wedding back in Shirley’s hometown.  After the wedding on Saturday, we scattered to different obligations.  I left to lead a Bible study for a friend in a church in a neighboring city; Leslie went back to medical school in New Orleans; Ashley went back to LSU; and Shirley and Joy started back home to be at church for the next Sunday morning services.

Just about the time that I had fallen asleep in a motel room, the phone rang.  One of my staff members was calling to tell me that Shirley and Joy had been in a very serious accident.  She said that they had been taken to the emergency room at Saint Francis Cabrini Hospital in Alexandria.

It was a cold and rainy February night, and I was about an hour away.  While driving much faster than I should have, I prayed.  I prayed hard, and I prayed every prayer that I knew how to pray — the, “Please God, let them be okay” prayer; the “God, let’s make a deal” prayer; the “Lord, I’m sorry for every sin I’ve ever committed, and I will be better than I have ever been before” prayer; etc.  I even told God that if the Jews, or Muslims, or Hindus, or Buddhists, or some other groups were more theologically correct than we Christians, I wanted the Holy Spirit (or someone) to offer their prayers for us.  I even begged God to rewind time and let me be the one who had the accident, so that Shirley and Joy could be okay.  In all of my praying, however, there was one prayer that I did not pray — and I knew it.

When I arrived at the emergency room, I was taken to the back immediately and met by a neurosurgeon.  I will never forget the first words out of his mouth: “We aren’t going to be able to save your daughter.”  I thought to myself, “Can this be happening?  Is he talking about Joy?”  Immediately, I asked about Shirley.  He said, “Her back is broken, and her spinal cord has been severed at T-6.”  From my anatomy courses, I knew that this was about mid-back just below her shoulder blades.  I also knew that she would never have use of or control of anything in her body beneath that break.

Suddenly, I became physically sick and knew that I needed to sit down and lower my head.  In just a minute or two, I regained some composure and asked the doctor to instruct the medical team not to mention this to anyone.  I explained that my daughters had to drive up from New Orleans and Baton Rouge, and that I did not want someone else giving them this news.

I also told him that I had been a hospital pharmacist and a minister who had been in many hospital situations, that I would not see anything that bothered me, and that I knew how to stay out of the way.  I told him that I did not want to leave Shirley and Joy.  He wrote the orders like I asked so that the official visiting hours did not apply to me or my girls.  Later, this became critical.

When Leslie and Ashley arrived, I told them the sad news.  I told Shirley that we were going to lose Joy, but I did not tell her the extent of her injuries.  That needed to wait.  I spent all night with Joy.  Her only visible injury was a small cut on the middle knuckle of her right hand.  She simply looked like she was sleeping and could have awakened any moment and said, “Hey, dad!  Let’s go home!

Even though it was 1998 and few had cell phones or the internet, word of the accident spread very quickly.  On the following Sunday morning, churches all over prayed for Shirley and Joy, even some who were broadcasting their services on television and radio.  Thousands prayed.  I prayed, too.  I prayed harder than I had ever prayed.  But I knew that there was that one prayer that I had not prayed.  And in my mind and in my theology, I knew that it was the prayer that probably mattered most.  So, in that hospital room while holding Joy’s hand, I prayed: “Lord, you know how much I want Joy to live.  You know how much I want Shirley to be healed.  But, nevertheless, not my will but your will be done.”  It was the hardest prayer that I had ever prayed before or since because of what was at stake.  I did my best to mean it.

I also spoke to the attending nurse and told her that if we were going to lose Joy, we did not need to lose her organs and tissue.  That decision was very easy.  On numerous occasions before the accident, we had discussed this as a family.  After discussing this with the girls, we decided to donate everything; organs, eyes and any appropriate tissue.

On that Sunday afternoon about six o’clock, a radiologist ran a final electroencephalogram to check Joy for brain waves.  I was looking over his shoulder.  In just a few minutes, he stood up, started his walk away without looking at me and said in the most matter-of-fact words I had ever heard: “She’s gone.”  I stared at his back until he disappeared wondering why he did not say more.  Didn’t he know that this was Joy?

Things had to be done to prepare Joy’s body for the harvesting of her organs, eyes and tissue, so the time was set for her to be taken to surgery the next morning at 10:30.  When that time came, while the girls stayed with Shirley, I walked down a long hall holding Joy’s hand until we reached the elevator.  I fought back the tears as the elevator doors shut.

About 2:30 that afternoon, a nurse who was part of the organ harvesting team walked into our room.  I asked her how things had gone.  Her response was, “As we speak, Joy’s heart is beating in another human being!”  In our deepest sadness, other families were experiencing some of their greatest joy.

