By Janet M. Todd
“What about this one?” Tim, my husband, asked as he lifted a piece of glass from the table. “Maybe,” I said without enthusiasm.
He set the piece in place—a perfect fit. If only our lives were so easily organized. This project was supposed to help, but it only reminded me how broken and shattered we were.
Our lives were ordinary. We raised two boys to adolescence and faced the usual struggles everyone faced. But on September 18, 2005, everything changed. Our youngest son, Brian, died by suicide.
“I found one that will work for the corner of the P.” Tim set another piece in place.
The picture was developing nicely, but I was the one stuck.
Diagnosed with an anxiety disorder four years earlier, Brian had made great strides, even with the setbacks he encountered. He was an avid runner, but four knee surgeries in three years kept him from participating in sports. He pursued other outlets: music, drama, and theater. We thanked God for opening new doors for him.
But something had gone horribly wrong. The pieces of his life had not fallen neatly into place. Now he was gone. I wondered where God was. Had he just given us false peace by opening those new doors?
Brian had emerged from his intense teenage years and developed into a wonderful young man. He showed kindness and compassion toward others, always rooting for the underdog. He was president of his thespian troupe and received numerous honors for his theatrical performances. He participated not only with our church but with area churches and their youth groups too. He was making decisions regarding college. Life progressed more smoothly than we could have hoped, in spite of his illness.
Along with anxiety, Brian suffered from migraines, and the medicines taken to relieve the symptoms took their toll. His schedule was hectic. When he complained of insomnia, we urged him to slow down. After his death we discovered he had been having reoccurring nightmares. Brian shared his confusion with friends. Were the sufferings in his mind harder to overcome than his physical restraints?
“Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes” (Ephesians 6:11). Sorting through Brian’s possessions, we found this passage highlighted in his Bible. We could only wonder. Had Brian questioned God during his difficult times? Had he not believed in the strength God could provide? Had it just been too much for him? My bruised heart struggled with the unanswered questions, creating more angst.
“Here’s one for the curve of the O,” Tim offered encouragingly, as he continued his search for just the right pieces.
That was Tim, always looking through a different lens, seeking the positive. He, too, suffered from migraines and anxiety. However, his years of experience allowed him to discover techniques to manage the illness. His efforts kept panic and despair in check. Occupying himself with projects was one way to relax his anxious mind. He thought this would help us work through our grief and help Brian’s friends deal with death in a positive manner. It was our new purpose, a milestone to reach.
Months later we were still piecing together our shattered lives. Grief was more difficult than anything we had ever experienced. I prayed every day that God would give me the strength to trust and believe that life could be good again. But how? Our loss was so great. I read highlighted Scriptures in Brian’s Bible, but the power of the words did not calm the turbulence in my heart.
Project of Hope
I opened my Bible to Romans 15:13: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” Relying on God had been important while things were going smoothly. Why was I not relying on him now that things were in turmoil? Daily I prayed, asking God to comfort my aching heart.
Tim told me we would make it through the pain by taking baby steps. Do one small thing. Get through that. Do one more thing. Get through that. Just like the plaque we were working on, placing one piece of glass at a time into its proper position. A laborious task. But as we laid each small piece, a picture took form. It calmed Tim as we worked, and I felt God was working to show me the value as well.
The project developed because of Brian’s novelty bottle collection, 1,000 strong. He had designed lamps, decor, and pieces of furniture made from those bottles. We did not have the heart to recycle them. Since the bottles were important to him, they were important to us. We wanted to do something to honor him. But what? Was asking God what to do with a set of bottles too minor of a request for him to address?
Travis, our oldest son, shared a message of faith, hope, and love with friends after his brother’s death. We heard countless stories of how Brian had shared his faith with friends too. We knew he had loved and was loved, but we believed his illness prevented him from seeing hope. Inspired by God, we started making plaques for his friends. We wanted something to offer hope to them and felt God was opening a door for us now. We took Brian’s precious bottles and shattered them.
The shattering reminded us of how we felt—fragmented, broken, in pieces that resembled nothing of our former lives. Taking those pieces and making something new reminded us what we were doing in real life—putting our lives back together. Our efforts would not make another bottle but something unique and different, symbolizing the new life we were building.
We wanted something of Brian’s to remind his friends about him and to encourage them, despite their grief. We knew they were suffering too. They had collected bottles for him, knowing how much he liked their intense blue color. By using them in our project, the impact would be special. The message had to be special too. Was this really what God was calling us to do?
Thus began the making of our HOPE plaques. By spelling the word hope with shattered pieces of glass, we confirmed God’s message in spite of our tragedy. It was our attempt to bring meaning back into our lives. This was something we could do. It had value. And it was therapeutic.
“I just found the last part of the E,” Tim said, as he put the final piece in place.
I looked at the plaque and sighed. In a strange way, the peace that had eluded me seeped into my heart. A calm embraced me that I had not felt in months. I knew this was the right thing to do with Brian’s bottles. The message was perfect for his friends and for me. I prayed they would see the connection and be comforted too.
The project had evolved, just as we were evolving as grieving parents. This stage of the plaque was complete, but there was more to do before it was finished. We had made progress in our grief, but there was more we needed to do to heal. We would continue grieving, but we were not alone. God walked with us, leading and directing every step of the way.
Today, with the completion of each plaque, a sense of accomplishment and peace envelops me. Seeing the finished creations reminds me of the beauty that still surrounds us. As I examine the plaques, I see the jagged edges and sharp points, but they are lovely nonetheless. Just like my life, they have imperfections, but God’s splendor is evident throughout those defects. The blue glass against the clear background sends a striking message of hope. I embrace the plaque and its message.
Step-by-step Tim and I are rebuilding our lives and achieving peace. With each action we take, God is showing us possibility again, piece by shattered piece. It is coming through unexpected things, just as God’s promise always does. Because of his goodness, we have achieved a peace I never imagined would be possible again. “For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope” (Romans 15:4).
The God of hope is indeed granting us peace, one piece at a time.
Janet M. Todd resides in Fremont, Nebraska.