A mother’s journey: Hope through the heartbreak

How does a family journey through grief after the sudden and unexpected loss of a beloved 17-year-old daughter and sister, even as she was stepping out in faith to go on her first international missions trip? Is it possible for her parents and three sisters to reclaim their once-abundant joy in Christ? Where is God when the burden seems too much to bear?

Seventeen-year-old Sarah Harmening died in a bus accident June 2017, traveling as part of an International World Changers team from her home church, Mount Zion Baptist Church, Huntsville, to Botswana.

Since that tragic day nearly seven months ago, Sarah’s mother, Karen Harmening, has written an online blog about her family’s journey through grief, laying bare the agonizing heartbreak and testifying to the unrelenting hope in God that she, her husband Scott and their other three daughters, Katelyn, Kristen and Sophie, have experienced. In honor of Sarah’s birthday, Dec. 20, brief excerpts from the blog are being highlighted.

Sarah Lauren Harmening Memorial, June 12

Sarah Lauren Harmening, born Dec. 20, 1999, is her family’s most extraordinary surprise Christmas gift, second only to Christ Jesus Himself. … Her purity was exemplified on earth through her rich and pure love for her family and friends, but most of all her unpolluted, unwavering and relentless love for Jesus Christ, her personal Lord and Savior. She lived and breathed to know Him and to make Him known. …

Sarah was on mission to Botswana to share the love of Christ with whoever God assigned to her … When anyone expressed concern about her going so very far from us, she was quick to respond full of faith, “I have prayed and I know God has called me to it, so whatever happens is within His will.” …

Sarah shared with her sisters that should she not come back from this assignment she so dutifully took, that her funeral was to be nothing less than a celebration.

Suffering, Anguish and Redemption, June 18

At 2:48 p.m. on June 8, 2017, a 22-second phone call revealed that our lives as a family had been forever altered. Scott, who was driving behind the bus that crashed with our precious Sarah and 38 other members of our church on board, called and said, “Karen, there’s been a horrible wreck; the bus has flipped and Sarah is pinned under it … pray there is still hope.” God in His grace had all three of our other girls home, extremely unusual at that time of day, we immediately dropped to our knees and faces and cried out together to God to spare our precious Sarah, to preserve her life, to supernaturally prevent her from being scared or in pain, and to wrap His arms around her and Scott. My parents, who live next door, immediately came over and we all left together. I drove … I suppose it took 3-4 hours to get there, but I’m certain it will forever be the longest drive of my life. …

We eventually found the office; as we walked in, everyone who worked there looked away or down; no one spoke it, but I already knew. I finally found Scott … alone, my heart breaks for him every time I think of him alone there for hours. The look in his eyes required no words but he spoke them anyway, “She didn’t make it.” We as a family wept together for a time then turned to the Lord in prayer; we begged Him to redeem it in some way; we also interceded for the other students and leaders on the bus, that there would be no more death. …

Eventually we got word that the bags from the crash site had been delivered to the church where we were, so Katelyn and Sophie went downstairs to get Sarah’s backpack. I couldn’t get her journal out fast enough; I immediately flipped to the last entry which we quickly discovered was written on the bus that day, moments before the crash. God is so gracious. Sarah’s gentle, tender heart was so in tune with Him that I have no doubt she wrote exactly what He gave her as a message of hope for us to hang onto for the remainder of our separation from her. Hope that she was absolutely confident that she was called to this, and hope that God will indeed redeem it and “do incredible things.”

We were all immediately overwhelmed by the journal, what a precious gift. … After a period of time I told my family I thought we should share her journal with the media, Scott agreed. We asked each of the girls if they were OK with that and each whole heartedly agreed we had to do it. In addition, Katelyn said she felt led to share a text Sarah had sent to her cousin, Ariel, as well.

My parents also agreed we had to do it so I asked the mayor to set it up. We prayed together, asking God to go before us and speak through us, that His name may be lifted high through Sarah’s life and testimony, her greatest desire. In so doing, only hours after our precious Sarah’s departure, God began to redeem our suffering and anguish.

