February 6, 2013
This day is one that is etched deep into my memory. At first, it seemed like a normal day. I was in one of my last semesters at Ozark Christian College. Some of our classes that day had been replaced by some missions lectures for our International Focus Week, but other than that, it was same as most others Wednesdays I had in school. I went to church that evening to help with my brother-in-law’s youth group, as I normally did on Wednesdays.
After youth group and a grocery trip to Wal-mart, I went back to campus. When I got back, I walked into my dorm lobby, and I sensed something was wrong. There was a group of girls with sad looks on their faces, but I didn't know why. I went up to my floor, and saw another group of girls with sad looks, and even tears, on their faces. I knew something was very wrong, but I wanted to take care of my frozen groceries before I investigated. As I was doing this, someone knocked on my door. It was my next door neighbor and another friend.
“Bethel, did you hear what happened?”
“No. I didn't have a chance to ask yet. What happened?”
“Brandon Stuckey was killed in a car accident.”
I gasped. They also told me a group was going to pray in the lobby in a few minutes and invited me to join. I thanked them for telling me, and then proceeded to finished with my groceries. As soon as I was done, I remember leaning on the back of my desk chair as the reality of what I had just been told to me was hitting me like a ton of bricks. I couldn't believe that my friend Brandon was gone.
Because of this moment and others to follow, that was one of the most unforgettable and tragic days of my college career, and my young adult life. Brandon’s death shocked and devastated the whole OCC family, but for those of us who were close to him, the grief we felt that night was unimaginable. I never would have imagined that the friend that sat next to me in class one day would be gone the next. However, some of the memories of that time, as painful as they were, were also some of the most precious memories I have from my entire college experience. On the second anniversary of the day Brandon went home to be with the Lord, I am compelled to share the lessons that I learned through losing a friend.
1) Believe in the Hope of Heaven
I cannot imagine what it would have been like to have faced Brandon's death without the hope of heaven in my heart. It simply would have hurt too much. Especially when someone young dies, it’s harder to accept their absence if you think that this life is all that there is. So many try to blame God when this kind of tragedy happens to us, either getting mad because He didn’t stop it, or claiming that the tragedy is evidence that He doesn’t exist. Neither one helps the healing process at all.
What happened to Brandon was tragic. There was no way around this fact. He was only 22 years old. He had so many God-given dreams that were never fulfilled in this life. I know he wanted to get married and raise a family. I know he wanted to preach the gospel to those than needed to hear it. He even had plans to spend the summer of 2013 in Mongolia. But there is so much more to this tragedy than the fact that he is no longer with us or all the things that Brandon never had the chance to do.
My greatest comfort in process of grieving is knowing that Brandon is no longer burdened by the troubles of this life. He is now whole and complete in the presence of the Savior that died to redeem him. This redemption, the heart of the gospel, was something that Brandon spent the short years of his life declaring. Among all the hopes he had in this life, I know that he, like all of us who have our hope in Christ, longed for the day when we will see our Savior face-to-face, and now he has. It makes me happy for him, and in fact makes me long for the hope of heaven even more. The redemption and the wholeness he now has in the presence of our Savior is something that I did my best to remember, even in the midst of grief. When I attended Brandon’s funeral, I wore a black dress, but I also wore red shoes and a red headband, as a reminder of the blood that had redeemed my friend.
2) Cherish Community
Surrounding yourself with community is crucial during times of extreme grief. It’s not just a good idea; it is essential to the grieving process. These type of situations are part of God’s design for community. Mourning with those who mourn is one of many elements listed in Romans 12 as part of our love for each other being sincere or genuine (Rom 12:15b). We are called to do more than comfort each other if one of us is hurting: we are called to cry with them and share the burden of their grief. I never understood this better than I did in the days following Brandon’s death, because of the way this was demonstrated toward me. I will never forget:
- How many of us gathered outside of Brandon’s dorm that night while we prayed, sang songs about hope and heaven, and comforted each other in our tears.
- How one of my RA’s (resident assistants) stayed by my side for hours that night. Don't know what I would have done without Marley that night.
