Tragedy strikes the Smith family
Our “hobby” farm was less than two miles from our hometown. Our home faced I-94 the four-lane highway which stretched across the northern United States.
Less than a mile from our home to the east were the homes of Don and Jeannie Smith and Don’s mother Iona. Iona was an employee of the local bank and very active in my home church.
I will never forget what happened on a spring Sunday afternoon when I was in sixth grade. The gravel frontage road in front of our home generated tons of dust during the spring, summer, and fall months. Seeing a car with a huge cloud of dust trailing behind was commonplace. But on this day, there were far more cars going by one after another than usual. I awakened my mother from her Sunday afternoon nap and together we followed the cars to the Smith family farm to see what was going on.
We discovered the most horrific situation. Don was backing up his pickup truck and did not realize his toddler was walking behind the truck. The unimaginable happened: that day, the Smith family lost the younger of its two children.
The slaughter of the innocents
Years later in seminary, we were studying the story in the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 2, about Herod slaughtering the innocent children trying to eliminate the new born King.
13 When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream.
“Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay
there until I tell you, for” 17 Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah
was fulfilled: 18 “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they
are no more.”
I immediately thought of Jeannie Smith. She was inconsolable and was unable to leave the home for many years. She was never the same and nobody would blame her for not being able to recover from the loss of her younger child. The family had a private graveside service, and I never saw Don and Jeannie in church ever again. They were angry with God. To attend any kind of worship service seemed hypocritical to them, including our annual Christmas pageant for children.
Iona never missed church. When my mother would ask Iona about Don and Jeannie in my presence, she would simply shrug her shoulders in despair and discouragement. Don and Jeannie withdrew from everyone. Until the time I graduated, I could count on one hand the number of times I saw them in the community after their loss.
That day in seminary when we were talking about Rachel’s inconsolable grief, I couldn’t help but think about Jeannie. The day my mother and I went to their farm to see what was going on, Jeannie was dramatically inconsolable – crying, screaming, falling to the ground, doing all of the things one would expect from a grieving mother over the loss of her child. Don, the father, was completely stoic. He was in a deep state of shock that left him speechless. I cannot imagine accidentally killing one of my children. It is not surprising that Don hid behind his stoicism for the rest of his life. To look at him in the years following the accident, it was like seeing a hollow shell of a person. He was breathing, but he was never alive again.
The Wisdom from Wibaux: to each her own grief
The Wisdom from Wibaux… I learned from my community that when tragedy strikes, unique people will grieve uniquely. No two persons grieve the same. I am incredibly thankful now that nobody, to my knowledge, every “shamed” Don or Jeannie for the accident or the way in which they grieved their daughter’s death. And nobody, to my knowledge, ever judged Jeannie and Don for not attending worship after the accident. Somehow, through “osmosis,” I learned that our God is able and willing to handle our doubts and anger when He seemingly lets us down. I cannot tell you how that message got in me, but it did, and I am grateful.
–Pastor Jeff Gannon