Jerry Sittser understands grief and loss in a profound way. He and three of his children escaped from a car accident that took the life of his wife, his mother and one of his four children. How long would it take for someone to recover from a loss like that?
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Descending Into the Valley
Guest: Jerry Sittser
From the series: A Grace Disguised (Day 1 of 3)
Bob: There are times in the midst of trials and traumas of life when we wonder to ourselves where is God? Why did He let this happen?
For Jerry Sittser one of those events occurred in 1991 when he and his wife and their four children and Jerry’s mother were hit head on by a vehicle traveling at 85 miles per hour. The collision was fatal for Jerry’s wife and for his mom and for one of his four children. As Jerry reflects back on that event today he sees it as something that was ultimately faith affirming.
Jerry Sittser: Through a long and often difficult journey I really did discover the Christian faith is true. Grace really is available to get us through these hard stretches of life. The ultimate message of Christianity is not self help it is God’s help.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Monday July 6th. Our host is the President of FamilyLife Dennis Rainey, and I’m Bob Lepine. We’ll hear today how a tragic car accident can be a grace disguised.
Welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. You and I were having a conversation not long ago with Dr. Al Moeller, the President of Southern Seminary and we asked him about questions he gets thrown by the secular media. We said the tough questions are the ones they ask you. What are the ones that put you on the spot? Without even thinking he said we always come back to the issue of the problem of evil and suffering. How can there be a good God when there is suffering in the world?
Dennis: We don’t always know what God is up to. He is God and we are not. We have a guest with us today on FamilyLife Today that I think is going to minister to a lot of our listeners. Actually I was introduced to this guest by my wife Barbara, who joins us on FamilyLife Today as well. Welcome Sweetie.
Barbara Rainey: Thanks. I’m glad to be here.
Dennis: Jerry Sittser has written this book A Grace Disguised which is a story out of his own life and it occurred a number of years ago. Jerry lives in Spokane Washington up in the eastern section of that great state. He is a professor of theology at Whitworth University and has a Masters of Divinity from Fuller Theological Seminary and has his doctorate in history from the University of Chicago. This leaves me with only one question Jerry, White Sox or Cubs?
Bob: Or were you there long enough to even care?
Dennis: Oh he had to be if he had his PHD.
Jerry Sittser: Dodgers!
Dennis: Well, I do welcome you to the broadcast and I am grateful for you writing this book, A Grace Disguised. I want Barbara to share with our listeners to help put in context out of which she gave me Jerry’s book.
Bob: Was this something somebody gave you as a gift?
Barbara: It was a book that someone had recommended to me a number of years ago. I bought it and started reading it and it was in my library. But I didn’t finish the book until last summer after our granddaughter Molly was born and only lived seven days and then died.
As we began to try to make sense of what God had done and what He was up to I pulled that book off the shelf. This time I had a real heart for it. I needed it. I read it all the way through and I was constantly underlining and reading portions of it to Dennis and saying “listen to what this says.”
I bought several copies and gave one to a couple of my daughters. I gave one to Molly’s mother, Rebecca, and a couple of our other daughters, too. I said you need to have this in your library and if you don’t read it all the way through right now you will read it eventually.
Dennis: It is really a love story of sorts that started when you met your wife Linda. How did you meet her, Jerry?
Jerry Sittser: I was a student at Hope College and she was a student at Hope College in Holland, Michigan. After I experienced a conversion between my sophomore and junior year we became very good friends. Really best friends. One day I was standing in a group of people and somebody got my attention from maybe 100 yards away and I turned and said something to them I’m sure. I was a little cocky back then.
Linda was in that circle and I turned back and our eyes met and that was it right there. I just fell in love on the spot.
Dennis: You were smitten.
Jerry Sittser: Oh, my goodness was I smitten.
Bob: But you’d known her for months before this?
Jerry Sittser: We were very good friends, yes.
Bob: So what in that moment you don’t know?
Jerry Sittser: I don’t know but our eyes met and it was just different. So I asked her out a few days later and we were married eight months later.
Dennis: No, no, no. I want to know how you asked her to marry you because it has to be a great story.
Jerry Sittser: Well, we went up to some property that my family owned off the Grand River up in the hills. We made a day of it and did some hiking and I had hidden a family heirloom a little silver container with the engagement ring inside it. That also was the family stone. I asked her to marry me.
