What Happens When Life Goes Sideways?
Mandy Catto: Welcome to another Art of Relationships podcast. What happens when life takes a turn you weren't expecting? Today on our podcast, we sit down again with Ed Usyznski to hear about a tragic accident that altered his life and the vital role that friendship played in restoring his hope and joy. Sounds interesting doesn't it? Let's listen.
Chris Grace: Well, welcome to another Art of Relationship podcast as we've been introduced here and we have a guest Tim with us. It is awesome to continue to interact with a friend of yours.
Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah. Ed and I have been friends. Ed, you and I have been friends for my goodness, how long?
Ed Usyznski: Well, it was longer than that. The early 90s. We met, you were a campus staff person with Campus Crusade at Miami of Ohio. I was a student at Kent State and so I think we either met at a retreat, maybe a fall retreat or Christmas conference in the early 90s, late 80s.
Tim Muehlhoff: We've been very intentional about our friendship. We go to these similar retreats and a lot of times we go a day early just to connect and keep in touch. So, friendship has been a very important part. So, we wanted to ask you a little bit about friendship. You have experienced some unique situations that have happened in your life and you're currently going through a tough situation. So, why don't you tell us just a little bit about what happened to you when you were driving one day on the freeway unexpectedly had a very difficult thing happen and then the role of friendship to help you kind of regain yourself. Why don't you fill us in a little bit about what happened?
Ed Usyznski: Yeah. In 2004, I was driving on the highway down in Florida and a truck pulled up alongside me and blew out a tire and clipped the back of my van and I rolled a bunch of times down the highway and off the side of the road and was life flighted to the hospital. In fact, I only know what happened because there were guys driving behind me that ended up describing it because I blacked out almost immediately when I started to roll. So, I wound up in the hospital for two weeks down there.
I had some significant damage that was done to my leg. The consequences of which I'm still dealing with today. I had to have my Achilles tendon taken out and some other muscle removed from the back of my calf. I've had just tons of infections as a result of it. So, it was pretty traumatic and life altering accident. So, I haven't even thought about this. I didn't know we were going to talk about it but I really should have died. When you see the damage to the car and those guys describe what happen it's like it's absolutely amazing that the person in the car lived. On the other hand and it looks like I almost got out of it with nothing happening except this what you would consider minimal damage to my leg and yet it's amazing how much you depend on your legs everyday you know?
Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah.
Ed Usyznski: To do things and get around and I've just had so many problems from walking funny. I've had back problems and my other knee had to have surgery. It's just been one thing after another for 15 years. Yet I'm still here. So, that tension between being thankful for that and constantly feeling an undercurrent of bitterness about why.
Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah. We'll talk about that a little bit, but explain what happened. A friend of yours, another lifelong friend surprised you by showing up at the hospital just to be with you. Eric [Tonas] is one of our theologians here at Biola University and he came down and sat by your hospital bed, right? How long was he there and what impact did it have for him to be there?
Ed Usyznski: Yeah he was there for almost a week. Amy, my wife called him and he flew in from California and Eric and I, we met when we were in seminary at Trinity Evangelical Seminary in the mid 90s and just struck up beyond a friendship. It's like we were brothers from how do they say it? A brother from another mother, you know? We always felt like we just had a kinship together. So, Amy called him and just asked him if he'd come and basically suffer with me for a stretch and he did. I'm going to describe some of the things that he sat in on with me and some of the things that we had to do to try to get me back on my feet. There's little humiliations that happen when you're in the hospital and just the fear of what was going on. The confusion.
So, it was huge that he was there with me. Even just trying to get me from the hospital to a cab ride to get me to the airport was significant and he was there and just was a brother to me in trying to pull that off. So, I always felt indebted to him for that and so much more and I feel like God has given me quite a few men like that in my life and I've grown to just appreciate more and more the value of having guys like that in my life.
Tim Muehlhoff: So, can we speak in hypotheticals for a second? I'm shifting away from Eric for a second. So, in the midst of a tragedy, in the midst of an accident and a person wants to be a really good Christian friend like I'm going to go to the hospital room, I'm going to sit by this person, what would be your advice in retrospect? What would be some of the things that person should say and what would be some of the things that person should not say?
Ed Usyznski: Well, I do not want to pose as a grief counselor or somebody that knows exactly what should or shouldn't be said across the board. I think we should learn from Job's friends. I feel like I've been impacted largely by the biblical narrative of Job and what goes on in those chapters with his friends as they try to figure his suffering out, as they try to provide answers. As they argue with him, as they correct him. I don't think that that's the best thing to do for people. The ministry of presence and just being able to sit silently in a room with somebody else in the midst of a struggle is a significant ministry to have.
