Grief in a Distant Land
by Dale Hooper
Rollin, age 10, and Robin, age 8, argued over who would get to lie down on the seat and who would have to sit up. Rollin won, and Robin, always the compliant younger sister, settled herself down for a long, “sit-up sleep” on the way home.
Our family was serving in crosscultural missions in Kenya, East Africa, and had driven from Nairobi to Mbali, Uganda, to assist in setting up a new missions organization. Much of the 250-mile trip was on unpaved roads. Having finished the work, after lunch on the third day, we headed back. I was recovering from malaria so I drove the short distance to the border. Then Beulah took over and I moved to the passenger seat, holding our youngest son, Ryan, while he took his bottle and we both napped. Rollin and Robin were on the second seat, and Renee, our five-month-old infant, was asleep in a basket on the third seat. In those days, seatbelts were rare, and there were none in our vehicle.
Suddenly the swerve of the station wagon awakened me as the wheels plowed through the build-up of sand on either side of the beaten wheel tracks. Beulah tried to steer the station wagon back straight into the road, but it was too late. The vehicle marred into the sand, rolled over one and a half times, and came to rest on its top.
Aware that I was half pinned under the rear of the vehicle, I pulled myself out, and began looking for the rest of the family. Ryan, whom I had been holding, was sitting on the ditch bank quietly crying. Renee was still asleep in the up-right basket, resting on the edge of the road. Beulah had been thrown out a few yards away and in a daze, but was soon alert to what was happening. Rollin, having pulled himself out through a window, was standing near the car. In distress he cried out, “Daddy,look at Robin! Look. . . !” Robin was still inside the car, and unconscious. She was bleeding around the head and was obviously seriously hurt.
Gone, So Quickly
Within minutes, a couple of walking police were on the scene, along with a gathering crowd. The police helped us get to a nearby rural government clinic, and soon the doctor-in-charge arrived. Someone got word to our mission family in Uganda, and within two hours Dr. Hal Boone, a missionary doctor, was on the scene. He and the government doctor checked out all of us, sewed up a long laceration across Beulah’s head, and gave their attention to Robin. After a couple of hours, the doctors reported to Beulah and me that Robin had died; she had never regained consciousness. Both doctors agreed that because of the severe blow to her head, she probably had suffered severe brain damage. They assured us that, had she lived, she probably would not have been able to function normally.
All of us were bedded down for the night and the next morning the Flying Doctor Services sent a plane to take us back to Nairobi. My memory of the two-hour flight is very dim indeed. Upon arrival we were met by a large group of Nairobi missionary families who stood solemnly in silence as we, with the body of our little Robin, were removed from the plane and hauled away. Rollin and his mother were taken directly to the hospital and were kept for a few days. I and our two younger children were taken home. Our good friends, Tom and Marilyn McMillan graciously came and stayed with us for a few days.
We were all in a state of shock, and though I seemed to walk around in a daze, there were things I had to do. On my visits with Beulah and Rollin in the hospital, we began to plan Robin’s memorial service, and discuss the burial. In the end we decided to intern Robin’s body in a local cemetery, and to carve on the headstone the words of a short scripture Robin was to have read in a Christmas program a few days hence. We decided to let her speak to all of us in the service—and in the following years these words became very special to her mother and me.
This is the Lord’s doing, it is marvelous in our sight; this is the day which the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. Psalm 118:23, 24.
The service, conducted by a good pastor friend, was a celebration of Robin’s life. She was such a special little girl to us and others in so many ways. Shortly before her very untimely death, she made a special public commitment to Christ Jesus as her Lord. We were comforted in our grief by that. She had lived a full and meaningful life in her few eight years. Beulah and I attempted to capture the essence of her rich life experience in a letter to our family and friends in the States.
