Part of any normal day includes pain. You hold the grief but wrap it in layers of prayer as you present yourself to the world—seeking the sunlight around every corner.
I watched my husband deliver yet another keynote speech. Scott stepped off the stage to applause, somehow inspiring people, even as he suffered. Isaiah 43:2 came to my mind: “When you go through deep waters, I will be with you.” His audience had no idea that Scott had lost his father—his hero—less than three weeks earlier.
God was holding us through the deep waters, I was sure.
We loved our work but looked forward to something afterward: hiking the next morning in the rolling mountains of upstate New York. This was just the retreat we needed—to unwind and heal in God’s beautiful country.
THE WOUNDS OF CHANGE
Scott and I had both been divorced, but when we married, it seemed God had reconciled our lives. We both had children, and I longed to stepparent Scott’s two teens, Jack and Alana, as God intended. I wanted to be available but not pushy. Scott’s guidance to my two young girls, as a former crisis counselor, brought laughter and healing to anxious hearts.
Unfortunately, stepparenting didn’t happen the way I’d hoped. We quickly learned firsthand the impact divorce has on children.
After we married, Scott’s relationship with his ex-wife soured. Scott had moved across state lines to marry me and build our business in the recession, with plans for Jack and Alana to live with us part-time. After he left, however, everything changed. The kids became distant, and we communicated less and less frequently.
Alana began abusing drugs. First, she snuck out to college parties. Scott tried to intervene, but she rejected him. We had no say in her treatment. Alana got kicked out of school for selling Xanax. Her mom dropped her off at rehab. Scott called the facility—offering to assist Alana’s counselors or attend sessions—but they couldn’t even tell us if she was there. She was old enough to legally shut us out.
Alana wrote Scott a letter: “Dad, I’m not mad at you. I just smoke a little pot. But don’t worry about me. I’m not stupid.”
Her letter did little to ease our anxious hearts. Scott dreamed about her almost every night, often waking up in a cold sweat of fear.
After rehab, Alana joined an alternative school. She graduated early with honors, even as her drug use accelerated. She stole. She wrecked cars. She called us drunk from jail at 3:00 a.m., asking for bail money. When we tried to understand her slurring words, she cursed, “F— you, Dad. You are irrelevant,” before the phone went dead.
Scott flew out regularly to see the kids in Chicago—spending money we didn’t have. We admitted Alana into a sober-living facility, but she failed a drug test and was rejected. We considered pursuing full custody, but an attorney said we’d probably lose in court and alienate the kids more.
The shame pounded us like a hurricane. Surely this was our fault. Maybe God wasn’t supposed to restore our lives by blending our families. Maybe we were just being selfish.
Sometimes, things seemed fine. When Scott’s father passed away, Alana rode with me to buy pizzas before the funeral. Her giggling, loving words melted me: “I can’t wait to stay with you again!”
During her one and only visit to our home, she’d been the big sister my girls craved—swimming, playing games.
Alana loved everyone. Her beauty dazzled. Her wit could slice the most seasoned comedian. Her intelligence and writing skills were beyond her years. Her heart was huge; she once tried to rescue a mouse lost in the gutter.
But Alana’s addiction was a desperate, angry creature that kicked police officers and stole from innocent bystanders.
Scott texted Alana after his dad’s funeral to try to see her.
“Sorry, Dad,” said the text after he’d already left town. “I lost my phone and didn’t see this.”
She never lost her phone. She was losing herself. And Scott’s heart was breaking a piece at a time.
Just weeks after the funeral, Scott and I were in New York, where he spoke at a conference. The next day, we woke early, ready for a much-anticipated day of recuperation. We headed out for a hike in the mountains. After a wrong turn on the way to the trail, we approached the glassy lake that would serve as the center of our hike.
We were sitting on a rock, gearing up for the remainder of the hike, when Scott’s phone lit up, ringing silently. His ex-wife’s name flashed on the screen. He picked up and spoke briefly with her. I can’t remember what was said, but I knew before Scott told me that Alana was gone.
She’d died of a heroin overdose in her mother’s home. She’d left her work clothes out, intending to rise the next morning.
Heroin. The word seemed foreign and cold. We’d had no idea it had ever touched her body.
I chanted, “This doesn’t make sense,” as if it could change something. I breathed rapidly and screamed dry tears. Scott stumbled across the rocky ledge as we headed back to the car.
He stopped at the first Exxon station and bought a pack of cheap cigarettes. He sat on the curb and smoked three in a row. I tried to talk to him. He said nothing. He stared at the dry grass. I’d never seen him smoke. He didn’t look like himself. I was scared in so many ways.
