Journeying through personal grief

Loss and hope: impact of a murder

Darold Bigger, Ph.D., is a professor of religion and social work at Walla Walla College and former senior pastor of the church at College Place, Washington.

On June 16,1996 Father's Day and her grandfather's birthday 25-year old Shannon Bigger was gagged and tied to her bed in her Takoma Park, Maryland, apartment, and heartlessly murdered. Her body was discovered the next morning. Less than 40 hours after the crime, the police arrested the assailant. The accused pleaded guilty and was sentenced to consecutive sentences of 20 years, life in prison, and life in prison without the possibility of parole. Shannon is buried in College Place, Washington.

Sociologists say the violent death of a child brings the worst kind of grief human beings suffer. At our request, Shannons father, Darold Bigger, has courageously consented to share with us how he coped with this unspeakable tragedy--Editors.

It started with a Monday morning phone call from John Cress, our campus chaplain. He asked if I could come to his office he had a matter of some urgency he wanted to talk about. He was anxious that I come even before I moved my things to the office I would occupy as summer chair of the Theology Department and associate academic dean. I wondered what issue in one of those positions was so urgent as to require the first hour of my first day!

Not until I walked into his office did I know that he had also summoned my wife, Barbara, from her office at the college store. She was sitting in a chair when I arrived, both of them quiet and strangely solemn. He offered me a seat, came around the desk toward our chairs, and immediately got to the point. "I have the worst possible news I could ever share with you," he said. "Shannon has been killed, murdered in her apartment."


Shock and disbelief filled most of the next half-hour. After we verified the facts with the Maryland police, John Guldhammer, a pastor at the Walla Walla College church, helped us organize our day. Henning Guldhammer drove us home, where we told our other daughter, Hilary, and Rosemary Laarad, the Micronesian high school student who had come to live with us two years earlier.

The rest of the day was a blur of phone calls, doorbells, sobbing, decisions, questions, and sobbing and sobbing. Our impulse was to go immediately to Takoma Park to be with Shannon. But there was nothing we could do there. Once we decided to have the funeral and burial in College Place and a memorial service back east, the dust settled a bit and I focused my energy on planning the funeral service.

Later, when I was ready to listen, Barbara pointed out how compulsively I had tried to manage every detail of the funeral. The time of each song and speaker, the transitions, the choice of texts and music, became the outlet for my grief. They illustrated my need to control some part of my chaotic world, to manage an environment gone mad.

I've always dreaded what I would do if someone hurt my girls. A man of ample temper and dogged determination, I've hoped strong friends would surround me at such a time to prevent me from doing something I would long regret.

But those feelings didn't come. There was no clenched-teeth rage at Anthony, Shannon's killer; no seething passion for revenge. This wasn't my choice, mind you. It was a gift! I was surprised by grace! God's grace let me ignore Shannon's attacker and helped me focus my anger on the real source of the problem, not just an example of it! Months later I had to face the anger, but initially God relieved me of that burden. What a wonderful gift from a gracious God!


Many family and friends shared gifts of solace: trees, plants, and flowers; telephone calls; cards; food; house, barn, and yard chores; touches; hugs; tears; and checks toward our expenses or for the Christian Service Volunteer Fund established in Shannon's memory. All of these flooded us. Thoughtfulness also came as texts, poems, quotations, books, and music.

For example, Alden Thompson, Old Testament teacher at Walla Walla College, came the first day to share our sadness. He sat in our living room and, through his tears, recited from memory this paragraph that now means so much to us:

"Each morning consecrate yourselves and your children to God for that day. Make no calculation for months or years; these are not yours. One brief day is given you. As if it were your last on earth, work during its hours for the Master. Lay all your plans before God, to be carried out or given up, as His providence shall indicate. Accept His plans instead of your own, even though their acceptance requires the abandonment of cherished projects." 1

I find myself often praying now with open hands, trying to learn how to surrender what was so precious to me.

