Thursday, September 15, 2016

Losing Teagan~ A story of tragedy, forgiveness and Hope by Patty Thompson

The photograph said it all: it had been a great Fourth of July. The picture was snapped as John "Chip" and Jody Ferlaak of Gaylord, Mich., and their kids waited for the fireworks to begin. Wyndham, six months, was nestled in her mother's arms, two-year-old Brock proudly wore a U.S. flag on his shirt, and big sister Teagan, age four, sat on Daddy's lap. Teagan, a charmer with tousled blonde hair and a winsome smile, impishly points at the person behind the camera. The family looks healthy. Happy. Carefree.

On that July day in 2001, life was looking good for the Ferlaaks. Chip, then 33, enjoyed success as an assistant golf pro and sports referee, and Jody (Hackett), 28, a 1994 Bethel graduate, stayed at home to devote herself to their growing family. Just months before, they had moved into a comfortable home in a quiet neighborhood. The couple especially liked the fenced-in backyard that offered their children a safe place to play. When it came to their kids, Chip and Jody worked to do everything right: tucking them in at night with a favorite story, taking them to Caribou Coffee for a frothy caramel cooler, or sitting on a grassy hill to look at God's handiwork.
The photograph taken that July day is now a Ferlaak treasure. Mere weeks later, a devastating accident brought about the realization that fenced-in backyards, bedtime stories, and good intentions wouldn't be enough to protect their family from irrevocable harm.
The crash
July 29 seemed like a perfect day for Sunday brunch. After church, Chip suggested that the family visit the Old Depot, a popular spot for lunch in Johannesburg, 10 miles from their home in Gaylord. At the restaurant, the family ordered their meals, unaware that in minutes, their lives would change forever. As Teagan and Brock dug into their pancakes, Jody tried to soothe Wyndham, strapped in her infant seat. But before Jody could pick up the baby, a car came barelling through the front door and wall of the restaurant. In an instant, unimaginable devastation surrounded them. 
The Gaylord Herald Times called the incident "a mass casualty that set in motion a massive multi-county emergency response that filled the air with sirens for much of the afternoon. Ambulances rushed 11 injured victims—including six children—from the scene of a one-vehicle crash into the landmark Johannesburg restaurant to the hospital and then to Otsego County Regional Airport where waiting medivac helicopters whisked the critically injured people to downstate trauma centers." The crash prompted Otsego Memorial Hospital to institute its "Code White" mass casualty plan, summoning all available medical staff to the hospital.
The entire Ferlaak family was wounded. Chip, who was knocked unconscious, suffered eight broken ribs and injuries that required 80 stitches in his head; later, fluid in his lungs would become infected, requiring a chest tube and a three-week stint in the intensive care unit. Brock had three skull fractures. Published reports revealed that for a time, Wyndham was pinned between the wall and the grill of the car. The force of this impact produced brain injuries that required a permanent shunt from the baby's head to her stomach.
Jody was struck from behind and thrown into the air, hitting a counter and tables before she landed. Despite extensive nerve, tissue, and muscle damage to her legs and heels, injuries that would require a month in a wheelchair and heavy medication, she was able to reach Teagan's side.
Horrifying images are etched in the young mother's mind. "I picked Teagan up at the scene. She was lying where her chair should've been at the end of the table with a big gash in the back of her head. Based on what the doctors have told us, most likely she was killed instantly. As a mother, when I picked her up, I could just tell by her face and the blueness of her lips that there was no hope for her."
Although the emergency workers performed CPR and brought Teagan's heartbeat back, she never regained consciousness, a fact that brings her parents a measure of comfort. "Basically, in our minds," Chip said, "she's eating chocolate chip pancakes and then boom! The next minute, she's in heaven. So she never knew anything in between that." Teagan was taken off life support the next day.
A criminal investigation after the accident revealed that the 38-year-old woman driving the car had plunged into the building in an alleged suicide attempt. Although the driver walked away from the scene, many of her victims were denied that opportunity. Besides the Ferlaaks' injuries, a 29-year-old mother of two lost her life, and members of her family and a restaurant worker were also hurt. Final toll: two killed, nine injured.
Picking up the pieces
Teagan on a beach
The Ferlaaks' pastor and family members quickly arrived at the hospital to offer support. From the start, the couple trusted that the Lord was in control of the situation. "From the moment it happened, we knew that Christ was in control, and we accepted whatever His will for us was at the time," said Chip. "I think that gave us such a sense of peace right away. There have been plenty of days where we've struggled, but right off the bat, we had such a peace that God was in control of our lives. What was going to happen would happen, but it was for God's reason. We may not understand it now, but somewhere down the line, we're going to have our answers to why all this had to happen." However, circumstances at the hospital offered extreme challenges. Teagan was gone, and their other children were listed in critical condition and flown to another facility. Furthermore, Chip's condition had deteriorated from serious to critical. "At one point I thought that I was going to lose everyone," recalled Jody.