To just be there and not try to correct, not try to fix, not try to rescue but just to be able to be miserable with somebody for a while. To step into their confusion, to step into their fear without having to try to guide it or solve it in that moment I just think is huge. The best people in my life over time have been able to do that and I understand when so often people aren't able to because we do want to fix it. We do want to provide answers. There's a fear when we hear somebody start to question God and we feel like we've got to fix that for them right away but it really seems like the best thing to do sometimes is just to be able to be with somebody without having to say anything.
Chris Grace: During times like that when we face difficulty, someone is in grief or pain, we don't know what to say, it seems like sometimes it can challenge our own beliefs about why God is there or is he there. There might be a little bit of a fear like I'm entering into some territory I don't have not only answers for this person but I'm afraid this could knock me back a little bit because I'm not quite sure. So, in facing difficulties with a friend and coming alongside, there are moments where it forces some deep questions in yourself. I know that happened with you probably. It happens with all of us. When you start to ask these deep questions and wonders, what have you learned? What are the kinds of responses to help someone in that because I guess another way of what I'm saying is sometimes the person that is going through the pain can actually help the person that's there to help them.
It's almost like reminding them you know what? I think God has me and it's almost like you can reverse roles a little bit.
Ed Usyznski: Yep. Isn't it interesting that Jesus himself was asking God why he forsook him on the cross? I think all these moments that especially if you walk with God and you know the biblical narrative, there's these little scenes that can almost become cliché in the backdrop of our life and that's a tragedy because the whole reason why certain scenes were left for us in the Bible in the first place is precisely for moments like that I think. That all the great characters in the Bible round up wrestling with God and asking him why.
What set them apart from other human beings who do the same thing is that they consistently said but not my will, but yours be done. I'm going to trust in the midst of this that all will be well. That you're going to bring about some good as Paul said. That in the midst of trials and suffering that there is some future glory and there's something that God is up to in allowing things to happen the way he does and it's going to be okay. So, I take comfort in that and even in saying it, we need to be quiet, that doesn't mean that we're never able to say it's going to be okay. God is with us. That in and of itself doesn't sound very satisfying but I think even just to have somebody whether it's the sufferer or the person that's sitting with them just to say, "Let's cling to God in the midst of this. I don't know where he's at right now. I don't know why this is happening. I'm scared to death, but let's cling to God together."
You know what happens in there? He meets us in there doesn't he? In some strange way, there's grace to make it through the next few moments and then the next few moments and then the next few moments and then the haze can start to clear over time and we find him in new ways in the midst of that and it's a mystery.
Chris Grace: My wife Alisa likes to tell new couples and when we do premarital work with them or we're speaking that if they're looking for someone to pick that will be a life partner, someone that they can rely on, someone that is meant for them, she adds one little variable. Look for somebody who can suffer well or who ... What does that mean for you? I think the idea of suffering and doing it well is maybe something we develop and grow with maturity and age and time, but it's also a way to look for somebody who can sit in the hard times and shows that during times of tragedy or times of hurt there's something that they do in a way that actually can be healing and helpful and hopeful. So, you've experienced recently loss in death with friends and tell us about that as well.
Ed Usyznski: I will. I'll give you two examples that I'm sitting in the middle of right now, but first I just want to say this because I'm watching this. To suffer well, I'd be curious to hear what you say to this too Chris in what she has seen. I think one of the components of suffering well is just to not go out and medicate right away. As soon as I feel pain to try to remove it, the cheap gold becomes ... We just talked about this in the last segment. How do I feel happy again? How do I get rid of this enemy that brings fear and these awful feelings into my life?
Can I drink it away? Can I porn it away? Can I shop it away? So, people that are suffering well, they're tempted maybe to do those things, but they choose not to. They don't immediately run to those things. Then second, they are able to access God talk. Even if that talk is to scream out at God. It's not always just immediately thy will be done or I'm sure God's going to make it okay. Maybe at first it's, "What are you doing? Do you hate me?" But it's the honest cries of the heart directed at God. So, there's still this God interaction, this God consciousness. This God reality even if it's muddled and hazy.
Those are the two things that came to my mind immediately. What else would you guys say about that about what it means to suffer well and then I'll tell you the details of the situations where I'm learning.