Waves of Agony and Grace, June 25

Waves of agony have become our new reality over the past 17 days. … Thankfully from the very beginning, intermingled within the waves of agony have been waves of grace. Grace to enable us to breathe when we were certain we could not. Grace to do unthinkable tasks. Grace to continue to parent our other three daughters as we grieve the absence of Sarah. Grace to still see good in the midst of the terrible.

The Hezekiah Years, June 27

I remember the first time I was overcome with the thought that Sarah was only going to be with us temporarily. She was sitting in her blue car seat, an adorable little blue-eyed infant with a headful of tousled dark brown hair. We were at my parents’ house; the thought was so strong as it washed over me it literally made me feel physically ill. I immediately attempted to squelch it as paranoia, but obviously I never forgot it. Over the next couple of years, it would periodically wash over me again out of nowhere with the same crippling impact. … I have four children but only wrestled with this in regard to Sarah, which made it all the more unsettling. Each time it would strike, my reaction would fluctuate between attempting to disregard it as fear and fervently interceding for God to spare her life. I would cry out to Him asking if He were intending to take her home, that He would instead pour out His mercy on us and extend her days here just as He had Hezekiah’s. …  It climaxed in 2004 when I finally came to the place where I surrendered both the fear and her to Him, trusting Him to sustain us no matter the plight.

I praise God for “the Hezekiah years” of Sarah’s life. So many rich memories were added during that time, and so many were blessed by and through her. My heart still deeply grieves her absence but I am overwhelmed by God’s grace in the revelation of answered prayers of old. … Though the depth of our aching is beyond words, I choose to rejoice today for the moments we enjoyed with Sarah, with an added sweetness in the Hezekiah years. I choose to rejoice that His grace and mercy are abundant and He is sustaining us. And above all else, to His praise, I choose to rejoice because He absolutely will beyond any shadow of doubt reunite us in glory.

Restore to Me, July 8

Joy was one of the first thoughts I had after Sarah left us, questioning if perhaps she took it with her and we would never find it again. But that very night as I looked into her sisters’ eyes and saw the brokenness of loss, I knew Scott and I as their parents would have to lead them back to joy. We would have to help liberate them from the crippling bonds of grief to embrace joy. To do so, we as parents would have to make a conscious decision to not be enslaved by our own grief. We committed to Katelyn, Kristen and Sophie that very night to be fully present in their lives, to strive daily for joy and to celebrate every milestone with them as if Sarah were still here celebrating with us. We assured them that just as our home had always been a place of joy, rich with hope and laughter, through God’s grace and power it would be restored in His time despite the persisting pain.

Swallowed up by Life, July 15

Since Sarah left, I’ve learned that she talked a lot about heaven with family and friends. She talked about heaven with me but stopped short of saying she “can’t wait to go.” The same can’t be said for her friends and sisters, though; she readily made it known to them that she was ready and excited. …

Her desire for heaven was not fueled by wanting to avoid pain and looking forward to the beauty of heaven; it was actually fueled by her longing for righteousness. She understood life on this earth would be continually about sanctification but she longed for glorification. She longed for death to be stripped away and to be swallowed up by life.

Why Sarah? Why Us?, July 19

This mommy’s heart agonizes that her child was not rescued physically as every other mother’s child was on the bus that day. Even so, I can testify without a doubt that He did “rescue” her from death, delivering her to life everlasting through the blood of Jesus, and He has most definitely honored her. The testimony of a quiet little girl few knew has been propelled around the globe by His faithfulness and for His glory. She set her heart in the preceding weeks and days to be on mission to be used by Him, saying she knew He would do “something incredible.” Indeed, He has been faithful to do something incredible, and as He has brought glory to Himself through it, He has also graciously and mercifully honored our precious Sarah.