Amidst all of this, there was a need to hold things together. Plans were made for a private family service after Teagan's body was released from life support and her organs transplanted. Chip had to listen to the service in his hospital room via phone due to his condition. "It was tough not being there for that. But you know, at that point, my whole train of thought was to get through this because my family needed me," Chip recalls.
Chip and Jody found immense comfort in the fact that, on the day before she was killed, Teagan put her trust in Christ. In a memorial service held three weeks after the crash, which was attended by more than 350 people (400 people attended a second service in Minnesota), Jody remembered the simple prayers of her child: "It was just the day before Teagan died—I served her a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, with the crust cut off, of course, for lunch. She started to say her usual prayer. This is what she said, `God is great. God is good. Let's thank Him for our food, and I ask Jesus in my heart and into Brockie's.' As I turned back to where Teagan was sitting, she had a big grin on her face and she exclaimed, `Mommy—I just asked Jesus into my heart and into Brockie's too!' So in my heart, I know for a fact that Teagan is in heaven, and that makes my heartache bearable."
A quiet homecoming
Days later, an eerie quietness greeted the parents when they returned home from the hospital. "Teagan was a spitfire, very energetic," said Jody. "Being the first child, she kind of ran the household. So it was a big empty feeling when we came home after spending all that time in the hospital." Chip agrees. "The house was just so silent. I just wanted something to come crashing down. I wanted to rub some Cheerios into the carpet, just crush 'em in there." What would life be like without Teagan, their firstborn, the little girl with the remarkable memory, the child who loved Barbie dolls, the color purple, and singing and dancing to her favorite CDs? How would they cope without the child who exclaimed, after noting the changing leaves of autumn, "God must have gotten new paints last night!"?
Jody explains: "What I missed were the things like washing her days of the week underwear. And I would I'd end up in a puddle of tears just trying to work through those daily routines. There was such a void in my life."
Losing Teagan has been difficult for the other children, too. The statement that his sister was an angel who currently resides in heaven became an issue for Brock. During bedtime prayers, he angrily pointed out that God took his sister away and insisted that God bring her back. Jody says that her son kept asking, "How can I get her down?"
While Brock talks about his sister and demands to hear stories about her, the accident has touched Wyndham in much more physical ways. "Wyndham's prognosis was that she'll never walk or talk," Jody reports. "We're really working with her in therapy. She's made a lot of progress, and we're very hopeful that she may end up leading a fairly normal life."
As a couple, Chip and Jody realize that the death of a child often puts strain on a relationship. "There are statistics about people who lose Focus Spring 2003 children and how marriages fail. Although this [tragedy] has been horrible, we realize that it is not driving us apart. We're keeping our marriage solid," Jody declares.
"Although there have been moments," Chip adds with a chuckle. Jody joins his laughter. "There have been moments. It's given us new eyes, and you realize why [marriages end]. Because some days, he's having a good day and I'm having a bad day, or he's having a bad day. You don't always feel the same. Or you just want to be angry, and the other person feels differently about it. We just look at it and say God's been with us every step of the way." For a couple who has been through so much, the Ferlaaks are remarkably upbeat.
Coming to terms with why
The couple's faith in Christ has provided them with comfort and hope. Jody, who graduated from Bethel with a degree in media communications, was a believer when she met Chip. Early in their relationship, she invited Chip to attend services at Woodland Hills Church, where one of Jody's professors, Greg Boyd, serves as pastor. "I just knew that they might have a lot in common because Greg also came from a Catholic background. And for Chip,Letters from a Skeptic [Boyd's best selling apologetic] helped answer a lot of questions he was kicking around at the time. Three weeks later, he was serving coffee and doughnuts with me. We kind of went from there."
The couple's spiritual growth has been evident as they've dealt with the tragedy. Jody observed, "As a mother, if Teagan would have run out in the front yard and been hit by a car, I would be feeling guilty or wondering what I could have done differently. But just the randomness of it and the fact that we had never eaten there [the Old Depot] was almost too coincidental. Why did we happen to be there at that moment? You think God has to use it somehow…that He has a big plan that we can't see yet. But something good is going to come out of it. We're just looking at it on the flip side of that coin."
In the months since the accident, Chip andphoto by Tara C. Patty Jody have discovered that their story has touched others. "Over the last year and a half, many people have said that we're an encouragement or an inspiration even when we feel like we're falling apart," said Jody. Chip gives an example: a close friend and his wife were considering divorce, but Teagan's death made them reconsider their plans. "We look at things like that and [wonder] how many people will come to the Lord because Teagan died. It's hard now, but a hundred years from now when we're in heaven, we'll probably say it was worth it because families and people were saved. Sometimes, that isn't a comfort in the here and now, but I think in the future, that [thought] will bring some comfort."
The trial
angelGod Sent to Us an Angel

by Jody Ferlaak

We hope to dwell on memories, How His angel blessed our lives With the way she smiled, The way she laughed, The blueness of her eyes.

