Surviving the Ultimate Loss ~ By Shane Sutherland


I had learned enough in my walk with Christ to understand the principle that when God allows great pain, He has a great purpose. But I never could have anticipated just how deeply He was about to teach me that lesson until August 31, 2008.
It was an ordinary yet significant Sunday. My oldest son, Zach, was preparing to leave for Argentina for ten months, to study the Bible and do missions. Our youth pastor had asked him to speak. Zach’s primary message that day was about surrendering to Christ and following Him forward in spite of fear. Then our church prayed and commissioned him.
It was a memorable morning, and we left church overflowing with the goodness of God. He had allowed such rich blessings for Zach as he prepared to go serve Him for the next year. We headed for lunch and then went home to settle in for the afternoon while Zach went fishing with his dad (we”re a blended family.)
And then the unthinkable happened.
That dreaded phone call around 5pm … less than 5 hours after we had prayed over him for the last time that day, and just two hours after Zach bounced down our stairs without a care in the world. If I had only known, I would have chased him down the stairs and screamed, “No, don’t go!”  I would have at least given him that endless hug, the one he left without because how would I have ever known it would be my last chance?
I stood listening to the hysterical words of his dad on the other end of the phone, “It’s Zach.
There’s been an accident. I pulled him out of the creek… Meet me at the hospital. I’m in the ambulance. They’re working on him, doing everything they can. But, it’s not good.”
My husband, Brian, and I jumped in the car and headed to the hospital. I”d been reading a book for one of my counseling classes that teaches us to take our rightful stand in Christ
when we are under the attack of the enemy. All I could do that day was declare the words that were fresh on my mind, “I am a child of God; the enemy can’t hurt me. Zach is a child of God; the enemy can’t hurt him.” That became my prayer; the words my lips spoke over and over. “He’s Your child God. The enemy can’t hurt him.”
As Brian drove, I called our pastor and again repeated those words. I”ll never forget his response that changed everything: “We don’t know yet.” Brian and I were still 15 minutes from
the hospital, and I had no idea what we would find out when we got there. But, I knew all the same.
Through my pastor’s four words, I heard God say, “I am allowing this. I’ve been preparing you. I am with you.”
In that crystal clear moment in time, my prayers changed. For the next 15 minutes I prayed, “God if this is what You’re doing, if You really are taking my son home today, then may Your will be done.”
His amazing grace …
I know that it was only by His amazing grace that God helped my heart echo Mary’s words: “I am the
Lord’s servant; may it be to me as you have said.” (Luke 1:38) 
The rest of the story was me just following God forward into this place He was leading our family. I already knew the words I would hear, yet I had to actually take the next step. 

After walking into the ER with feet dragging as if they weighed a thousand pounds, my mind was forced to process the words that my heart already knew.
We couldn”t save him.
“I have bad news. We did all we could, but it was just too late. We couldn’t save him.” 
Zach had slipped on the creek bank and hit his head on a rock. He drowned in 8 inches of water. The enemy really couldn’t hurt Zach. He walked straight into the arms of Jesus.
For the rest of us, I know it was at that moment our journey from tragedy to triumph began.
Though I couldn’t comprehend it all right then, my spirit began declaring the words of Job 13:15: “Though You slay me, Lord, yet will I HOPE in You, yet will I TRUST in You, yet will I PRAISE You!”
The grace God gives a mother to accept the death of her child cannot be explained. The mystery of it still eludes me. It is only God.
When God allows great pain, He has a great purpose… immediately, these words began to ring true in my heart. My soul ached for Him to show me all that He wanted to teach me through
this, all He wanted to teach our family, and all He wanted to teach others. Yes, sometimes we suffer for others who need to see how we trust God as we walk through it.
What greater honor than to be asked to steward such great pain? I only knew I wanted to walk
through it in a way that glorified and honored Him. So that became casino games my prayer as soon as I left the emergency room that day. “Father, help me to walk through this in a way that all anyone sees is You.”
That was three years ago. I”m still amazed when I see what God has done. I have personally
experienced a healing so deep in my heart, that on some days I actually catch myself living so joyfully I am shocked back into reality as I remember that I have lost a son. How am I surviving, much less laughing and living free? I will not pretend it has been easy. But in all the emotionally dark places this loss has taken me through, over and over I have tasted and seen that the LORD is good (Psalm 34:8).
God promises He will bring beauty from ashes (Isaiah 61:3). We had already seen God do great things during the week of Zach’s death. During the days and weeks after, we experienced the hands, feet, and heart of Christ in such powerful ways as His people met our every need. Even more importantly, many gave their lives to Christ at Zach’s celebration of life service. 
In January, 2011, I had the privilege of writing Zach’s story.