Dennis: You were married for 20 years.
Jerry Sittser: Twenty years—just shy of 20 years and we had four children.
Dennis: She was a homeschooler and she enjoyed teaching your kids. Taking them on field trips, right?
Jerry Sittser: She was a multitalented woman. She was very bright. She was a professional musician and singer. She was the choir director and the director of the professional children’s choir in Spokane and a paid soloist at our home church and also a homeschooler.
Dennis: You were on a field trip where you went to Idaho and it was not a normal field trip that you would think of when you think of homeschoolers.
Jerry Sittser: She had just completed a unit on Native American cultures to my two oldest who were being homeschooled at the time. We went on a field trip to a Native American powwow. We had dinner with the tribal leaders and had a wonderful time and wonderful conversation.
Ironically one of the topics that came up was the curse of alcoholism in the tribe and the violence that often resulted from it. They spoke with great pain over that. These were really wonderful people. Some fine Christian people.
After the dinner with them we went to the powwow and enjoyed it. My two daughters who were then eight and four actually went out and danced with the tribe for a while. I continued my conversation with Linda and several of the tribal leaders until about 8:30 and then we decided to go home.
Dennis: Now this was 1991?
Jerry Sittser: 1991 September 27.
Dennis: And you were there with your wife and four children plus your own mom.
Jerry Sittser: My mom came for the weekend. She and my wife were going to go dress shopping for a new dress for a solo performance she was going to be doing of the Messiah in December. Typical for my mom she brought 12 quarts of frozen blueberries packed in ice. It was so typical for what she would do. She was a wonderful woman, a great grandma, and a great mom. She was very close to our family.
Dennis: You had gone to Idaho for this field trip and you decided to head back home to Spokane at that point?
Jerry Sittser: We did. It was dark out obviously and on a lonely stretch of highway only about 10 minutes from where the powwow was held I noticed a car coming on at a really rapid rate of speed. It slowed down just a little bit at a curve and so I was alert to this.
Without any warning he just drove right into me. He missed the curve and plowed head on at 85 miles per hour. In fact it was so head on that his car cart wheeled over ours. So it didn’t roll it cart wheeled down the highway.
It was awful. In the wake of that accident as soon as I could I collected myself. I was not injured seriously just bruised and that sort of thing. I looked around and knew that it was really bad. My mother who was sitting way in the back was seriously injured. My four year old I could tell was dead. She had a broken neck. I tried to get a pulse and did mouth to mouth but it was hopeless. I could tell my wife, Linda, was catastrophically injured, too.
My other kids were dazed, crying, and screaming. It was chaotic. All the windows were broken out of the car. My door could open and I got the kids out who were mobile. Katherine was eight and John was six and David was two. I found out later that John had a broken femur and some other injuries but the other two kids were just bruised but okay. I went back to try to tend to Linda. I got a pulse but knew she wasn’t going to live because her injuries were just too severe. I did mouth to mouth on Diana Jane but she was gone.
I got to my mother only briefly but then something beautiful happened. You find these flowers in the midst of ashes almost right away. People began to stop. The scene was chaotic. The driver survived but his wife who was nine months pregnant died and the unborn baby died as well. There were five casualties in the accident.
Some guy got out of the car and went over to my mother and reached out to her through the broken window and held her hand and stroked her arm until she died. That is a beautiful act of grace to me. It was very courageous of him in the midst of that chaos and that violence to break through that with mercy and love. I wish I knew who that man was because I’d like to thank him.
Bob: What a surreal moment that had to be for you. Almost like you’ve stepped out of time and space and your body…I don’t know how to describe it other than just surreal.
Jerry Sittser: Yes, it was surreal. I have such vivid memories to this day. Nothing has faded at all. First it was a nightmare to have those kinds of memories. It’s not so bad anymore because it’s been integrated into the landscape of my life. It doesn’t haunt me like it used to.
We waited a long time before emergency vehicles came and they took over. I got to a phone as soon as I could to call my sister to say something unspeakable had happened. After about an hour the survivors, namely my three children Katherine, John and David and I were all put in the same emergency vehicle and were transported another hour up to Coeur d’Alene for emergency care.