Because of our connections to our former church and community about four hours away, we decided to have two funerals.  Sadly, because of her injuries, Shirley was unable to attend.  Both services were conducted by two close friends to whom I will always be indebted but will never be able to repay.  I was told that the first funeral was the largest ever in that parish.  Some people parked a mile way just to arrive and stand outside.  Many people were unable to get inside the church at the second service as well.

The day after the funerals, I told Shirley the extent of her injuries.  I explained that she would never walk again or feel anything below the area where her back was broken.

About two weeks after the accident and after Shirley had been moved to a room, my daughter, Leslie, was looking at Shirley when suddenly she went limp.  Leslie immediately called for help, and fortunately Shirley’s doctor was still at the nurses’ station.  The doctor rushed to the room and intubated her to get her an oxygen supply.  Soon we learned that she had thrown multiple blood clots (pulmonary emboli) to her lungs.  Even one can be deadly and she had many.  I had gone back to our church to check on some things, and when I arrived back at the hospital, a pulmonologist said to me, “Your wife is going to die.  She will not survive this.”  Again, prayers started.

Shirley was admitted to ICU.  Again, we were allowed in without restrictions.  She was comatose and unresponsive way into the night; but we kept talking to her and telling her that she could not leave us, that she needed to fight and get well.  While I was holding her hand, she squeezed it.  At first, I did not tell Leslie and Ashley, but when she did it again, I told them that I thought she was still with us.  Again, we encouraged her to fight and not give up.  I told her again and again that she was going to make it.  In a few minutes she responded by nodding her head from side to side saying, “No!”  Immediately, we loudly encouraged her to fight, to hang on, that we needed for her to live.  After a few minutes of us fussing at her, she nodded her head up and down to say, “Yes!”  I believe that she would not be alive today, if that neurosurgeon had not granted my request, and we had not been with her.

During our three-month stay at the hospital, Leslie, Ashley and I often attended a wonderful church where we were close to the pastor and staff.  They were both kind and understanding.  During most of those services, we wept — and they let us.  I will always be indebted to that church and staff for their ministry to us during the most difficult days of our lives.

I remember leaving the security we had come to know at the hospital.  It would be just us.  I returned to my duties of preaching and being a pastor.  At the same time, I was learning to be a caregiver.  It was during those first worship services that I realized that for three months I had not sung.  Even during the worship times, I did not, could not, sing.  My heart had been broken. Life had taken my song.

A couple of months after getting out of the hospital, we realized that Shirley’s initial surgery had failed.  She underwent a second surgery and long hospital stay in Baton Rouge.  That year, we spent about 160 days in the hospital and in rehabilitation.  About a year later, I realized that I could not be both a good caregiver and a good pastor at the same time, so I resigned as pastor.  I became a financial advisor and, thankfully, that profession has had far fewer demands and has provided much more flexibility than being a pastor.

Of course, events and stories like ours raise all sorts of thoughts, emotions and questions.  Also, every person who loses a child is different, and every child they lose is different.  Many lose them in different ways.  Another significant difference in my situation is that I had the advantage of having constructed a good theology — one that had been honed in master’s level classes and doctoral seminars.  A significant amount of that theology was passed on to my family. It withstood some of life’s greatest tests, and it has not changed.

In the same breath, I would confess that I do not have easy or simple answers or profound insights for those hoping to find such.  Even apart from such a traumatic event as ours, life is often difficult, painful and challenging.  And there are simply many things that we probably will never understand this side of the life to come (Isaiah 55:8-9).  But with the holy text and sensible thinking, there are some things that we can better understand.  I think that doing this helps.

At no time did I question God, nor did I become angry with God.  I had held to the position (and still do) that God’s intention was to create a world where humans are truly free.  If that was his intention, then every person has to be free — free to do or not do things that can often result in or cause great pain.  Also, terrible natural accidents beyond human control happen.  It simply seems to be the way life is.

John Claypool wrote a wonderful little book that has helped countless numbers dealing with loss, especially the loss of a child.  In it, he said that he thought that he was honoring God when he came clean and said, “You owe me an explanation” (p. 57).  He then wrote that in that day when all the facts were in, God could give an account.  After taking this thought a step farther, I concluded that we will not have to ask any of the “Why?” questions or ask God to give an account, because in that place we will have all that we have lost and a lot more.

Some people have said to me that what happened to us was so unfair.  Actually, it is somewhat painful to say it, but it was completely fair.  If I would have had my way, I would have asked God to be unfair—unfair for just a split second and alter the laws of physics in our favor, so that when the car tire disintegrated causing the car to hit a tree, no harm would have come to Shirley or Joy.  But if he had, would that have been fair to all the others and their families who have died in similar ways?