God, please hold us, I prayed. Please don’t drop us.
Three hours in the car felt like 10 years. We drove in silence, other than my senseless crying about nothing making sense.
Everything had changed, and I didn’t know what we’d find on the other side.
In the airport waiting for our flight to Chicago, Scott sat at the bar with his hand embracing a glass of whiskey. I’d also never seen him drink.
I sat beside him with my hand protectively on his back. Tears streamed down his face while the bartender avoided eye contact. I prayed silently, God, please hold us… Please hold him.
I had known Scott was an alcoholic, but he’d been in recovery since before I met him. He’d told me he used to drink and wake up with a gun in his hand. I didn’t know that man. I didn’t want to know him.
Scott swirled the glass in tiny circles on the bar, watching the ice melt.
I knew that my relationship with God had to take precedence over my relationship with Scott. I had to get closer to God and put Scott in God’s hands, since this situation was bigger than anything I could fix.
All the stats about marriages falling apart after the death of a child flashed through my mind. I didn’t want to lose him.
He walked away from the bar, leaving the glass full. He told me later that if he’d taken that drink, Alana’s wouldn’t have been the only death that day. He knew that a drink would kill him and the lives of my children—and me as well.
On the plane, I held him while he folded over. Silent tears drenched him. The plane was nearly empty. The sunlight came in windows with no mind for our breaking hearts. Life has a way of doing that.
I could not put a timestamp on the events of the next few days. I endured moments I had never expected to witness in my lifetime. I sat between Scott and his ex-wife as they picked Alana’s casket and decided whether her nails would be decorated. I held Scott at 3:00 a.m. as he awoke sobbing. I sat in the church when they negotiated music and whether Jesus would be mentioned. There was a debate over Alana’s faith. Scott insisted that Alana loved Jesus.
I tried to be above the pain. I tried to support the grieving family.
At the church before the funeral, the casket was opened. There lay the most beautiful 18-year-old girl I’d ever seen—a girl I hardly knew yet knew everything about. A girl I longed for in a way I can’t explain. A girl I called my daughter—but could not save.
I sat in the front row as reporters, family members, and hundreds of Alana’s friends streamed by.
During the service, the striped sweater Alana wore got blurry. Her blond hair seemed to catch fire in the light. Then Scott rose and delivered the most powerful speech of his life:
If you were Alana’s friend, you are welcome here. If you partied with Alana and enjoyed her as the life of the party, you are welcome here. If you introduced Alana to heroin or drove her to buy heroin or used heroin with Alana, you most certainly are welcome here. And I’d like to talk with you. I’d like you to know that I love you. And I’d like you to know that Alana loved you. And if you knew Alana at all, you know that she would have laid down her life for you.
It’s too late for Alana, but it’s not too late for you.
Don’t listen to the sweet lies of addiction that tell you it’s too late for you to turn back. It isn’t. As long as there is life, there is hope. Tonight, you can find a loving community of support to help you on your way to recovery and to life, the life that you know you can live, the life Alana would want you to live.
A week after Alana’s funeral, Scott got a call from her best friend, crying. Her parents were trying to get her into treatment; calling us was their last hope. We learned that she’d prostituted herself for heroin.
I scribbled on a piece of paper and slid it to Scott. “Tell her she is beautiful and wonderful and loved. Tell her she is precious.” I heard him say those words slowly and deliberately, the way a father would speak to his daughter, and I heard her cry rivers. She entered treatment that night and is still alive today.
Three years later, I can’t say the mystery of this pain is solved. I still worry about Scott. The grief is like a sinkhole at times, swallowing everything in a broad circumference around him. In those times, I have to retreat a bit so I can still see the mountains and the peace they bring.
But I can say that God has our pain. He hears it, and He holds it. The answers don’t always come succinctly. They come in the tiny moments when our lives sit in silent joy or when someone grows from our loss. They come in the laughter of our living children and in the strength He gives us to still rise each day.
While I don’t believe our pain will ever vanish, I believe that God has reconciled it by guiding us to protect others from the same pain.
Alana’s name means pure white light. If I could ask you to do one thing in Alana’s memory, it would be to get the help you need or steer someone else toward recovery. Don’t wait another day.
If we had known of these resources, Alana might still be here. We can’t save her, but perhaps her loss can save you. If you need help today, please reach out to Tim Ryan of A Man in Recovery Foundation (www.TimRyanSpeaks.com). He will connect you with a program we’ve vetted and stand behind.
Know that your Maker stands behind you. Your life is worth everything to Him.