Story by Steve Ullmer
I don’t know why I woke up that night. I looked over at her, sleeping, hair spread out across her pillow. Peaceful. Beautiful. My wife.
Wendy and I met in high school. We did the whole long-distance thing all through college. I’m still not sure how our relationship survived those days. She loved me despite myself. Despite the pain I caused her. She taught me what unconditional love meant. Her selfless nature would come to define her among those whose lives she intersected. She stuck with me while I nearly destroyed my life with alcohol and drugs. But grace invaded my world when I wasn’t expecting it. God got my attention at the age of 22, and I gave my life to Him. Everything changed. I asked Wendy to be my wife two weeks later, and we were married the following year.
Here I was, nearly 13 years later. Life was good, life was…comfortable. Our marriage was strong, far from perfect, but never better. We’d been blessed with four amazing kids – all boys. Wendy was a healthy, vibrant 36-year-old in the prime of her life. We had just moved to a new house and it felt like we were starting a new chapter in life, a chapter I was eager to see unfold.
Then I heard her take a breath.
It didn’t sound right, more like a gasp than a breath. I decided to wake her, gently nudging her and whispering her name “Wen, wake up. Wen, wake up babe.”
Nothing. I shook her, started screaming her name, pleading with her to wake up. But there was no response. My mind struggled with the reality of it all. I called 9-1-1. No pulse. Her breathing had stopped. I performed CPR until help arrived. Sheriffs, EMTs, a whole team of strangers in my bedroom doing everything they could to save her. Nothing was working. I saw the looks on their faces. I could feel her slipping away, and I was struggling to hold it together. They took her to the hospital where they were somehow able to restart her heart, but only for matter of hours, she never regained consciousness. On the morning of March 17, 2017, her heart gave out for the last time. She was gone.
Riding home from the hospital with my dad on that dreary morning, watching the sleet hit the windshield, I looked down at my phone and saw a message from my 11-year-old son.
“Is Mom okay?”
I broke. They had no idea how bad it was. I knew I was about to shatter their hearts, all four of my sons. They would never be the same, nothing would ever be the same. Everything was changing.
The days and weeks that followed blur together in a sleepless, nightmarish haze. The outpouring of support for my family was unlike anything I had ever seen. So much love directed towards me and my boys, it was overwhelming. Yet there is a loneliness that comes from a loss like this. How many have walked down this road? How many can relate? Three months later, as the dust settled and life seemed to go on around me, the permanency of death was a sobering reality. She wasn’t coming back. So many reached out to me, so many cards, letters, text messages…I lost count.
But this one stopped me cold. It was a simple message of encouragement, from a person I had never met. It wasn’t the message itself that got my attention, it was the name attached to it. Erin Stoffel. That name had become known by almost everyone around this area in 2015. It was a name that brought a story so heavy, so dark, it was hard to believe she actually lived it…
Erin met her husband Jon when they were in high school, both of them deeply committed to their faith. They did the long distance thing while Jon went off to Bible College in California. A year younger than Jon, Erin would follow him there after she graduated. She was only 19 when they were married.
Nearly 13 years later, they were a close knit family of five. Erin and Jon’s faith permeated every aspect of their life, perhaps best reflected in their marriage. Jon was a 33-year-old carpenter, providing for his family with hard, honest work. Their eldest, Olivia was quiet and genuine, mature beyond her 11 years. She was a miniature version of her mother, following Erin around like a shadow.
May 3, 2015 was one of those beautiful spring days that begs to be enjoyed outside, after the long, bleak winter. Jon, Erin and their three children went for a walk along the newly-constructed Trestle Trail Bridge, a 1600-foot pedestrian bridge located in Menasha, Wisconsin. As they approached the red pavilion at the midpoint of the bridge, there was a man standing next to another man who was slumped over on a bench. Jon approached the man, trying to assess the situation.
Death was upon them.
Without warning, the man pulled out a 9mm pistol and shot Jon point blank in the chest. He then turned the gun on Erin and 11-year-old Olivia, shooting each of them once. All three went to the ground. Erin’s 5-year-old daughter Selah stood frozen next to her.
Shot through the leg, Erin scrambled to her feet, grabbing the hand of her daughter Selah. More shots fired. A bullet went through Erin’s abdomen, then another pierced her left hand as she approached her 7-year-old son Ezra, who was further ahead. Erin ushered her two children off the bridge, finally collapsing when she reached the shore. Then the pain set in. Sirens in the distance. Her mind coming to grips with what had just transpired. Lying on the ground, bleeding out from 3 gunshot wounds. Unbearable pain in her stomach. The gunman somewhere nearby. Her family scattered. So much chaos, so much confusion, there was only one thing she could be certain of. Everything was changing.
