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Parents await reunion in eternity with daughter killed in auto mishap

PINEVILLE, La. (BP)–John Hebert had a Sunday evening off — rare for a pastor. However, Unity Baptist Church in Pineville had celebrated homecoming services the morning and afternoon of Oct. 15, 1995, so evening services had been canceled.
Hebert’s second-oldest daughter, Katie, was using the evening to prepare for homecoming activities at her high school that week. As a senior and a starter on the girls’ basketball team, homecoming week was a big time for her. She was 17 — her 18th birthday was just two months away.
At some point, Katie decided to go over to a friend’s house to plan for the week. Hebert and his wife, Kitty, told their daughter to leave the friend’s house by 9 p.m. and to call before she started home. Katie did.
Thirty minutes after the call, Kitty Hebert was worried because Katie had not made it home. Hebert went to look for her, guessing she had car trouble or made a wrong turn on one of the back roads from her friend’s house. He left the house to backtrack her route, thinking he would meet her on the way.
Instead, he came upon the scene of an accident — a line of cars stopped in a curve, flashing lights around the bend. “I said, ‘Lord, please help her be stuck behind that wreck.’”
Hebert parked his car and headed toward the bridge in the curve of the road, bracing himself against the cold night. He had not expected to have to be out in the weather and was in a T-shirt and shorts, with no shoes. “All I’m doing is looking at the cars I meet, hoping that her car would be there. And when I got to the bridge, it was her [in the accident].”
When Hebert saw the car on the small bridge and when no one would let him go near it, he knew what it meant. “I’ve been to enough of these things that I knew what was going on. Everybody came and tried to say, ‘She’s going to be all right. She’s going to be all right.’ Someone even said, ‘She talked to me,’ which turned out not to be accurate later.”
Meanwhile, as Hebert waited on one side of the bridge, his wife had arrived on the other side after receiving a call about the accident. Later, the couple would learn that Katie hit a large pothole in the road and lost control of the car, slamming into the bridge’s metal pipe guardrail.
After the helicopter left to take Katie to the hospital, Hebert and his wife rushed there. Katie arrived with terrible injuries and no brain function. She was pronounced dead at 3 a.m. “We just wanted to touch her and hold her,” Hebert says. “We didn’t get to have an open casket. And so all we have left is some videos and pictures, basketball tennis shoes she adored. She wouldn’t even let you touch them.”
Meanwhile, nothing could touch the grief the Heberts felt over the loss of their second-oldest child. It was a time of testing that would leave them — and their faith — changed.
“We continued to worship, but sometimes it was hard,” Hebert says. “You have to deal with anger. You have to settle your feelings with God about why this had to happen. … I didn’t understand why. Still don’t. You want to understand but you can’t.”
That is the hardest thing, Kitty Hebert echoes. “You just want to know why. … You have faith, but you still have pain — and you just have to deal with it.”
Dealing with such emotions forces one’s faith to change, Hebert says. “The noble thing to say is that you remained true blue and didn’t get angry, but you do. There are times when you get so mad that you don’t think you can go on. There were days when I sat right here at this desk and just cried.
“But that’s important. You wouldn’t cry if you were going to give up your faith over it. You wouldn’t be caught in a dilemma if you decided to hate God for it. That was a part of working this thing out for me. I was in a dilemma and I couldn’t understand it. And all I could do about it was cry.
“I wasn’t going to hate God or quit the ministry. I wasn’t going to turn my back on my faith. So all I could do was accept — and that’s where the emotions come in.”
It also is where a deepening of faith comes in, Hebert and his wife agree. “My faith changed in depth as I came to say, ‘Lord, I can never understand this. But I know that your Word says to trust you, lean on you, keep serving.'” Hebert says. “I came to appreciate that more than previously.”
In addition, Hebert says his ministry grew more understanding by giving him a point of identity with others who suffer loss. But acknowledging that good has come out of the experience does not mean God caused it for that purpose, he insists.
“Every bad thing that happens is not caused by God,” he insists. “My theodicy is not that of folks who say there must have been a good reason for it. I don’t go there.
“We live in a world that’s marred by sin and sin is not of God. … I give credit for evil to Satan and I don’t usually take a position that God must have had a reason for that.”
God’s role comes in taking something bad and using it for good, using it to make one a better person, Hebert says. But one also can make oneself a worse person over it, he warns.
It is at that point where so many factors come into play, the couple relate. They cite the importance of Scripture, prayer, self-evaluation, counseling and leaning on the promises of God in helping them do the hard work of grief.
“It helps knowing where Katie is,” Kitty Hebert says. “I mean, that night [of the accident], the angels were ministering to her. I knew it. I knew she was being taken care of. … We are so thankful that we knew Katie would go to heaven when she died. And she didn’t get that way by being a good person. We just do not need to take our salvation for granted.”
The same goes for any of the rest of life, Hebert adds, stressing the importance of enjoying one’s children.
It is a matter of cherishing each moment, his wife adds. “You just need to cherish what you have.”
In that respect, the Heberts were aided by cherishing their seventh child in the dark days of grief, a daughter that was born three months before Katie’s death. She is a blonde, left-handed child — like her sister was.
They also were aided — and still are — by persons who offer a caring, compassionate presence, who send a card on Katie’s birthday, who call on the date of her death.
“Be there,” Hebert cites as the most important thing one can offer a person in grief. “Folks who are not going through this or have not gone through it need to be there for those who are. … And they don’t need to be there with an answer because they don’t have any answer. Don’t try to give an answer. You don’t know the answer.”
And there is no answer for the pain. For the Heberts, the tears still come as they speak of that night three years ago.
Kitty Hebert talks of taking ultimate comfort in knowing they will be reunited with Katie in eternity one day. “We could not get through this if we didn’t have that assurance.
“But the wait is long and hard,” she acknowledges.
In the meantime, the couple also take comfort in a final gift from their daughter. “I think Katie’s favorite verse of Scripture has become ours,” Hebert says, quoting from Isaiah 40. “They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall mount up with wings as eagles. They shall run and not be weary. They shall walk and not faint.”
“She had that verse underlined and highlighted in her Bible as her all-time favorite verse,” Hebert recalls.
“It’s pretty good advice for somebody who’s grieving.”

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  • C. Lacy Thompson