We'll fondly think of nightly prayers And be glad we were a part Of all the times she asked her God To come into her heart.

We know she rests with God today And oh, what joy that brings. Yes, God sent to us an Angel— We just never saw her wings.

In celebration of the life of Teagan Mackenzie Ferlaak. Born on March 18, 1997. Went to Heaven to be with Jesus on July 30, 2001.

Jesus said, "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these."—Matthew 19:14
The Ferlaaks continued to lean upon their faith in the days that followed. The woman who had been behind the wheel on that fateful day faced criminal prosecution for her actions. Although she had not contacted the Ferlaaks or expressed remorse for the accident (aside from comments made by her attorney), Chip and Jody wanted to make a statement to the woman whose actions claimed their little girl's life.
"Obviously, there is anger, but both of us came to the realization fairly early on that there's a greater cause out there," explained Chip. "One of the basic tenets of the Christian faith is that we're all sinners. This woman didn't have Christ in her life and perhaps because of that, this event happened. I felt we needed to send a message of Christ's forgiveness to her, some kind of hope."
As believers, the Ferlaaks knew that medications and doctors could not prescribe the peace that only the Lord can give. Chip and Jody wanted to tell the driver that in 10 years, upon her release from prison, they wanted to help her avoid repeating what happened. "We wanted her to get better, to not be a miserable person for the rest of her life. To us, that would be justice for Teagan," said Chip.
However, reaching such a conclusion did not come easily. Jody remembers the emotional turbulence. "In the weeks and months leading up to that [day in court] I spent a lot of nights awake, or awakened from nightmares. As the sentencing came closer, I had a lot of dreams. I felt like Jonah, like God was saying go to that city and tell this woman to repent," said Jody. "I kept seeing her face in those dreams."
The inner conflict brought more pain. "Because I felt so cheated out of Teagan's life, there was a part of me that wanted to see this woman get what she deserved," Jody continued. "But it was almost like God said, `I can't and won't let you do it. I want you to give her a different message.' I couldn't shake the feeling that He wanted me to pray for her instead."
The Ferlaaks had occasions to see the woman at preliminary hearings and court dates before the sentencing. Jody's changed attitude prompted her to view the woman differently. "Every time I've seen her I've felt sorry for her. And I feel like I've been the fortunate one. I was raised in a Christian family. I grew up with a dad who was a pastor and have known the love of Jesus my whole life. I could have been her, raised in a family where there's abuse and alcohol, [a place] where you know no love or hope."
Court officials gave the Ferlaaks the opportunity to stand behind the microphone and have their say at the court sentencing. Their remarks caught many in the court room off-guard. "When we were speaking, her [the driver's] family looked surprised," recalled Jody. "We laid out how she had affected our family—what we went through physically, what we've dealt with, and what we will deal with—to paint a picture for her. And then we left her with the sentiments that we hoped she would come out of this a better person. She had ruined a lot of lives already, but she shouldn't ruin her own. She still had a chance at life." The Ferlaaks made it clear, however, that they were pushing for maximum civil penalties.
The driver's family members weren't the only ones astonished by the Ferlaaks' words and offer of forgiveness. "A lot of family and friends couldn't believe it," said Chip. "Many said that they couldn't have done that. In some ways, that [reaction] has been good because it gives you a good avenue to share your faith."
The Oprah Winfrey Show
A few months later, on April 22, 2002, the Ferlaaks told their story on national television. The Oprah Winfrey Show planned to do a segment dealing with forgiveness and was seeking viewers who had forgiven someone of a horrible crime. With the statements made in court fresh in her mind from just weeks before, Jody e-mailed details of their story. Three hours later, the Ferlaaks received a call from one of the show's producers.
Since the program aired in two days, Oprah staff members were on the Ferlaaks' doorstep the next day. "They filmed two hours of interviews in our home," said Jody. "They work with really tight time frames, so that night, we flew with the producers to Chicago and did the show the next morning. They wanted us to recap our stories, talk about what happened, and how we're moving on with our lives."
Revisiting their story on television has helped in the healing process. "You live the experience over and over," said Jody. "It's just constant. Every day is defined by what happened that day. In my prayer life, I've asked God to give us opportunities. It was a horrible thing that happened, but we've asked God to help something good to come out of it. I constantly pray for the opportunity to speak, to share our story or to bump into the right person."
The Oprah program (rebroadcast on April 10, 2003) featured the Ferlaaks and four others who responded with forgiveness in the face of great pain at the hands of others. To fit within the Oprah format, the Ferlaaks' piece was tailored a bit. According to Chip, the two were asked to avoid Christian terms or words that would cause people of different faiths to tune out the essential message of forgiveness. The couple would have liked to have shared more about their Christian faith on camera, but are grateful that at least the show's producers and staff members were exposed to the unmistakable message: it was Christ's love and forgiveness that allowed the Ferlaaks to in turn forgive the driver.
For the Ferlaaks, appearing on the Oprah Show was a tangible answer to prayer. That prayer has been answered in unexpected ways. For example, the Oprah segment included the Ferlaaks' e-mail address so viewers could contact the couple. "A lot of people e-mailed us," said Jody. "Chip would sit down with the Bible next to the computer. We'd give biblical responses back and had many opportunities to tell the heart of our message. It really opened up a lot of doors."
Reaching out to others
Answering e-mail messages is just a part of the outreach that has occurred as a result of the accident. The couple has had opportunities to speak in their area, to appear on both Christian and secular radio stations, and to address audiences from college students to church congregations.
Auto insurance covered the family's expenses, but after the accident, many well-wishers sent generous gifts in Teagan's memory. Such generosity has allowed the Ferlaaks to establish a foundation in Teagan's name. They have raised additional funds through several golf tournaments as well, enabling their foundation to award college scholarships to four Gaylord-area high school students each year. In the future, the couple would like the foundation to help families in their area that are dealing with tragedy. "Down the road, we'd like to help families who have situations like this and who don't have the [insurance] coverage like we had," said Chip.
The gift of life
Life for the Ferlaaks has changed in many ways since the accident. They've welcomed a new baby, Isabella, born four days before the one-year anniversary of the accident. "We were surprised when we actually plugged in the due date and it was the day that Teagan died. We were kind of like, `OK, God, what is this all about?' And then Isabella nearly died during her delivery," said Jody. "We realize that if God wants any of our kids at any time, they're His. We've always felt that our kids are truly gifts from God."
Although every parent tries to protect his or her child, the Ferlaaks know firsthand that shielding youngsters from every danger is not possible. "The kids still have to be kids, and they still have a lot of living to do. We can't really shelter them or protect them so much that they don't have a normal life," Chip reflects.
"And we certainly aren't guaranteed a life free of pain now," adds Jody. "If something is going to happen, it's going to happen. No matter where you are or what you are doing, life is fragile and can be taken from you at any moment."
The accident has given Chip and Jody unique motivation to tell others about Christ. Jody explains, "It's been easier to talk about faith to family members. You just say, `Look. You don't know when you could go. It could be tomorrow. We were sitting there having lunch and it happened. Are you sure about your faith?'"
The Ferlaaks are sure about their faith. Christ is their strength, their solace, and most of all, their hope. Concludes Jody: "Often what gets me through the day is to wake up and say, `I'm one day closer to heaven. I'm one day closer to seeing Teagan again.'"
The Ferlaaks reside in Gaylord, Michigan and welcome your prayers for their family. They can be contacted by e-mail Portions of the program that featured the Ferlaaks can be accessed at the Oprah Winfrey Show archive

