What Walking Through Tragedy Has Done to My Faith

In an instant, the normal, safe, beautiful glass walls of my life came crashing down around me. As the dust and broken shards settled at my feet, I found myself at a crossroad: Bitterness or growth?

photo courtesy of Taylor Schulz Photography
photo courtesy of Taylor Schulz Photography

August 16, 2013:

I remember the sunshine. The feel of the wind in my hair as I drove home from the dentist’s office with my windows down and my radio loud. I can still sense the excitement at the thought of my boyfriend coming over later that night and the nervous anticipation of leaving for my first year of college in the morning.

No one else was home.

My siblings were all at school, my dad at work, and my mom out running errands. The only other people around were Andy Bender and his son, Chandler, who was a year older than me. Andy was a jack of all trade-he could fix anything–and he had become almost like a second dad to me that summer.

Andy loved to talk, and I remember purposely walking out of the house five or ten minutes earlier than necessary when I was going somewhere so I would have time to stop when he inevitably started chatting.

And he was always so interested in my life–he asked about my college plans, my boyfriend, my mission trip, detasseling, you name it-things my own dad didn’t always have the time to ask about.

His familiar greeting of “Mornin’ Sunshine!” always brought a smile, and he was determined to replace the hood of my car (I’ve hit a cow and two deer…) and polish it before I left for college. He was almost done, too…

I was in my room that afternoon, finishing up some last minute packing. My window was open, and I heard shouting. I looked out my window, thinking someone had arrived, but I could only see part of the driveway, so I gave a shrug and went back to packing.

Suddenly I heard the back door fly open and boots stomping through the kitchen.


Instant terror set in as I ran downstairs to find Chandler holding the phone, frantically trying to dial and then thrusting the landline phone at me when he couldn’t get it. I started to dial as I asked what was wrong, and, honestly, to this day I can’t remember what he said–but I remember following him outside and catching just a glimpse of the horror scene in the garage: Andy was on the ground, one of my dad’s work trucks was partially covering his body from my view, and there was what seemed like an insane amount of blood surrounding him. Chandler ran over to him just as the dispatcher picked up.

“911, what is your emergency?”

I relayed the necessary information as best I could–my name, what I knew about the situation, Andy’s name and age, and my address. I thought I was speaking at a reasonable rate for someone in an emergency situation, but she made me repeat my address at least five times before I finally heard the sirens in the distance.

Chandler came running back out of the garage, his voice begging me to help. “What do I do?? I don’t know what to do!” Honestly I didn’t know what to do either, but I asked if he had applied pressure and that I would go get some rags to use. By the time I got back outside, however, Chandler had already taken off his own shirt and applied it to the wound on Andy’s neck.

I had gone back toward the house to avoid static on the landline phone because the dispatch lady wanted me to stay on the line, but Chandler was calling me to come help him, so I hung up and ran back to the garage.

“You have to wipe the blood out of his eyes. It’s getting in his eyes.”

Honestly, this was the last thing I wanted to be doing–I didn’t want to be anywhere close to the blood, and I especially didn’t want to touch it. But I did what I was told. The labored and wheezy sound of Andy’s breathing haunts me to this day.

As I wiped the pooling blood out of the corner of his left eye, Andy’s eyes slowly shut. I realized several months later that I was quite possibly the last person he ever saw, and frankly, that bothers me. I hope that, if he was even conscious enough to see me, his brain saw his wife or daughters instead.

It took maybe ten minutes for the EMTs to arrive, but those ten minutes felt like an eternity. I remember pacing the driveway, clutching my stomach and trying to pray, but I could only think and say two words over and over again.

“Please God, please, please, please God. Please…”

Once they finally arrived, it felt like the EMTs were moving in slow motion. Yet I felt instant relief, as if the fist of terror squeezing the air from my lungs had suddenly released its grip and I knew everything would be okay.

I knew one responder from  church, and his daughter and I had been good friends throughout high school. He pulled me to the side, gave me a hug, and asked how I was doing and what I knew about the accident.

He stayed with me as the rest of the responders gave each other pained looks–a major artery had been severed.

He stood beside me as they brought out the pale blue blanket–the kind they use to cover dead bodies.

And he remained by my side when I had to call my mom to tell her that Andy was dead. I know he could hear her sobbing through the phone with me.

And he hugged me tight, firmly telling me there was nothing more Chandler and I could have done, before letting me sink to the ground in shock.

Everything that followed blurs together in my memory.

My mom, dad, older brother, and two sheriff’s cars arrived.

Chandler and I had to give our statements.

The paramedics left.

The county coroner came and went.

I remember wanting to hug Chandler so bad, but I didn’t know what to say, I didn’t know how to move. We just looked at each other with tear-filled eyes as he told me thank you. I just shook my head.

My boyfriend said he didn’t feel right about coming over that night when I told him the news, but I begged and finally guilted him into it–I just needed someone to hold me and tell me everything would be okay again.

Then I decided to go for a run to clear my head, but I didn’t get far. I ended up sitting on a trailer in a pasture less than a mile from my house and just crying out to God. When I got home, I sobbed on the shower floor until I didn’t think I had any tears left.

When my boyfriend left that night, he held me close and told me that I was strong and would be okay, that God would get me through the pain and the fear of leaving for school.

I found a new bucket of tears sitting outside the door of my heart and cried myself to sleep that night.