Chris Grace: No, I think you've hit some really important points. It might even start before that suffering well is to be prepared ahead of time with a community that we talked about last time and knowing that you can turn to people that are your go to in moments like that. You had Eric and each of us have someone that you're like, "Gosh I know I'll be there for that person." In other words, you maintain strong consistent bonds now in community. I also think just that idea of recognizing the need to take care of your heart and do that on a regular basis now where you meet with God on a regular basis so that when that time of hurt, pain, trauma comes in you are really in a prepared way. It's almost like you have disciplined that to meet God and so therefore in that moment when it's the most needed, it's not the odd moment to say, "Now I better pray. Now I better call him. Now I better sit still with him."
Tim Muehlhoff: I think some of these questions Chris is talking about to wrestle with those beforehand are important. Because remember in Romans chapter eight, Paul asked the question, "If God is for us, who can be against us?" But then I love to say to people, "How do you know God's for you? Before there's tragedy. Is it because you have a bank account? Is it because your kids are healthy? Is it because your marriage is thriving? You've got the job that you always wanted?" If those are the things you know that God is for you, then all of those things are subject to change and subject to tragedy. We have to root that in something transcendent. That's when you need to have the conversation is before it all hits and the truck blows a tire and hits your car. It's good to have those conversations.
I once asked a man who wrote a book because he lost his son. I said, "Man what can I do to prepare for that kind of stuff?" He said, "Man grow on God's goodness and get that settled why God is good and it has to be transcendent to the cross." I thought that was good input.
Ed Usyznski: For some reason, this always stuck to me. I probably heard this 30 years ago. Somebody said that when you're in the midst of the darkness, you need to remember what you knew to be true in the light.
Tim Muehlhoff: That's good. That was me. Ed, that was me.
Ed Usyznski: All day. Tim Muehlhoff. Dr. Tim Muehlhoff.
Tim Muehlhoff: Yep. Thank you.
Ed Usyznski: Well, so to Chris's point, when you're in the light, that's the time to actually figure out what you believe to be true. So, that's good. I'll tell you some details and Tim, I don't even know if I told you about what just happened.
Tim Muehlhoff: No you did. You actually did. About another loss that you're having to navigate.
Ed Usyznski: So, I'll just say this. Amy and I, I just consider when I look around the world and I see that people who seem to be suffering all the time, I feel like we've not really lived a life that's full of suffering. I've been thankful for that along the way, but goodness we have definitely gone through periods of great loss and heartache and we just seem to be in one of those right now. So, I mentioned that we've had great friends that we've journeyed with. I've got people like Tim Muehlhoff and Eric Thomas who I consider great friends that are all around the country, but we don't get to do life together.
I've got people here though that we actually do daily life with that are intimate friends. We've been on this journey for 20 years together and our friend Elizabeth [Koproski] had a recurrence of cancer that had been in remission for the last seven years and a few months ago it came back in force. So, we had been journeying with her the last couple of months until she went to be with the Lord on January 11th, just a couple of weeks ago. We were in hospice with her. Amy was spending the night with her and just were with her at all the doctors appointments and thinking that we were getting good news and it would turn out to be bad and thinking that things were going to be all bad and then we'd hear some good news and just the roller coaster of going back and forth and back and forth until finally she died.
So, we've been navigating that. CS Lewis talked about how in a circle of friends, when one friend dies something of all the other friends in the circle dies with them. I'm feeling that intensely of that there were things that Elizabeth would bring out of me and that I could bring out of her as a friend that is now no longer here. She was always somebody that my wife would process life with every single day. She helped keep us in line in our marriage and I'm just scared about what it means for her not to be here anymore. Then two days ago, we were called to the hospital. A friend of mine Brad that I work with, his grandson, his seven month old grandson suffocated while he was sleeping.
So, we arrived at the hospital just in time for them to declare him dead and to be there with the wailing mother and the in laws and just the mayhem that comes with this sudden shock of death. With Elizabeth, we knew it was coming and we had great conversations and planning and talking through the hardness of it even with her before she left. This is the exact opposite kind of tragedy where you start the day going to work and anticipating that everything is going to be normal and by 5:00 you're sitting in a room with people with a coroner discussing the autopsy of your seven month old.
So, guys I'm not full of answers right now. I'm filling with experience but sometimes when you're in the midst of that kind of agony, silence before the Lord is an appropriate place to find yourself. Silence before the mystery of what he's doing and why. Brad, the core people in these narratives are Christian people. They're Godly people. Brad as he was just walking back and forth in the hospital sobbing just kept saying, "Why? Why? Why God would you take little Rowan?" So, what do you do when you're standing there in the hallway in the midst of that? Answer it? I don't know why. I don't know.