The day Zach entered Heaven is only the beginning. He had quite a testimony of struggle to freedom. Until the last 12-18 months before his death, Zach had fought courageously to face hard stuff in order to walk free with Christ and be comfortable in his own skin.

My book, I Dare You to Read this Book, shares Zach’s whole story – a tragedy to triumph story all by itself. Because people had watched Zach
change right before their eyes, they had seen evidence of the life-changing power of Christ.

People are drawn to Zach’s story, especially teenagers and parents of teens. We can hear that God is all-powerful and can change lives, but that can become “Pollyanna” church talk sometimes. Packaged within the story of a real teenager who lived his life wide open for others to see, the message becomes relatable, tangible, and believable. It becomes REAL. And God is using it to change lives.
When I think about all God has done since August 31, 2008 I can barely comprehend it. The one thing I can say is that God is faithful. Oh, I had days in the first couple of years that I wondered if our family would ever survive this giant kick in the gut. But, He has brought us each through it all, and we are stronger on the other side. This tragedy may have been a plan of the enemy, but everything that God allows has either been ordained by Him, or has been bought back for His purposes. I can testify that, no matter what, He holds. He redeems. He makes all things new.
Today you have heard from a mom who lost a son and survived. In the strength of Christ, I am not only surviving, I am thriving in His triumphant victory! In whatever struggle you may find yourself today or someday down the road, I can’t think of better words to leave you with than from my son himself. These are exact words recorded in his journal on January 22, 2008:
“That should also be my continued prayer that I surrender all to God just like David. And just like Christ gave his own life for me and everyone in the room. That should be my motivator, that one act can cause everyone to say “Hey, he can do it, so I sure can!”  

Ane Mulligan

Ane Mulligan writes Southern-fried fiction served with a tall, sweet iced tea. While a large, floppy straw hat is her favorite, she's worn many different ones: hairdresser, legislative affairs director (that's a fancy name for a lobbyist), business manager, drama director and writer. Her lifetime experience provides a plethora of fodder for her Southern-fried fiction (try saying that three times fast). She's a humor columnist for ACFW's e-zine Afictionado and a syndicated blogger on V.P. and Senior Editor of the award-winning website, Novel Rocket, she's published dozens of plays and numerous articles and won several awards in contests for unpublished novels, including a three-time Genesis finalist. A past Board member of ACFW, she's mom, a grandmom, and resides in Suwanee, GA, with her artist husband and one very large dog.

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  1. I remember that night, getting a phone call from another friend. It was around 6:00 PM. I hurried down to church, where the kids were all gathered, stunned by the news. But the most amazing part of this was when Shane and her husband and other kids arrived to comfort the youth! I was the one who was stunned.

    I’ve watched God work His grace through Shane in our church. That’s why I had to bring you this story. Shane is my hero and she’s inspired me to go deeper in my relationship with Jesus.

  2. Thank you for sharing our story, Ane. And thank you for your sweet words above as well. I will always miss Zach in a way that will not heal until I see him again, but I gain so much comfort and strength from the Lord when He shows me all the ways He continues to use it for His glory! Love you friend!

  3. My eyes are welled with tears not for the tragedy, but for the triumph of our Lord and Savior. Your testimony is one of great courage. I feel blessed from a distance to envision the hand of God, even in this…

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