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Endings to Beginnings: Surviving the Loss of a Child to a Drunk Driver

A mother meets the drunk driver who killed her son

May 6th, 2018. A day that changed me and my family and the trajectory of our lives forever. It has been five years since the day Joshawa Bechtel drove drunk and killed my son, Zachary Spoolstra. Much has transpired since the sentencing, and I wanted to update those who have followed our story with the heartbreaking and beautiful things that have transpired.

Just hours after I learned Zach had been killed by a drunk driver, and after recovering from the initial shock of his death and the intense grief that became implanted deep inside me, I went outside to be by myself, breathe, and get some air. I was wracked with emotional and physical pain for the loss of Zach and questions of "Why" swirled in my head. I couldn't understand how this could happen to my son, to our family. I wrestled with the pain until I finally went to the only source of comfort I had. I prayed to God and pleaded for understanding, guidance, comfort, and strength to survive this awful, senseless tragedy.

I felt Him whisper to my heart, “I will use this for good, Susie. I want you to trust me. I am going to help you.”

Through my sobs, I was able to vocalize a weak, “Okay.”

I didn't understand how He was going to do what He said, but I made myself do what I had to do for Zach, comforted in the knowledge God heard me and knew my pains. Over the course of the hearings and court dates, I put my faith in Him, trusting that He would bless me with what I needed to get through.

To hate Joshawa would have been much easier, but with God's promise in my heart and His blessings, I couldn’t develop feelings of hate or anger for Joshawa. I would actually feel physically ill when I would hear negativity about him. Despite the deep pain Joshawa had created in me, I felt love and compassion for him. I knew his life had been shattered along with mine, and I knew both of our families were in deep pain from Joshawa's choice.

The dream and prayer in my heart for Joshawa was that this tragedy would not be just life-altering, but ultimately be life-transforming. I wanted him to know how much God loved him. I wanted him to recognize the mercy in his sentencing. I wanted him to recognize all the time he had been given to make use of this tragedy. I wanted him to see me, the mother of the victim, with arms open in forgiveness to him. I knew someday Joshawa would want to express his remorse. To take the step to show his authentic sadness to me over what he had done to Zach. I knew I needed it too. I even daydreamed about that future meeting we would have. It was always in a park, me waiting and looking across the grass, seeing Joshawa walking towards me. When he would reach me, he would embrace me and hug me. Tears would be in his eyes as he said what I needed and deserved to hear, "I am so sorry."

Enduring all the hearings and court dates was difficult. Despite the pain from hearing all the details surrounding my son's death, I couldn't tell if Joshawa was being impacted the way I desired. Up to the final sentencing hearing, which was likely the last time either of us would be in the same room together, there was no effort from Joshawa to express remorse or sorrow for what he had done. I was shocked when the judge ordered that part of Joshawa's sentencing included speaking with me at a Victim Impact Panel. This gave me hope that the promise God had placed in my heart would one day be kept and that something good would come out of this. I knew I had to be patient and wait for the right time.

I felt Him whisper to my heart, “I will use this for good, Susie. I want you to trust me. I am going to help you.”

From the day Zach was killed, up to the final sentencing, there was always something for me to prepare for. Funeral, burial, court dates, etc and I wondered if life would ever slow down again. I didn't realize it at the time, but everything I was required to do for Zach was just a major distraction that insulated me from the emotional damage I needed to deal with when life returned to "normal". I felt empty with nothing else to do but sit in my sadness and stare at the gaping Zach-shaped hole right in the middle of my family. Zach was always the one who always wanted to be with me, call, and hang out with me. He cared about how I really was. He can't be replaced. I will ache for him until the day I get to see him again. That knowledge is what gives me comfort and hope.

Eventually, my surviving children left home too. After delivering his impact statement at trial, Javan went back to California to continue his service in the Marines. Michaela, my daughter, eventually moved out of state. Seeing my children leave was especially hard, partly because our house was quieter and emptier, but mostly because losing Zach made me see how easily a child's life could be snuffed out by one thoughtless choice of another person. My youngest, Gabe, went through an incredibly dark time after losing his oldest brother, Zach. They had a bond that could not be broken, and because of this devastating loss, Gabe buried his grief and tried for some time to find something to numb his pain.

As the months passed, and distance grew from Zach's death to the present, some people asked me, "It’s been long enough…aren’t you over it by now?” Losing a child is like losing a part of your body. I will never be the same—every day I wake up, I know my Zach is gone. There is no way I can get over that. Not unless Zach is back in my life the same way he was before he was taken away.

I began speaking to groups about what had happened, to honor Zach and warn others about the consequences of driving intoxicated. Even though it hurts to reminisce over the final moments of his life over and over again, I know that Zach would proud of what God has done with this tragedy. I have received several messages and phone calls from people who said that listening to our story has changed them forever. I have seen people come to their court-designated Victim Impact Panel, cursing the fact they have to be there, and then after its over, that same person comes up to me afterward with tears on their face, apologizing to me and hugging me, telling me that they will never drive impaired again.

Eventually, the time came when I reached out to Miren at MADD to coordinate the panel that both Joshawa and I would present at. Joshawa's parole officer was contacted and a conference call was set up. During our call, Joshawa and I set up a meeting where we could talk face-to-face. Since it was during the covid shutdown, we decided to meet at a park. The day arrived to meet each other, and just like the dream I had in my mind, I saw Joshawa walking toward me across the grass with a bouquet of lilies. He handed them to me before embracing me, tears welling in his eyes, and telling me how sorry he was for what he had done. We talked for about two hours about our lives and the aftermath of this new reality of our lives, and I was able to share and encourage and let him know that our experience didn’t have to be wasted. That God wants to use this story to help others. He left our meeting at the park feeling confused, overwhelmed, and grateful, but I knew a seed had been planted in us both to use this story, to let this ending give us a new purpose in life—a new beginning.

That conversation lead to many more conversations and meetings, and eventually one year later, on the anniversary of Zach's death, May 6, 2021, we spoke at our first Victim Impact Panel together. It was an incredible and sacred experience, and my main takeaways were this: God fulfilled His promise to me, Zach's death isn't meaningless, Joshawa and I are using our experiences to help others, and we will keep Zach remembered and alive by sharing our story. Finally, regarding those forced to attend the panel, it was not too late for them to begin a new meaningful, thoughtful life. One that doesn't include the choice of driving impaired.

In the aftermath of everything, the raw truth is my son was killed by a drunk driver, a 100% preventable crime. Had Joshawa made another choice that night, my Zach would still be here and I wouldn't know the awful pain of a mother that buries a child. My family and all who knew and loved Zach will bear for the rest of our lives, the awful consequences of Joshawa's thoughtless choice.

This is dedicated to all who have had to suffer catastrophic loss from the thoughtless act of drunk driving. To those whose lives have been spared but will live every day with physical and emotional pain. Finally, to those who drive impaired, who need inspiration to change. -Susie Spoolstra-Kelley
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