Posted by: kathyhugs | July 1, 2008

One Year Ago: Through Tragedy God’s Grace Shines Brightly

Excerpt from my journal “The Voice of Truth:
Our journey of faith after the death of our daughter, Tonia”

One year ago our daughter went to live in Heaven. Our life has changed forever but what hasn’t changed is our faith in Jesus Christ. Today we will cry as we miss her, celebrate that she is in God’s hands and hold each other very close as we put purple carnations on her grave!

Last July 1st started out as a typical Sunday morning. We went to church, but Pastor Warren was preaching that day instead of Pastor Jeff. The sermon was entitled, “Freedom through Forgiveness”. It was a message that spoke to both my husband’s and my heart. After the sermon, Rick, my husband, turned to me and said, “Sometimes we hear a sermon, and we nod and agree. God then asks us if we really mean it. God was about to ask us if we could trust Him and forgive our son-in-law.

On that July morning, our 25 year old daughter, Tonia, was shot and killed in her home by her husband, JC Amato. In the time it took for him to pull the trigger, our world and life as we knew it had changed forever. It was our faith that carried us through our loss, and into a new chapter of our lives.

Just five days before her death, Tonia called me at home. Excitement filled her voice as she shared with me how the downloaded messages of Pastor Jeff’s had given her so much joy. His series on “The Truth about Heaven” had given her a reason to question her salvation. Witnessing to her husband, looking for a home church, and calling me were all parts of her decision. She continued the conversation with these precious words – words that I had longed to hear for years, “Mom, I’ve never felt this close to God in my life. I love you mom, and I know it hasn’t been easy to raise me but you have done a great job. All of your love, time and patience, well, I want you to know it has paid off. Mom, I know God now, I know Him and I’m listening to Him. I want to continue to learn what He wants from my life.” My child’s final words assured me that she had received the gift of salvation that Jesus Christ has offered on the cross!

This would be our very last conversation! It was the first of many gifts from God.

Here is our story of that fateful day in our lives.

Rick and I were both youth leaders at our church. That evening, I was at youth group as normal, but Rick had boarded a plane and was heading to California on business. At about seven-thirty, I was surprised when Roberta, a friend of mine who lived nearby, came walking up to me at church over an hour earlier than normal. Roberta’s concerned face and quiet manner gave me a hint that something was wrong. She said to me, “You need to try to get in touch with Tonia.”

My first thought was that something had happened to our son-in-law or someone in his family. But then she went on to explain that our friend (who lives in the same town as Tonia) had called to tell her that there might be a problem at Tonia’s house. My very first response was “what did our son-in-law do now? Is everyone okay?” How would you respond if you heard, “There might be a problem at your daughter’s home?”

I quickly tried calling Tonia’s cell phone. The phone rang and rang. I was pacing as I waited for her to answer! Instead of my daughter’s voice saying “Hi mom, what’s up?” her voice mail answered.

At that moment I knew in my heart that she was gone. There was nothing to confirm that feeling except a mom’s intuition. Our son was out with friends so I called him on his cell phone and asked him to come to the church as quickly as he could. Without understanding why, I knew that I was going to need him to be with me. Our son-in-law’s cell phone was my next option, but there was no answer; even more evidence that this was a major event. They always had their cell phones with them and turned on! My next decision was to call Linda; she refused to tell me anything. Linda explained she didn’t know anything for sure and didn’t want to get me upset over the wrong thing. My heart was beating so quickly that I thought I might pass out. The local police department was next on my list, but I got routed to the fire station. Everyone was out on a police call. “A police call, did this have anything to do with my daughter?’

My hand was shaking so I was unable to make another phone call; my heart started to cry out to God for answers. Roberta called my friend for me and explained to her that we couldn’t get in touch with anyone. It was confusing, and upsetting, and I couldn’t get any answers! Just then, I saw Randy, one of our elders, coming up the sidewalk to pick up his son from youth group. I grabbed him and asked him to start praying with me for Tonia. We moved into a side area of the church, so the youth group students wouldn’t see me upset. Just a few minutes later, DJ, another pastor, joined us in prayer. I didn’t realize it then, but this was the next gift. I was at church, surrounded by my church family! I wasn’t alone at home, instead I was surrounded by people who loved and cared about us. I was shaking and crying because I knew Tonia was dead. Every instinct in my body was telling me that, but I didn’t want to believe it. I continued holding on to Randy as we waited to hear something.

In the meantime, my friend had driven to Tonia’s home, where she saw the police cars and the crime scene tape. She walked up to Sheriff David Smith, dialed my number and handed her phone to him. She told him that Tonia’s mom was on the phone, and demanded that he talk to me and that he needed to tell me what had happened! The Sheriff called me from her phone. I saw her number on the caller ID and thought “maybe I will get some answers now”. Instead it was the Sheriff: I will never forget the words he said to me.

