By Joan Ketchen
My only child and joy of my life recently died. She was 32. We assumed that she would mature and one day return to attending church services. However, like most parents in our culture, we accepted and had even expected a phase of life that many young people enter into as they create a life independent of their parents––adulthood. Well-intentioned advice says cut them loose and let them grow up. The end result is independent, mature adults. Such a phase is often marked by a period of time when many stop attending church as many of us did too. Experience says, “Look at us; we are faithful Christians who turned out ok!” However, in these times the world has grown harsher. When our vulnerable young adults leave home today, they are subjected to more of a hazing-type exercise and one that not many Christian parents have experienced themselves. Why would we accept this declaration of independence as a step necessary to produce successful adults? Our society says it is because we want them to be happy. Today, happiness means obtaining a good college-required job that pays well! With a good job, one can achieve the American dreams! Some rhetorically ask: Isn’t a good job a sign of success? Isn’t it the goal in our country? Isn’t it our focus? Isn’t a good job a reflection of good parenting?
Our daughter focused and blew through most career-building goals. She put herself through law school without our help, became a litigating attorney, and even established her own practice at age 26. One young man she dated, who earned a MBA and a PhD simultaneously––the first to do so at his school, said he had not met a girl who was more intelligent than she was. She was a sister-type friend to most young men she knew. One young lady who spoke at her memorial said, “If she approved of you, you were in because all the guys loved her!” Our daughter ran a half marathon, could fly a plane, was a gourmet cook, was an artist, played tennis, etc. Her mind seldom shut down. And oh my, could she ever shoulder your troubles and ask for nothing in return. She was ambition and accomplishment in motion!
She was a beautiful, charismatic person who was uniquely interesting. She had a hilarious sense of humor. She treated all people as she wanted to be treated (Matthew 7:12). She often said with a smile, but seriously to us and friends, “Don’t judge me.” I believe she asked for this due to her struggles with attention deficit disorder which she was not diagnosed with until she was 27. She was born impulsive, energetic, and curious. However, she was a risk-taker who never completely developed good judgment skills (Romans 7:15). She thought she could do anything, and we thought so too!
Ironically, our daughter’s birth and my desire to rear her in a Christian home when I was in my thirties (her age when she died) is what brought me back to church services. She was educated in Christian schools. I faithfully took her to church when she was a child. I talked to her about going to Heaven and about being a Christian (Proverbs 22:6). My daughter accepted Christ as her Lord and Savior and was baptized when she was nine years old but stopped attending church services in her rebellious, young adulthood and only occasionally attended with us. She said she felt judged there. Déjà vu ––I recall a similar feeling when I returned as a young adult, too.
She was ten years old when I married my current husband. The hard life as a single mom motivated me to prepare her and protect her by seeing that she developed independence and got a good education. I felt she needed these to obtain a good job for a secure living should she find herself in a similar position as mine one day. She willingly took on the challenge and accepted the path to a successful career. She never needed prodding to do homework. She never needed prodding, period!
Beginning in her mid teens, my daughter and I often had stormy mother-daughter disagreements. But shortly before her death, she sent me a text message that said, “Mom, I know I hurt you. I never intend to. Please forgive me.” If she was asking me for forgiveness, I am confident she was asking God for forgiveness as well (Psalms 25:7). Not long before her death she started to once again talk about returning to church. Regrettably I sensed no danger and therefore felt no urgency.
Unfortunately, many unanswered questions remain surrounding her suspicious death. An independent medical examiner wrote, “She was in an environment that was risky, immature, and dangerous to the point of her death…there is a strong sense of foul play but without evidence, there would be no investigation.” Upon reading an on-line chat that evening written between her and a friend, another expert concluded, “When she went to bed she expected to wake up the next morning.” The specifics of her death are not the subject of this writing. However, her unexpected death at such a young age and the impact of one’s environment while anticipating tomorrow are.
I have learned since entering into this nightmare that human minds cannot accept the warning that their children can die. It has been almost three years, and I still cannot accept that my daughter died! I knew children died. But I could not conceive of death as something that could happen to my child! As I raced to the hospital that day, I prayed: “Please God! Please God! Please let her be ok!” But she wasn’t.
Hindsight has 20/20 vision, which I have now and want to share with you. I wonder if I had planted and cultivated the specific seed for her to attend church services even after she stopped attending as thoughtfully as I planted the seed for her to succeed in her career, would she have come back sooner? Would she have ever stopped? I should have kept her closer and emphasized with focused deliberation and conviction that if she would obey and love Jesus at her core that other things would be added (Matthew 6:33). If so, would she be here with us today? We know the most likely answer. She trusted me, and in her impressionable years she listened to me as I listened to those influencing me at that time. I humbly but passionately ask those of you whose child is not attending church services to ponder this question. If you could sincerely accept the fact that your child could die today, would you feel a sense of urgency? Would you continue to accept what is deemed as a normal rite of passage into adulthood, or would you now involve yourself more in their lives?
Our story is a tragic example to show we cannot become complacent relying on tomorrow. God wants us to pray for wisdom to know how to reach our children who have stopped attending church services. He loves them even more than we do. Through Jesus they will be forgiven. Can we drive them farther away with an approach that says, “Hell, hell, hell?” If you think so, you may want to consider this one. If talks consistently breakdown, maybe there needs to be a time to rebuild a trusting relationship by creating a peaceful time together with your young adult. Even a regularly scheduled meal together might provide a peaceful Christian environment for them as their world whirls choices around them (Romans 14:19). Invite them to church, often. Jesus wanted Christians to fellowship and meet regularly with other Christians (Hebrews 10:25). By doing so, an overall Christian environment is available as a place of safety for us and for our impressionable, faltering young adults. Unfortunately for our family, we did not consider while our daughter was out there growing up that she might be in an environment that was risky, immature, and dangerous to the point of her death!
By Joan Ketchen