Doug Clark, chair of the School of Theology at WWC, sent an E-mail from Jordan on the Sabbath after Shannon died. "I didn't go to church in Amman today," he said. "Instead, in Shannon's honor, I've climbed up Mount Nebo to look at the Promised Land."

Instrumental music expressed the wordless agonies and hopes inside me. The rhythmic cadence of Bach's organ pieces became favorites. They seemed unstoppable, a reminder that life will go on even after it ends!

Poetry, especially selected psalms that describe unresolved human reality, was significant too. I didn't want to hear perfect stories with happy endings. I wanted to hear the harsh, hard pain of anguished suffering.

Then and during the months that followed, messages and visits came at just the right moments to relieve a burden or remind us of our hope. In addition to existing friends and pastors, priests and believers in other faith groups extended our circle of support. We were surrounded by a host of people ministering to us. In spite of the evil in this world, God has a wonderful family!

The unfamiliar role of being ministered to rather than ministering was humbling. Barbara tells me I insisted on planning the funeral myself! But exhaustion finally defeated my insistence, and I had to let the pastors take care of the service. In the end it was very, very comforting. Letting others minister to us in other settings has been comforting, too, for us and for them.

Questions about God

We haven't been tempted to blame God for what happened to Shannon. We accept that we live in a hostile world in which Satan is in temporary control. A worldview that allows God to be caring without being coercive gives us the freedom to trust Him even when bad things happen.

Nor have we believed that God sent this tragedy to teach us something. No! God doesn't send evil in order to teach something good. If that were so, learning about good would depend on the existence of evil. That was Satan's first argument to Eve. God promises to bring good out of the worst evils Satan causes. God never intended evil in the first place.

Leslie Weatherhead's The Will of God provided a framework that has brought us comfort. He talks of God's intentional will, God's circumstantial will, and God's ultimate will. God never intended us to suffer, and ultimately He will restore a perfect world. In the meantime, under the present circumstances, He promises to give meaning to what appears to be meaningless chaos. Texts like Romans 8:28 (God transcends an evil event by bringing something beneficial from it) and Romans 8:35-39 (nothing, no matter how profound or shattering, can separate us from God's love) fit that explanation well. Bracketed by the reference points of God's Creation and His return to usher in eternity, all acts of evil even apparently random, violent, and vicious ones take on cosmic meaning. That comforts us!

It also keeps us from settling for easy answers. Some suggest that violence can be prevented, that even Shannon's death may have been the result of her naivete or lack of caution. "If only she had lived in a different place, or if the drug problem were solved, or meaningful employment were available to everyone, or technology had been available that would have warned her," they said. "If only she hadn't been so trusting, or the legal system had reformed her attacker, or kept him in custody earlier, etc., etc."

Not only did those who made such suggestions not know Shannon; they do not understand evil either! We don't look to politicians, police departments, the social welfare system, or self-defense training to prevent this kind of crime. As important as those things are, they will never be the final solution. Until evil is destroyed, there will always be those who align themselves with it. Human problems are symptoms of a deeper spiritual problem.

The rush to human explanations cheats us from discovering that we cannot save the world from evil any more than we can save ourselves. The only way to find salvation from evil is to find God.

Questions surrounding me

Doubt. C. S. Lewis,2 in the aftermath of his wife's death, said he had two fears: that what he has believed is a dream and that he just dreams that he believes.

His first question has not been my problem. Belief comes easy for me. I can trust what Scripture promises even when I can't prove it.

The second question troubled me most. Could I trust myself? Could I believe that I really believed? What assurance did I have that my verbal assertions were not just facile affirmations of an attractive solution to my dilemma? How could I know that I was a real believer?

Times of trouble bring questions like these. This was a harbinger of the time of trouble for me. While Scripture, doctrine, and reason bring logical comfort, they do not resolve the emotional uncertainty flooding the consciousness in the presence of profound loss. The war between faith and feeling turned on and off for some time, washing me with doubts, then soothing me with promises. In the end logic won over emotion and my verbal affirmations convinced my feelings. I can trust, not because I'm trustworthy, but because God is!

