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How does faith survive the death of your 11-year-old son?

Martin and Rachel Riddall share their view of the valley of the shadow of death

When your son goes out to the local youth club, you expect to see him back a few hours later. But Sam Riddall never returned home. As he walked back with his friends, a driver, who had discharged herself from a mental health establishment, approached a corner at more than twice the speed limit, lost control and collided with the young boy, killing him instantly.

Sam’s father, Martin, tells the story: “She was high on recreational drugs and hadn’t slept for 48 hours”

Unable to negotiate the corner, the car took off, hit Sam and threw him into the air. He landed on the ground and the car landed on top of him.

Why?

Martin and Rachel, who had been Christians for many years when Sam was killed, were rocked by the news. Martin began to question deeply-held beliefs in God’s love. “God – who knows everything, can do anything and is everywhere – had a choice. God could have stopped these things happening. So why didn’t he?”, Martin wondered.

With traces of pain in his voice, several years on, he continues: “My faith just fell apart. I believed in God still, but I didn’t believe that God loved me. And when I tried to make myself understand that God loved me, I had to redefine love, because I know what it’s like to be a dad. I wouldn’t do anything like that to my own children, so why would this eternal father do that to me?”

Prepared for tragedy?

Looking back, Rachel and Martin recognise God’s hand in the events of that day. Remarkably, just hours before Sam died, he was almost hit by another car while on the way to school. The police had commented he was “lucky” to avoid the “near miss”.

Rachel recalls: “That evening Sam commented that he could have been killed, which led him to ask lots of questions about heaven, while I cooked tea…I explained that we don’t know too much about the details but that it will be an amazing place, and we will be with Jesus, which will be the best.

“He then asked me; ‘When I die, will I be able to see you from heaven?’, which at the time I didn’t think too much about. I just said I expected to get there before him and that the Bible isn’t really clear about whether you can ‘see out’ of heaven and that you would be having too much fun anyway to worry about that.”

Rachel says the incident begged the question: Why? Was it a coincidence? Was God behind it? “It felt like God had dropped a seed of preparation into our hearts and minds,” she says, “which afterwards was comforting to us. In the end, there wasn’t really a choice for me. I have experienced so much of God’s love and grace in my life that there was no way I could walk away from him.

“The grief rolls in sometimes, so heavy and painful, but as I’ve chosen to fix my eyes on Jesus, he has stepped close, every time.”

Grieving in public

Appearing on the news and being part of a big church meant the grieving process was very public for the couple – Martin was a student pastor at the time. “People would say: ‘Your faith must really be helping you.’ I didn’t feel it. I was just getting through it, because I had no choice,” Martin says.

“In fact, there are some cliffs in Bristol and I knew exactly where I was going to jump from. The only thing that stopped me doing that was my wife and children. I didn’t want them having to grieve for me in the same way I was grieving my son.”

Rachel adds: “What Martin said is very raw and real and I totally remember being in that place, but my journey has been very different. That’s part of why so many marriages don’t survive the death of a child.”

The common theme in both their stories is being scarred, but making conscious choices to follow God, even worship him, right in the middle of besieging darkness.

The grief rolls in so heavy and painful, but Jesus has stepped close

Rachel explains how one winter she was crying in her kitchen and noticed a fruit tree silhouetted starkly by the snow. “It looked frozen, it looked dead, and, as I was crying, I said to God: ‘That’s what I feel like – dead inside. I can’t see me ever moving around this grief, because it’s just too overwhelming.’ Half-praying, half-thinking, I said: ‘Am I ever going to be fruitful again? Or is just getting through each day all I can ask for?’ Just as I said that, a text came through on my phone. It said, ‘You will be fruitful again.’ For a split second I literally thought God had texted me! My friend had been praying for me and was randomly moved to send me that text.

“There’s loads of little incidents like that, where I just felt God say: ‘I’m with you in this.’”

Early on in the grieving process, Martin dreamt that he was the manager of a silk factory. Just as he was proudly being photographed in front of it, the building blew up, turning all the stock to shreds.

In his dream, the owner came to inspect the stock, which amounted to “one roll of ruined, tattered silk.” “I was so embarrassed. I offered up the silk, but I wasn’t going to look at him,” says Martin. “But when I saw him reach out to get it, I saw that his hands were rough: nails chipped, cracked skin – and a hole in the wrist.

“I looked and saw the love that came from Jesus to me, despite the fact that all I’d got to offer him was this completely ruined piece of faith. He took it from me and he made it all that it could be.”

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