The Loss of a Beloved Son
About the Guest
One loss can send you reeling, but how does someone recover from two losses happening so close together? Well-known Christian psychologist Gary Oliver and his wife, Carrie, were praying their way through a diagnosis of cancer when their 23-year-old son, Matt, took his own life. Gary tells how God’s faithfulness carried him through those dark days.
Gary Oliver and his wife, Carrie, were praying their way through a diagnosis of cancer when their 23-year-old son, Matt, took his own life.
The Loss of a Beloved Son
So, what I told the evil one was that every time you try to condemn me for what I could have done differently and boy no one beat me up more than I did – but I say every time that you try to get me to doubt God and who He is I’m going to give God thanks. So, the more Satan tried to accuse me the more I find myself going to the throne and saying God thank you – thank you for your goodness, thank you for your grace, and thank you God for memories.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Friday, April 2. Our host is the President of FamilyLife Dennis Rainey and I’m Bob Lepine. Gary Oliver shares with us today how he experienced the reality of Psalm 30 verse 5—weeping may tarry for the night but joy comes with the morning.
Welcome to FamilyLife Today thanks for joining us. You know for years I’ve heard people talk, and I don’t want to trivialize this in any way or make it lighter than it ought to be but you hear people talk about the one-two punch. The thought is in a boxing match if you get hit once you can recover, but when somebody gives you the one-two when you get that second punch it’s pretty tough to recover from. This week we’ve been hearing from our friend Gary Oliver about a pretty significant punch that he took in his relationship. Let me just say Gary, “Welcome back to FamilyLife Today – nice to have you here!
Gary: Thank you Bob – thank you!
Bob: You and your wife Carrie received a diagnosis two years before she passed that she had metastatic pancreatic cancer right, and you had two years to live with her. That’s a pretty hard punch to take as a husband but there was another punch Dennis that Gary and Carrie had no idea was coming.
Dennis: Yes, and let me just take a moment and introduce Dr. Gary Oliver to our audience. Gary is an author. He is a counselor and a university and seminary professor. He is the Executive Director of the Center for Relationship Enrichment at John Brown University in Siloam Springs. Gary’s also a good friend – goes back to The Promise Keeper Days where we’ve shared in some great moments there.
I want to read something to you Gary that I think you’ll identify with as Bob was talking about the one-two punch here because as many of our listeners know I had a granddaughter whose name was Molly—the daughter of our son-in-law Jake, and daughter Rebecca who lived only seven days. Rebecca made this statement in her book that she wrote with Barbara: A Symphony in the Dark. She said, “God was sufficient for us in Molly’s life and continues to be in the ongoing pain of her death, and God will be enough for us and whatever the future brings.”
Now, when she made that statement she was pregnant with a second baby. What she didn’t know at the time she wrote this was that little baby would die in the womb. His name was Micah. He lived 14 weeks in the womb and then she gave birth to him, and he’s buried in the same grave as his sister Molly. For you it wasn’t the loss of a baby, as tragic as that can be, you had a tragedy in the midst of saying goodbye to your wife that as I heard about this Gary it just felt unspeakable to me – the grief that you must have experienced as a father.
Gary: I have three boys – two of them are here, and one of them is with the Lord in Heaven – my middle son Matt. Matt was 23 years old, very bright, very creative, very funny. He was six foot three, weighed about 225 pounds.
Bob: Now wait; he’s your son?
Gary: I was going to say, “Yes, I was his biological father.” Many wondered about that Bob but I didn’t get those genes obviously. But, Matt struggled with prescription drugs, with alcohol; he got in with a rough group, made some unhealthy choices.
Dennis: Was he what you’d call a prodigal?
Gary: He was clearly a prodigal Dennis.
Bob: Going back to when junior high years?
Gary: Probably junior high and then it got worse in high school. He went to a Christian school up in Indiana but he was involved there. No matter where you go you can find a certain element. But, the funny thing was that parallel with the darkness in Matt’s life I took Matt to Promise Keepers events with me and we would weep together when we’d stand behind the stage and see thousands of guys coming down. Matt loved to study the word and discuss and debate theology with me.
Dennis: So, he had a relationship with Christ?
Gary: Oh clearly – oh no doubt about it and there were times Dennis when we thought we might get a phone call that Matt had been crashed on the road or something or that Matt had taken his life. There were times when he talked about suicide. We had hour-long talks together. But, Matt had started to turn a corner in his life. He was about six months away – one semester from graduating from college, he was planning on going into ministry, we would spend hours discussing books like by John Piper: Don’t Waste Your Life.