Resentment. My real faith crisis came months later. As Anthony's sentencing approached, a deep unsettledness boiled up in me. No matter how much I wished to be charitable, no matter how many times I reminded myself that hating the sin allows loving the sinner, no matter how often I tried to see life from his depressing point of view, the knots stayed in my stomach. Seeing him for the first time did not help. Not being able to detect any hint of sorrow or regret hardened me. No conciliating gestures or looks or words helped me reach out to him. Would I love an unrepentant sinner? Could I?

It was hard enough at his sentencing. To let him alone while he faced the consequences of his behavior was one thing. But when he appealed his guilty plea and wished to have his sentences reduced, trying to get out of what he had confessed to doing, it was too much for me.

This journey has shown me how deeply sinful I am. Most of my life I've enjoyed helping others. I had come to see myself as others-centered, an altruistic embodiment of kindness! What a fool!

I know all the right teachings. I make all the right speeches, even to my inner self. I've been able to let go of my rage and let God take care of a situation I cannot change, to remind myself and others that evil was the problem and Anthony just an illustration of it. I balanced my anger with open expressions of sadness as the healthy way to manage the rage.

But all of that does not change who I am. At the core I am an angry, resentful, selfish, unforgiving man! I am a sinner! I cannot yet love my enemy as my Lord commands me to do! This has been the most humbling discovery of my life.

Grief and family stress

Each member of our family has grieved in her/his own way. And our reactions have been different in many respects from what we would have expected.

Our daughter Hilary's feelings were intense. A crusader at heart, she pursued questions about the case, wanted to be at the arraignment and sentencing, and was anxious to know details about the crime. She was quite reserved about her own internal journey of grief and found it more helpful to share that only with a very few friends.

Barbara has always been the intuitive, experiential one, worried about having nothing to say. She became the outgoing, talkative one who visited with nearly everyone at the slightest invitation! Her growing willingness to talk was quite perplexing to me, however, and at times frustrating. Our patterns had reversed, and she was now the one staying after meetings to visit with friends! My need to be alone conflicted with her need to share.

I have always been the most verbal of the three of us and the one with the most scattered interests. But in my grief I sought simplicity and solitude. Projects that had interested me intensely lost their meaning. Words seemed frivolous. In the face of death, mundane issues lost significance.

For months I didn't read through a book. Even Bible reading was limited to short familiar passages. It wasn't so much what God said but a sense of His presence that I wished for. A mystical connection with Him consoled me more than explanations and logic.

Rosemary, the academy student who came from Micronesia to live with us, experienced her own painful journey. Her mother had been murdered back home when Rosemary was in early grade school. Shannon's murder and funeral brought back those memories for her.

Hilary and I developed a growing professional friendship as she took more specialized social work courses in college.

But Barbara felt left out of those conversations and isolated from the two of us. That intensified her feelings of loss. Shannon had been her soul mate.

The holidays were terrible. For the first time I learned firsthand what it is to be depressed. Time passes and brings change to the intense reality of our loss. Others told us time would heal. I don't know that "healing" is yet the right word. "Change," yes. Certainly change. We found that sometime between the fourth and sixth month after Shannon's murder, reality began slipping to memory. We would go for a day or two at a time without thinking about Shannon or her murder. But that realization brought its own sadness. She was now part of the past, not the present.

We went through her Christmas decorations and used some of them. Friends sent flowers and called. But I wanted Shannon, not decorations or flowers or sympathy!


Loss. As part of a "victim impact statement" to the judge who sentenced Anthony, I included the following list of things I'd lost:

A dainty, accepting girl who modeled genuine interest in and concern for others.

Optimism and zest for life.

An enjoyable sex life (because of my hypersensitive concern not to take advantage of Barbara as Anthony had taken advantage of Shannon, and because of Barbara's guilt at enjoying sex when Shannon had suffered so much).