The next morning my dad came into my room. We talked, we hugged, we cried. He told me I didn’t have to go yet if I didn’t want to. He said he was proud of me, and he loved me, that he would always be there for me and he was sorry that we hadn’t always had a super close relationship.

Then we loaded up the car and moved me to Omaha. (I cried myself to sleep that night too.)

Three days later, I drove the two hours, alone, to the funeral.

My family was already there, and my mom met me at the door to the church. We walked into the viewing room, and she tried pointing out to me what a good job the mortician had done covering up where the artery had been hit, but I couldn’t bear to look.

I cried through the whole service.

At the luncheon that followed, it was even harder to face Andy’s wife and little girls–I felt guilty, like there should have been more that I could have done–but she just hugged and thanked me.

I was so angry with God–and I let Him know it.

I begged, bargained, cursed, and questioned over and over again how He could let this happy, how He could take such a loving father and friend away, how anything good could come from this.

But He just held me close to His heart and cried with me.

When I got back to school the night of the funeral, we had a night of worship. Every single song spoke to me in one way or another–whether it was about being worn, brokenness, blessing God’s name no matter what happens, or the fact that God is good, plain and simple.

Now, three years have come and gone. 

“Sufficient grace means my pain becomes a backdrop for God’s glory” is scrawled in the margins of 2 Corinthians 12 in my Bible. And that, I think, is the most beautiful way to view pain and 2 Corinthians 12:9,

“But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.”

Experiencing this tragedy rocked my entire world.

Actually, no. For it to have rocked my world would mean that everything shifted a little. That’s not what happened.

No, on August 16, 2013, my world was treated like a snowglobe: shaken. Turned upside down. Debris floating back to the surface of the Earth. Chaos. Brokenness. Confusion.

As I walked forward from this day, I experienced every emotion possible–swinging from hopelessness and despair to joy and comfort, before plummeting back to anger and loneliness.

And, as I sit here now attempting to staple and string together words and sentences of hope and encouragement, I feel inadequate.

I want to sound mature, as if reflecting on tragedy has made me wise beyond my years.

But that’s a lie. 

I fight daily to cling to this “hope we have as an anchor to the soul, strong and secure.” I don’t have life figured out. I still get mad at God sometimes. I still cry when I hear certain songs on the radio, or think about this day for more than 30 seconds. I’m crying now. I still don’t live life to the fullest. I still take the things and people I have for granted.

And, God forgive me, sometimes I forget.

I forget the things I saw. I forget the way my heart cracked in half, the sickness in the pit of my stomach. I forget that Andy’s children grow a little more everyday without their daddy there to see it, as his strong and beautiful wife plays his role along with her own. I forget what God taught me in the months that followed.

But I’ve changed in the past three years. And I’ve learned.

On my own and with God’s guidance, I’ve learned a lot–

  • That grieving people absolutely do not want and should not have to hear that “this is just God’s will.”

    We mean well when we try to comfort those grieving around us. We grasp for words and phrases that sound encouraging and godly. We want to lift them up and point them to God in some way. But God did not intend for evil to penetrate His perfect world, and He did not intend for children to be orphaned. He did not wake up on August 16, 2013, willing Andy to die. And that leads to the next lesson:

  • God’s heart breaks when our hearts break.

    “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize…”(Hebrews 4:15a). Evil may have entered the world because our God’s just character gives us free will, but that does not mean He relishes in the bad things that happen–he mourns with us.

  • It’s okay to be mad at God.

    Just don’t stay that way. God already knows our hearts, so there honestly isn’t any point in pretending He doesn’t know what we are thinking and feeling. He gave us emotions, so He isn’t offended when we express them. If we tell Him how we really feel, He isn’t going to take it to heart, turn around and walk away. He doesn’t give us the silent treatment. He doesn’t get mad back. He accepts our emotions and pulls us close to Him.

  • God is good all the time.

    It sounds so cliche, but i promise you it’s not. More often than not, we aren’t going to understand why things happen in life. But we can rest confidently in the knowledge that our God is greater and stronger and good.

Finally, I want this post to cause Andy’s memory to live on.

One way for that to happen is to learn from the way he lived and to do likewise.

  • Andy exuded joy.

    To this day, every time I see sun beams breaking through the clouds, I smile, remembering his mischievous grin and hearing his familiar “mornin’ Sunshine!”

  • Andy always worked his hardest.

    There’s a reason my dad continued to call Andy for help with his work vehicles and equipment, even after Andy and his family had moved away from our area. He was such a talented mechanic and a jack-of-all-trades. I may be a little biased, but I don’t think there was anything he couldn’t fix–and he always did it with a cheerful heart.

  • Andy lived for others.

    At his funeral, story after story revealed Andy’s heart to serve and help those around him. Let’s just say, if you were broken down on the side of the highway, you could count on this unknown man to stop and help. He lived for his family–they were his everything. He invested in those around him, listening to their story and always being a friend.

Three years ago, my life was altered forever.

It still doesn’t make sense, and I’ll never fully recover, even if I get better at hiding the scars on my heart every day.

But let me assure you of this: I won’t stop telling Andy’s story. Ever. His legacy will live on and alter lives for decades to come.

May we all be better people for knowing Andy and for knowing of him.

May we all remember God’s sufficient grace in times of tragedy.

And may we all show a little more joy, a little more hard work, and a little more kindness.

For Andy.


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