Dennis: You know to that point I just have to say this because there are some who are listening to this broadcast who are experiencing the grief of living with a child because that child is denying the faith that was passed onto him. That’s a unique grief in and of itself that you and Carrie had shouldered the burden of for almost a decade?
Gary: That’s right!
Bob: I have to ask you about it. Here it seems like a contradiction to have a son who you’re saying is debating theology, and weeping at Promise Keepers, and then going out and having too much to drink and taking prescription pain meds?
Gary: Absolutely. It didn’t make sense apart from darkness, which by God’s grace I did understand, darkness. Long term planning for my son was maybe a minute in advance, and he didn’t do well learning the consequences of his choices but he’d started to.
Dennis: Let me ask you a question about that. Could it have been that his Mom’s diagnosis with pancreatic cancer contributed to him taking an evaluation of his life and helping him turn that corner?
Gary: Well, we think so Dennis. I mean Carrie and I talked.
Dennis: I mean she was given a diagnosis of only three months to live – survived that by virtually two years. He had to be watching this happen – had to be watching you all live your lives in light of eternity.
Gary: What was amazing throughout this time he loved his Mom, and he loved his Dad. Sometimes he’d come home and I could see his pupils were dilated, and he would say, “Dad – the stupid choices I make aren’t about you, and are not about Mom.”
Dennis: Did she ever make a statement to him as she knew she was dying – did she ever turn to him and say, “Matt, I’m heading onto heaven. I not only want to see you there but I want you to live your life in light of eternity for the glory of God.” Did she ever have that?
Gary: Absolutely – with tears in her eyes and with tears in his eyes. That was the astonishing thing and he would say to her – he’d say, “Mom I don’t want to do anything to bring grief to you.” I know that was his heart, and he’d made some tremendous strides – he had stopped drinking as far as we knew.
The week before he died on a Tuesday I’d taken Carrie to get some ice cream at Braums’, and Matt worked across the street at Walgreen’s. So, I said hey let’s call over and see if Matty you know wants some ice cream. So, I called over and he said, “Yes I can take a break.” We got some ice cream, we took it over, and I walked into Walgreen’s – my 6’3 son comes up to his 5’8 Dad and gives me this big hug, and smiled. We chatted, I give him the ice cream, had about ten minutes together and then he said, Well, Dad I have to go back to work,” and I said, “Okay honey” – I call my boys honey and sweetie – they’ve asked me to stop it in public!
So, I said okay honey, and I went to give him a hug. Probably for the last year whenever we would part he’d give me a hug, and also give me a kiss. So, he gave me a hug and a kiss, said I love you Dad. I said I love you too. Friday night that Friday, I called him – we talked on the phone about oh 35 minutes and had a great conversation and at the end I said, “I love you son,” and he said, “Dad, I love you too.”
Two o’clock that morning I got a knock on my door and Matt had taken his own life. Gone out hunting with a friend and have no idea why. There was no note. I’ve written on suicide, I’ve spoken on it, I’ve taught, I walked with tons of families who’ve had a child or a loved one take their own life. I thank God you guys that the last time I saw my son the last words he heard from me face to face were I love you son, and the last words I heard was I love you Dad, and the last words on the phone were I love you son, and I love you Dad.
Carrie got up and Andrew our youngest son it was unbelievable. I just said, “God I don’t know how I’m going to do this.” I was already on the ropes. I was already drained. I had no energy. I had no answers. Financially with all the stuff going on and Carrie was deteriorating and we had another visit down to Houston to M. D. Anderson and I said, “God I can’t do this – I just can’t do this – I just can’t do this.”
You said that you’ll never give us more than we can handle – well, you’re really pushing your luck right now because you never experienced what I’ve experienced. You never had a wife who had cancer for two years. You never had to see your wife be eaten away by cancer. Course He saw His bride the church—a lot of things happened there, but that’s different.
Yet, we made it through, and that next morning I had two friends show up: Dale Schlafer and Rick came to the front door, couple of my pastors from church came over – that week is a blur. My kids flew in, friends flew in. We had an amazing service at Fellowship Bible Church. The church staff was astonishing and we had a praise service that went on and on. Matt had touched a lot of lives. I got e-mails from friends in college who said they started Bible memory because of Matt.
I had some guys who said to me you know this may sound funny but I stopped drinking. I stopped taking drugs because of your son. One guy decided to go into the ministry after a conversation with Matt. So, here my son who ends up taking his own life was still used of God in mighty, mighty ways.
