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A HOPE 2023 testimony

Nov 1, 2023 | Fall 2023

By Brad MacEachern

Susan! I’m going to have to take Friday off work to attend this!” We were preparing to go to the HOPE retreat at Muskoka Bible Centre for three days in April 2023.

I had already agreed to go weeks before but had not looked at the details until less than two weeks out, and it was all starting to feel real. My wife, Susan, had taken care of all the booking details and now all I could wonder was, What good can come from a group of grieving parents getting together to cry all weekend!?

We lost our 20-year-old son, Jonathan, four years ago and I am quite private about it and don’t talk
about it much. When I do, it is generally with people I trust very deeply. I had learned that the retreat facilitators for HOPE, Dave and Lisa Elliott, were qualified through their personal experience and calling to lead this retreat; so, I agreed to go with Susan. She seemed to have been more deeply wounded by our loss and I felt compelled to support her in her grief journey in whatever
way I could. I heard Lisa say often that there is a special depth to a mother’s grief in particular. And I believe it.

So off we went that Friday morning in April. We took over six hours to travel the 4.5 hour drive to
Muskoka Bible Centre because I felt like this would need to be a journey, not just another milestone in our grief experience – we needed to slow down and take note of what God might say throughout the weekend, including the trip there and back.

As we entered the meeting room for the first time, I was still very apprehensive – as I think we all
were. I’m not sure I really want to do this! I was greeted by a tenderly arranged display of photographs of fourteen children who had been lost too soon. It was almost too much to take in for the grief, heartache and tears that the display represented, but my commitment to Susan kept me there.

Over the course of five sessions, Dave and Lisa graciously guided us through the reality of “being” in the midst of the loss of a child; the need to be ourselves, to be together with others, to be aware of disappointments and to be still in our relationship with God and the love, peace, joy and hope that He has to offer in spite of it all.

Interspersed among the sessions were moments I really didn’t expect. As each parent briefly shared their own grief story, we began to connect with people living a shared horrible experience. Some were “seasoned” by many years into their journey while others were mere weeks along the path. We learned from some and provided hope to others. I witnessed two families who had lost children to overdose find comfort and connection in one another – a safe place to share their pain in a way that only they could understand. I saw hearts that were hardened toward God soften. Parents
who have all knelt beside a dead child were now weeping and laughing out loud, together, well into the night because they were among “safe” people with whom they could be themselves in laughter as well as in tears.

None of those who were grieving could have put this weekend together on their own. It was only possible through the compassion and grace shown by the MBC team. Shelagh (MBC’s Program Director: Retreats), Derek (MBC’s Head Chef), along with their staff, although feeling unqualified to enter into our experience, sought to earnestly make a space that was comfortable and safe. We felt especially cared for and wanted for nothing throughout the weekend.

When it was time to leave on Sunday there were a lot of hugs…and tears. We had new friends and
had walked through much together over the few days prior. It had been a hard and exhausting weekend, but also a time to recharge and be filled. It had been a safe place for me to be more open about just how much I missed Jonathan, with others who could relate. I had taken time to listen to others going through the same painful experience – and maybe I was a comfort to them too. It had been a time to bring something precious out of safe storage, unwrap it from its protective blanket, place it on display, admire it and re-frame it. I had set aside some time to come to terms with my experience of loss and I felt better for it. Everyone we had just left seemed to be saying the same thing.

In the end, I wear the loss of Jonathan as deeply as I do, not because I don’t want to or am not given the permission to share my story with those who have not walked the same path, but because there are aspects of my journey that nobody else can grasp – they just cannot! So, my grief will likely remain largely under wraps again until the next retreat, but in a way I now look forward
to being able to unwrap it with a new community in a safe place.

Brad is a retired naval officer, married to Susan for 28 years, now living and working in Ottawa as a public servant. Their younger son is married to Mackenzie and working as a youth pastor in Kanata.

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