It Could Have Been Worse by Tom Stipe

We were packing our final articles of clothing that evening for a morning flight that would take our group on a tour to Israel. We had planned it for a year. Maryellen and I are seasoned tour teachers and we were ready to go. I was already snoozing and Maryellen was about to zip her bag closed when the phone rang with a call that every parent dreads…“Is this Tom Stipe, the father of Brett Thomas Stipe…‘Yes’…Your son has been in an accident, he was hit by an SUV while riding his bicycle…” If you have never received that kind of call, as a parent you probably have imagined the horror of it and I hope it never happens to you.

We raced our way to the trauma center where I found my son lying in the Surgical ICU bleeding profusely out of his right ear with fresh abrasions covering most of his face. Over his right eye was an impact wound that the surgeons were preparing to stitch closed. The CT scan showed bleeding on the brain that they deemed “not critical.” My first thought as a typical non-medical civilian was, “How can a brain bleed not be critical?” The scan showed a skull fracture that ran from the base of his skull through his middle ear thus the bleeding and the discovery of hearing loss.

Then I heard it for the first time–from somewhere behind me–in the hustle of medical staff, “It could have been so much worse.” I was stunned by the statement that I had heard applied to so many other people in the past.  But I was game for the journey into the land of Oz…“He cudda and then it shudda and you know it cudda been worse.”

Indeed, I pondered the newly introduced non-realities. Yes, he could have died. He could have had many broken bones but didn’t. He could have injured his spine but was spared. He could have had internal bleeding but no such sign. He could have had serious brain damage instead of a “brain injury.” It could have been a lot of things but instead it was what it was…just really horribly bad.

During the next five days, four of which were in the SICU, we heard “It could’ve been worse,” a hundred times. “Some people never leave this hospital” we were reminded again and again. After a while and with considerable guilt, I made a decision about all the imagined scenarios meant to make us feel better. I determined that trying to live in that mindset for comfort was really an act of blind gratitude and not faith.  It was a false Neverland of what might have been. A mysterious LaLa Land of “there-there” that distracted me from the obvious truth…what is, is really, really BAD in and of itself and that is what I have to take to God.

It was not someone else’s bad or worse but my own set of reactions to real time suffering. The Bible calls these feelings “lament” and there’s even a book in the Good Book that bears that name, Lamentations. This is the real time, current, actual, in front of your eyes panic and fear at the sight of a loved one suffering and facing life altering consequences. “It could have been worse” does nothing for me at that point because it is NOT what is. What is, is what we take to God in a panic of prayer, nothing more, nothing less. The rest is religious decoration.

David bares his soul to God in Psalm 55,

My heart is severely pained within me, And the terrors of death have fallen upon me. 5 Fearfulness and trembling have come upon me, And horror has overwhelmed me. 6 So I said, “Oh, that I had wings like a dove! I would fly away and be at rest. Psalms 55:4-6 (NKJV)

Praise the Lord, it could have been worse” is a fine place to visit for thanksgiving, prayer, praise, thought’s of angelic protection, the imaginings of spiritual warfare and all of the rest. Where you live in the moment I’m describing, however–is, “Oh God, Oh God, Oh God have mercy”–and that is where honesty and authenticity with God meet.

The tendency for people, especially Christians, is to try too hard to say the right spiritual thing. “You lost an arm but at least you have another one”….”Look, your son is eating his Jello this morning in the ICU, Praise God.” Or in another personal example “Your granddaughter has Down Syndrome but at least she has the very best kind.” While well meaning, many believers don’t understand the many different levels of lament and sorrow. We are so accustomed to surface communication in the church today that “I just don’t know what to say” turns into saying something dumb albeit spiritual.” We need to go deeper than the shallow “Christianese” language that dominates the landscape of believers and their fellowship of suffering (more to come on that).

