Shaken and shattered: 10,000 reasons for gratitude

For my mom’s birthday last February, I gave her a book titled Your Best Life Begins Each Morning by Joel Osteen. It’s one of those little devotional books that are meant to be read each morning of the year. On each page is a short verse followed by an inspirational pep-talk by the author which is supposed to help you get the most and best out of every day. I knew the power that a positive mindset can bring to any situation and I wanted my mom to experience the same thing.

I don’t know how much she read through the book but I know she did for a while. I remember her calling me to tell me how much she loved it and how strange that it seemed like every day that she read from it, she got just the right message to get her day off to a good start.

A couple of weeks after the accident, I came across the book. I asked my dad if I could have it (he said of course) and I brought it home. I was hoping that I would be lucky enough get the right message every morning because as we were all beginning to return to our regular lives, inspiration was getting very hard to come by.

I am really not sure what I was expecting to discover in the pages of this book but nonetheless, I opened it up one morning and began to read. The title was for that day was “An Attitude of Gratitude.” I read through it, not really inspired, but kept an open mind anyways. Maybe the next day’s message would be a little better.

Day two of the reading was about giving thanks again. Okay, same theme. “I get the message,” I thought flippantly to myself and went about my day. I returned to the office for the first time since the accident and got through the day quite peacefully. I began the drive home and started to reflect on the day’s events. I realized that I had gotten through it without a major crying episode. Awesome! Thoughts of my mom, Michelle, and Julia were always at the forefront of my mind but I had made it through. Maybe going back to “real” life would be easier than I thought. Then, I turned on the radio. . .

The song “10,000 Reasons” by Matt Redman (
Here’s the song! 10,000 reasons) was just beginning to play. This song was sung at Michelle and Julia’s funeral. This is the song that reduces me to tears every single time I hear it. Instantly I began to sob. I remember looking up to the sky through blinding tears saying, “Really, really?” Can I have one day of peace? Just one? Why the constant reminders of the most painful experience ever? What was there, really, to be grateful for when our family had just suffered such a traumatic loss?

On day three the reading was incredibly about gratitude, AGAIN! In fact, the last line of the message for the day was this, “Until you have a grateful attitude, you are going to stay right where you are.” Are you kidding me? ARE YOU KIDDING ME? I began wallowing in a pool of self-pity, mumbling to myself about how easy it to be thankful when things are going your way. Even if your life isn’t exactly what you were hoping for at the moment, it is still easy to find gratitude when your problems weren’t as big as death. How can you compare something like job loss (like in the book) to a tragic loss of life?

Later that day, I was searching for some paperwork and I came across a memory book that my mom had completed years ago, a book I totally had forgotten that I had. Of course the tears came again along with the waves of self-pity. The icing on the pity cake came later that night when I was looking for something in my nightstand and I came across an old billfold. I opened it to find Julia’s birth announcement and one of her first baby pictures staring me in the face. Wow, the reminders of them were E-V-E-R-Y-W-H-E-R-E. Every single time I turned around it seems, I was reminded of the HUGE hole in my heart that was created by their untimely deaths. What was there to be thankful for?

Well, you can probably guess what the reading for day four was. Yep, gratitude and changing your attitude. This time though, I actually stopped to really think and reflect. I changed all of the perceived negatives from those last two days to positives–how extremely lucky I was to have a beautiful song that reminded me of my sister-in-law, how amazingly fortunate I was to have this treasure of a book written by my mom, and how incredibly blessed I was to be the aunt of such a beautiful little girl. I began to look at life again through a more gracious lens. I finally got the message. It had been right all along.

You see, in the days immediately following the accident, we were incredibly grateful. We were grateful for the brave man that rescued my nephew, grateful for the rescue workers, grateful for the doctors and nurses, grateful for each other, and grateful for family and friends. Most of all, we were grateful that my nephew’s life was spared. Gratitude–despite the terrible loss–came pretty easily. It was only now, upon my attempted return to a new normal, that my gratitude had left the building. I had briefly abandoned the “attitude of gratitude” that I practiced pre-accident, an attitude that had carried me through some pretty rough times before. I knew in order find a state of gratefulness I would have to consciously choose gratitude until it became second nature. I would have to make that gracious choice again and again regardless of how difficult that choice seemed at the time.

Thankfully, even though I still resort to an ungrateful attitude for brief moments-like when I reach for my phone to call my mom, make mental note of something I need to add to my list to tell Michelle, or see something that Jules would have loved–I immediately go to gratitude and the self-pity goes away. Not that my sorrow is any less, but I know in my heart that gratitude leads to hope, and hope leads to a promise of a better day.

The next time you are struggling with something, no matter what it is, I challenge you find something in your situation to be grateful for. It doesn’t matter what it is, if it is big or small, but find something, ONE thing. Practice gratitude every day, day in and day out, whether it seems logical or not. You may not be instantly lifted from a desperate situation but I promise–I promise–you will find a ray of hope. And sometimes, that is all we need to face another day. 


Shaken and shattered. . .

Our family (except for my niece Jenna who lives in Florida) on July 4, 2012.
This would be our last family picture.
The crash site on Highway 12 between Willmar and Kandiyohi, MN. 