Hope for the Journey

Traumatic life events take us on a long journey into a new dimension of growth and maturity. We know we can embrace the grief that comes with this journey because of the words of Christ, echoing to us from the Galilean hillside: "Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted" (Matthew 5:4, TNIV). While it is not always obvious where we are in the grieving process, many researchers and authors have attempted to help us understand it. Initially, as we engage the reality of a trauma, many feel a range of emotions from anger to numbness. Our responses may vary from weeping to withdrawal. The good news is that God, having created us, knows us completely. He fully understands our feelings and respects them. Certainly Jesus modeled this as He confronted the anger and anguish of His good friend, Martha, when her brother, Lazarus, died (John 11:21).
Because trauma forces us into a new situation, former coping strategies may be inadequate. For the Ferlaaks, being excellent parents to a healthy and happy family was lost and a new perspective was needed to deal with new challenges. This may seem overwhelming. Letting go of dreams, habits, and hopes can be crushing. It is in this part of the journey that friends and family play a critical support role, providing consistency in a time when our world is shaken. Familiar scripture is also of great comfort, reminding us of God's faithfulness and unchanging promises.
Families in grief also need to develop a new framework that adjusts to the traumatic event and allows it to exist within their lives. The Ferlaaks embraced a framework that utilized forgiveness but did not neglect accountability. Forgiveness frees the grieving person to deal with difficult issues, while faith actively builds the new construct and provides strength to implement it.

Sent from my iPhone


Lelia Walker said...

God Bless you and your family. I have read your blog for several years and can't imagine what your family has gone through. You are such an inspiration to so many, including me.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for clinging close to HIM - the only one that can redeem such pain.
Would like to hear an update on you all. Miss your posts!
Christian love from Mari in Canada

Pamela Sanders said...

May He continue to grant you peace and love!

Clipping Path Service said...

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