From Newly Wed to Widow: The Search for Craig (Part I)

“I believe in night. I believe in day. I believe there’s a light coming back around again. I believe Your right ’cause I believe there’s a way. And I believe I might have some catching up to do. The voices are growing strong. The rumbling of thunder a rolling drum. Let Your Kingdom Come.

I believe in God. I believe in God…I believe that I, I believe enough. So help me God. I believe in love and I believe in us. And I believe the Sky, is made for me to touch…”

Looking out at the snow and ice on the interstate, I tried to ignore the thoughts and emotions battling in my brain. I didn’t want to jinx what might happen by letting my gut feel one way or another. While the optimist within me said, “Don’t worry! We’ll find Craig aggravated that his dad, step-mom and wife came all the way out to Oklahoma to find him when he simply forgotten to call!”; my common sense rolled it’s eyes and said, “Give it a rest. He would’ve found a way to call by now.” Not wanting to give in to either Positive Patty or Negative Nancy, I continued to lean on the cold window and stare at the winter storm-covered pastures…and occasional car in the ditch. Lovely.

As I numbed my brain by pressing the side of my forehead on the window, I thought back to getting ready that morning. I got up 4am and put on a full face of makeup and super girly ski outfit, so that when we found Craig stranded on a random island on the lake [so happy to see me, of course], he would look at me with doe-like eyes and say, “Wow! My wife is so hot.” No joke. That was my really my thought process as I packed for the trip. As I got ready that morning, I felt so sure that I would see my husband in wonderful spirits that evening. However, after being on the road 2 and half hours, I started having a sickening feeling that my attempts to impress my husband may have been futile, and my confidence misplaced. But I blinked away the tears that might mess up my mascara and fake lashes…just in case. I remember Julie [my mother-in-law/Craig’s step mother] crawling over the truck console to the back seat to hug on me. She had always seemed like such a strong woman, in her faith and demeanor, so I was glad to have her next to me as a quiet comfort during that depressing drive. At some point along the way, I heard a phone ring which acted as a freeze-ray on my body. I sat frozen, holding my breath, listening intently in case it was Craig saying he was okay. But as Randy [my father-in-law/Craig’s “Daddo”] began to speak, I could tell it was someone important. Although, it wasn’t until I heard him say – “Oh that doesn’t sound good” – that I decided to pay attention. I felt [and heard] my heart give one massive beat that seemed to push all the blood in my veins through my entire body in a single throb. Everything around me went silent as my ears strained to hear the words of the random man on the phone. I greatly respect Craig’s father, and one of the many things I appreciated about him was how he handled that first day of the search. I’ve found that in situations such as the one we were experiencing, I tend to be very reserved – preferring to hold emotional outbursts for private moments in shower where no one could see the evidence of my tears. So when Randy hung up the phone and sat for a second or two, you can imagine how I held my breath and stared unblinkingly at the back of his head waiting to see how he was going to handle the news he just received. I knew that whatever his reaction looked like, I would most likely follow his lead. I began to sit up slowly when Randy finally said, “Well, they found a capsized boat that matches the description of Craig’s and Chase’s, but they don’t know if it’s their’s or not.” I can’t remember what half-heart encouraging statement I responded with, but as I settled back to my window I couldn’t have been more thankful Randy didn’t give in to the emotions I knew we were all fighting. I needed to be with someone like me. Someone who didn’t want to give up just yet. Someone who just wanted to get to Kaw Lake, and go from there.

I’ll never forget the drive to Ponca City, OK on December 28, 2015. A city I never even knew existed until 24 hours before that drive. A city that would change my life forever.

“I believe in peace, when it’s sweeping over me. I believe in fear, when I feel courageous. I believe this life is more than tangible. And I believe the sky is going on for ages. The voices are growing strong. The rolling of thunder, a rolling drum. Let Your Kingdom Come.

I believe in God. I believe in God…I believe that I, I believe enough. So help me God. I believe in love and I believe in us. And I believe the Sky, is made for me to touch…”

My husband, Craig, and his friend Chase were missing. They had gone duck hunting in a winter storm early in the morning the day before, which would’ve been December 27th. Looking back at my phone log, Craig called me around 4am to tell me they were heading out to the water for the hunt. [Side Note: I’m so thankful I got to speak to my husband before God was planned to take him home. We got to say goodbye and I love you. And for that, I am forever grateful.] At the time at which we spoke, I had no idea Craig was even in Ponca City, OK. The afternoon of the 26th, we had just gotten home from all our Christmas travels and he convinced me to let him go hunting. He was very vague about where exactly this hunting trip was going to be, but I’m pretty sure “only an hour or so” was mentioned. I suspect he knew me well enough to know that if he told me he was going four hours away to a lake he’d only been on once in his life, I most likely would have shut him down before he could even finish the sentence. Not because I knew anything about a storm coming [because I didn’t], but because I would’ve known if he drove four hours away, his “one day duck hunt” would undoubtedly turn into three nights that he would ask forgiveness for later. Oh yes, I loved my husband and his many clever schemes (ha).