But, when Matt died something left Carrie: A will to live, a fight, which I don’t know how, it lasted as long as it did. But, something happened, and it was like she was just on cruise control. I just saw a rapid deterioration after that, and I was not able to grieve Matt really because I was still trying to keep Carrie alive. I had my youngest son Andrew there, and you have all kinds of details whenever there’s a funeral, tons of thousands of e-mails, and notes – Dennis you can relate to this.
Praise the Lord – Praise the Lord for good friends. Yet, you want to answer each one. You want to talk to each person.
Dennis: And you’re grateful for the prayers that are being offered for you and your family in those moments.
Gary: In fact it’s impossible to communicate how grateful right? It’s just overwhelmingly supportive.
Dennis: It is the most important thing a person can do for another human being in that moment!
Gary: I had many people who said, “I don’t know what to say, but I love you and I’m praying for you.” I just want to say to our listeners you know if you know someone where there’s a loss and you don’t know what to say – many folks don’t say anything – if you don’t know what to say – say to them you know what I don’t know what to say right now, but I love you or I care for you and I’m praying for you. Those words are priceless!
Dennis: The interesting thing is in these moments and Gary you know this better than I do – parents can condemn themselves, and think about what they should of, ought to, could have done. Yet there really is not much purpose served by wasting a lot of emotional energy introspecting around these matters.
Gary: Satan was very faithful more so with me than for Carrie. Because when again our job as Dad’s guys is to take care of our kids isn’t it? It’s to keep them alive, it’s to help them, it’s to keep them safe, and it’s to protect them. Well I had failed with my wife – my wife was dying of cancer. I had failed with my middle son Matt who I loved dearly so I was not very much of a Dad and not very much of a husband. I was kind of a loser in the two most important areas of my life, and the evil one made that very clear to me.
Bob: How did you get from that pit back to a sense of equilibrium?
Gary: The habits of prayer! I know this sounds like I’m spiritualizing and being cliché but the habits of prayer that Carrie and I had developed for years before hand is all I knew is to cry out. I just told God how bankrupt I was. How empty I was, how inadequate I was. I knew that I had nothing in my self whereby I could make the arrangements for the funeral, deal with family members, and every day at the mortuary I went and viewed Matt’s body – everyday. I sat there and I wept, and I prayed, and I laughed. Nathan went with me every day also.
Dennis: Why did you do that?
Gary: I think it was therapeutic, Dennis! I went there because I knew he was dead. I knew he was gone, but I needed to be present with what I knew was just a shell, and let God talk to me. Something happened during those times, and again this may sound bizarre to some listeners.
But as I sat there not even standing over the casket, but just sat there on the first pew of the little chapel there I found myself thanking God for all the things in Matt’s life – for his sense of humor, for his joy, for how he made people laugh, for the lives he touched, for the kids he impacted, for the cartoons that he used to draw, for the jokes he used to play on me, for his equally warped sense of humor.
Somehow God helped me to see that a big part of grief is what you’ve lost, but a part of healthy grieving is also celebrating what was. Most people that I’ve worked with have spent their whole time mourning what will never be again, and that’s legitimate and spend so little time celebrating the reason why we’re mourning. The reason why I still ache when I talk about Matt, or about Carrie is that there was so much to be thankful for.
So, what I told the evil one was that I said, “You know every time you try to condemn me for what I could have done differently”, and boy no one beat me up Dennis more than I did – but Carrie said honey it’s not about you – these are some choices that Matt made, and a lot of my friends said the same thing, and those who knew Matt.
But, I said,” Every time that you try to get me to doubt God, and who He is I’m going to give God thanks.” So, the more Satan tried to accuse me the more I’d find myself going to the throne and saying God – thank you. Thank you for your goodness, thank you for your grace, and thanking God for memories.
Dennis: You know I’ve heard you say you only had 23 years with Matt but God used Matt in your life to point out your own rigidity, impatience, lack of grace. God used your son in your life in a powerful way, and that was a part of what you were giving thanks for.
Gary: Absolutely! Dennis whatever I do today that’s of any value to others or the kingdom a big part of that has come from my time with Matt. The hours I spent at two, three o’clock in the morning waiting up for him, shedding tears over him, pacing the floor, searching God. What can I do more of, what can I do differently, what should I do less of. God taught me a lot through my son, and I’m a better man – I was a better husband at least for two more months, and a better leader because of Matt’s life.
Bob: Let me ask you about that two-month period from Matt’s death to your wife’s death. You talked about really not having the capacity to grieve Matt’s death. Here you have to continue to be caretaker to a wife whose health is failing, who is weak, and who needs physical support from you. When and how were you able to grieve Matt’s death – how did that happen?
