The days were so painful that I wondered whether I would ever feel joy again.
Nights were actually okay. Blessed sleep meant getting away from the reality of life without Dan. I’m so grateful that I had no trouble sleeping. And I owe most of that to faithful praying friends. But I also owe that to pure exhaustion: days were filled with a way-too-long to-do list and I was now one parent doing for seven kids. Nights were a welcome relief from the terrible missing. But every morning as the alarm would sound, I’d leave the sweet relief of sleep and confront the day: Dan is gone. This is life. Gotta get up, Lisa. I cannot do this Lord.
Grief doesn’t just run you down with sadness and despair. It steals every bit of interest in the outside world. I didn’t care about trying new recipes or reading the latest bestseller or re-doing the girls’ room. I didn’t pick up one homeschooling catalog and could have cared less about what was going on politically.
The only thing I craved was God’s Word. That was my very food. And, of course, I was deeply interested in my kids and how they were coping. But the things of this world had grown strangely dim. In the middle of a life shattered, you hope there will be joy again — you count on it –but how long will it take?
Our first test was two weeks after Dan died. It was Rachel’s 18th birthday and should have been a mile marker birthday celebration. I couldn’t muster a cell in my body to celebrate.
That morning, I wearily opened my Bible to my reading for the day:
When the Lord brought back the captives to Zion, we were like men who dreamed. Our mouths were filled with laughter, our tongues with songs of joy. Then it was said among the nations, “The LORD has done great things for them.” The LORD has done great things for us and we are filled with joy. Restore our fortunes, O LORD, like streams in the Negev. Those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy. He who goes out weeping, carrying seed to sow will return with songs of joy, carrying sheaves with him. Psalm 126
You better believe I wrote the date and our name next to those verses. To the Lord I cried out, “How long? I believe in my heart you will restore our joy but it hurts so much. I miss Dan so much. And I cannot fill the huge hole left in seven kids’ hearts.”
God, in His goodness and mercy, answered that weak prayer lifted with a grain of hope.
That night, a sweet family in our church brought us a meal. The whole family came in, sat on our couch and loved on us. We owe much of God’s healing to the precious fellowship we had night after night as families, in the midst of their busy lives, brought us dinner.
After dinner, we all headed out to a local spot for Christian ballroom dancing. I hadn’t planned one detail, but Facebook had done its work and Rachel’s dearest friends turned out for her 18th birthday. Love, not details, make a celebration.
Everyone, even my boys, wore pink to celebrate with Rachel. Friends brought pink balloons, two friends brought pink homemade cakes and another brought a dozen pink roses. Even the four- and six-year-old got to stay up past midnight with us. Watching Rachel ballroom dance with her brothers and friends, I caught myself smiling. And when we finally loaded into the car with balloons and roses and cards, Rachel said it had been one of her best birthdays.
As she spoke those words, I was amazed at how quickly and personally God had answered. We would not have to wait months for joy. God, in His goodness, brought joy right in the midst of grief. There is pain, yes. But there is LIFE. And the promise that if we keep sowing, even with tears, God will give us songs of joy.
Today marks the third year since Dan died. I started to write third anniversary, and while technically correct, it’s not a connotation I want to think about.
Three years seems, in one sense, like another lifetime. But really, it feels like he was just here. For months, I kept Dan’s leather briefcase right where he’d left it, next to his chair in the living room. As if any minute he’d stride through the door with that big smile and we’d pick back up where we left off. The books he was reading are still stacked on the bedside table with his Costa Del Mars perched on top. And I have no plans to clean out his junk drawer, heavy with buck knives and boyish trinkets and the smell of pipe tobacco. It’s comforting to look at his stuff still filling up our house and I want my kids to see his fingerprints all over our home.
But, man, so much life has happened in these three years. Good stuff, like our first son getting engaged and married and graduating college. And another starting college and landing his first big internship, packing up and moving out west. Dan wasn’t here to worry with me when our daughter flew (by herself) seven time zones away to work in Ethiopia for the summer. Or to see two of his boys run track for the first time and another start varsity football. In these three years, our 6- and 8-year-olds asked Christ to be their Savior and have been baptized. They’ve learned to read and ride bikes and mow the lawn.
And there is the mercy.
That God continues to give us life in the suffering. One doesn’t stop for the other. Moments of joy intersect affliction. It’s not sequential or linear. But woven into the days of despair for what is no more and what will never be again, God is and His hope resuscitates.
As the paramedics worked on Dan, I could utter only one prayer. “Have mercy on us, God. O God, have mercy on us.” Till my dying day, I will shout from the rooftops that God is Faithful and True. He has been merciful.
He could have kept Dan here for another 20 years. He could have prevented it altogether. But Christians aren’t immune from suffering. We don’t get a pass. God allowed our suffering and in His great mercy He has been very present in very practical ways and in very personal details. I could count hundreds of ways that God has lifted my head, given hope, guided decisions, straightened out my thinking, restored emotions, provided our need, blessed us, loved us.
“The eternal God is your refuge,
and underneath are the everlasting arms.” (Deut. 33:27)
“In the midst of affliction, my table is spread” wrote the Scottish hymnist James Montgomery.
My whole life I prayed against suffering. I see now that God’s mercy doesn’t keep us from suffering, but keeps us in suffering. O give thanks unto the Lord, for He is good; His mercy endures forever.
