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It’s been ten years now that I’ve been marking the Easter season in a new way.

This marking began grimly, with the chill of every parent’s nightmare phone call. A police officer informed us that our oldest daughter, Jenica, had been in a horrific car accident and was being transported by air ambulance to hospital. ‘Can you be here shortly?’

When my wife and I arrived, medical personnel met us with the news that Jenica had sustained several life-threatening injuries including severe head trauma. What followed for our family that spring and moving forward was a mix of agonizing fear, raw lament, and confounding hope.

For six consecutive weeks, my wife, our two other daughters and I split up 12-hour daytime shifts. Each day we would sit at Jenica’s bedside in the critical care trauma unit with all the attending tubes, monitors, machines, ventilators, and beeping alarms plus random visits by a variety of trauma doctors, neurological specialists, nurses, technicians and social workers.

Especially disconcerting for us as family members was the depth of Jenica’s coma and its corresponding deathlike silence. No reaction to voice prompts. No reciprocating hand squeezes. And certainly, no attempts on her part at voicing even a single word.

Where was Jenica’s warm smile? Her zest for life? Her infectious laugh? How about just three seconds of some simple eye contact of recognition?

After more than six weeks in critical care, Jenica was moved to a step-down unit elsewhere in the hospital. There, on the day after her tracheotomy tube was removed, very early in the morning, a nurse came in to check on Jenica, alone in her room. And she — as nurses regularly do to seemingly nonresponsive patients — spoke as if Jenica would reply.

Nurse: “Jenica, sometimes when people have the trach out, they find it easier to talk.”
Jenica: (no response)
Nurse: “Hello, Jenica; can you say hello?”
Jenica: (no response)
Nurse: “Hi Jenica; can you say hi?”
Then, …
Jenica, barely audible: “Hi.”
Nurse: “Jenica, are you ok?”
Jenica, breathes faintly: “Yes.”
Nurse: “Jenica, can you wiggle your toes.”
Jenica wiggles toes, moves her right foot.
Nurse: “Jenica, can you show me your thumb.”
Jenica lifts up her right thumb, halfway.

The interchange was so totally unexpected, so thoroughly unforeseen that the nurse immediately burst into the hallway looking for colleagues, herself in tears, breathlessly trying to relate this otherwise unimaginable moment. In fact, for all of us, tears continued the entire day. We walked the hospital hallways in stunned joy.

However, what followed (or rather, what didn’t follow) was confusing.

Jenica did not respond again that morning — nor the next day, nor that next week, nor that following month. It would be almost five weeks later before Jenica spoke again, whispering, “Mom” to my wife, beginning a slow but consistent path out of her coma and toward more regular responses and speech.

But five weeks! After that hint of real hope, an additional five weeks of unresponsive silence!

During those interim weeks, the nurse who had attended to Jenica became apologetic. “I feel badly,” she would say to us. “I fear I raised false expectations. Sometimes, I start questioning myself, almost wondering whether that all happened. . .but then I stop myself, really, truly, I know Jenica responded. I know Jenica spoke to me.”

I’m recalling that particular spring again, as I do every year. It’s hard not to. I’m remembering especially this dialogue with Rachel, Jenica’s nurse, occurring as it did just a few days before Easter 2014. I’m also placing this memory in the annual rhythm of spring moving us through Lent to Easter, through the way of the cross and sorrow to the way of resurrection and new life.

Sometimes the Easter side of things seems hard to believe. I picture those early disciples running back and forth to the tomb, gathering together secretly, hiding behind closed doors, and needing time for recognition and affirmation of what had really happened. I imagine these resurrection witnesses individually reflecting on all they had seen or heard and asking themselves questions.

Can I trust my own judgement? This totally unexpected, thoroughly unforeseen marvelous news; too good to be believed? Did I accurately hear what I thought I heard? See what I thought I saw? Was I mistaken? Can I firmly believe all this? Do I dare listen for whispers of new life, of a life to come? May I truly hope?

Those questions may be ours too at times but ultimately, we do aim to access a deep and abiding hope, a kind of hope only a resurrected Jesus can give.

God did this so that, by two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled to take hold of the hope set before us may be greatly encouraged. We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure.” (Hebrews 6:18-19)

I pray, this year again, that our marking of the Easter season will place us on the path of trusting, hoping and believing so that we might fully live into the power of the Risen Christ and the new and abundant life God promises us.

Even if it may take some time to grasp its fullness.

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26)

After 6 months in hospital followed by extensive outpatient therapy, Jenica was well enough to join Eric in offering the Easter Benediction, April 5, 2015. (photo above)

The benediction was crafted from words of Frederick Buechner that Jenica had quoted as a blessing for a message she delivered the day of her accident.

“[May] you see Jesus with the heart…May you know that, in the long run, his kind of life is the only life worth living…[May] you see him with the heart [and] not only believe in him, but little by little become bearers to each other of his healing life until we become finally healed and whole and alive… [May] you see him, may you take heart, grow true hearts, brave hearts, at last.” (see p.34, Shouts and Whispers, ed.J.L.Holberg)

Eric Groot-Nibbelink

Eric Groot-Nibbelink and his wife Carolyn have three daughters and one grandchild. Eric has served as a Christian Reformed pastor in southern Ontario for over 30 years. In the time just prior to her hospitalization, Jenica was serving as the interim Christian Reformed campus chaplain at Western University, London, Ontario.


  • RZ says:

    Speechless! ” May I truly hope?” This had to be so painful to share!
    You did right by doing so and we all pray for comfort and healing. Most of us will never, ever understand the pain of a brain-injured loved one.

  • James C Dekker says:

    Thank you so much, Eric. Tears and smiles. No other words today, bessides blessings and prayers.

  • Scott Hoezee says:

    Thanks, Eric, for this lyric re-telling of your story and of Jenica’s journey. It is a story I know full well and yet I choked up with tears several times reading this. Hope in the face of so much apparent hopelessness: that is what we all need just now.

  • Judith Baker says:

    As a former neuro ICU nurse, I have seen several possible endings to this story. It was so good to read this and reflect. Hallelujah and Amen!

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