Death Is Not Good, July 21

Almost immediately after the accident our prayer as a family was for God to allow us to see redemption for the unimaginable pain we were experiencing. We knew redemption would in no way eliminate the pain or make the pain “worth it” or “good.” We would never willingly choose this painful journey but we knew redemption could fuel our perseverance through it. Redemption does not answer the question, “Why?”; it answers the question, “How?” When we look for and see redemption, it does not indicate that is “why” God allowed Sarah’s death; instead it shows us “how” God is faithfully fulfilling the promise to use all things for good to us, even the worst thing, death.

Intermingled Joy and Suffering, Aug. 8

It is OK to mourn. Mourning, grieving, pain, agony and sorrow are acceptable and appropriate reactions to death. They in and of themselves are in no way indicative of hopelessness or a lack of faith or joy. Scott and I regularly weep together. For almost 24 years I was blessed to not know the feeling of my hair wet with my husband’s tears but now I know it well. We have been deeply afflicted by the enemy and yet we have hope. We cling to the sure and certain hope promised in His Word. We have certain hope we will see Sarah again, hope that God will redeem the taking of her physical life, hope that God will redeem our suffering, hope that God will comfort and sustain us, hope that because of our suffering we will “rejoice with exultation” at the return of Christ. Because we have this hope, we have joy intermingled with our suffering.

Sowing in Tears, Aug. 24

I will risk sounding like a broken record by saying we as a family are in a season of suffering. Because of Sarah’s absence. pretty much everything we do brings a staggering sting of pain with it. … Only days after Sarah’s departure I found myself regularly saying both to myself and our girls, “Just do the next right thing.” It became … a basic plan of survival in the midst of the crippling trauma. Seek the Lord; determine the next right thing and do it. Not too far in I began quoting 1 Peter 4:19 …, recognizing that each choice to do the next right thing, particularly the painful right things, was an act of worship and obedience to my faithful Creator.

Learning to Walk, Sept. 7

I immediately began to question, “How do I walk in righteousness?” “How do we as a family walk in righteousness?” “What does righteousness look like in our situation?”…

Last week in His faithfulness, He led me back to Psalm 37, and I have been clinging to it as a lifeline ever since. When I find myself struggling to breathe, struggling to hope, struggling to take another step, I recite the simple yet challenging commands contained in that passage. I made a very simplified list of just the commands and have them up all the time on my laptop and posted on the refrigerator. The full text of Psalm 37 is beautiful and powerful; I meditate on it every morning and evening, but my simplified list is like a compass in my hand; I can quickly and repeatedly glance at it throughout the day to be certain I am walking in the right direction.

Shelter in the Storm, Sept. 15

As I watched footage of Hurricane Irma as it swept across islands and parts of the U.S., it reminded me of our plight. Our experience has been much like that of the impact of a hurricane, the primary exception being there was no forecast for our disaster. I was particularly struck as I watched landscapes and buildings gradually being swept away. People clamored to a structure, thinking they had found shelter from the storm only to realize it was incapable of protecting them, and they were sent frantically searching for another. In some cases, no doubt, people went to several places seeking shelter before they actually found refuge. In much the same way, God has been solidifying in my mind and heart the reality that He alone is my Refuge; all others will fail.

Broken Hallelujah, Oct. 17

I’ve said it many times but will say again how much I miss the sound of (Sarah’s) singing filling our home. Sarah had a song in her heart that constantly overflowed and brought such joy to our home. Missing Sarah’s constant singing has prompted me to think a lot about the importance of our songs. …

Perhaps in the shattering of our hearts He has given us a more beautiful song to sing. Perhaps the brokenness that our hallelujah flows from makes it even more fragrant to Him. … (T)hough He did not move the mountain I longed for Him to move, I will praise Him still. I will trust Him to give me a new song, like the psalmist, knowing that my Hope is in Him alone and I will yet praise Him.

