Webster defines “serendipity” as “the faculty or phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for”. I like to think of serendipity simply as “an unexpected blessing”.
I lost my daughter Ashley to cancer in 2001. She was fourteen years old. I have learned many things about loss and grief in the eleven years since her death. One of those unexpected lessons is that there is blessing in loss.
Here are five unexpected blessings that I have learned to embrace as a result of Ashley’s untimely death.
1. Heaven is more real.
I grew up in a devout Christian family. I have been a Christian most of my life. I have served as a Christian minister for nearly thirty years. So, heaven has always been an integral part of my belief system. I believe that heaven is a real place and that I will spend eternity there when I die.
About a week before my Dad died of cancer at the young age of fifty-eight, my brothers and I gathered in his hospital room in Austin, Texas. He told us that, if it was his time to die, he was at peace with that, and he was ready. He stared death in the face without an ounce of fear, because he knew that heaven awaited him on the other side.
When Ashley died at home on a peaceful Saturday afternoon in late November, she was surrounded by family and friends. She slipped quietly from this life into the waiting arms of Jesus. She was finally Home.
I have always believed in heaven. But heaven is now so much more real to me, because my Dad and Ashley are there, and I will get to see them again.
2. I get to be part of Ashley’s legacy.
Ashley’s motto for life, and for dealing with cancer, was “Trust in God, and never give up.” She exemplified that mantra beautifully. Through all the horrible side effects of chemotherapy and radiation, her faith never wavered. Even though her physical strength was greatly diminished and there were so many things she could no longer do without assistance, she never gave up.
Ashley inspired people all over the world because of the grace, dignity, and dogged determination with which she faced her cancer battle. Others found the inner strength to face their own life struggles because, “If Ashley can do it, then so can I.”
Susan and Justin and I were, ourselves, blessed and inspired by Ashley’s strength of character. We have learned much about how to live life and face struggles from her. And now we get to carry on her legacy, and watch other people’s lives be blessed, by continuing to tell her story. We are part of her continuing legacy.
3. I can help others cope with loss.
2 Corinthians 1:4 tells us that God “comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.”
I would not wish the death of a child on my worst enemy. “Pain” is not a sufficiently strong word to describe the gut-wrenching, utterly debilitating sense of horror and emptiness that completely encompassed my heart and my soul when Ashley died. In fact, I have found no word or combination of words to adequately portray what my heart experienced.
Yet, in the midst of such deep sorrow and unspeakable pain, I found comfort and peace. I found spiritual resolve and renewed hope.
I cannot pretend to understand exactly what any other parent feels when they lose a child, because I am not them and their child was not my child. But I do know something of the road they are traveling. I do know what I felt, and feel, and it does relate in some way to their journey.
I do know that it is possible to find comfort, and peace, and hope in the presence of despair. I do know that there can be renewed purpose for living.
I can offer a shoulder to cry on, an ear to listen, and a hug to console. I have something worthwhile to give fellow grief-travelers, because I am on the same road.
4. I can help others who want to help a grieving friend.
I have learned a lot of unexpected lessons about loss and grief because of Ashley’s death. I have learned some things about how to help a friend who is grieving, because we have had lots of friends who have helped us in our grief.
I have learned that there are no “right words” to say to a friend who is grieving, because the words do not exist that can take away their pain.
I have learned that doing little mundane chores for a friend who is grieving can be a tremendous help, until the griever is able to focus on those chores once again.
I have learned that the most important thing anyone can do to help a friend who is grieving is to simply be present, and to simply love.
One of the reasons I wrote the book Living With a Broken Heart was to help people who have grieving friends understand these and other important truths about how to help their friends who are grieving.
5. I am inspired to live a better life.
Ashley was an amazing young lady. She faced unbelievable obstacles and debilitating hardships. She knew that her cancer could kill her. I believe, near the end of her life, she understood that her days on this earth were numbered, that death was closing in. Yet through it all she remained positive. She thought of others. She kept her faith.
As Ashley’s father, I was supposed to be her role model. Instead, she has become my role model. I want to be like her. She is near the top of my short list of heroes (“a person … who is admired or idealized for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities”, Oxford Dictionary). I am inspired to live a better life because of the way she lived hers, and because of the dignity she exhibited even in her death.