A lesson can be learned from Jeremiah,

“For these things I weep; My eye, my eye overflows with water; Because the comforter, who should restore my life, Is far from me. My children are desolate because the enemy prevailed.” Lam. 1:16 (NKJV)

This may not be theologically true but it is how Jeremiah felt at that moment of pain and abandonment. If my faith in the sovereignty of God is supposed to be a fast acting opiate, meant to mood alter me through the hurt and outrage of the moment, then that drug will have to wait. I will eventually become the “Romans 8:28 boy”, I’m supposed to be.  But for now the fear, worry, anger and the host of other parental emotions must flow freely, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death”… reminds me, “LIFE… is not a fly over“!

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25 thoughts on “It Could Have Been Worse by Tom Stipe

  1. Very well said. I’ll take a line from your statements above and say: I am so sorry this happened. I don’t know what else to say. I pray Thomas’ recovery is swift and complete. Your church loves you guys.

  2. Great post. I can relate to what you are saying here. In our recent difficulty we heard all kinds of pat answers and quick-fix responses, but the most offensive were those who tried to play down the seriousness of what had happened. We were comforted most by those who grasped the gravity of the situation and grieved and prayed together with us, rather than by those who told us “everything’s alright, don’t worry”.
    Because of what happened to us and because of some other recent tragedies in our church, we have started giving practical instruction to our church about how to minister to people who are grieving, because superficial clichés or just ignoring the situation, because other people’s grief makes you uncomfortable, doesn’t help anyone.

  3. Tom my heart truly aches for Thomas and your family. I have experienced such a call as you have received (even though it was for my nephew and not my son), yet I still have no idea what you must be going through in your situation. All of our “Christian ease” merely seems like a shallow pep talk, which is empty and meaningless to someone grieving in the depths of their soul. We need to learn to weep as Jesus wept with Mary and Martha, even though He knew Lazarus would live. The Holy Spirit is able to intercede for us in our moans and groans, because it is in our cries from the depths of our heart that our soul is screaming out to God.

  4. Boy do you guys get it. Thomas is getting better by the day but brain injuries have to be pampered. Maryellen and I are experiencing the first full day of “it” being over. We are numb and grateful that you understood my little rant. Thanks, Wendy, Nick and Carrie your comments are comforting.

    Tom,

  5. You made me cry, sharing your pain. Remembering my Grand-daughter in ICU too many times in her 1st year fighting for her little life, and crying out to God to have mercy on her, my son and daughter-in-law as well as ourselves. Asking why and trying to trust in the sovereignty of God. She survived, we made it through and now see God working all things for our good, but not before He worked on/in us. We love you, our hearts are w/ you and we continue to pray for God’s working for and in you all.

  6. I like to call it, “You don’t know what your talking about, ignorance”.
    Until you yourself have lived through traumatic experiences, others have no clue as to what you are going through.
    People say what they have heard others say to TRY & add comfort to your pain, which they know nothing of. But that is when grace & understanding come into play.
    It is really hard, especially in these very traumatic situations, to know what to say or how to react to bring comfort to those who are devastated. And we WANT to bring comfort to those we care so much for. So we, on blind, “I know I don’t know what your going through ignorance”, say only what we know to say.
    Thomas has been a blessing, in this tragedy, to God’s glory in saving Thomas to tell of God’s mercy on his life to bring others to God’s grace.
    Tom & Maryellen, you are truly blessed people & we pray for you & yours always! May God’s peace be forever with you and your families. Everything happens for a reason…… Ecclesiastes 3 Everything happens to glorify Him….

  7. Thank you Connie and Deborah. It is obvious that you understand and as time crawls by the promises of God begin to rise out of the emotional wreckage.

    Tom,

  8. Praying for you. These are the classes that we never want to sign up for, but are sometimes enrolled in. Y’all have stood with us through a couple of these, and we are standing with you and sharing in your reality, with understanding. Praying for healing, for all of the damage, as well as on-going restoration. I’ve tried to understand the ‘peace that passes understanding’ before, but have slowly learned to rest in it. May that rest, and the peace, continue to be yours.

