In high school, I was a theater nerd. Think Les Mis, or Phantom of the Opera. Have I ever camped out overnight to purchase tickets to see a professional musical? Yes. Yes, I have.
One of the lessons I was taught in acting class was to pull from experiences to conjure up the emotions needed for a scene. Being a pretty lucky kid growing up, I didn’t have a lot of tragedy to pull from when the scene called for it, so I had to get peculiarly creative.
If I needed to cry, my trick was to think about losing my dad. Specifically, the image of him in a coffin would always bring me to tears. Dark?…yes. But also effective.
But in 2013, that fear became my reality. My dad had a sudden death by cardiac arrest, nicknamed “the widow-maker.” He and my mom were eating dinner one minute, and he was essentially dead the next.
The paramedics started his heart again, but he was gone for almost 20 minutes. Once at the hospital, the doctors said the lack of oxygen to his brain caused it to swell, and they were worried about brain damage.
We prayed so hard. My goodness, did we pray. He was a popular high school teacher and football and soccer coach, so he was very well-known in our small town. We prayed that he could be a miracle story of God’s power. We thought, “If God would just heal him, he could show so many people that God is real!”
But after about a week of treatment and tests, the doctors told us my dad would not survive off of life support. We made the decision to pull the plug, and he passed away a few days later at the age of 68. After all that prayer and petitioning, it felt like a punch to the gut.
And this punch to the gut could have easily led me to abandon my faith altogether. We followed the formula and did everything “right.” So when our perfect equation didn’t yield the results we expected, when we tested the hypothesis and found no correlation, I could have concluded that this God thing was just nonsense.
I wrestled with God, doubted my faith, and was hit with sheer depression and anxiety. It was hard to see any light at the end of the tunnel. But somehow, through the darkest time of my life, God showed me how to trust him more deeply and find peace that I didn’t think was possible.
And it started with an “unanswered” prayer…and a visit from an unearthly being.
Yep, you read that right (but let’s start with the prayer).
An (Un?)Answered Prayer
Ever heard people say that God will answer our prayers? I don’t know about you, but I interpreted that to mean, “God will say ‘yes’ to my prayers.”
And I thought we had this perfect equation to have our prayers answered. I’m talking about things like believing God will perform a miracle + my dad “deserved” to be saved = God will say yes! But this experience made me realize that a+b=c is not always what the Bible tells us.
To be clear, I believe God will answer prayers. But I failed to realize that sometimes it seems God’s answer is “wait” or even the dreaded “no.”, meaning I don’t think God is a genie who grants three wishes if I follow the right formula.
So, God did answer my prayer, but the answer was no.
And that was a gut punch. There’s no way around that. But the crucial lesson I learned that I carry with me every day is what God does promise - regardless of his answer to our prayers - and it’s that he will be with us:
“When you go through deep waters, I will be with you. When you go through rivers of difficulty, you will not drown. When you walk through the fire of oppression, you will not be burned up; the flames will not consume you.” (Isaiah 43:2).
In other words, my paraphrased words, ‘When you go through the crap, I’ll be with you.’
Boy, oh boy, was God with me. Because when that “no” from God hit, and I was at my lowest, something happened that defied logic, that gave me a lifeline not to abandon my faith. Why I couldn’t.
I suppose I’ll never know why it was the case that God told us “no” with my dad. But he was with me just like he promised, and part of how he was with me changed my life forever.
A Glance into the Spiritual Realm
While my dad was in the hospital, my mom would not leave his side, but she was in no shape to stay there alone. So, my two brothers and I took shifts - so to speak - staying with her in his ICU room. I got the night shift since I’m the only single child with no kids. Mom would sleep on the sofa in his room, and I would sleep on the recliner beside his bed.
Each night, the nurses would come into the room to bathe him and turn him to a new position. When they would do this, it would irritate the breathing tube in his throat, and the alarms would sound. This happened every single night.
So here I am, trying to sleep on a recliner for the fifth night in a row, when the nurses came in for their nightly routine. I was turned away but was lying there eavesdropping on their conversation while they worked (night nurses have some interesting stories to tell!).