Our family after my niece and sister-in-law’s funeral on August 24, 2012.
We mustered smiles through the tears. . .

For those of you reading this that might not know my family’s story, I’ll give to you in a nutshell. On August 17, 2012 my mom, sister-in-law, and eight-year old niece were killed when a drunk driver hit their vehicle head on.  My mom and sister-in-law died on impact. My niece and my then five-year old nephew were rescued from the vehicle by a bystander who bravely entered the van as it was beginning to burn. Both my niece and nephew were airlifted to a metro-area trauma center. My nephew survived with minor injuries. My niece died later that night despite a courageous effort by rescue personnel to save her precious life. In an instant, our family was shattered–ripped apart–shaken to the very core of our being.

To write about the accident seems so surreal. They had been shopping, to a movie, and were on their way home. It was only a few minutes after 9:00 p.m. Drunk drivers aren’t supposed to be on the road then. Tragedy like this isn’t supposed to happen EVER. How is this even possible? I have tried to wrap my head around this a million times and I can’t. This can’t be real! It’s like a never-ending nightmare except that you are very awake and the pain is very real. The pain is SO very real. . .

We have talked several times over the last five weeks how time seems to magically stand still yet at the same time flies. It seems like just yesterday we were planning our last big family get together (which was to be August 19) before my brother and his family were to return to Oman for another school year–yet, it seems like a lifetime since we have heard their voices, seen their smiles, and felt their warmth. The weeks immediately following the accident are a blur of people, funerals, and burials–a blur of overwhelming grief and despair.

I knew almost immediately after the accident that I would eventually share some of the things that I have experienced (and have yet to experience) as our family begins to put the pieces of our lives back together. As a person that works in advocacy, I know the power that sharing stories and experiences lends to healing. I know that I am not alone in my pain and I know that what I will share from my experiences will in turn help others along their own path of healing.

I also know that what I share now and in the future is my own. I can’t speak for everyone in our family because we are all different and have all experienced different losses. I know my own pain but I don’t know what my brother is experiencing after the loss of his wife, daughter, and mother. I don’t know what my dad is experiencing after losing his wife, daughter-in-law, and granddaughter. I don’t know what my nephews are experiencing after the loss of their mother, sister, and grandmother. I don’t know what my kids are experiencing after the loss of their grandmother, aunt, and young cousin. I don’t know what my other brother is experiencing even though we both lost our mother, sister-in-law, and niece. And so it goes on. . .each of us has our own pain and our own healing to experience. We each need to heal as individuals; yet, we also need to heal collectively as a family. We are–as individuals and as a family–forever changed.

There are so many things that I have jotted down over the last month or so that I was a bit overwhelmed as where to start. But, as I looked things over, there are a few things that have really been constant throughout this journey so far. I will no doubt be writing extensively about each one in the future. For now though, I’ll keep it short. If you have followed any of my Facebook posts, some of this will sound familiar. . .

  • Faith, family, and friends will carry you through the darkest of days. I really, really can’t stress that enough! I have said it many times over the past few weeks and will say it again and again in the future.
  • The power of prayer is truly uplifting. Not only have I been uplifted spiritually but there were times during that first week or so that I physically felt the waves of prayers being sent to our family. (Yes, I physically felt the power of prayer. Yes, that may sound crazy to some. And, in case you are wondering, it’s a pretty awesome feeling.)
  • Angels do exist. I have believed in angels my entire life and now I have seen them. I have felt the arms of these angels wrap around me and hold me tight in the depths of my despair.
  • Hugs heal. The healing power in a hug is pretty amazing. A loving hug from a person can warm your heart and soul..
  • You can never say “I love you” enough. You never know when your time on earth is up.
  • The experience of sudden loss opens your heart to the pain of others. Several times over my life I have felt pain when somebody suffers a tragic loss, but now, I experience that pain differently. I know that some of my friends reading this have experienced great loss in their lives over the past year or so. My heart goes out to you now more than ever.
  • Priorities change. More on that later.
  • Gratitude! I have never felt so grateful in my entire life. I know, it may seem strange to some, but I’ve experienced a “gratitude awakening” of sorts. Even though it is really difficult (actually impossible) to be grateful some days, I have found that when I look at life through a gracious lens, it becomes so much clearer.
  • Grief is a beast that will devour your soul if you don’t seek out joy to counteract it. I have learned that it is possible to live a paradoxical world of deep sorrow and of great joy. Despite the terrific loss our family has experienced, we have also experienced joy at times over the last few weeks.
  • Life is a gift. I still cry every single day. I think about them every moment, yet, go on. We have to go on because life goes on.

To all of you reading that have been with my family throughout this painful time– I am pretty sure that I can speak for all of us when I say that our hearts are filled with deep, unending  gratitude. Every thought, word, prayer, and hug has been a blessing. We can’t thank you enough. Please keep the prayers coming.

I don’t know where this journey will take me but I pray that along the way somebody will be comforted by my words, by my experiences, and by my love. No matter what you are experiencing in life right now, know that you are not alone.