Healing After Tragedy: Chapman Copes With Loss of Daughter

Steven Curtis Chapman and his family open up about his daughter's tragic death.


Aug. 6, 2008 — -- Grammy-winning Christian music star Steven Curtis Chapman and his family suffered a profound loss on May 21 when his 5-year-old daughter Maria Sue was accidentally hit by his 17-year-old son, after she ran into the path of his SUV in their driveway. Maria later died at a Nashville hospital.

The Chapman family gave an exclusive interview to "Good Morning America's" Robin Roberts in their Tennessee home, discussing the accident, their faith and family strength in the wake of their tragedy.

For 5-year-old Maria Sue Chapman, singing was a family gift that came easily. After all, her father was a multiple Grammy and Gospel Music Association award-winning megastar.

The 45-year old Kentuckian and his wife, Mary Beth, were already the parents of three biological children, yet they were encouraged and inspired by their daughter Emily to visit and adopt three little girls from China -- Shaohannah, Stevey Joy and their youngest, Maria Sue.

The experience of adopting the girls would lead the Chapmans to found Shaohannah's Hope, a nonprofit that seeks to ease the expense of adoption. As of July 2008, the group has provided grants to over 1,700 families wishing to adopt orphans in the United States and worldwide.

Chapman described the moment he knew they were destined to return to China to adopt Maria, an orphaned girl he met while on tour there. He said an e-mail containing photos from his previous trip changed their lives and lead them back to Maria.

"As it [the e-mail] opened, it was this picture of me kissing Maria goodbye in that parking lot in China about two weeks earlier," said Chapman. "And it was instant. I knew that that was a picture of a daddy kissing his little girl. It wasn't just a guy with a little child that needed a home, it was a daddy and a little girl. It was just so clear when I saw it."

After Maria's adoption, the Chapman family was complete, and Maria grew into her role as the baby girl of this loving family.

"We knew from the get-go that she was a firecracker," said her adopted mother, Mary Beth.

That same animated spirit would lead her to run toward her older brother as he neared home.

Mary Beth described what happened: "The girls had been playing on the playground and -- complete accident. She was, actually excited that he was coming home. And he is so great with the girls. They just love him. And she was running to see him and, you know, ran, you know, into the path of the car."

Chapman, who immediately got into his car to go to the hospital, had the presence of mind to roll down his window and speak to his inconsolable son Will before leaving.

"I really don't remember this," he said about the moments directly following the accident. "It was, actually, Dave -- Uncle Dave that told me. He said, 'You rolled the window down and just, very loudly yelled really... with as much strength as you could muster and just said, 'Will Franklin, your father loves you.'"

Chapman continued to describe the moment immediately after the tragedy: "I just really had a deep concern in my heart that I wouldn't lose two children as a result of this because I knew what Will was struggling with."

He described the struggle to grieve the death of a child, while at the same time supporting the ones who lived on.

"We have talked a lot. And you will hear all of us talk about the process of grieving with hope. That's what has kept us breathing, kept us alive is that while we are grieving this process, there is a hope that we have that we're anchored to in the midst of just what sometimes seems unbearable," said Chapman.

Sitting by her husband's side, Mary Beth added emotionally, "I've said, you know, somewhat coldly, 'I don't care whose lives are touched by this story and whose lives are changed or what good comes of it.' As the heart of a mom, I want Maria back."

Crying, she continued, "And that's -- you know, that's what I want people to know is I want Maria back. But because I know that she is completely whole because of my faith, I know that she's completely whole and completely OK and I'm going to see her again. As a mom, I have to shift that grief to go."

For Chapman and his wife, grieving for Maria and maintaining the strength to comfort their other five children has been extremely difficult.

Mary Beth described her other children and the lives they lead: "I have Emily who's getting married and her fiancé, Tanner, and Caleb and his girlfriend, Julia, and Will Franklin. You know, he's my baby boy. And then Shaoey and Stevey, and my grief gets shifted to making sure there as whole and as healthy as they can be.

She added, however, "But it's the heart of a mom, I'd like to have Maria back."

For the three oldest Chapman children, Emily, Caleb and Will, healing comes through couseling, faith and the unwavering love of family.

"Obviously it's been really hard, you know, just the past couple months," said Will about his sister's death.

Will described his siblings' show of support and love: "I started running after the accident, you know, and started just running away from the house. And I remember Caleb was the first one to run and kind of just jump on me and hold me. And then Shaoey was right there by him."

"To me, you know, that meant a ton... I didn't really want to be at the house, I just wanted to be away. And I was just freaking out," Will continued.

In addition to his supportive family, Will also turned to faith to help him through.

"I've gotten str-- a stronger faith through all this, you know, and more faith through all this. But then there's those days, you know, that just hit you and you're just, like, 'Oh, man, this is just awful.' But-- you just gotta continue to choose to live. And that's the faith that, that continues to keep me going, you know."

Will's siblings described the strength of the Chapman family's support system.

"When you see someone hurting and you see someone burdened, you want to take that burden from 'em. And because you-- I-- you'd rather endure that pain than see your brother, in this case my for real brother endure that pain," said Caleb.

"Grief is this windy road," said his sister Emily. "And sometimes you turn the corner and you've got a straightaway and it's beautiful. And then you can turn a corner at the end of that straightaway and it's thunderstorms and mountains and it can be hard, even within the same day."

Chapman said that the accident made the family question their faith in God.

"My son said the other day that, you know, 'Yeah, we are family.'... But we're a family with a lot of questions," Steven Curtis Chapman said. "But that's what faith is. It's living with the questions. That doesn't mean you have the answers. That's exactly what faith is."

The Chapmans sat together on their porch with guitars, playing music. For them the burden is lifted by the grace of shared grief.

Steven Curtis Chapman's current hit song, "Cinderella," was written one night while getting his little princesses ready for bed. Incredibly, he wrote the words to remind him to appreciate each moment with his girls, before they grew up.

Just months before the accident, Chapman's book about fatherhood, "Cinderella: The Love of a Daddy and His Princess," was published.

After losing Maria, Steven thought he could never sing "Cinderella" again. But now, the words have an even stronger meaning for him.

"I thought, you know what? I've got to sing this song. I have to sing it because I have to continue, you know. These chapters that are still being written with my two little girls, Shaohannah and Stevey Joy. And Emily who's getting ready to be married, we need to keep living these moments, these living years -- these moments that we have, we still-- still need to be engaged in those," said Chapman. "And I need to be dancing with my Cinderellas."

And with conviction of faith, Chapman proclaimed, "I'm going to dance with Maria again."

The Chapman's are establishing a home for special needs children looking to be adopted in China. [Their daughter Maria was adopted with a heart defect.] To read more about Maria's Miracle Fund or the Chapman's adoption charity, Shaohannah's Hope, click here.

For more information on Steven Curtis Chapman's music, click here.

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