Erin’s husband Jon, their daughter Olivia, and another innocent man were killed that day on the Trestle Trail Bridge. The gunman did not know any of the victims. His apparent intentions were to take lives indiscriminately, the last one being his own. When Erin awoke from multiple surgeries in the hospital the next day, she was unable to speak because of a breathing tube, but she was determined to say something. She furiously scribbled on a blank sheet of paper that was given to her. Erin was trying to tell everyone the last words of her husband Jon as he faced his killer:
“May God forgive you.”
Those words brought healing and hope to those touched by this tragedy, and inspired many to forgive. This event made national news, and I remember how surreal it was to hear my hometown, Menasha, being mentioned in a story like this. This wasn’t supposed to happen here. This wasn’t supposed to happen to a family like this. I remember praying for Erin and her family, along with thousands – maybe millions – of others.
Two years later, here she was, Erin Stoffel, reaching out to a stranger with a message of encouragement. People had been sharing my story with her, and she felt compelled to try and help. I read her text, and I could feel it.
The feeling was immediate, tangible, real. Hope because I knew what Erin had been through, and I knew that we both followed Jesus. If He could carry her through the horror that she had faced, and take her to a place where she was reaching out to help others…I knew I could make it.
She would send me encouraging texts, songs, Bible verses, and continued to pray for me every day. She was a light to me in a very dark place, a lifeline as I struggled to hang on. Suddenly, I wasn’t alone. I could relate to her, I felt like I could ask her anything. I asked a lot of questions. So many questions. These were raw, often heavy topics. The connection was effortless, natural, and deep, because of what we had faced.
We met for the first time in person a month later at Lifest, a Christian music festival here in Wisconsin. We walked and talked for hours, and I could feel this unique friendship materializing between us. Knowing her story, and the darkness that she endured, you almost expect her to be this sad, fearful person. It didn’t take me long to realize that she was anything but that. There is a spark to her, an underlying joy that you can’t miss. Grief had changed her, but not in the way you would expect. It was grief that brought us together, but a relationship based on that alone won’t survive. I remember the day she told me, “You help me too Steve.” I began to understand that God was using us to help heal each other.
But this was about more than just two people. Both of us were haunted by the thought of our kids growing up without a mom, without a dad. As a parent, the pain you experience through your children can be the worst, the most gut-wrenching. To see them trying to live their lives, trying to navigate this new reality, it crushed me over and over again. They were alone. For them, there just weren’t any peers in their life who had experienced this type of loss…until suddenly…all of that changed. Seeing all of our kids together, seeing them relate, laugh, connect and talk openly about their grief, well, it’s hard to put into words how that made us feel. They were able to find healing through each other, a kind of healing that we simply could not offer as parents. The same connection that came so naturally between us was occurring between our children as well.
This was yet another confirmation about our relationship as it progressed beyond friendship. Erin had become so special to me. A beautiful girl, with beautiful scars. A beautiful heart, marked by unimaginable loss. A bond so deep, a love so strong, the path forward was clear…
Erin and I were married on June 28, 2018, one year after she reached out to me with a simple text. Every day we embrace the chaos that comes with a blended family of 8. It’s beautiful, it’s messy, it’s amazing, it’s hard. It’s life. Grief will always be a part of our story, but it doesn’t define us. It can drive you in a 1000 different directions, down a 1000 different roads – most of them toxic. The temptation to give in to bitterness, regret, and isolation is strong because so often, it’s the easier choice. Instead, Erin has taught me how to be open and honest with grief. She taught me to embrace the moments of joy when they come, to embrace the tears when they come, and they do still come. We have chosen to live with gratitude for the loved ones we lost, for the years we were gifted with them, and towards a God who made a way for us to see them again.
We are not okay because we found each other. We are okay because we know Him. There are things we just wont understand in this life, but we have to continue to trust that God is good – even when our world is falling apart. If there is no God, then all of this is meaningless, and life is merely a cruel joke for those that are faced with tragedy. But if there is a God, then the pain we’ve endured is not wasted, there is purpose in it. There is hope. There is healing. Nothing can separate us from the love of God. Nothing.