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From Grief to Grace


Editor's Note: SBC LIFE does not typically include feature articles from secular news sources. However, the following article from The Dallas Morning News focuses on one of our very own. Dr. Gary Smith served on the SBC Executive Committee 1997-2005, and as chairman 2002-2004. We include this account of Gary and his wife, Sandy, with the hopes that the story of their deep struggle and ultimate victory will minister to you or someone you know.

As Pastor Gary Smith looks out at his congregation in Arlington every Sunday morning, he realizes that some of them are in pain. There's a deep hurt in every pew, he says.

One Sunday last spring, he wanted them to know that even a pastor's soul can ache.

So, under a spotlight on stage at Fielder Road Baptist Church, Dr. Smith talked about losing his son, Drew, nearly twenty years earlier. As he talked to worshippers, he cried and his voice quivered. Even two decades after Drew died from a gunshot wound, the pain is still raw.

"Life was not good," the senior pastor told the congregation. "Life was painful. Didn't want to get up and go anywhere. Didn't want to do this. Didn't like to be around people."


Drew's death tested Dr. Smith, 56, a former Southern Baptist Convention leader, and his wife, Sandy, 55. It tested their faith. It tested their marriage. It tested their willingness to move on with their lives.

Their son's death continues to test them.

But the Smiths took one of life's worst moments and used that pain to help others who are hurting. And in the process, they helped themselves.

A Sudden Death

Drew Smith was a bright, loving thirteen-year-old in rural Woodward, Oklahoma, where his father was pastor of First Baptist Church.

The Smiths' firstborn loved listening to Christian music and was in his school's gifted-and-talented program. He didn't mind spending time by himself in his room with a book. He had just started calling girls and paying attention to his appearance.

He had asthma, but that didn't keep him from playing basketball or exploring the woods with his younger sister, Kathy.

He could be silly. When the laundry was ready to be taken out of the dryer, Drew would announce the news to his mom with a French accent.

But he also had a serious side. Drew wanted to see his family more often, so he inspired his parents to carve out time in the morning to eat breakfast and study the Bible together. Mrs. Smith treasures those moments. Because she never had a chance to say goodbye to her son.

She went out to eat with her husband and some friends on January 5, 1986. Drew stayed at home.

When the Smiths returned to the house, papers were strewn throughout the kitchen. They thought they had been robbed.

They found Drew lying on the living room floor. A rifle rested at his side. He had been shot in the head, a wound that police declared self-inflicted.

Mrs. Smith tried to resuscitate him while Dr. Smith called for an ambulance. But they could tell it would be hopeless. As they waited for paramedics, they grabbed each other's hands and prayed.

Dallas Caldwell, who had been the church's student pastor, was one of the first people to race to the Smiths' home. When he arrived, he saw a couple in shock and hurting.

"I had never seen people … so empty as I did in that moment," he recalls.

Mr. Caldwell conducted Drew's funeral and spent time with the family. In the days after the death, with flowers sitting around the house and people mourning, Mr. Caldwell suggested to Dr. Smith that they work out.

They attempted to play racquetball, but Dr. Smith stopped and sat down on the court. He told Mr. Caldwell: "If it were a car accident or something, but this just makes no sense. This is too incomprehensible."

The Smiths will never know exactly what happened to Drew. Police records say he had been depressed before his death, and the medical examiner declared the shooting a suicide. The Smiths disagree, saying the mention of depression was inaccurate, that he had shown no signs of being suicidal and that there were indications the shooting was accidental.

They suspect Drew could have heard a noise outside and grabbed a gun, which they had taught him to use for protection.

Sinking in, Coping

A few weeks later, people in Woodward didn't talk as much about Drew's death. They stopped bringing food and called the family less often.

That's when it really started to sink in.

"You go back to life, and you realize he's not in your life, and you have to come to grips with it," Dr. Smith says.

But the Smiths decided they weren't going to put up a facade as they grieved.

"The best way for us to deal with it was to just be real," Mrs. Smith says.

Unfortunately, the pastor was already familiar with tragedy. His father, Tommy, shot himself in his house in 1972 after a bout of depression. Dr. Smith was in the house at the time.

The Smiths say circumstances surrounding the deaths of Mr. Smith and Drew are different, and they see no connection. But the pain with Drew was far greater: Nothing, the pastor says, compares with the loss of a child.

After Drew died, there were days Dr. Smith says he wouldn't want to get out of bed. There were days he didn't want to preach.

And there were days he would shut the door to his office, lock the door, turn off the lights, and sit in the corner.

"One moment you'd want to scream," Dr. Smith says. "The next moment you'd want to cry."

There were times they questioned God. But they also turned to Him for help. They also turned to friends and focused on their marriage and family.

From the beginning, they had prayed for God to keep their marriage intact through the crisis.

"Love is a choice, not an emotion," Mrs. Smith says, "and we were both determined through the good times and the bad times to choose love."

Leaving Woodward helped. Five months after Drew died, the family left for Enid, Oklahoma, and Emmanuel Baptist Church. The Smiths thought it was best for the church in Woodward, and for them, to move on.

