As I sit on the hard pew, I try to think of anything other than where I am. I stare at my broken toe nail and try to feel disappointed that my one day old pedicure is ruined. I try to make a grocery list in my head. I even try counting the ceiling fans that spin silently above me in the sanctuary where I sit. But it is hopeless. I can’t escape that I am at the funeral of my friend’s 16-year-old son and that she is sitting on the first pew staring at the coffin that holds her son.
I didn’t know Charlene’s son. I only met Charlene, who lives in my subdivision, when she joined me on the Pregnancy Care Center Board. I immediately liked her no nonsense attitude and her diligent work ethic. I recall now the things she told me about her son, Blake. “Hoot” is the word she’d used to describe him. The local newspaper described him as “An honor student and a guitar aficionado, his list of accomplishments ran as long as his list of friends and admirers. His passion for music was only eclipsed by his love of rodeo.” The article quoted Charlene as saying “He had plans. He had it all mapped out.” Not anymore, I think bitterly. Now his body is about to be buried and his mother is without a son she adored. I am angry and sad. But mostly I am heart broken for my friend.
I learned of Blake’s death by email earlier in the week. The message came through my church’s prayer chain and said simply, “Please pray for Byron and Charlene Sandel. Their son Blake was found dead at their home. No other details at this time.” No, I had cried in shock. It can’t be. Usually the church prayer chain consists of requests for so and so’s great-aunt in Montana who will be having surgery next Tuesday. It’s not supposed to inform me that less than a mile from my house a family’s life has been changed forever without warning.
Later that day a friend told me that Blake had hung himself. No, I cried for the second time. As the day wore on gossip was finally separated from truth to reveal the strange reality: Blake had accidently hung himself while playing the choking game, a form of self asphyxiation. Teens wrap a belt or rope around their necks to get a “high.” Blake died when he fainted and his belt did not release from his neck. A senseless death for sure, but I am glad it wasn’t suicide.
At the funeral, they are calling the service a Celebration of Life. Family, friends and pastors share humorous, uplifting stories about Blake’s life. They give thanks that he knew the Lord. They are all confident he is in Heaven. No doubt I am glad for this, but still I think of Charlene and the emptiness she must feel. How can you go on when so much of your life revolved around your son?
Charlene gets up to speak. I am amazed at her poise and her strength. She must be in shock. She says that if Blake were alive he would say playing the choking game was the dumbest thing he ever did. She goes on to warn the hundreds of teens present to never play the game. She speaks with clarity and purpose.
After the service we file by the family. I dread seeing my friend. What can I possibly say to her? I have no words. When I get to her, she tilts her head to the side and smiles at me. She reaches out her arms and hugs me tightly. I blurt out what is on my mind, “How can you be so strong?” She puts her hands on my shoulders and pushes me to arm’s length from her. Her eyes show shock and disappointment at my question.
“Because I have the power of Jesus,” she says as if this is the most obvious answer in the world. “With full confidence I know Blake is with his Savior right now and would not come back if he could. And Blake will not die in vain.” She speaks with the strength of a mighty warrior, a mother on a mission.
I walk away humbled and shamed. She lost her son, yet is more confident in the promise of Jesus than I have ever been. Lord, forgive me. May I be confident in You, just like Charlene.
Author’s Note: This is based on a true story. Our small town has lost two Christian young men to the choking game. Charlene and Byron Sandel have started the Blake Sandel Foundation which is aligned with the GASP (Games Adolescents Shouldn’t Play) organization. GASP is the educational model for public schools and the Blake Sandel Foundation will use that model along with a message of faith for youth groups, private schools, etc. The official website is www.gaspinfo.com.
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Beautifully and poignantly written, Kristin! I was aware of this practice but did not realize it was still going on. Thank you for making it personal- we have only to think how we would feel were this our own son or daughter or other family member. Losing a child is a great loss, but as your title indicates, because of Who we serve, it need not be in vain.
Wow, Kristen. I had no idea this kind of thing went on. I am so sorry this happened to your friend.
The title of your article says it all. As long as you continue to speak out, Blake's death, and the deaths of many other children, will not be in vain.
This definitely needed to be showcased. Keep up the good work, sister.
God bless you.
I teach junior high and high school in our local Christian school. I have heard about this, but it is so underground, it's hard to find out who's doing it. I think of my students, and it breaks my heart. Your neighbor is something else. Bless her and you for giving her voice.