Deliverance, Memorials and Hope, Oct. 20

I long for the telling of our personal story of God’s provision and deliverance of our family in the valley of the shadow of death to bring hope to others. This written record of our journey is our lasting memorial to Him, not just for the generations to come, but for us as well. In the days ahead there will continue to be many dark stormy days when hope may seem elusive, but my prayer is this memorial will be a beacon in the night reminding us and others of the certain hope we have in Him.

Immeasurably More, Nov. 1

In the minutes after Scott told Katelyn, Kristen, Sophie and me that Sarah was gone, we all huddled on the floor of that little EMS office suite and cried out to God, asking Him to please redeem the unimaginable pain and allow us to see at least a portion of that redemption. …

One of the ways that God quickly revealed He was redeeming our pain was through an outpouring of support for the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering in honor of Sarah. … Our initial goal was to raise enough funds to support a missionary for one year, a lofty goal of $58,200. However, our gracious and mighty God … chose to move in the hearts of our brothers and sisters in Christ to far surpass what we asked of Him. To be exact, He prompted generous men, women, students and children throughout our community and abroad to donate $32,920 more than we asked or imagined, for a total of $91,120.

The Sanitizing of Grief, Nov. 3

Grief hurts and it is raw but grieving is not bad or wrong; it is not a disorder to be cured, and it is not a list of stages or steps to be completed. It is simply deep sorrow in response to deep loss. The presence of grief does not eliminate the possibility of joy and happiness. Grief and joy exist simultaneously. I grieve the absence of Sarah but I have great joy that she is in the presence of our Lord and Savior, and even greater joy that I will one day join her there. I am able to celebrate the victories and blessings of others while at the same time bearing the pain of her absence in my heart. The permanence of my grief does not define or enslave me but it does change me; it molds me. God, who uses all things for the good of those who love Him, is using my grief as a sanctifying flame to refine and transform me more and more into His image.

The Stewardship of Pain, Nov. 30

From the very first post after Sarah’s death, my intent has consistently been to glorify God through sharing His provision and all that He is teaching us through this valley. I will continue to acknowledge the cold metal bars of earthly death that now separate my family, and the open wounds of the attacks of the enemy, and the weight of the shackles of grief because through acknowledging them the power of God’s grace in our lives is magnified. …

I will continue to pull back my flesh and expose my shattered heart because in so doing I am able to expose the grace of God that is greater than all my pain.

My child died. God is good?, Dec. 5

In the blink of an eye He allowed our family to plummet into a deep, dark, unimaginably painful pit. We had bathed our precious child in prayer, pleading for her safety. I had wrestled with putting her on that bus that morning and had prayerfully gone through the process of entrusting her to Him and His providential care as I allowed her to walk up those steps. I absolutely was hopefully expecting Him to honor those prayers to keep her safe, and I was wretchedly, horribly, excruciatingly disappointed. …

His goodness is completely independent of our circumstances. His goodness is not contingent on health, wealth or prosperity. His goodness is not compromised by tribulation or suffering. To the contrary, His goodness is most powerfully experienced and displayed when He, our mighty Deliverer, plunges into the pit with us (Ps. 40). He is faithful to be there with us; as the mire of heartbreak and agony press in tight and we struggle to breathe, He upholds us by His righteous right hand (Isa. 41:10). Though the waters rise, He will not allow us to be completely overtaken (Ps. 69). In the midst of our pain and suffering, His sustaining grace is poured out, enabling us to persevere and testify, “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed“ (2 Cor. 4:8-9).

Longing to Die, Dec. 11

The anguish of my child’s death is a sanctifying flame being used by the Refiner to melt away my temporal desires and interests, leaving a piercing focus for that which is eternal. More than ever before I am acutely aware of the race I am running, the purpose for living. The charge from the book of Hebrews echoes in my mind, “Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart” (Heb. 12:1–3). So then, let us run this race with endurance, recognizing that to live is Christ.

To read Karen Harmening’s blog in its entirety, go to listeningtohim.com.

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