CONNECTIONS Spring 2018

Life in the Wake

Learning to Live after Last Year’s Tragedies

Now that we are a year out from last year’s very difficult school year, it’s a bit easier to talk about how 2016-17 was a year like no other at Holland Christian Schools. Like typical school years, it was full of quality learning, community events, positive programs, new initiatives and new friends, besides being a busy site visit for accreditation; but despite all of those good things, in many of our minds, 2016-17 will be forever marked as a year of pain and loss. As a school community, we were forced to rely on each other and the Lord for strength in ways that we had never experienced, and we shed copious tears along the way. However, even just these few months out, we sometimes look back and realize that the bonds forged during the trials of last school year have drawn us together into a unique and deeper community. Walls have been broken down in ways they never had quite before. We’d like to think we’re a little more understanding of weaknesses, a little quicker to support others in need?

A quick listing of last year’s events still stun us when we pause to remember: In June 2016, one of our high school students was lost in Lake Michigan, his body not found until days later. On the morning of September 26, a local police officer came in to tell us that one of our high school teachers was in a serious car accident on the way to work and probably wouldn’t survive. He died the following day. On March 18, a 4th grade student passed away after battling a rare brain tumor for over a year. On April 27, one of our 7th grade students passed away the day after being diagnosed with a form of leukemia that usually affects the elderly.

By then we thought we had surely made it through all the tragedies possible in one school year, that this was surely more than enough? But then over Memorial Day weekend, our high school technology specialist died at home during a father-son weekend with his five-year-old boy. And June 20, a 6th grade student passed away after sudden bleeding on the brain that began a week earlier.

Four student deaths and two staff deaths.

In one school year.

Loss and grief of this magnitude were almost unfathomable to us before last year, and they touched all segments of our school community: elementary, middle school, and high school. Our collective suffering brought out our best and our worst, but we like to think that we have grown, have learned a few things on the way out of last year’s Valley of the Shadow of Death. That we are continuing to learn in the aftermath, about each other, about how to work through grief as individuals and as a Christian community:

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We like to think that we have grown, have learned a few things on the way out of last year’s Valley of the Shadow of Death. That we are continuing to learn in the aftermath, about each other, about how to work through grief as individuals and as a Christian community.

We are learning to give teachable moments in the midst of questions. When HCHS Spanish teacher Jamie Slenk had students wonder aloud in the middle of Spanish class the day after their social studies teacher and coach Kevin Witte had passed away, where was God in all this? she gave no pat answers. She said she didn’t know right now—but that God was definitely there, seen visibly through His people. That He was visibly still there in the community and the love that surrounded them. And that we really needed Him, and could still trust Him. We realized that when our students watched each other and us adults go through repeated grief, we were showing them not only mature and healing ways to go through bone-rending grief, but also what it means to live a Christ-dedicated life in this broken world. Where grief and tragedy will inevitably happen again.

We also realized a bit how harmful elements of the prosperity gospel have infiltrated our Reformed thinking and beliefs, as both students and adults inevitably started to wonder what our school had done to deserve all of our tragedy last year. Although those questions were certainly understandable, they came from a misconception about our lives of faith. Too often we believe that if we give our hearts to God, He will bless us with health, success, and ease—that life will be a perfect filtered Instagram. In actuality, the Lord never told us if we follow Him everything will go the way we want it to. After all, it was in the desert that God shaped his people, and we are learning to trust that if our school community draws near to Him during desert times of tragedy and loss, He will shape us as well.

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Nothing could bring them back, but at least we could show how we loved them, and their families.

We are learning to just show up. To just be there, even imperfectly. Many of us instinctually wanted to fix broken situations and bring peace to those in turmoil, but didn’t have the exact words, or always know the exact needs. We didn’t always have perfect words, but learned how faltering prayers, mere presence, prepared meals, or a comforting hug are small or insignificant acts; yet they are examples of how the Body of Christ can provide solace for hurting members, not all at once, but just enough to make it through a little longer—the same way God cares for us in our times of need. So middle school friends made cupcakes together on Cassie’s birthday and sent photos to her parents. The middle school band left open a hole in the flute section where Cassie would have marched for Tulip Time last May. The high school boys swim team left a lane open where Riley would have last raced the backstroke as a senior, gave his parents flowers for what would have been his senior night too. Nothing  brought them back, but at least we could show how we loved them and their families.

We’re learning about grace, grace, and more grace. We know we’ve made mistakes with each other. After all, it’s tough to be at our best when we are hurting, exhausted, or feeling pulled in a million different directions. But we like to think we’re learning to ask for forgiveness when we’ve overlooked something, left someone out, or inadvertently offended. We rush a little quicker to visit a cancer patient in the hospital, pray with fellow teammates going through difficulties, welcome new staff members filling the vacancies, hopefully aren’t so quick to judge. We know the value of outdoor school signs and handmade posters declaring sympathy, of donuts and more donuts sent from rival school districts. We see students processing grief in writing assignments and in artwork, from 4th grade through high school. And maybe we’re learning to ask for help when we need it, too.

We are learning to point to hope. As a Christian community, these experiences of death and loss are rubber-meets-the-road moments when we find out whether our gospel beliefs and professed hope are actually real. It’s important to recognize and validate the pain we all feel, but as mentors for our students, we couldn’t stop there. Our Scripture proclaims Christ’s victory over sin and death, and we get to remind each other of that truth, even when our hearts were still mired in the depths. To celebrate the one-year anniversary of Riley’s death, individuals in our community spread random acts of kindness wherever they were, from surprise ice cream cones to free coffee and groceries. And hoped that Christ’s good news of hope could be shared through these. The freshman boys soccer team shared 156 new soccer balls through World Vision with kids around the world in gratitude for their coach’s Christ-following life. There’s a new bench in Riley’s name at the front of the high school, reminding us of the simple joy of how this friend used to delight us so. 

Students at Rose Park enjoyed peach cookies and shared balloons and tears this spring to remember and celebrate their former classmate Caroline, now living with Christ. And for a variety of reasons, there are several students new to our community, who would not have come here without last year’s tragedies. Including one kindergartener learning to live without his dad, but who is being welcomed into this larger community, while his dad’s former colleagues visit and read to him regularly.

And we are learning that there is life, and hope, and joy–especially through Christ–after tragedy. At the end of the 2016-17 school year, the Holland Christian faculty, staff, administration, and probably the community as a whole, were exhausted. We were desperate to turn the page for a new beginning.

But that doesn’t mean forgetting.

So throughout this school year, we still speak often of these loved ones, sharing stories how they impacted us, and how we miss them. On a gray March day, the grief counseling group from the middle school let out a host of red balloons celebrating the conclusion of their grief group meeting for this school year, tied with letters to their missing loved ones. At their end-of-year banquet, senior swimmers and Coach Smeenge couldn’t help but reference Riley Hoeksema, both missing and missed from their midst. And at their spring concert, the middle school band played a special arrangement of “Amazing Grace” and “I’ll Fly Away” in honor of their classmate and clarinetist, Cassie Delf, specially written by HCS’s own Mr. Nester, and commissioned by Cassie’s relatives.

The road has many miles to go, and we may never completely get over what happened last school year. But the Lord has held us close with just enough to make it through, shaping us into individuals and a community learning to follow Him ever more faithfully. And learning to live with both holes and hope.

But the Lord has held us close with just enough to make it through, shaping us into individuals and a community learning to follow Him ever more faithfully. And learning to live with both holes and hope.

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