It might be from a doctor’s office, the police, or even a relative or friend, but it’s a parent’s worst nightmare—to pick up the phone and hear words that fracture their existence—“Your child is gone.” It doesn’t happen to everyone, but no one is exempt.

A retired pastor and his wife graciously shared their experience with me while they were packing for a flight to Alaska in January. I hope the warmth of a June day will soften this cold reality of grief.

What Happened?

Marlin and Sharon Beachy, having moved from Alaska to Ohio only the year before, bolted awake when their phone rang at 3:09 a.m. on the day after Father’s Day, 2013. Sharon’s brother, Dan, was calling from Alaska. “I’ve got some bad news,” he said to prepare them. Their son Ryan, 29, had just been killed; his motorcycle had hit a moose. Topping almost 1,600 pounds, a full-grown moose is the largest animal in Alaska.

Stunned, they had to ask and know for sure if Dan had said, “Ryan,” their son, or “Brian,” Sharon’s other brother. Dan confirmed he’d said “Ryan.” After they hung up the phone, Marlin called Dan back. “I had to call him back. I couldn’t believe it.” Then the state troopers called to confirm the report.

Only an hour earlier, the sun hadn’t yet set in that part of “The Land of the Midnight Sun.” As Ryan motorcycled up a hill, it glared directly into his eyes. Visibility was also cut by a smoky haze from distant wildfires, and then that moose ambled onto the road. State troopers found no skid marks. Ryan was killed instantly, and so was the moose. Ryan’s girlfriend was thrown from the motorcycle; she survived after with serious injuries.

“For months following, I’d wake up at 3:00 in the morning,” said Marlin. “I’d look at the clock. And then, I’d tell myself, “Oh, at least it’s not 3:09.” Such happenings are the mechanics of grief.

Within hours, Marlin and Sharon had boarded a flight to Anchorage, Alaska.

Sharon said, “We worked through every parent’s nightmare over the next few days: writing your child’s obituary, planning a funeral service…” Ryan’s memorial service would be held at Glacierview Bible Church, where Marlin had pastored for 25 years before being called to another ministry.

This photo, from 1988, is from Marlin Beachy who caught this enormous salmon while living in Alaska. As you can see, it was larger than his son, Ryan!

Marlin Beachy with his son, Ryan, in Alaska (1988)

Was Anyone Able to Help Them?

Although Marlin and Sharon had moved back to Ohio, Glacierview Bible Church was still without a pastor. Who would shepherd Ryan’s family through the valley of the shadow of his death? As it turned out, a retired pastor was nearby, on staff at a Bible camp. Coincidentally, his son had died in an accident years before. Another nearby pastor had also experienced the loss of a child.

These two pastors, acquainted with grief, stepped in to minister. “This isn’t just Marlin and Sharon,” the Beachys realized. “Many others have also lost a child.”

“We found out right away that people who’d walked through this were really helpful. They didn’t have to say a thing. They just knew.”

“The most helpful thing people did was to simply come, sit quietly, and cry with us. A lot of chatter didn’t help at all. Your brain can only handle so much at that point,” Marlin and Sharon agreed.

Sharon also went on to explain, “The church totally took care of us. I didn’t have to cook. They brought meals. Someone cleaned my house. We still owned our old house in Alaska, and Ryan had been using it, but only between jobs—a couple of days a month. He had an average guy’s housekeeping skills, so this was a big help!”

Marlin reminisced, “I just remember that you’re in your own little world. You can’t believe it happened. Shock—the emotional shock—protects you from the pain. For me, it was maybe six months before the shock wore off. Then the pain set in and all the questions came.”

What Did This Do to Their Faith?

Eventually, both Sharon and Marlin asked, “Do we really believe what we believe?”

“We really had to wrestle with that,” said Sharon.

Marlin added, “All these years I’d been telling people, ‘God’s in control. He’s ordained. He’s allowed. He works for our good and His glory…’ It’s all fine and good to say that. But when you experience this kind of pain, the question is—do you really believe?”

“We kept saying, ‘It’s not supposed to be like this.’ Then an associate pastor asked us, ‘Where does it say that in the Bible?’ He said it gently, but he was right.”