    Blessings—–Danny & Cher

  9. Danny,
    If there is any couple that understand these sufferings it is you and Cher. We are just today coming out of that panic mode that Wimber taught about. You know the “Oh God, Oh God” prayers. You have always been too down to earth to be sucked into religious false realities anyway and your voice in this is comforting.
    Thanks my friend,
    Tom,

  10. Love it that you are being honest about what you’re going through–thank you–hate it that you are going through it. Continuing to pray. And differently. So glad we have a God that we can get mad at, and that He’s big enough to take it. No “there there now” here. Love you guys!

  11. My wife and I have become professionals in the area of parental anxiety after 25 years of epilepsy with our 27 year old son, 3 to 4 ICU visits a a year, Although we have alot of experience, the truth is we are always hyper-vegilent and waiting for the ax to fall. I curtainly relate to Jeremiah, and after many yearts now, have absolutly no anger toward God at all…well sometimes, i’m not holding a grudge though, it’s usually in the moment! There is so much suffering out there, who am I? We did get so tortured during my sons last ICU visit. Epelipsy has this hyper-relegous component, so my son converted to catholism a few years back. You can get healing through the true church you know, although he hedges his bets, by calling Richard Roberts! I hope he is not sending some of his disability checks to Richard Roberts for that promised healing, pay first please! Anyway, after being a student of scriptute for 30 years and of epelipsy for 25, I had to listen to an endless lecture on faith, miracals, and the honour that suffering brings. There are so many catholics who would be just right at home in a Benny Hinn miracal service. I finally had to open up a can of scriptural wup a–! The anxiety Christ had the night before the crucifiction…so I was allowed to be anxious too and please, you can go away! To be totrured like taht as as our kid sat in ICU! Oh well some people just don’t know better, although I wish thay had better training and teaching. Hang in there Stipp family! Our son made it through college with honours with his epelipsy, things went south 2 years ago, now he has a vegus nerve stimulator, is on 4 anti epelileptic drugs, has some brain damage (we are sure), converted to catholism and follows Richard Roberts! His life will probably be cut short, He suffers constantly, and we have lost the kid we once had. As you quoted, ‘though God slays me’! There is alot of pain out there, everyone gets some, but oh, some just don’t deserve it, our children!

  12. Lord God Ed,
    This is that category of prayer that is just “Oh God, Oh God” I can’t imagine what you live with except I may have gotten a glimpse through the tunnel and can some hoe feel compassion. I have thought many time about the depth of the Garden experience of Jesus when He thought about maybe a different path. You can relate in a special way. You have my prayers.
    Tom,

  13. Tom, we are SO praying for you guys. One thing I’ve found, the “it could have been worse” statement does lead us to thanksgiving for what is NOT, BUT someone else’s “worse” does not diminish our what IS. Facing reality is definitely where we find authenticity. Thanks for sharing your raw emotions. Love you guys…

  14. In my last comment, what I left out was the “when thought by us.” =^) When WE think to ourselves what might have been, we find ourselves thankful for what is not. But, when other people say it to us in the hopes of bringing consolation, it doesn’t. It falls empty because of the gravity of what IS. Hurting/grieving people need to be met where they’re hurting/grieving… as opposed to where they’re not.