P.S. If you’d like to follow along as God writes our story, you can subscribe here. Thank you. <3
Edited to add: This is a video produced by the talented media folks at our church, First Baptist Jacksonville, as part of a series on prayer in difficult days. Prayer — both our prayer and the prayers of others on our behalf — absolutely, hands-down, carried us through our most difficult days. I am forever grateful.
In the dark early morning hours, I woke to Dan’s heavy breathing. It was irregular and, thinking he was having a nightmare, I reached out with my eyes still closed. “It’s just nightmare, hon.” I shook him. “It’s okay.” A few seconds later, more awake, I realized this was not nightmare breathing. It was something very different. I jumped out of bed, flipped on the overhead light and could see instantly, Dan was not okay.
I immediately became like two people. Part of me went into response mode, giving directions to my older kids who had heard me call out to Dan. “Nick, call 911. Seth, run down and get Mr. Gillespie. Rachel, take Matt and Annalise upstairs.” The other part was actually watching the scene take place and thinking, surely there is no way I am giving CPR to my high school sweetheart, the man I just kissed goodnight.
The 911 operator walked us through CPR and I got about two rounds in when I had to stop to take a pulse. I couldn’t find one but pressed on trying to hope it was just my lack of skill. Between chest compressions, I told Dan over and over that we loved him. I wondered whether he could hear me. Within minutes, the paramedics arrived and I thought surely now, Dan was in good hands and all would be alright. I paced the living room, praying out loud and begging God for mercy. After answering routine questions from a police officer, the paramedics transported Dan to the nearest hospital.
I ran upstairs to tell the kids I was going to the hospital. I will never, ever forget seeing them huddled together on the floor of the boys’ room, sobbing. How I wanted to reassure them that I would be bringing Daddy back home! But I could only say that I would be back soon. We prayed quickly and I left. It was about 4:30 a.m.
Every single minute of that morning is etched in my memory. I knew when I entered the ER waiting room that it was not good. It was very quiet and they asked me to wait. Then they showed me into “that room.” The few times I’d been in the ER, I’d watched families go into that room and leave crying. So I pretty much knew even before the doctor came in to talk. He did come in and gently told me they had worked on Dan for more than an hour and could not revive him.
It’s difficult to even describe what life felt like. I felt like someone had suddenly ripped off one entire side of my body and left me with raw, dangling threads. Our life — tomorrow’s plans, next week’s list, our comfortable routine with the seven children we were raising — was shattered and would never be again. My four-year-old would grow up without her daddy. What about my littlest boy who would have no more Saturday trips to the hardware store or rides to the rental house in Dad’s truck? I hated that my kids’ lives were split wide open with such gut-wrenching grief.
I had cried out for mercy. God had not spared Dan. I headed home to tell seven children their dad would never come home again.
Dan and I first met in 7th grade. My family had joined a new church, the same one Dan’s family attended. He was Danny then and it didn’t take long for us to become friends. By high school, he was well over 6 feet, tanned with blondish curls so tight the beads of water dripped off when he surfed. We logged in many church trips, choir practices and surf outings and just before I turned 16, he asked me out.
He was my first date. I’d never dated anyone else and as I got ready for the Friday night football game, I knew that first date was the rest of my life. He brought flowers every single date until we were married and this first was no exception — a pretty conspicuous large yellow mum corsage draped with our school colors. I still have the plaid blouse I wore that night hanging at the back of my closet.
I actually fell in love with Dan on our second date. He loved finding offbeat restaurants and for our second date, we went to a rural restaurant on Cross Creek, in an old pocket of Florida made famous in Marjorie Kinan Rawlings’ Pulitzer winning book The Yearling. Over fried alligator, cooter and key lime pie, I listened as Dan completely opened up about his dreams and hopes.
Dan was a born salesman. His confident handshakes, affability and boyish grin were magnetic. One of my favorite memories is the day in high school we cold-called a local Chevrolet dealership to sell a yearbook ad. Since I was yearbook editor and since this was his first time selling an ad, I asked if he wanted any pointers. Nah, he said he thought he had it. I’ll say! After listening to his pitch, the manager offered him a full-time job on the spot.
Because we were seriously dating, I decided not to go away to college. By 19, I was engaged and one month after I turned 20, we got married. He finished business school and I went on to law school. We got our first jobs, our first house and next up on the list was kids.
We had no problems getting pregnant and within two years we had our first boy and then a little girl. We had another little boy and then another and I came home full time. Things were financially tight, but we were so happy! We had another boy and then — in a huge stretch of faith — decided to trust God completely with the number of our children. You think it’s great when you have your first — and it is — but it was just as exciting to bring the sixth and then the seventh home to wide-eyed big brothers and sisters all ready to swing and hold and entertain the new baby.
By this time, Dan was in his dream job and the opportunities for him and for us as a family seemed really good. The kids were healthy. I was deeply satisfied in parenting and homeschooling. All was good. I mean, there were hard times. There were challenges with kids and money and tears from miscarriages. But even those challenges knit our love and life deeper.
So on June 16, after a business trip together in the keys, Dan and I returned to this sweet, full life. And with thoughts only about the next day’s to-do list, I tucked into my side of the bed like any other of a thousand other nights.