That one hour was probably the most significant hour in my life. It really was the turning point for me. It was like a wormhole from one reality to another. Honestly it’s the most accurate way I can describe it. Time ceased to have meaning. It could have been ten years. That period of time is frozen in my memory and it was probably the most rational moment I’ve ever had in my life.
It was quiet. John was sedated. The other kids were whimpering but it was quiet. The emergency personnel didn’t say anything and I had one hour to just be. I thought about the accident and the scene. I knew what had happened and I thought of what would be as a result.
I considered the task set before me. I had a burden that was placed on my shoulders and in a sense a divine mandate that said you draw a line in the sand right now and decide what you want to be and what you want to come from this experience. And I did. I said, I want the bleeding to stop right here. This is it. I don’t want to do things that are going to set in motion more and more pain and more and more bleeding that could go on for generations.
I made the basic decision right then and there that I was going to somehow by the grace of God respond and live this story out in a way that was going to be redemptive. Redemption was really the key term that just kept coming back to me. Redemption. This is not the final word.
Dennis: I want out listeners to hear what’s wrapped up in your statement because you make this statement in your book. You said loss does not have to be the defining moment in our lives instead the defining moment can be our response to that loss. It’s not what happens to us that matters so much as what happens in us. You really believe that don’t you?
Jerry Sittser: I do believe it by the grace of God. I didn’t write a self help book here. I don’t believe that. The ultimate message of Christianity is not self help it is God’s help. Through a long and often difficult journey I really did discover that the Christian faith is true.
Grace really is available to get us through these hard stretches of life. My response of choosing to trust the grace of God was far more significant than the event itself. You know my kids would say the same thing today. They would say that the accident is actually not that significant. It is what’s come out of it that is significant.
Bob: What seems remarkable to me as you describe this hour of rational clarity is the absence of grief. I think of someone living through what you have just lived through and I would think this person would be a grieving basket case. It’s not that you didn’t experience grief.
Jerry Sittser: No, I did.
Bob: Do you think this was kind of a shock response or was this the grace of God giving you this moment of clarity to prepare you for what was ahead?
Jerry Sittser: I suppose you could say there was some shock involved in it but Bob, there was something more than that honestly. I look back on it this day with a sense of wonder. It wasn’t simply that I had not absorbed the significance.
I knew what had happened to me. It wasn’t even as if I was holding it off. I think God gave me that gift. I think He gave me one hour to decide what I was going to believe and where I was going to head and I walked out of that emergency vehicle in Coeur d’Alene into a different world. I collapsed. It was hard going for a long time.
Bob: Can I ask the two of you did you experience anything similar to that, Barbara, in going through what you went through with the death of Molly?
Barbara: I think we did but it wasn’t anywhere near as dramatic as what Jerry was describing. We watched our kids and as we watched them respond to the news that Molly was not going to live they had a choice to make in those first moments. I think those early moments of facing tragedy and loss in a crisis like that are the defining moments.
They decided they were going to believe God. They were going to believe that He was good and that He was sufficient and that He knew what He was doing. That really set the course for them from there on out. So I think in the moment of crisis I think God gives us that opportunity to choose. Do we believe Him or not?
Jerry Sittser: I like what Barbara said about defining a course because that’s different from solving all the problems. When you suffer a loss whether it be divorce or terminal illness or loss of a job it can be other things that are a little less dramatic and tragic. I think we do have the power to set a course and that makes a huge difference over a long period of time. It doesn’t solve all the problems but it gets us going in a particular direction. I think I did that by the grace of God.
Bob: You know people or have met people who just dissolved in their moment of pain and didn’t have that rational clarity that you described.
Jerry Sittser: I think what happens is we give some kind of tragedy more power than it deserves. It does become the defining moment instead of the response being the defining moment. It’s the thing itself and then pretty soon it’s affecting other relationships.
It’s affecting life habits that we form and 20 or 30 years later that divorce or loss or whatever continues to dominate our lives. That’s what I call the second death and it’s actually worse than the initial death. Far worse than the loss of Linda and my mom and Diana Jane would have been say the loss my children would have experienced in my bitterness. In fact I have an interesting story to tell you.
About six months or a year after the accident I got an anonymous telephone call from a young woman who said, “Mr. Sittser I want to tell you my story. When I was a young girl my mother died of cancer and I’ve been in therapy for six years. I thought to myself this is not a helpful conversation she said no let me continue my story.
