A sincere request in the midst of a tragic situation
“Where were you when the world stopped turning?” asks country singer Alan Jackson in a song he wrote after the 9/11 terrorist strikes.
It’s a question we often ask after tragedies – moments that are seared into our memories as we create a mental scrapbook of big events that change our lives.
My 9/11/01 was spent trying to de-escalate a troubled teen who was attempting to hurt herself and other youths at a local group home for at-risk adolescents. She spun out of control for nearly an hour as we also hosted a Department of Public Welfare representative for the home’s annual inspection.
In the midst of the chaos, one of our new counselors kept calm and ultimately helped diffuse the situation.
His name was Matt Shertzer, and he quickly became part of our closest circle of friends – an extended part of our family.
We hunted together, played sports together, went to a Packers-Eagles game, a Penn State game and numerous other things together. He held our daughter after she was born, and years later she enjoyed making homemade birthday cards for him. We were in his wedding and helped him move on several occasions.
Which is why a recent phone call brought everything to a screeching halt.
For my wife and I – our world most definitely stopped turning.
That’s because Matt was found dead in his apartment.
He was only 36 years old.
I find myself thinking back to our days working together.
Once upon a time, he and I chased down a runaway teenaged girl near the group home – and as she slowly climbed the side of a local bridge, contemplating a jump off into the shallow waters below, it was Matt who broke his typical stoic silence to reassure her that she wasn’t alone. That no matter how difficult things seemed, that he had confidence in her.
Matt’s calm approach and genuine concern for her well-being caught the troubled young woman off guard. He saved her life.
In that moment where one young teen’s world stopped turning, Matt was there. His presence made a huge difference.
As it did for so many other young people over the years at the group home and eventually at the Milton-Hershey school in central Pennsylvania. Matt was never quick to comment – never one to judge someone based on how they looked or what their life’s circumstances were.
That’s the theme you’ll find among those that offer condolences on Matt’s Facebook wall and at a memorial page for him on Facebook. So many young people facing overwhelming circumstances and Matt was there to help them in their time of crisis. He was there when their worlds stopped turning.
Unfortunately, Matt struggled at times with his own demons. His father’s death. An emotionally charged divorce. Bouts of grief and depression as overwhelming and inevitable as massive waves on a storm-ravaged sea can be to a small boat.
The why’s in Matt’s death are still under investigation, and there is a good chance we may never completely know what happened. Some suggest suicide, but that is just one unfounded assumption – to even claim that without 100 percent proof of all factors involved is premature and unfair.
As my wife and I gather our own information and filter it through the fabric of what we know truly made Matt who he was (both the good and bad), we feel increasingly certain that his demise was something more accidental and unplanned – at least at the moment it occurred.
Regardless of how things happened, though, it is obvious that the same Matt who touched so many lives and helped spark them in a positive direction was also dealing with a mountain of struggles of his own.
Despite the numerous questions circling Matt’s tragic death, the one that keeps surfacing and eating away at me simply is this:
Where was I when Matt’s world stopped turning?
Why didn’t I make that extra trip down to visit him as I said I would just a short while ago? Why didn’t I call him more often, even if only to chat about his beloved Nittany Lions football team or to make plans to hunt together this fall? Why didn’t I text him more about lineups, waiver wire moves or other fantasy football topics in the league we enjoyed together?
I admit it right now … if you are one of the people who’ve recently asked me how I’m doing with all of this, I probably lied.
Fine? I’m not fine.
Please, Lord, don’t ever let me be fine again if fine means that I allow the busyness of life to become an excuse for not taking a few extra moments to reach out to a friend or relative. Let me be better aware of those around me – so that when they find themselves in situations where everything seems to be caving in, I can be there at that moment when their world seems to stop turning.
And if I can offer any advice out of all of this to those who care enough to listen – don’t waste another moment. Make a phone call to someone you know has dealt with rough times. Send a text or an email.
Invite him/her to enjoy a brisk fall hike, spend a day hunting, do some early Christmas shopping or simply catch up over a cup of coffee.
You never know just how much of a difference one extra moment like that can make.
I can’t go back in time and be there for Matt through his moments of struggle — but I can do everything possible to make sure Matt’s death was not in vain. Help me do that by reaching out to the people in your life who may be experiencing moments where their world has stopped turning.
Together, let’s make a difference just like Matt did for so many over the years.