  15. Tom,
    Thank you so much for understandng and sharing your understanding of being in such a place. Too many times well meaning Christians say something such as what I had said to me as I went into church one Sunday shortly after my brother died five years ago of lung cancer, “Was he saved?” when I numbly answered, “Yes”; the reply was, “Praise the Lord he’s with Jesus.” All I could do was quietly walk away and go into the church service. Real help came from people, many not Christians, who simply put their arms around me and said “I’m so sorry for your loss.” I still can’t thank God for the death of my brother, but through God’s grace and mercy can still trust that He knows what He is doing and does love us. Again, thanks for your understanding of our painful times. Barbara

  16. Tom, Thank you for this article. Is there any chance I could reproduce this for my blog? It speaks perfectly to so many people. Praying all the best for you guys. Allan

  17. Thank you for being real, Jesus was always real. The Lord is our comfort in ‘real time’ not in the what might have been’s. We live in Parker now, but were blessed to be in your church about 15 years ago. Heard about Thomas’ injury and have been praying for you all since. Praying that God will heal/strengthen your son through His power, His Spirit- and help you and Maryellen every day. Don’t try to be strong, when we are weak that is when He is strong on our behalf. Let Jesus be your strength for the long haul. You have blessed many, you are loved.

    HE is strong.

  18. Pastor Tom and Maryellen, we are all so glad that Thomas is on the road to recovery. I loved the depth and feeling of your blog.Thank you for putting it all out there.

    It made me think about a lot of things. Things I often try and stuff down (way down) and forget about. I think the thing is sometimes people just don’t know how far down they need to reach into another person’s pain without making them feel even worse. It made me remember a few hours after my sister, Stacy, had died from trauma to the head. She flew out of the sun roof of her car and her car flipped and landed on top of her. Thus the need to always remind my kids they must always wear their seatbelts.

    My Dad went to the scene before he went to the hospital because he wanted to be able to prepare himself since he knew from the Officer at the door that she had been taken to the hospital via Flight for Life. He knew from the scene she had not survived. Their oldest daughter (a mere 21 years of age) was gone forever.

    I went to my Mom and Dad’s house after we left the hospital. I didn’t want to go to an empty condo since I had shared it with my sister. My Dad was looking out the big front window. A glorious April day was beginning! The sun was rising, people were leaving for work, and birds were flying around and singing for joy. Then my Dad said something I will never forget. He said, “The world is still going on.” I felt the heaviness and the pain in that statement 22 years ago and I can still feel it to this day. Like when I look out my own huge front window and as the month of April draws near to us once again. That morning, and for many mornings to come, our lives were frozen in time. Yet life was still going on. We were standing there, it seems like for hours, watching life and feeling death. I was only 20 at the time and I didn’t know how to reach into my Dad’s pain. I didn’t know what to say. So, I just stood there with him looking out that front window. My whole world changed that beautiful April day.

    Maybe that is the answer in a time of pain and total chaos. Maybe I didn’t need to “say” anything. Maybe it was best not to say anything with the wounds so raw. Maybe I just needed to be there praying for him, my Mom and my whole family as I watched life pass us by for a time. I was there. After all………isn’t that where God was? I couldn’t see Him, but I knew He was there.

  19. The less you say, and the more you pray, the better. Perhaps we should be mindful of this when someone else is “in the class we never wanted to sign up for” as Danny puts it. Tom and Maryellen, I’m sure there is no fear greater than that of a parent looking down at their child in a hospital bed. The news is bad enough; the site of them suffering is almost more than one can bear. You have been in our prayers, and we hold you high.

  20. The less you say, and the more you pray, the better. Perhaps we should be mindful of this when someone else is “in the class we never wanted to sign up for” as Danny puts it. Tom and Maryellen, I’m sure there is no fear greater than that of a parent looking down at their child in a hospital bed. The news is bad enough; the site of them suffering is almost more than one can bear. I’ve had too much therapy to let someone minimize what I’m going through. I just look at them until they squirm. My daughter has ridden in too many ambulances and has been the child lying in that bed.You have been in my prayers, and I hold you high. Thanks for equipping us for ‘class’. Peace and grace.

  21. Pingback: Linkathon 3/17 « Phoenix Preacher

  22. Tom and I would like to convey a huge thank you to all of you who prayed for our son after his recent accident. An “Update on Thomas” has been posted at http://wp.me/pfK91-ty on the Women at Crossroads blog. We are extremely grateful for everyone’s love and concern for our son.

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