I can still hear my sister’s voice. She called my Duluth campus apartment in January of 1981 to tell me that her son Paul had been hit and killed by the kindergarten school bus after he'd gotten off that morning. He went to get the paper he was bringing home to his mom—the one he had colored that day that had blown away from his grip. It landed just below the curb next to the bus. His friend said, "Paul, don't..." and before he could finish, Paul said, "it's ok…"
I had seen Paul exactly two weeks before at my Uncle Raino's funeral in North Dakota. Raino was a giant of a man to me, a gregarious Finn and a farmer who let me feed the lambs with a bottle when I was a little girl, and I loved him. He had a heart attack and was gone. At the dinner for the family, Paul was wearing the new cowboy boots he had gotten for Christmas a few weeks before. I had cowboy boots on too, and I remember the smile on his face when I showed him mine.
It was surreal. I was completely in a fog. I was still in shock during the 22 hour Greyhound bus ride to Montana, riding along with my brother, Ric. We talked about how unreal this was, how we couldn’t imagine how this could happen, and about our mom's indescribable grief over her grandson. We talked about God and how He was undoubtedly present with our sister right now.
When we arrived at my sister, Renee, and brother-in-law, Brian’s house in Billings, many relatives were already there. I didn’t know what to say to anyone. Nothing was fitting for this event. Later that day, any of us who wanted to see Paul were invited to a private viewing at the funeral home. Paul had on his cowboy boots but nothing else looked familiar about that sweet little boy. There would be no memorial service or open casket, just the funeral.
My sister fainted when she saw Paul. It was all so unbelievable. Every sound was amplified, especially the sound of our hugs and tears.
The next day, something happened that impacted me forever. Renee and Brian, along with their pastor, asked the bus driver, Dianna, to come over to their home with her own pastor, to pray with them. Diana was devastated. While I was still trying to comprehend Paul's death, I witnessed this amazing grace given to the person who was responsible for their son’s death.
They told her that they forgave her. It was profound to me. I will never forget it. God’s light was shining through them, even in the most difficult of circumstances. Their act made me think of these words from 1 Corinthians 2:5-7. I know the context of this verse is church discipline but the words are fitting for any situation where we ought to forgive and comfort:
“If anyone has caused grief, he has not so much grieved me as he has grieved all of you, to some extent--not to put it too severely. 6 The punishment inflicted on him by the majority is sufficient for him. 7 Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow…"
My shock wore off at the funeral when, as we all walked into the sanctuary together, the church was singing Away in a Manger. The reality of all this finally hit me and I wept so hard I could barely walk to our pew. Yet I still couldn't fathom what my sister was going through. Hopefully I will never know.
Once I became a mother, more than 18 years later, I finally understood the kind of love she had for her son. My empathy and compassion for her and her family grew even stronger than at the time of Paul's death because I now understood that kind of love.
I've asked God why he would allow this to happen, and I know Renee and her family have asked God many times over. In the weeks and months that followed, their grief didn’t leave. They were suffering. But their obedience to God spoke to others.
I know God didn't make Paul die. When tragedy strikes, however, He will use the situation to show us His love and grace. I saw His love and grace through the selflessness of Renee and Brian. So did Diana, the school bus driver. Even in their pain, they allowed God to work through them, so His glory could be seen to give us hope for the day we’ll all be together again.
“…but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.” John 9:3
“See, I have refined you, though not as silver; I have tested you in the furnace of affliction. For my own sake, for my own sake, I do this.” Isaiah 48:10.
Lord Jesus, thank you for the example from this family and others who persevere through sorrow today. Thank you that nothing about sorrow like this is wasted when we experience it in the grip of Your love. Please continue to comfort and strengthen these loved ones as the years go by teaching them how to rediscover your power, presence and goodness. Thank you that when everything’s falling apart on us, you put us back together again with your Word. AMEN