People often lay things at God’s feet that God did not do or cause.  For example, many people die in automobile accidents.  I do not believe that God told us to build cars that go very fast.  That was the idea and choice of humans.  If everyone drove very slowly or walked everywhere, few would die in automobile accidents.  We also might question why so many die of cancer, but if humans had spent as much money finding a way to prevent and cure cancer instead of building weapons to fight wars, we probably would have very few people dying from cancer.  But when people die, God is often blamed for “taking them.”

With these things in mind, I did not ask the “Why?” questions.  It was not, however, because I thought it was wrong to ask.  Even Jesus asked a “Why?” question (Mat. 26:36-44; Mark 14:32-39; Luke 22:39-44) as he faced the cross. (And perhaps at other times too!)  It is interesting that the “Why?” questions (and all the related and similar questions) are not answered in the Bible or any of the world’s literature or lectures.  And if someone were ever able to find their answers, they did not share it with the rest of us.  Even if God or someone gave us answers to the “Why?” questions, I do not think it would do much to help.

In reality, we are not sad because we do not know why.  We are sad because of what we have lost, and no answer will change that.

It also should be said that there is no pain like the loss of a child.  It cannot be described.  Before we lost Joy, several parents had talked with me about their such loss.  I also had walked with other parents through part of the experience and tried my hardest to understand.  At times, I thought that perhaps I had felt some of what they felt.

But when it happened to me, I realized that I had been a thousand miles away from the pain that they felt.  I did not know that we could hurt to that extent and still live.  Even if I had the ability to take someone to a place where they could feel it for just a moment, I would not.  For a long time, I hurt every waking moment of my life.  Love plus loss equals pain, and we do not love anything like we love our children.  And there is no loss like death.  But in my darkest hours, I believed that God would help.  I held on to that as well as my belief that God was never going to leave me.  Looking back, I believe that I went to the bottom, and still, God was there.

One close friend who came to see me the week after the accident offered significant help.  I had officiated the funerals for both his wife and his little three-year-old son several years before.  As we met in the hospital hallway, I asked him, “Does this pain ever end?”  He spoke one sentence: “It gets better.”  I held on to those words during my hardest times, and he was right.  With time, it got better.

Looking back, I remember only a few things that people said.  We often feel as though we need to say something when ministering to those during their most painful moments of loss.  Many times, we do not.  In most cases like ours, words do not change anything about the way we feel.  And usually it is better to err on the side of saying less than saying too much or saying the wrong thing.  One of the wrong things to say (by those who have not lost a child) is, “I know how you feel.”  You cannot know how we feel — thankfully — and we hope that you never do.

Remember, those who are hurting usually just need to know that others care, and that often can be shown without a lot of words.  I had an abundance of support from people who cared — who loved me, our family and especially Joy.  We received a meal at our home from people in our community almost every day for a year.  We got so many calls, cards and letters that we could not count them all.  We received financial gifts.  One close friend paid to have our home made completely handicapped accessible.  Two people paid for us to have a handicap van for Shirley.

When I reassumed my preaching role, I was very honest.  I addressed the events in the light of my theology.  I was honest about Shirley’s injuries being something permanent and about the pain of losing a child.  A surprising number of people did not like that, but I did not allow their opinions to influence my commitment to saying what I believed to be honest, true and helpful.

What happened to us did affirm my feelings that there is nothing more valuable to us than family and good friends.  Happiness has more to do with them than it does with money, possessions, education, power, etc.  We can learn so much from them.  I think that I may have learned more about how to live from Joy than anyone.  Thankfully, family and friends usually accept and love us just the way we are, and they make life worth living.  In spite of being overwhelmed with what I had lost, I kept trying to tell myself not to forget what I still had.  In family and friends, I still had and continue to have a lot.  We must never forget that and arrange our priorities so that they are close to the top.

These events gave me a new appreciation for life.  They made me want to live more in the moment, to listen better, to feel more.  So, I would say to others: Make a call; send a text; write an email.  Say “I love you” sincerely and often.  Say things that need to be said now.  You might need to spend some of your time with those you love without a watch or cell phone.  Touch them; hold them; smell them; hear them—share life with them.

And really live your life!  Live it every day.  After Joy’s death, we read her diary, and along with many good things, we found the following: “There are only two things you have to do in this life.  You have to die, and you have to live until you die.  You get to make up the rest.  If you’re like me, you want to be sure you make the best of every day.”  In her young life, she had learned how to live life to the fullest.  And she never lost her song.

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