“The only thing that I can confirm is that your daughter, Tonia, is deceased. We are treating it as a homicide investigation.”

Wailing, I fell into the arms of my friends. My world had forever changed. It couldn’t be true; my daughter couldn’t be dead. What was I going to do? What happened? Question after question filled my mind. I couldn’t even remember where Rick was. Fortunately, the Lord had supplied my church family be there with me. DJ took the phone and got the sheriff’s information for me. Everyone walked me through the church and into the hospitality room so I could sit down. I remember seeing the concern on the faces of the students in the hall; and I remember telling them that I loved them. Friends asked what I needed, and I remember asking for a blanket; I needed this comfort. Phone calls were made, and within minutes I was surrounded by even more people.

My next task was to try and call Rick but first I had to pull myself together before I left him a voice message. I tried to keep my voice as calm as possible because I knew that he could tell if something was wrong just by my tone. I didn’t want him to worry too much until I could actually talk to him. In my mind I practiced what I was going to say to him. How was I going to break the news that Tonia was dead? My message to him just said to call as soon as he landed, and not to leave the airport. He would need to get on another plane to come home to be with me as soon as he could!

Almost an hour went by before Rick’s phone call came in; he had landed in Denver, Colorado on a stopover. The hardest thing I have ever had to do was to tell him over the phone that Tonia had died. I didn’t have enough phone reception in the room I was in, so I had to walk out to the main window in the foyer. I was shaking as I answered the phone, but I didn’t want to just blurt the news out. I remember saying something like, “Honey, I have some bad news. Tonia died tonight.” I know we said more, but just getting those words out devastated me.

Now what? We were at the church, Rick was in Denver and I was in shock. Was Tonia really dead? What happened? How? When? My head was in such a swirl that all I could do was to think of the things that needed to be done.

The youth group kids came immediately to my mind. Were they alright? Realizing this would be hard on them too, I asked for a prayer time at the church the next day. Both Rick and the students would need to be surrounded by our friends in prayer the way I had been. Knowing the students as well as I did, I knew that they would need to talk about what they were thinking and feeling. Esther, our friend and our Pastor’s administrative assistant, said she would take care of getting the prayer time set up! Emails and phone calls went out all evening and into the next day as we started planning our daughter’s funeral.

The next day we received gift number three. It was Monday evening when we headed for our church to attend the prayer session. We were amazed by the number of people who showed up to support us in prayer. We had intended this to be a prayer session for the youth group kids and for our family, as a way to experience the comfort of prayer.

It turned out to be so much more. I could hear God say, “You asked for something simple, but I made it so much more. For I know the plans I have for you …”

Approximately one hundred and sixty people attended the prayer session. Pastor Matt led the session; we opened with a few words about what we knew about Tonia’s death, and asked for prayer for us, for Tonia’s in-laws and for her husband. We also requested prayer for our families, as they were not believers and this tragedy had brought out very bitter feelings. I do not remember everyone who prayed, but many prayers went up from both adults and the students. The prayer time lasted for almost two hours. Esther set up three stools in the corridor outside of the room and people were able to come up and hug us and pray over us. The line went for almost an hour. It was so humbling. It was an awesome display of the power of the body of Christ. We were loved, the body was in unity, and God was glorified! We were surrounded by the physical arms of the people and the spiritual arms of God. This prayer session was not about us, even though there were prayers for us; it was about God’s love, comfort, healing, and the body coming together as one. I have never felt such an outpouring of love and comfort in my entire life. God was present; God was sovereign; God was and is our Father, comforter, and friend!

Our lives have been changed forever; our hearts have a hole in them that will never go away; but during this time of mourning we also can see the hand of God creating beauty out of the darkness. The family of God continues to surround us with prayer and love! We have become set free through the grace of Christ; and, we have seen a love that is so rich and so intimate that it can lift us up through the darkest nights and enfold us in the loving, physical presence of God. Amazing Grace, how very sweet the sound!

Our daughter, Tonia, is laughing, dancing, and singing in the presence of God. She has run the race and heard, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” Our joy will come in the morning!

So today as we celebrate her first anniversary in Heaven, I cry for the moments I will not have with her here on Earth, I mourn over the fact that a senseless act of violence can have taken her from us and I prepare for the future: the trial, the lies that I know I will hear and I take strength in the fact that It is not my strength but God’s that will see us through. Over the last year we have been blessed by our friends and family. We have learned that we will never be alone. We have made new friends and cemented old ones. We have been blessed in so many ways. So today is bittersweet. But God is holding on to us no matter what!


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