Tim Muehlhoff: Well, let me quote a friend of mine, Ed Usyznski. I don't know if you remember saying this to me, Ed, when you had had your accident. You and I were on the phone and you eventually said something that really stayed with me. You said in the immediacy of it, you just need somebody to be with you. But eventually you need your friends to speak truth. Eventually. Do you remember saying that to me?
Ed Usyznski: I do. Part of the reason why you just brought it back to my attention. I had a pastor friend that I still remember in the midst of feeling confusion and frustration and whatnot, I remember him praying over me and in his prayer, he was empathizing with the confusion. I don't remember exactly what he said, but I remember as the prayer went on that he lifted my eyes above my circumstances. He had the kind of access to my heart and the kind of directness that he could get away with it. That was his role. I don't know that everybody could have walked up into my room and done what he did and it would have had the same effect, but he played a pastoral role in my life to empathize while still saying there's something bigger going on here and help Ed to get caught up in it.
That has always stuck with me. I'm pretty sure me saying that to you flowed out of having experienced that with him.
Tim Muehlhoff: That's a dance. That is hard to know.
Ed Usyznski: It is.
Tim Muehlhoff: We have a mutual friend, you and I whose son tragically died in Iraq with a roadside explosive and again, we weren't doing life together. I like that distinction you made. That there's friends of the road that there's people from long distance you stay connected, but then there's the people you do life with. So, he was one of the guys that we had been close but now we just lived in different parts of the country. I remember when his son died, the first year we got together, it was all pain. There was nothing to say but to just sit there and say I just can't imagine what this feels like.
The next year, I tried to speak truth and he wouldn't have it. He rejected it. It was the third year that we have what we call the napkin talk. We were at Arby's and he just said to me, "I need to know what you believe." So, I took all these napkins and I said, "Hey listen let me just say. My kids are all safe right now so this is all hypothetical, but here's what I" ... right? We now refer to it as the napkin conversation. So, I guess I just want to say to listeners, that was two years before it got to the point that I could speak truth and who knows if that's too long but I think we just need to have a sensitivity to allow a person to open the door and us to have the courage to walk through it.
Ed Usyznski: It's interesting because Chris had talked earlier about preparing your hearts and walking with God. It's true in these situations too isn't it? It's a vulnerable and intimate thing to step into somebody else's suffering and I want to handle that with care. I want to be able to ask God what is my role right now? I'm going to start with silence. I do think you tell me and Chris you're a professional when it comes to the psychology of humans and thinking about how the mind works and what the soul needs. I think we should air or default towards silence because so much damage winds up getting done with words spoken that come from albeit well meaning places, they come from unwise places too often.
Silence and being able to embrace the patience of silence allows there to be space for God to communicate with our hearts if we should do something more than that. But because we don't often have answers and we don't know why and we can't relieve the suffering with any amount of words right now, silence just seems to be the best place to start. What do you think about that?
Chris Grace: Well, it's a great word because it goes like this. When I think of the word silence, you're talking about a verbal silence. What you are not saying though is silence as in not being there. I love that distinction, Ed, because it goes like this. Your presence, in fact the mere presence of someone is so powerful that sometimes words just simply get in the way. When someone is sad, when someone is crying and you are there for them, just simply the nonverbal act of love that you have for them and towards them is really what is I'm going to hold on to. I know you probably remember what Eric said to you. I know you could probably remember what someone might have said to you in the middle of the grief, but I guarantee you what you will remember is that they were there and that there is a nonverbal sense of ... They're almost modeling what we know to be true.
That God hasn't left and they see that in you and they see God in you and they probably will never remember the words. Our brains don't work that way. What we do remember is simply they took the time and they were the. I could look over and I could see his face and the sadness and the love and the acceptance mimics and models what God would be doing, right? So, I think Ed, you make that, I think it's a great point for a lot of people where they're at in that situation. Words are probably not what you're needing at that moment. It's not this great idea, this theory on grief. You know what it is? It really is presence and if we can practice that and learn that God seeks that from us. He wants us to be there and it models him.
Ed Usyznski: It's interesting. Amy said to me yesterday, she said at the end of the day she said, "You're being a good friend today to go." I said, "Amy," and I really meant this. I felt helpless as I was in that hospital room with Brad and again pacing the halls. I don't even know all the people involved. I'm not super close to his son and certainly not to his daughter in law so I really felt out of place and just awkward and I said, "What else could I do? That's just what you do?" She said, "No." She said, "There's a measure of courage just to show up." I thought, "Okay. There's some truth to that," because honestly I didn't want to go over.
It's scary to step into grief. We just said we don't like to feel it ourselves. Vicariously it's not much better. It's almost worse in some ways because it's outside of us and it's more out of control and it's more unsolvable and unfixable and you feel so helpless. So, I appreciated her acknowledging that and there's just great wisdom in what you just said. To just have the courage to show up and sit in the wonder of it.