- How multiple friends on my dorm floor offered to let me stay with them that night because of my roommate’s absence. I declined, but I was touched to know so many of my friends cared.
- How both of my RA’s sandwich-hugged me at 2:30 in the morning when I was so overwhelmed by grief and confusion, I began to bawl. I pretty much collapsed into Dani's arms and Marley held me from the other side while I cried for another 10 minutes or so. I don't think I will ever forget that bittersweet memory.
- How many people offered to let me sit with them in the class the next day where I used to sit next to Brandon. I declined because I wanted to sit where Brandon invited me to sit, but I was grateful to know they were all mindful of how hard that day would be for me.
- How two girls I’d never met (at separate times) saw me crying in the bathroom during all campus devotions the next night, and each one stopped everything to see if I was OK and prayed with me
- How many hugs I got during that time, especially the night he died and at his funeral. Some were from people I was not close to, but knew I need them
- How many people asked me if I was OK during that time, even people I didn't know
I had never before experienced community in such a powerful way. Our campus as whole remained close throughout the rest of that semester in a way I had not seen before or since, because of the tragedy we endured together. As one of the RA’s from Brandon’s dorm posted that night on Facebook:
I so strongly agree. It was even further defined when, about a year later, I discovered that another Bible college had heard about what happened to Brandon (the brother of Brandon's roommate attended Johnson University). Many of their students were grieving for us and with us. That's amazing.
3) Out of the Ashes, Beauty Will Rise
In the initial moments of grief, it is not easy to see God’s plan, or what the future will hold beyond those moments. But one of the sources of comfort I found during this time was Steven Curtis Chapman’s album Beauty Will Rise. This is the album he wrote about the tragedy of losing his daughter. There are so many wonderful songs that helped me through this time, but two parts of the title song stand out to me:
Out of these ashes, beauty will rise
We will dance among the ruins
We will see it with our own eyes
Out of darkness, new light will shine
For we know the joy that’s coming in the morning
It will take our breath away to see the beauty that He’s made out of ashes
These thoughts gave me a sense of hope in this situation that I had never expected. I began to realize that God can take all of our pain, our sufferings, and even our sin, and make it into a beautiful mosaic for His glory. And when we finally get to see this masterpiece for ourselves, it will take our breath away by its beauty and its creativity. No matter how difficult it is to go through at the moment, God will use it and not let it be in vain. It is all part of God’s plan to reconcile our broken world. Now that’s powerful.
God did bring beauty out of the grief of losing Brandon. The fact that I am writing about this now proves this to be true. Those of us that knew him looked at Brandon’s short life and were able to see a good man with a heart for the gospel and a heart for people, and we were inspired to be the same. We learned the power of Christian community in the days surrounding his death. We learned to be vulnerable with each other. We learned to grieve with hope.
Gone but Not Forgotten
Although I wasn’t “super close” to Brandon, I was close enough that his death did make an impact on my life. I am forever grateful that God brought Brandon into my life, because I learned so much more from him than I could have ever imagined. This was reflected in the last conversation we had, the day before he died.
We were in class together, the class where we sat next to each other. Before class started, we were talking about life, some of our ministry and mission aspirations, and eventually the conversation landed on relationships. I found myself telling him that I had not been in a relationship before. Just as our professor was starting class, he leaned towards me and whispered:
“Don’t worry. You’ll find someone someday.”
I cherish these words for two reasons. It’s not because this is a guarantee that I will find a husband or a promise of a fairy tale ending. It’s because, first of all, his last words to me were so uplifting and hopeful. And second, because it reminds me that God has a greater purpose for my life that I have for myself, and if I have my assurance in that purpose, I don’t have to worry. Brandon had assurance in the Lord's plan for his life, and because of that, I know he is now in the presence of His Savior. I hope that if Brandon’s prediction is true, then I will marry a man that has his assurance in God’s plan too, just like Brandon.
Brandon is still missed by those of us who called him our friend, but his memory and his legacy live on. Thanks to Brandon, I now know what it means to grieve with hope. I hope this post will help others learn how to do the same.