Gary: Probably about a year after Matt’s death I became much more aware of a pain of missing him. It takes a long time to grieve. It doesn’t just happen overnight. I still have times when I have a song come on the radio or I see some birds that Carrie loved where I’ll be driving and I’ll just find myself tearing up or with Matty. But, that’s a good thing – that’s not a bad thing!
Dennis: Carrie was in the process of dying herself – how did she process this? I mean you mentioned earlier that the decline steepened in terms of her moving quicker towards death but in the midst of that did she question God – did she doubt God? I mean suicide is a really hard thing for someone to absorb. It’s a rejection of sorts!
Gary: It’s still hard Dennis – it’s still hard - two, two and a half years later – absolutely. Carrie never doubted God but I remember a verse that became one of the last verses she asked me to read to her. We were at a point in both of our lives where we were just on life support. Now, all we knew how to do was to reach out and touch each other, and have friends who would pray for us on the phone. But, there’s a verse in Habakkuk, which if you’ve had your quiet time in Habakkuk today get a life okay.
Dennis: Yes – really!
Gary: Because you have too much free time. But, listen to this verse in Habakkuk – Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crops fail and the fields produce no food, and there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls yet I will rejoice in the Lord. I will be joyful in God my Savior. The sovereign Lord is my strength; He makes my feet like the feet of a deer, and enables me to go onto the heights.
We just said, God you’ve been faithful for us for 27 years of marriage, and we have nowhere else to go – we have nowhere else to go. For those two months success was clearly getting out of bed, helping Carrie stay alive and for me putting one foot in front of the next, and not letting her see how afraid I was. I mean she knew that I was afraid and trying to be strong, not fault strong but strong for my son, and just saying God, somehow, somewhere I know you’re going to show up course what I didn’t realize then that He had showed up.
The strength that I had to even cry out, to get up was Him, was His energy, His strength, His presence. I learned a big lesson is that oftentimes when God’s doing the greatest work in our life we are not consciously aware of it but He’s faithful. He promised – God has no choice but to keep His word.
Dennis: You know Gary as I’ve listened to you share your story Ecclesiastes 7 has just been pinging around in my brain because it says, “It’s good to go to the house of mourning” because in the end that’s really the end of every living thing. Everybody’s going to die and it says in that same passage the living takes it to heart. Your message that you’ve shared here on FamilyLife Today this week is a message for the living. Who’s your master, who are you serving, who’s building your home and how will you face the future?
Bob: You know I think it’s significant for us to think about these things on this day when we turn our attention and focus our hearts on the reality of the sufferings of Christ on our behalf. The sin bearing that took place at Calvary, and yet we call this Good Friday because of that, and we look forward to the celebration on Sunday of His resurrection.
Gary, as you talked about the strength that comes from Him – it is that power of the resurrected Christ in you that gives you the hope that this life is not all there is, that you’ll see your wife and your son again, and you’ll be together in the presence of the one who brought you through the valley together.
I would just encourage our listeners to first of all to take some time today to reflect on what it is that we’re focused on at this time of year – the death, and the burial of the resurrection of Christ – the essence of the Gospel. What sets Christianity apart from every other major religion or truth claim in the world that we serve a risen Savior who is in the world today. Because He lives we can face tomorrow.
Then for those listeners who do find themselves in the midst of despair and a sense of hopelessness and grief that is oppressive I would point them to resources like the book that your daughter Rebecca wrote with your wife Barbara called: A Symphony in the Dark that talks about how your family walked through the valley of the shadow of death when your granddaughter Molly was born almost two years ago now. Or, Jerry Sittser’s book: A Grace Disguised which is a book that I know you’ve recommended to thousands of folks who find themselves in the midst of grief.
There’s information about both of those resources on our website FamilyLifeToday.com or you can call 1-800-FLTODAY to find out how to order those books. Again the website is FamilyLifeToday.com. The phone number is 1-800 F as in “family” L as in “life” and then the word TODAY.
With that we have to wrap things up for today, hope you have a great weekend, hope you and your family are able to worship together and celebrate the resurrection of Christ this Sunday.
I hope you can be back with us on Monday. We’re going to talk to a Dad who did a research project a while back - he wanted to find out what it is that causes kids to get along, and to keep getting along throughout their lives: What causes kids to be close to their siblings. We’ll hear his findings coming up on Monday. Hope you can be with us for that.
I want to thank our engineer today Keith Lynch and our entire broadcast production team on behalf of our host Dennis Rainey I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back Monday for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas.
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