Tim Muehlhoff: Let me mention. Let's circle back to one thing you said in the previous podcast and I think this is really good advice. You said it's good to read books on marriage. It's just good to pick up two or three books on marriage. I think, Ed, it's also good to read books on suffering.
Ed Usyznski: Yeah.
Tim Muehlhoff: If you've not read CS Lewis's A Grief Observed or Rick Douglas's book When Life Changed Forever about the death of someone near to you, these are books that I think you read in the light in preparation for the darkness. I think that's really good.
Ed Usyznski: Again I'm living this right now, we've got books that people are sending us right now. There's one downstairs on our kitchen table that just hasn't moved for five days. Neither of us is touching it. Here's the reality. I don't want to read any books right now. I don't. I am in a dark place. Again, I'm not talking about being in danger myself. We don't need to end the podcast and send help for me, but I'm in a dark place right now. I'm in a place of suffering. My heart hurts. My mind is disoriented to be honest with you. I don't really want to talk to people about this much, these things.
I'm kind of worn out with it. Okay? So, I don't want to read your books on suffering right now. I will at some point, but right now I don't want to. Exactly what you're saying. Fortunately I have read A Grief Observed by Lewis which has ministered to me greatly because you know what Lewis does in that book? He gives you the freedom to screen the questions out that are there. Of course he does it in a way only he could. He's so clear and so poignant in being able to grab a hold of other people’s hearts with his own words. I'm going to revisit that at some point, but not right now.
Tim Muehlhoff: No I think I was even talking to myself because you're right. You're in the darkness even if it's vicariously. I think you're in the darkness. I think I'm talking more to me and Chris who now is the time as we listen to what you've encountered and it's only a matter of time before we enter into our own darkness or the darkness of friends, now might be the time to load up on a couple books on suffering.
Ed Usyznski: Yeah as one who is in the midst of it right now, I don't want to do it right now. It's exactly what you're saying. You've got to do it when you're in a different place and you can think differently about it.
Tim Muehlhoff: Well, man, thank you so much Ed for being transparent, talking about those tough times both you've experienced as well as friends and it just shows the importance of Christian community. Boy that was the topic of both these podcasts.
Ed Usyznski: You know what we keep saying to each other? I've appreciated Steve. Steve is Elizabeth's husband who's still here with their three kids. He said this even before she left. He said, "I don't know how to do this. I've never done this before." You know what we've all been saying around him? "Man we don't either but we're going to do it together and we're going to trust that God is going to land us in a different place," and we want to go around it. We're trying to get under it. We just want it to go away but we got to go through it. This is the path that God has laid out for us for right now and so none of us has any idea what we're doing but let's do it together and let's search for God in the midst of it.
That's been a blessing to all of us. It's not fixing anything, but at least that freedom to say we're scared. But let's go together. There's just power in that.
Tim Muehlhoff: There's a lot of power in that.
Chris Grace: That's the power of also walking with a God who at the end of the day it gives us hope, meets us in our suffering and then provides us a way to turn to him in times like this and just grateful for your words for our listeners as they journey with this and many of them will identify with that. So, Ed, just thank you. Thank you for sharing this story and your journey. We serve a God of hope and what an amazing place to be with that.
Ed Usyznski: Amen.
Chris Grace: Amen.
Ed Usyznski: Amen.
Chris Grace: Ed, thanks for joining us.
Tim Muehlhoff: Thanks Ed.
Mandy Catto: Thanks for listening to The Art Of Relationships. This podcast is only made possible through generous donations from listeners just like you. If you like it and want to help keep the podcast going, visit our website at cmr.biola.edu and make a donation today.
Christopher Grace serves as the director of the Biola University Center for Marriage and Relationships and teaches psychology at Rosemead School of Psychology. He and his wife, Alisa, speak regularly to married couples, churches, singles and college students on the topic of relationships, dating and marriage. Grace earned his M.S. and Ph.D. in experimental social psychology from Colorado State University.
Tim Muehlhoff is a professor of communication at Biola University and author of several books, including I Beg to Differ and Marriage Forecasting. His most recent publication, Defending Your Marriage, speaks to spiritual warfare in marriage and how to equip yourself to defend your relationship. For the past 18 years, he and his wife, Noreen, have been frequent speakers at FamilyLife marriage conferences. Muehlhoff regularly writes and speaks for the Biola University Center for Marriage and Relationships. Follow Dr. Muehlhoff on Twitter.