It was now the afternoon of the 27th, and it seemed like we sat at the freezing cold Sheriff’s Department for a lifetime. The electricity was out due to the storm, and the little power the building received was coming from a generator. However, despite the temperature, God was taking care of our grieving hearts right away. At some point in the drive, Randy had received another phone call stating that Sam [Craig’s hunting dog – a handsome black lab] had been found by the capsized boat. While this made the situation more grim, it was still such a comfort to have Sam there at the station. I don’t think in Sam’s entire life that he had ever received as much love and attention as he got that day from our family, or as we would receive in the weeks following from random strangers. After obsessing over Sam, we also met several officers who were the kindest people we’ve ever met. They did EVERYTHING they absolutely could to help our family, and they have become dear friends that we still have a relationship with today.

But now I feel that I need to be completely honest with you [as we promised each other we would be]. Even then, with all these comforts from God, sitting in that cold and sterile police building was maddening. Waiting to hear news. Hearing news. Then finding out the news was false. Until the moment the officers came in and stated they had found someone. By this point, Craig’s mother [Joanne] and her husband [Larry] had arrived, as well as Chase’s family…and we were all terrified to know who the officers had found. Unfortunately, they needed someone to identify who the person was, and since they seemed to think it was Chase, his mother chose to look first. I don’t want to go into her private moment, so I will just skip to the dreadful point when the officer looked at me and said, “Ma’am, we’re so sorry, but we need to make a clear identification…would you mind giving a second opinion.” At this point I was still numb and for some reason, unable to show emotion. Which, looking back, is probably why the officers turned to me as the chaos irrupted without us. So I quietly agreed, stepped forward and sadly identified the face of Craig’s sweet friend, Chase.

Over the next few hours, Craig’s hometown best friends surprised us at the station, Craig’s sister [Katie] and her husband [Jason] arrived with my parents, and eventually we all found our way to the Comfort Inn. The following day, my closest friends and boss from work, along with one of my sweet students and her parents would make the long drive to Ponca City to do what they could to help. At the time, I had no idea how God had already been planning to take care of me 3 years prior by placing each of these individuals in my life. Even before I met Craig, God’s hand brought me to CrossChurch and Shiloh Christian School because He knew my church/school family would play a huge role in helping me get back on my feet during the difficult months to come.

On the first day of searching, the Game Warden [Spencer], despite being sick, took us out to his land (which is where they found Craig’s and Chase’s boat) and we walked for hours. I remember getting to an area of brush where several officers on boats were trying to reach a few of Craig’s belongings in the thickest parts of the trees along the water’s edge. As I watched them, I spotted what looked like Craig’s paddle. I wanted to get it, but it didn’t seem like I could get it without getting wet. Craig’s sweet sweet friends saw me making my first steps towards one sad attempt at recovering the paddle [which would without a doubt ended in me getting completely dowsed in lake water] and they stopped me mid-stride. I will never forget those sweet, sweet men talking it over. Deciding who was going to be the one. Well, after a few minutes of discussing, I guess they deemed one man the bravest, because while I was looking out at the water, one of them ran by me- Yes! Ran! – into the water to get Craig’s paddle. No shoes. No socks. Jeans rolled to his knees. And y’all, that water was bitterly cold! He probably got at least a mild case of frost bite while he ran through that water, while his friends fell over laughing on the bank. But he didn’t act like he cared. In fact, when he got back to land [shivering from head to toe] he said, “Here you go ma’am”, and handed me the paddle with a smile on his face. Although that smile probably faded a bit when he remembered he had to hike all the way back to the car with wet feet.

Once everyone started heading back, I waited and stood in that same place for a while. I kept thinking Craig had to be there, somewhere. And this is the point in the story where I again see God’s hand intentionally guiding my steps…because the place I stood that first day was the same place I stood on the day we found Craig. As I stood in the brush holding that paddle, I was less that 15ft away from where Craig laid peacefully under his cedar tree. But it wasn’t time to find him yet. God still needed to use his story to reach thousands of people. So after waiting a few more minutes, God nudged me back towards the family, and away from my husband’s resting place.

When I got back to the hotel that night, I immediately searched for somewhere I could be alone. After talking to a close friend in Craig’s and my small group (who was helping us get our second night of rooms paid for via our small group and his credit card), I finally found a private bathroom that I locked myself into. I stood in there for quite a while feeling guilty as I ignoring the constant phone calls I kept receiving. I’m not sure how long I was in there [thank goodness it was a nice bathroom], but after some time I finally stood up and began to stare at my reflection in the mirror. For a second time, I had put on a full face of make up and worn a matching ski outfit in case I saw Craig…because again, I was worried about I looked cute when I saw him. As silly as that was, it made me smile and laugh at myself a bit that even then, I still cared about looking pretty for him. [I still love that memory when I reflect back on that time. Even writing about it now makes me smile to myself.] However, once that brief moment of peace passed, I looked at my phone and knew it was time to send the text to my three closest friends – “Okay. I need you.” And without question, they came.

