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A Family Update Four Weeks After Our Worst Day

Rocky Mountains

We are okay. At least, I think we are. To be honest, I don’t really know how to judge that, or even what it really means. But I think it’s true. We’re badly broken, but somehow okay.

It was four weeks ago, on a Tuesday evening, that we received a flurry of terrifying text messages, then waited through a brutal silence, then got the dreaded phone call—our Nick had collapsed, had been rushed to hospital, but had been beyond the best efforts of the best professionals. I paused and asked the ER doctor on the other end of the line to repeat himself: “I need to hear it one more time. You’re telling me that my son, Nicholas Challies, has died, right?” Though he was just 20 and, to our knowledge, completely healthy, he had gone to be with the Lord. Then, as now, no one knows why. One moment he was playing sports with his friends, his sister, and his fiancée, and the next he was gone. Just like that.

Our lives were pretty much put on hold that day. Our normal lives, that is. They came to a screeching halt and have remained on near-hiatus since. Today, though, we are trying to take our first tentative steps toward a new normal. Today, in a sense, is the first day of the rest of our lives—our lives without our Nick. We don’t know how to live without him, but we are going to have to learn, aren’t we? What choice do we have?

Since that day our lives have been divided into three sections. The first few days were spent in Louisville and culminated in a beautiful but sorrowful on-campus memorial service. We then traveled back to Canada to spend the next two weeks in isolation as we served out the mandatory 14-day quarantine for those who have travelled outside of the country. That stretch culminated in a painful funeral and excruciating interment. The following day Aileen, the girls, and I cashed in some travel miles and flew west to one of only four places in the world we can go without having to quarantine on the way in or out. We headed deep into the Rocky Mountains of Alberta, where we could be surrounded by beauty and take stock of life without our son, without our brother. There is something about the mountains, isn’t there? There is something about the beauty of God’s creation?

Yesterday we made the journey home. And that brings us to today, when we are attempting to pick up where we left off at 7:01 PM on Tuesday, November 3. Michaela is back in class. Abby, who is with us through her winter break, is back on the schedule at work. I’m back at my desk. And Aileen is back to her duties in and around the home.

Some difficult tasks await us—sorting through Nick’s effects and cleaning out his room; dealing with the stacks of paperwork involved in closing accounts and finalizing details; writing thank you notes to the myriads of people who served us so well. There are tough decisions to be made. At a few points through the past weeks I’ve had to make a decision, run to the bathroom to be sick, then settle down to make the next decision, only to be sick again. I feel my stomach churning as I consider the next ones on the list: What wording would we like on Nick’s gravestone? Should Aileen and I buy the plot beside him so when our time comes we can be “with” him? After all, doesn’t it seem wrong that his body should lie there surrounded by strangers when he could be beside his parents? So many decisions.

Our grief is not what it was in the first days. It’s both better and worse. It’s perhaps not as sharp and pointed and not quite as constant as it was in the immediate aftermath. Yet as the weeks go by, we come to a deeper realization of what we’ve lost. As time passes, the ache deepens as we all come to a more advanced understanding of who Nick was to each of us, the roles he played, the unique ways he blessed and served us all. We know this is an ache that, though it will lessen, will never fade entirely on this side of eternity. But we also know it will grow easier to bear. We will be able to go on. We will endure. We can do this, and do it like Christians.

As I wrap up, I’d like to express my gratitude for all the condolences, love, and prayers. So many people took the time to pass along notes through which they expressed their sorrow and, best of all, promised their prayers. That has been so meaningful to us. We have found ourselves unable to pray very much, or at least to pray with much depth or significance. Or prayers are sometimes just cries of the soul: “God, help!” Yet we’ve been confident that we haven’t had to say much more because others are doing that labor on our behalf, praying for what we cannot yet articulate. We have come to know what it is to be upheld in prayer, what it is for others to bear our burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ (Galatians 6:2).

I feel the need to say that in all the pain and through all the tears, none of us have wavered in our conviction that God is good and that God expresses his goodness through his sovereignty. Nick’s death was not a mistake and was not meaningless, even if we cannot see its purpose and the significance right now. None of us have raised a fist to the sky. Though each of us longs for answers, none of us have demanded them. These little bits of clay will not demand answers of the potter. In that way, and so many others, I’m so very proud of my little family, and so very thankful for them. In this way, and so many others, they are passing through the deepest trial with their faith not only intact, but strengthened. I praise God for that.

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