In Robin’s short life she enjoyed many experiences that most people never have in a life time. She had been on three continents, had flown the Atlantic three times, had been swimming in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, and had fished in Lake Victoria. She had seen hippos in the Nile River, walked in the Mediterranean Sea, ...and had seen wild life–Elephants, Cape Buffalos, Rhinos, Lions, and Giraffes. She had visited the Vatican, roamed the Acropolis, and even skinned her knee on Mars Hill. She had stood on the equator with a foot in each hemisphere, had ascended the Swiss Alps in a cable car, had seen Shepherd’s Field in Bethlehem, toured Jerusalem, and played in Nazareth. She enjoyed it all, for she, like Yogi, was happier “than the average bear.” But more importantly, she lived well and shared eagerly with other people, free of racial prejudice and social pride.
The Faces of Grief
The days and weeks of adjusting to life without Robin were excruciatingly painful for us. Fellow missionaries surrounded us with love and support. Understanding that our family back home in the States was suffering too, folks did what they could to bring comfort to the grandparents and other family members who were 10,000 miles away. Scores of people—family members, friends, and strangers from around the world—sent us letters and cables expressing their prayers and support. Some wrote directly to our son Rollin. Everyone expressed their deep pain and anguish for us. Just before Christmas a lovely letter arrived from Mimi, Beulah’s mother. She told of “going to the cemetery to put a basket of flowers on Granddaddy’s grave, and thinking of other loved ones in heaven who were enjoying dear little Robin.” She also reminded us that, though the whys come, some day we would understand.
For each of us, grief took on a personal aspect. Perhaps not uncommon, Beulah and I didn’t talk much about our pain and sorrow. Looking back now, I realize how much better it would have been if we had talked more. My wife needed me and I her, especially since we were so far removed from our family who couldn’t walk the path of sorrow with us. But even as we handled our grief alone, we experienced God’s comforting peace. The pain and sorrow were so deep and all pervasive, yet there was the sure sense that God was strengthening and meeting our needs. Rollin also grieved in a very personal way. Only two years separating their births, Rollin and Robin had been the best of friends. In many ways Rollin depended on his out-going and very gregarious younger sibling. Seeing her in the wrecked auto, his cry of anguish was real and deep. Much later we learned that he had carried this anguish for years. He was certain it was his fault that Robin was killed—because he had won the argument and Robin had to sit up in the car. Of course, her death wasn’t his fault, but the young boy thought it was. Fortunately, a few years later he was able to talk about this with us, come to terms with it, and move on without guilt.
The Lord used our grief as paths into the lives of others. A few years after Robin’s death, missionary colleagues Jim and Marcia lost their little eightyear- old daughter in a tragic accident. We shared several hours of vigil with them before Sherrie died. When they asked me to lead the Memorial Service, they said it was because “they knew we had walked the road of sorrow.” Later Jim asked, “Dale, does it ever quit hurting?” I knew he wasn’t looking for an answer; he just wanted to voice his pain to a sympathetic heart. I replied that to some degree the pain will always be there, but you learn to file it away in your memory bank—and you can revisit it whenever you want or need to. For years, after we left Kenya for the final time, Marcia continued to take care of both grave sites, theirs and ours.
Once I was back in Uganda visiting with a young missionary couple, new to the field. As we talked over dinner, I asked what had been the dominant factor that brought them to Uganda—to Africa. They related how they had been concerned about the risk of bringing their little two-year-old to this foreign land. Then they heard a missionary speaker tell how God had sustained her family at the time they lost their little daughter. The message was that God could take care of you in Africa as well as in the United States—if you are in God’s will. This message was just the confidence they needed to fol low God’s leading to Africa. As we talked further, we discovered the story this young couple had heard was our story, the story of Robin’s death and God’s sustaining mercies to our family.
People expressed to us at the time, and across the years since, that they just didn’t see how we were able to endure. It is a truth that you don’t generate strength and stamina, faith and hope, at a time of crisis. You take into every crisis whatever faith and stamina you already possess. And then you find that the Lord is sufficient in the depths of your grief and despair.