My 19-year-old middle daughter Katie had been alive this time last month, and now she was gone—struck down by a ruptured cerebral aneurysm just a month after completing her freshman year of college. A studio art major with a talent that turned heads. Her radiance lit the room. Her ability to love others left them buoyed and feeling valued. Just like that—she was gone.
I paced at dawn in my back yard, fists balled at my side, railing at God. “What??! How can you have allowed this to happen? No!” I wailed the guttural cry of an animal in pain.
That was eight years back, when the initial tsunami of shock had barely crested, leaving in its wake wave after wave of agony. Caught in such a wave that morning, a mental image came to mind:
I walked along a path through a steep mountain forest. The peaceful trail before me represented my life. But out of nowhere, a boulder the size of a car came crashing down the mountain, smashed onto my trail, then continued down the slope.
Katie’s death was that boulder. Before me, the trail of my life lay obliterated by a cavernous crater that the boulder left behind. There was no way to move forward. The crater was too wide to jump, and I couldn’t climb above it or below, because of the steepness of the slope. The only way forward would be through that crater.
“It’s not fair!” I told God. “It’s not right! I didn’t choose this!”
I sensed His gentle reply: “You’re right. You didn’t choose this. You could not have kept that boulder from crashing into your life and leaving this crater. But you do have a choice. You get to choose what you will fill the crater with, so you can move forward with your life. What will you put in that crater?”
His message gave me pause. I could fill the crater in a heartbeat with things like anger, confusion, hopelessness, self-pity, or “woe is me.” But could I make a different choice? Could I fill that crater with positive things, as God hinted? Could I fill it with curiosity, an open-handedness toward God, or increased empathy? Could I fill it with gratitude? Hope? Increased self-awareness? Would there come a day when I could actually put joy into that crater? I could not imagine such a day—yet. But the idea that I had a choice intrigued me.
“Suffering will change us—but not necessarily for the better,” says Wayne Cordeiro, pastor of New Hope Christian Fellowship in Oahu. “We have to choose that.” I was the recipient of a family tragedy, to be sure. But I was not a victim. I had agency. I had a choice.
My first Thanksgiving without Katie stands stark in my mind—our family gathered around the table with one seat glaringly empty. But after dinner, my husband challenged us: “Share about your loss, but also share moments where God’s fingerprints have shown up for you these past five months.” Each of us described stunningly beautiful moments that bore God’s unmistakable fingerprints. They took my breath away—and I laid each in my crater, marveling that beauty can be found even when craters are fresh and raw and hungry.
It has been eight years since that Thanksgiving, and not a day goes by when I don’t miss my girl. But as best I can (better on some days than others!) I say yes to God’s gentle invitation to fill my crater with positive things. It has been slow going, but today my crater contains some of the very characteristics I’d wondered about at dawn in my back yard: greater empathy, hope, and—most notably—joy.
Boulders of all kinds crash into our lives—death of a loved one, marriage or dream; loss of a relationship, health, job, opportunity, or home. If you’re facing this Thanksgiving with a freshly laid crater in the path of your life, it’s easy to succumb to, “Woe is me! My life is ruined. How can I possibly give thanks this year?” I get it. But our boulders don’t define us, and our circumstances cannot ruin our lives without our permission. Our loss is not the boss of us. And we’re reminded in James 1:2–4 that loss can in fact bring gain:
Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. (NIV)
You cannot erase your loss. It either will diminish your life or transform it. Why not choose the option that gives you some gain? Instead of offering God your balled fists as I had done in my back yard, open your hands to Him. Look for His fingerprints in your life. Fill your crater with things that expand your soul and increase your capacity for gratitude, hope, love, and joy.
What will you put in your crater?
You get to choose.
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Discuss: What recent or past “boulder” has crashed into the trail of your life and left a crater you must fill? Thus far, have you been filling it with “woe is me” things like bitterness, resentment, helplessness, or victimhood—or with positive things like curiosity, gratitude, hope, an openhandedness toward God? What is one way you can put something positive into your crater today?
Pray: Good Father, We are not mere victims of our circumstances. Help us choose to fill our craters with positive things—and to invite You to do Your transformative work in our lives. Amen.