Actual calendar dates (everything now seems to revolve around Shannon's death: did that happen before or after...?).

I resent a number of things too, including: the power this tragedy has had to transform our lives; depression; having to remind myself to smile; anger that gets projected on undeserving friends and family; my life being defined by Shannon's death; being annoyingly compulsive, demanding, restless, and self-absorbed; becoming cynical, suspicious, and untrusting; hearing Barbara sob as she says, "I'm watching you age before my eyes."

As I look over the list now, there are several items no longer relevant. That indicates some mending of wounds.

Hope. Several months ago in church, Isaiah's list of Christ's attributes (Isa. 9) prompted these reasons to hope.

Why despair at depression when we know the Wonderful Counselor?

Why despair at the power of Satan when we know the Mighty God?

Why despair at the shortness of life when we know the Everlasting Father?

Why despair at evil when we know the Prince of peace?

Why despair at suffering when we know the Divine Healer?

Why despair at failure when we know the Redeemer?

Why despair at death when we know the Creator of life?

1 Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church
(Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub.
Assn., 1948), vol. 7, p. 44.

2 C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed (New York:
HarperCollins Pub., 1961).


Questions to consider:


1. In what ways have you been ministered to by your members? How has that been

a wonderful gift and an uneasy burden for you? What about it made it comforting

or uncomfortable? What does your reaction to their ministry say about you?

What does your reaction say about them?


2. Can you distinguish between those who grieve contemplatively or verbally? What

indications alert you to their preference? How do you decide whether or not to

touch them or hug them? How do you decide whether to talk or just sit quietly

with them and honor the loss in silence? How do you decide if they need more

personal space in which to sort things out, or if they need visits and contact from



3. In what ways have you experienced loss yourself? How can your own experience

aid  your sensitivity to what others experience? In what ways might your

, experience complicate your understanding of what others face?


4. How do you prefer to relate to grieving families? As God’s proclaimer of the good news? As facilitator of comfort by you or others? As logician who manages the details of the funeral service and funeral?


5. What has precipitated your most intense spiritual crisis? Were your reactions what you would have expected? What encouraged and disappointed you in your responses? What have you learned from that crisis? How did it change you, and what have you changed as a result of it?


Suggested Readings:


Doka, Kenneth J., ed. Living with Grief After Sudden Loss: Suicide, Homocide, Accident, Heart Attack, Stroke.  

Bristol, Pa.: Taylor and Francis, 1996. Doka edited this compilation of articles/stories for the Hospice Foundation of America.


Lewis, C. S. A Grief Observed. New York: HarperCollins Pub., 1961. Well-known

Christian apologist C. S. Lewis chronicled the dying of his spouse and the doubts

adopted faith even in the face of deeply troubling questions.


Sittser, Gerald L. A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows Through Loss. Grand

Rapids: Zondervan Pub. House, 1996. Sittser lost his mother, wife, and daughter

in a tragic accident and shares his journey of questions and reaffirmation

through it all He traces the depths of pain and loss as well as the Christian

questions he faced during his search for meaning and happiness during, as well

as after, the tragedy.


Swindoll, Charles R. For Those Who Hurt. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Pub. House,

1977. Swindoll's very small booklet addresses the major issues faced by those

who experience loss. Headings include: "Why Me, Why Now, Why This?"

"Getting Ready," "God Is Involved," "What Do We Suffer," "That We Might Be

Prepared to Comfort Others," "That We Might Not Trust in Ourselves," "That We

Might Learn to Give Thanks in Everything," "Looking Back," "Some Thoughts on

Tears," and "Looking Ahead."


Westberg, Granger E. Good Grief. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1962, 1971.

Westberg's classic outline of the stages of grief bears review in the contemporary

world. A valuable resource for both the bereaved and those ministering to them.


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Darold Bigger, Ph.D., is a professor of religion and social work at Walla Walla College and former senior pastor of the church at College Place, Washington.

November 1997

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