For years, I carried a sizeable two-year planning calendar with me at all times. As an event planner for entertainers and ministries, I needed to have available booking dates at my fingertips. Ink on those pages meant money in the bank; it also represented opportunities for lives to be impacted.
Not only did I manage other people’s events, but I also had many speaking events of my own. Saturday mornings, I led four-hour seminars training people to do closings for title companies and lenders. On Sundays, I often stood in the pulpit for pastors throughout the state of Florida who needed a temporary replacement.
I was 53 years old and going strong when suddenly, my world turned upside down. It was Saturday, May 10, 2008, and if you were to look back at the inscription on that day’s page, you’d find bold, black letters that read: “The Worst Day of My Life!”
It started as an ordinary Saturday. I was finishing up a training seminar in a South Florida conference room when the guest clerk appeared at the back of the room. She waved urgently, motioning for me to come to talk to her. I apologized to my clients for the interruption and went to see what she needed.
“Mr. Avery, you have a family emergency. You need to call home immediately!”
I excused myself from the room and called my wife, Anna. Through tears, she said, “Honey, I’m so sorry to tell you this, but Heath was killed this morning in a car accident.”
My heart stopped, and my body went numb. Anna’s words seemed impossible to believe. Heath was the oldest of our six children—our firstborn child who had brought so much joy into our family.
I walked back into the seminar room and told everyone what had happened. Numbly, I passed out their certificates of completion, then packed up my materials and headed to the car. I was desperate to get back home to Anna and my kids in Daytona. We were a tight-knit family, and I knew that Heath’s death would shake our world. I had no idea, though, just how much it would impact mine.
Four hours later, I pulled into my driveway. Anna and our pastor were standing in the front yard. I ran to them, and we all wept. Nothing in my life had prepared me for the pain of losing a child or the burden I felt to ease my wife and children’s grief.
I entered the house and saw four of my beloved children and other loved ones, their eyes all swollen from tears. (Our oldest daughter was expecting our first grandchild any day, and she was unable to travel.) Suddenly, Job’s words sprang forth from my lips: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised” (Job 1:21 NIV).
Over the coming days, I stoically clung to this verse as I tried to remember all the many blessings God had given me through the years. I knew God was good, that He had a plan. I knew He could take all my pain and use it for good.
But can I be candid? None of that did anything to alleviate the pain in my heart.
In the days that followed, I went into Pastor Pat mode. I made sure everyone who came to offer their condolences was ministered to and I worked hard to make them feel welcome. I must have looked so strong on the outside. But inwardly, I was crumbling.
As it happens after the death of a loved one, everyone eventually returned home, and the phone calls slowed down. With the activity and interaction with people gone, I suddenly found myself alone with my thoughts. And it wasn’t long before those thoughts began to lead me down a dark and lonely path.
For decades, my job had been to encourage hearts and lift others’ eyes to God, the One who could help them in their time of need. I was Pastor Pat, the man with the biblical answers. But now, in my own grief, those answers eluded me. And instead of sharing my pain and questions with others, I buried them deep inside and kept pushing through each day.
I went back to work within a week. I had employees to manage and events to hold. But behind my office door, I was an empty shell of a man, tossed about by unfamiliar waves of anger, sadness, grief, and guilt. Surely, I could have done something to prevent my son’s death.
My anxiety level increased as the darkness enveloped me. The pain in my heart grew more and more intense. Completely out of character for me, I went to a liquor store and purchased a fifth of vodka, hoping that that clear liquid would stop the pain. I left the store with a brown-bagged bottle in hand and went to my office.
I hid the bottle in a locked cabinet and then waited at my desk for the ladies who worked for me to leave. The moment the door closed behind them, I poured myself a drink. I kept pouring and drinking until the pain in my heart subsided enough to go home and face my grieving family.
This went on for months. I managed to hide my new habit until the day I nearly drank myself to death. Late that afternoon, I drank an entire bottle, passed out, and fell out of my desk chair. When I came to, I somehow mustered up the wherewithal to call my wife for help.
I can’t imagine Anna’s pain when she walked into my office and saw me, her once joy-filled husband, lying intoxicated on the floor. An empty vodka bottle and fresh vomit on my desk quickly exposed the reason.
Incredibly, my sweet wife didn’t say one angry word to me. Instead, she held me in her arms, told me she loved me, and promised we’d get through this valley. I then watched Anna clean up my mess. Talk about a humiliating moment.
Afterward, she gently asked me why I had done this to myself. My wife and I weren’t drinkers. I told her the simple truth: my heart was broken and I didn’t know how to deal with it. We agreed that I needed to get help, but I didn’t follow through. Instead, I continued to drink to suppress the pain.
So many nights, I sat at my desk, drinking and pouring out my heart to God. “Oh Lord, my heart is so broken for my family and me. There’s not a moment that goes by that I don’t think of my son. Lord, this has just messed up all our lives!” Then, I’d wallow in guilt and beg God to show me what I had done wrong or what I could have done to prevent Heath’s death. A month later, I drank myself unconscious again. Then I did it again…and then again.
Looking back, I am sure I was trying to kill myself. I so desperately wanted the pain to stop. Anna was so patient with me, but the final time, she looked me in the eyes and said, “Honey, I cannot continue to live like this. Something has to change.”
Her words pierced my heart. I realized that I was hurting my sweet Anna, the one I loved most in this world. If I didn’t change, I might lose her and my family…or they might lose me.
I’d been so caught up in my grief that I hadn’t considered how my actions were hurting others. Anna was right: something did need to change. Together, we sought professional help. God led us to a knowledgeable medical doctor who helped me deal with the anxiety and depression I was experiencing. I also began seeing a Christian psychologist who provided a safe place for me to unload my burdens. I shared my pain and struggles with pastor friends who stood with me and kept me accountable.
An amazing thing happened when I exposed the despair of my heart—the darkness began to lift. Hope that life would somehow be okay again began to stir inside me. My mind became clearer, and I was able to concentrate and carry out responsibilities more easily. Once again, I found comfort in the biblical truths I had always known and believed.
It’s been 12 years since Heath’s death. My heart still aches for my son, but praise God, His grace has freed me from the clutches of darkness. And today, I have the privilege of helping others move forward through their pain. “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God” (2 Corinthians 1:3–4 NIV).
When I hear that someone has lost a child, I want to wrap my arms around them and say, “I understand.” I also want them to know that God understands. He knows the pain of losing His Son too. And He cares. “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34:18 NIV).
Perhaps you know the grief I’ve described above, and like me, you’ve tried to hide or numb it. I was so afraid, so embarrassed to share the depth of my pain. I didn’t want people who looked to me for guidance to know I had weaknesses.
I don’t think I’m the only pastor who has felt this way. Only now, over a decade later, am I finally sharing the intimate details of that period of my life. Why? So others will know the dangers of isolating yourself in your pain. I also want people to know, there is light at the end of that dark, lonely tunnel of grief and depression.
Weeping may last for a night, but joy will come in the morning (Psalm 30:5). With God’s help and the help of others, you will breathe again. Laugh again. Smile. It’ll take time, maybe years, but with Christ’s love and the love of His people, that day will come. Don’t give up.