Last week, I sat down at my keypad and within 30 minutes of typing and erasing, I quit and walked away from my attempts to write. What arose in me were feelings so strong. An overwhelming sadness. A gamut of emotion, as I reconnected to the place, the scene, the people and tragedy that shaped us. What had awoken were crevices in my heart that had little voice just years ago. I remember watching Chris breakdown in tears as we were the last ones to leave Francisco’s memorial service and I could not shed one.
He was a young teenager, when his precious body was hit by a moving vehicle. Chris and I were youth pastors to him and his brother. I’ll never forget the call. Hearing the words of the accident while sitting on that green couch in Chris’s family’s living room. Time moved quickly in the stillness of that moment.
Within the hour we met his family in the hospital and visited Francisco in critical condition. He was unconscious but I could feel his sweet soul in the room, hanging between life and death. That night we spoke to him and prayed, I believe he heard our words and felt our presence. Chris and I stayed with his mother and brother. All of us holding the unknowing of how he’d progress through the night. The hospital became our home for the next days as we all waited, watched and hoped for a miracle.
The Sunday morning following the accident was pastor appreciation day. Chris and I were honored along with the other pastors at the church. It felt so off to celebrate our pastorship in the midst of the travesty we were facing. After church we went back to the hospital accompanied by our students and leaders. Chris and I held their hurting hearts as they took time to visit and speak to Francisco. Many hugs and tears filled that afternoon. As students moved in and out of his room, I watched his countenance fade. Soon doctors delivered devastating news of his decreased brain activity and the grave prognoses that he would not be waking up.
My heart felt hollow as we gathered to say goodbye to Francisco. Standing in his hospital room, I didn’t find comfort in his legacy living on through donated organs or the promise that he’d be at peace in heaven. How could you hold such concepts over the sounds of his mother’s weeping and his fading heart monitor? I felt the weight of death, not life.
I still distinctly remember the haunting creak of his hospital bed wheels and the wisp of the manual breathing mask as nurses wheeled him out of the room. As they briskly moved him down the long white hallway, I wanted to run after him. I wanted to stop what was happening. I wanted his mother and brother to have their son and sibling back. I didn’t want to face the grief of loosing a beloved student. I didn’t want to walk through this loss. How could I hold others’ grief when I could not face my own?
Thanksgiving fell on the week of his passing. Our youth group traditionally gathered days before to celebrate over festive foods. That year, Chris told our students to bring a friend to join us in honoring Francisco’s life. One by one teenagers entered the house. It was the largest Thanksgiving meal Youthquake ever had. That night we laughed and cried, we spoke of his life and surrounded his brother with love. No leaders or students had an answer; all we had was each other. Youthquake was a family and that was enough.
The Friday after Thanksgiving a memorial service was held in his honor. Family and friends gathered to speak of his life and celebrate him. As I stood in the pulpit to speak, my speech was clear but my words were an echoing distance from any emotional grounding. Grief felt far. My heart would not touch sadness. I felt ashamed and inhuman. Why couldn’t I be as emotionally present as Chris? Did others notice my lack of tears or my stoic stature?
Following the service, Chris and I stood alone in the chapel. He leaned against the burgundy wood paneling just outside the vestibule. He looked at me with tears in his eyes saying, “I can’t let anyone see me like this.” My response, “It’s okay, we are only human and it’s okay to cry.” Then he said, “Yea, but you don’t cry.” What he didn’t know is I longed to be able to do so. Regardless, that evening I assured him that we are just different and to feel comfortable in his vulnerability. As I exalted his emotions, I lost hope in my ability to connect with my own. I felt utterly empty. My spirit felt lost in its capacity to connect with my own heart.
It’s been over five years since Fransisco’s passing. At Thanksgiving the scenes surrounding his death are familiar in my thoughts. Black Fridays still seem to lull in his honor. Each year, as I move through the holiday festivities, my heart and body recall the empty pain of loosing Francisco and the helplessness I felt in my inability to grieve.
Chris and I take time to remember him together. We speak of how his young life shaped us and his death sobered us. Part of healing is recollecting together, holding the sadness and joy of his beautiful life. Pausing in the movement to create stillness to grieve and pray. It’s in those pauses that often our heart is released to mourn, our spirit heals and tears begin to fall. I paused my writing many times throughout this piece, as tears fell and my spirit healed. My response to my own grief, “It’s okay, we are only human and it’s okay to cry, so go ahead and let your tears fall.”
Anna Smith is Co-Founder and Executive Director of Restore One, where she works diligently on their chief project, The Anchor House. The Anchor House will be the first shelter in the nation designed to meet the needs of sex trafficked and sexually exploited American boys. Anna has a resilient passion to see sex trafficking victims experience true healing and restoration. In her spare time, Anna enjoys biking with her husband Chris, reading, cooking, throwing pottery, running and yoga. Learn more about Restore One here.