As expected, the alarms started blaring, but it seemed to continue forever. After what felt like an eternity, I turned around to see what was happening and saw something unexpected…
My dad lying in bed, accompanied by three nurses…and one dark, shadowy figure.
The figure was standing at the end of his bed, facing him, with its “hands” on the footboard of the hospital bed. I stared for a moment, probably with my jaw on the floor, and then turned away to process what I saw. I looked back a few seconds later, and the figure was gone. Just the nurses stood by his bed.
I always thought if I ever saw something supernatural, I would be scared out of my mind, especially if it was some dark shadowy figure. That’s the quintessential “very-bad-spooky thing,” right? And though I was a bit caught off guard at first, I wasn’t scared. I was surprised, yes! But not scared.
I felt peace and protection. It felt like when you had a nightmare as a kid, and your parents would come into the room to comfort you. I realize this makes no logical sense (that is, a big dark figure in a hospital room at night making me feel at ease), but I think we can throw logic out the window at this point, right? I was looking at something that no one else could see…something that most people might describe as scary, and I felt…love coming from it.
Which is even more odd, right? Not just that I didn’t feel afraid, but that I felt love. It reminded me of in the Bible when several people encounter an angel or God, and while fearful at first, they ultimately draw near to His loving presence. I saw this in Genesis, Daniel, Matthew, and Revelation…just to name a few.
The Answered Prayer
Who or what was that shadow figure? A guardian angel? My dad’s spirit outside of his body? Am I crazy to say ‘Jesus’? I have my theories, but honestly, I’ll never know for sure.
It did not matter, though, because this experience affirmed to me that there is more beyond our natural perception. That amid my doubt and wrestling, I could rest a bit more easily in trusting that God exists, there is heaven, my dad was going to it, and I’ll see him again. The love I felt around that non-human-like being reminded me of the God of the Bible - who is love (1 John 4:8).
The scripture in Isaiah of God being with me came alive for me in a way I had never seen. That small glimpse into the spirit realm in that brief moment gave me so much peace that it carried me through the most challenging time in my life.
And it not only carried me but helped me carry others through it as well. My mom was a total wreck after his death. Dad took such good care of her that she was unprepared to live without him. She needed a lot of care and emotional strength from her kids, and I was the most available. I honestly don’t think I could have been strong for her had I not seen that shadowy figure, had I not had visual confirmation that there’s more after this, that I would see my dad again.
But just knowing I’d see him again does not mean his death didn’t impact me. I still suffer from depression and anxiety, and my dad’s death was my worst fear come to life. I went through grief much like anyone else who loses someone they love. I cried. I was angry. I had to adjust my meds and talk with a therapist.
Through this experience in the hospital room, though, there was no opportunity for doubt to get a foothold on me. My foundation was strong enough to get through that nightmare, and I believe it’s because God allowed me to see, with my physical eyes, that there is more than just this material world. There was more for my dad after this life and more for me. This life isn’t the end.
Because even though this life is hard sometimes (a lot of times), I believe there will be justice and peace. Jesus promises paradise for those who accept him (Luke 23: 42-43). I don’t know about you, but I could use a little more paradise!
I know the idea of eternal life can sound scary or exhausting; heck, thinking about eternity for too long can still sometimes make my head spin. But I find comfort in knowing I’ll see my dad again and a loving God is waiting for me on the other side, too. I don’t need to be afraid of the supernatural because I know who is the super behind the natural.
And I don’t believe it takes a supernatural experience to make God, or his promises, real. In my case, in God’s infinite wisdom, I think he gave me a gift of affirmation to know where my dad and I were going. And if I didn’t receive that, it wouldn’t have made Him or heaven any less real. I believe He would have been “with me” in other ways, as I have seen.
In today’s material culture, especially in the Western world, we often dismiss the idea of anything beyond “the natural.” But I can testify that something beyond the natural gave me the most important peace I’ve ever felt, and I wonder where I might see that supernatural next to bring me closer to a loving God.