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Surprised by Grief

Steven Curtis Chapman and family
From left, Will Franklin, Maria, Steven, Shaohannah, Mary Beth, Stevey Joy, Caleb and Emily Chapman (Tucker Photography)

Entrusted With a Story

Chapman believes that God has, for whatever reason, entrusted this tragic story to him and his family. Despite his understandable reluctance at times, he will tell it “over and over again” and “in a public way,” he says.

But first Chapman had to ask God some intense questions. And the best way he knew how to convey his feelings was through music. The songs that came out of his grief eventually turned into an album, Beauty Will Rise—although, according to Chapman, it is still “really weird” to refer to the processing of his emotions that way.

“I didn’t set out to make a new record or a new album based on a theme I thought God was giving me,” he says. “I call these my psalms. It’s just me crying out to God with many of the same questions David had.

“Now I know what he meant when he was saying, ‘How long, O Lord?’ or ‘How long is the enemy going to beat the tar out of me?’ or ‘How long am I going to feel so separated from You?’”

Music has long been the way Chapman has processed his life. “It’s a real natural thing,” he says. Some of the songs on the new record, such as “Questions,” were literal examples of his dealing with the unknown and grappling with the unthinkable.

“God, are You serious?” he recalls asking. “My own son driving a car and not seeing his sister, and then my daughters in the yard watching it happen and running up? There’s just too many wrongs to make any sense.

“But through those kinds of questions, I think God has given me not so much answers but places of resolve to say I don’t have to have the answer to that, but I really need to have Your presence and a sense that You’re walking through this with us.”

Eventually it became apparent that Chapman needed to share these musical stories with the world, and the CD released. Even without the music, his fans and supporters felt the need to reach out to him—many with similar stories of tragedy and loss. The outpouring was strangely both a comfort and a burden.

“People feel that need to connect,” he says. “There’s a fellowship of suffering that you become a part of, and there’s a connection there and a family of sorts. But it’s also the reason why I’ve done a limited number of interviews and meet-and-greets—because one of my real concerns, in my humanness and in my flesh, [is] there’s only so much that I know I can hear and even tell.”

‘Cinderella’ Reborn

One of Chapman’s most popular songs is “Cinderella,” inspired by his oldest daughter, Emily. Ultimately it became just as much about his three adopted girls and imagining the bittersweet moments of seeing them grow up and eventually start their own lives. After Maria’s death, Chapman resolved never to sing “Cinderella” at his concerts.

“I just thought it would be too painful,” he says. “But with time, I began to realize that if I believe God’s Word, and if I believe that there is a resurrection from the dead that Christ led the way into and that He’s overcome death and the grave, and that to be absent from the body is to be present with Christ, then I’m going to be with Him and Maria’s with Him; therefore, we’re going to be together. I’m going to see my little girl again. I’m going to dance with her again.

“So what would be unthinkably sad all of a sudden has become this hopeful declaration.”

Chapman says that epiphany led to an “insatiable hunger” to learn as much as he could about heaven. It also inspired a new song, titled “Heaven Is the Face,” which came out of a moment in which the songwriter—even though he’d been taught that heaven is about being with God—confessed: “Right now, heaven is about being with my little girl.”

“And then God led me to the thought that it’s not just that,” Chapman adds. “Every nook and cranny of heaven is full of His glory and His goodness and His perfection. There are no more orphans. There are no more goodbyes. There’s no more loneliness. That’s heaven.”

Living Hope

As Chapman has gingerly navigated through his family’s new normal, one of his biggest fears has been any appearance of embracing opportunism spun from his family’s tragedy. With management companies, publicity firms and record labels involved, he is ever aware of that possibility taking root.

“You could so easily throw the baby out with the bath water,” Chapman says. “There have been moments when I’ve just said: ‘I can’t do this. I can’t let this get turned into an iTunes cover shot, or whatever.’”

But inevitably he is always brought back to the concept of purpose—whether fully understood or not. Since that tragic May 21 afternoon in 2008, purpose has been an ongoing process that has led him to live in the moment and faithfully follow the path that has stretched out ahead.

“We just have to remember that this is the story God has entrusted to us,” Chapman concludes about the family’s loss. “We’ll go wherever we can to tell it to His glory and to honor our daughter’s memory and more importantly to honor the God who’s given us the hope that’s just kept us alive to this point.”


Chad Bonham is a journalist, author and producer based in Broken Arrow, Okla.


Learn more about the Chapmans’ organization created in memory of Maria at chapman.charismamag.com

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