“I’m in therapy not because I lost my mother but I lost my father at the same time and he is still alive. He became non functional and so overcome with grief and bitterness that I lost both parents but my dad is still alive. She said, don’t let that happen to you” and she hung up the phone.
Now she didn’t give me new information but it was a wonderful reminder to me that the role I was playing was significant. By my own attitude and spirit I was setting a course and I was giving cues to my children.
Dennis: You are also making choices for your own life that are going to determine who you become as a man. I think of the listeners who have eavesdropped today in terms of hearing this story. I wonder what they are facing because all of us experience loss. If you live long enough you will experience loss. The Bible is a very lofty book but it’s also a very gritty book that meets us in the midst of our grief.
You made a statement Jerry that I want to underline. I really understand why a loss can become central to our lives and why the grief that surrounds it can become the defining moment. It hurts. It is terrible. As you describe it it’s catastrophic but I like what you did in your book. You called us away from the focus on the circumstances to focus on the God of all grace and mercy who can bring hope and healing. He can keep us from becoming embittered in that process.
Bob: Barbara, in the weeks that followed in the birth and death of your granddaughter Molly you had a lot of people send you quotes and recommend articles or books. This book was the one God used most powerfully, wasn’t it?
Barbara: Yes. It was. There were other things, too, but this was the book that I read through that really resonated in my soul. Jerry talked about not just the loss of death but all kinds of loss and how our identity is wrapped up in how we respond to that loss. It was really profound in my life.
Bob: I think both of you will be encouraged to know that we have a lot of listeners over the last several weeks who have contacted us to get a copy of Jerry’s book called A Grace Disguised. We still have copies in our FamilyLife Resource Center.
You can go to our web site FamilyLifeToday.com and find information about Jerry’s book which is called A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows Through Loss. You’ll find it available there along with copies of the book that you’ve just finished writing Barbara along with your daughter Rebecca called A Symphony in the Dark: Hearing God’s Voice in Seasons of Grief. It focuses in on the events of a year ago when your granddaughter Molly was born and lived for seven days and how your family processed that season of grief.
Again both of these books are available from us at FamilyLife Today. Go to our web site FamilyLife Today.com. You can order online from us if you’d like or if it’s easier call 1-800-FL-TODAY. That’s 1-800-358-6329. That’s 1 800 “F”as in family “L” as in life and then the word TODAY and we can make arrangements to have whichever of these books you’d like or both of them sent out to you.
We also want to take a couple of minutes and say thanks to those of you who help underwrite this daily radio program. Your financial support of FamilyLife Today is what keeps this program on the air. It helps defray the costs of production and syndication to keep this program on more than a thousand radio stations and outlets all across the country. It is available online and audio streaming and as a podcast. Thanks to those of you who help make that happen by making donations on a regular basis for the ministry of FamilyLife Today.
This month if you’re able to help with a donation of any amount to the ministry of FamilyLife Today we have a CD we’d like to send you. This CD features a conversation we had several months ago with Nancy Leigh DeMoss the popular author and speaker and the host of the daily radio program, Revive Our Hearts. Our conversation was on the subject of forgiveness and what the Bible says about forgiveness. Nancy has written a great book called Choosing Forgiveness and I know that this is a subject that a lot of people struggle with. Jerry you addressed it in your book A Grace Disguised.
This CD is our way of saying thank you to you this month when you support the ministry of FamilyLife Today with a donation of any amount. If you’re making that donation online at FamilyLifeToday.com all you have to do is type the word “forgive” in the key code box on the donation form and we’ll know to send a copy of the CD to you. Or call toll-free 1 800 FLTODAY.
Make your donation over the phone and just ask for the CD on forgiveness or the CD with Nancy Leigh DeMoss. Again we are happy to send it to you and we do appreciate your support of this ministry. Thanks for partnering with us.
Tomorrow we’re going to talk about life getting back to normal after a catastrophic event like the one Jerry Sittser experienced almost two decades ago now. We’ll find out if life ever does get back to normal or if it’s just a new normal. I hope you can join us for that.
I want to thank our engineer today Keith Lynch and our entire broadcast production team on behalf of our host Dennis Rainey I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas.
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