While in Enid, the Smiths talked about having another child.

After Drew's death, Mrs. Smith says her children were more precious to her than she ever realized. They had spent time reassuring Kathy that they were the "Three Musketeers" and would get through the crisis together, but they also didn't want their daughter to grow up without a sibling. Kathy felt the same way.

Three years after Drew's death, the Smiths adopted baby Matt. He brought joy back into the family's life.

"We were going through the motions until we got Matt," Mrs. Smith says.

"He brought new life and new excitement to things," recalls her daughter, now Kathy Price.

By the time Matt was ten, Mrs. Smith realized he was the first thing on her mind, not Drew's death.

"This is good," she recalls thinking. "I've gone on."

Now sixteen, Matt helps the Smiths feel younger and less selfish. Before Drew died, Dr. Smith thought he'd be spending his mid-fifties playing golf or sitting on the beach. Now he's helping Matt with his homework and preparing for a mountain-biking trip with him this summer.

Matt isn't a replacement for Drew, Mrs. Smith says. But the Smiths say they can't imagine not having Matt in their lives.

"We wouldn't have had Matt," she says, "if we hadn't lost Drew."

Reaching Out

In the Bible, Dr. Smith says, God was able to take tragedy and use it for good. The Smiths feel compelled to use their loss — and to share their grief and the lessons they've learned — to help others.

These days, they help counsel parents who've lost children. The Smiths say they form an instant camaraderie with these parents.

"We can walk into that room, we can look at those parents, and we can say 'Our son died, he was thirteen years old,' "Mrs. Smith says. "And they will look at you and almost grab you…and say 'I can't do this. You're going to have to tell me how to do this.'"

John and Gina Sawyer, a Fielder Road Baptist Church family, have leaned on the Smiths since their ten-year-old daughter, Tara, died from illness in 2002.

The Smiths were at the hospital during Tara's last days, and they assisted the Kennedale couple with funeral arrangements. Mrs. Sawyer has met with Mrs. Smith, and the four have met over lunch.

The Smiths have instilled a sense of hope, the Sawyers say.

"They really just looked deep into our eyes and said: 'You're going to come through this,'" Mrs. Sawyer says. "Knowing that they were so ahead of us in this journey and could look at us" and say what they did made a difference.

About a year after Tara died, Dr. Smith dropped off a note at the Sawyers' doorstep. "Just wanted you to know I was praying for you," he wrote. Mr. Sawyer placed the note on a bulletin board at home. He sees the note every day.

The Sawyers' fifteen-year-old son, Preston, says the Smiths were able to help his parents bring comfort to him and his brothers.

"You wonder if you'll ever feel any better or if it will get any easier," Preston says. "You see, twenty years down the road, what God has done" in the Smiths' life.

"It brings comfort to me that God can bring that same healing to my life," Preston says.

Sharing their story means that the Smiths regularly have to relive the pain of Drew's death. But Dr. Smith says that losing Drew has helped him also to comfort people who have lost jobs or been rejected by mates.

"People who are hurting," Dr. Smith says, "don't want to hear from people who haven't hurt."

Mrs. Price, who lives in Sherman, admires her parents for using Drew's death to minister to others — and to teach her invaluable lessons.

"It's not going to be easy, and things aren't going to be so great," Mrs. Price has learned, "but you're going to make it."

That's the message Dr. Smith took to his ten thousand-member congregation last spring.

He hadn't talked often about Drew during his sermons at Fielder Road, where he has been since 1991. But Dr. Smith was preaching about how God can restore joy and hope for the future. He felt that talking about Drew would help illustrate his message.

"I want to give them something out of my heart and soul," he says, "and out of my own pain and my recovery."

A Growth Experience

Twenty years after Drew's death, the pain can be fresh. But, Dr. Smith says, adversity has changed him for the better.

After Drew died, Dr. Smith says that while his faith became even more important to him, he became more honest with his congregation about disappointments in life — and that the Bible doesn't always offer a quick fix.

Before Drew died, Dr. Smith says he was concerned about his reputation and felt pressure to climb the career ladder. He was also concerned about the size of his church. Now, family matters more.

Dr. Smith says that in the past, he missed many family moments because he figured more would come. Following Drew's death, he says he stopped living between special days and lived for every day. He started spending more time with Kathy.

He has gained empathy as well. In the past, he says, the pastor didn't understand why people would be affected deeply by the death of a grandparent.

"When you haven't been hurt, you wonder why people are making a deal about something," he said. "You want to say 'Get over it.'"

Now he understands.

His wife agrees that he has become more compassionate. He's a more effective pastor. And their marriage is stronger.

Those are among Drew's lasting gifts.

After Drew's death, Dr. Smith says he wanted to hold on to his son. He wanted him back. Twenty years later, he still wants to look into his son's eyes and say, "I love you."

Today, if someone told Dr. Smith that he could see Drew, but only if the pastor gave up who he is now, and what he has learned, he would respond: No.

"I'd give anything in the world to have thirty minutes with my son," he says.

"But … nothing would make me go back to who I was before he died."

Reprinted with permission from The Dallas Morning News, January 15, 2006.