“You’ve got to have that foundation, that bedrock of faith foundation. Believe in God’s goodness and sovereignty before those hard things come,” said Marlin.

“We really felt that God was walking with us through this. It doesn’t relieve the pain, but the knowledge He is there … It was like His hand was reaching down and He was holding on to me,” said Sharon. “To turn away from God would be to turn to despair. We couldn’t do that,” she added.

“It’s a long process,” they both agreed, “but the turning point in pain was coming to peace with the fact that God allowed it.”

How Did This Affect Their Marriage?

Sharon admitted, “One of the things I struggled with was that I wasn’t as emotional as Marlin. I’m the mother! I should be bawling my eyes out! I questioned, ‘What kind of mom am I?’”

Marlin said, “I shed tears probably every day for a year.”

“I didn’t,” said Sharon, “and that was hard for me.”

Instead, Sharon read a lot. Lament for a Son by Nicholas Wolterstorff, and Holding on to Hope by Nancy Guthrie, were very powerful helps.

“It’s like we were on parallel train tracks. We cried together, we prayed together. But we were also in our own world of grief. It didn’t tear us apart, but we needed other people for help. We needed to allow each other to grieve in their own way, and not be critical.”

How Has Life Changed for Them?

“This opened our eyes to how often this happens. You’re not aware of it until it happens to you. We’re far more compassionate now,” they agreed.

Marlin shared, “It made me more intentional to connect with our daughters, Melissa and Rachel. We’re not guaranteed another moment in this life. I am now inclined to do things that don’t make a lot of sense, just to spend time with our girls and grandkids. For example, last fall I went to Alaska for our grandson’s birthday! And I’ve become more intentional with calling.”

Sharon added, “We’ve never been party people, but now, not at all. We’re more serious. We’re not killjoys—we can still be pretty goofy. Yet, here we are, ten years later, and we still miss Ryan something fierce. The difference is that we can talk about him now. We LIKE to talk about him. We are joyous.”

Key Points for Those Who Haven’t Gone Through This Kind of Loss:
  • “First, cultivate a deep relationship with the Lord because these things will happen. Maybe not the loss of a child, but life is hard. You’ve got to be walking with the Lord, and be in a good community.”
  • “Don’t live in fear. Entrust your children to the Lord. We dedicated Ryan to the Lord when he was a baby. He was God’s child, not ours, forever.”
  • “Don’t grieve before your time. Honor life by loving your children to the fullest. Do crazy things in order to see them. Do like we do—go to Alaska for a weekend, or go in the middle of winter!”
  • “Don’t dwell on death. It’s not healthy and it’s not helpful. If God deems it His will to call them home, He’ll give you the grace you need.”

“Pain is the price of love. If we didn’t love Ryan, we wouldn’t miss him,” Sharon said.

“It’s been an amazing journey,” said Marlin. “We didn’t know it, but God was preparing things. Ryan was calling us more often. His friends said he was having more spiritual conversations with them.”

Ryan had sent a text to Marlin the day before which read, “Happy Father’s Day, Pops.” And although there was that most awful phone call in the night, there had also been a wonderful, unexpected call from Ryan just that morning. “I got to talk to him that day!” Marlin fondly exclaimed.

Not a day passes that those of us who’ve suffered the loss of a loved one don’t live with the bittersweet truth that life is precious; our days are numbered. Dear Reader, is there someone with whom you need to talk? Don’t wait until it’s too late. Be intentional and reach out to them today.

Marlin and Sharon, thank you for touching our lives with Ryan’s.  //

Until next month,
~ ferree

Ferree Hardy has helped thousands of widows through her book, “Postcards from the Widows’ Path,” small groups, speaking, and personal coaching, but touching one life at a time is what matters most to her. She holds a BA from Moody Bible Institute, and was a pastor’s wife in Ohio for over twenty years before her first husband died. She’s happily remarried now, and her readers know that moving seems to have become a hobby for her. But she also enjoys backyard chickens, aims to read fifty books a year, and loves to bake. Learn more by visiting her blog.

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