“I yelled in the wind. He came rolling back to sweep me off my feet.
I cried to the rain. He came pouring down to drown my disbelief…”

With my friends by my side, I found brief moments of such loving joy. During the time I spent with them over the next week, I saw God’s plan at work again. But this time, I realized that God’s plan went further back that just 2 years prior. No, He had been prepping my friends since the first time I met them. Each of my friends had been perfectly prepared for this crisis in my life because they knew just how to read my reactions. How to defend me when I felt belittled. And how to make me laugh when I wanted to cry. A few of my favorite moments include (1) sitting in the hotel room, recalling past memories and laughing so hard my sides hurt and no sound came out (you know what kind of laugh I’m talking about! Those are the best laughs); as well as, (2) when I was about to have a melt down in the shower, but right before I lost it, one of my friends opened the bathroom door and said, “Are you okay? I can sit in here and talk to you if you don’t want to be alone.” What sweet blessings friends are.

One day during the search, I remember walking out on a lookout point by myself. It was then that I realized the vastness of Kaw lake. I had already been fighting to believe that Craig was still alive, but after 3-4 days of searching and looking out on all that water, I felt like I could see what was left of my optimism being swept away with the current. Again, I found myself unsure as to how to handle the emotions I was feeling…but then God turned me around. I saw two of my friends standing together wrapped in furry blankets, and another friend standing with her husband who had been kind enough to act as our personal driver everywhere we went [see featured image at top of blog post. It was taken a few minutes after this moment I’m describing]. I saw my parents and Craig’s family. I then looked down at my phone and saw all the love being poured out to me from people all over the world via social media. I thought of the candle light prayer services going on at my church and school. And I thought of all the lives that were being changed through Craig’s story. You know, never once did I get angry at God for my circumstances…but there were times that I just didn’t want it to be real; and therefore, would ask Him if this didn’t have to be part of my life’s story. But it was there on that lookout point that I realized what I was experiencing was bigger than me. In all actuality, it wasn’t even about me at all. It was about God, and God using Craig’s testimony to impact lives of more people than I could have ever imagined. It was about providing a sense of strength and hope for people also going through tragic circumstances and needing to be reminded of God’s love for them. It was then that my perspective truly shifted. I felt such a warmness within me as God whispered to me that Craig and I had been a part of a plan He had been orchestrating a long, long time ago….and while this wasn’t what I wanted, I had to make the decision as to whether or not I cared more about having my husband, or following and trusting in God’s plan. I then looked away from my support team on the bank, and looked back out at the water. It no longer looked cold, dark, and impossibly huge. Instead, I remembered that God created the men who made this lake; and thus, He knew all its comings and goings. He knew every bird that flew over it, every fish that swam within it; and he knew that one day, I would be standing all alone on that lookout, with a neon green furry blanket around my shoulders and tears in my eyes. But before even one tear could fall, He already new the exact number to be ready to catch in a bottle. Today, I believe in that God who loved me dearly in that moment. He is purposeful, all-knowing, and He showers blessings on us if we choose to see them. I chose to see His blessings that day. And in doing so, He revealed to me that He was bigger than any man-made lake. Bigger than any circumstance. And finally, that my concern should only be two things: to know Him, and to make Him known. He’ll take care of the rest.

“I believe in God, I believe in God.
I believe that I, I do believe enough.
So help me God
I believe in love, I believe in us.
And I believe the sky was made for me to touch
I believe in God, I believe in God.
I believe the sky was made for me to touch.” 

Lyrics: Relient K – “God”

I will end the story here for today, and plan to post part II on Valentine’s day. Part II will focus on love and overcoming loneliness. Thank you for allowing me to share my story with you, dear friends. It’s one of the first times I’ve really thought through the process of losing Craig as one collective story, and it has been such a blessing to get to share these first moments with you. The support I’ve received has been amazing, and it has fueled my fire in such a wonderful way. Thank you, as well, for all your sweet comments! I really do try to respond back to as many as possible!

What I want to leave you with is this: Remember this week that God is bigger than any difficult circumstance you may facing in your life…because quite frankly, He created your life. Therefore, He can [and He will] take care of what He created. #BeEncouraged by that truth today…and decide to live differently than the world expects, by praising God during trial and tribulation. Prayers are being sent your way dear friend.

With all my love,

Helen Elizabeth Wisner Strickland

27 thoughts on “From Newly Wed to Widow: The Search for Craig (Part I)

  1. I wanted to follow your blog because since the first day I heard of your husband and Chase, I prayed without ceasing that the outcome would be different. I’m terribly sorry it’s not. Yet, I can clearly see that as amazing of a performer as your guy was, this is the way God intended his story to be told. I am being completely honest when I say, reading from you & the Strickland family about Craig & your own experiences pushed me closer than I’ve ever been to God. I think He knew I needed a life testimony such as Craig’s to say to me, I am here and I will never leave you nor forsake you. My heart & prayers are forever with you. Again this week, I am encouraged!! 🙂 Thanks for sharing your thoughts regarding your experience with complete strangers. You inspire!!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Bless you for sharing this very personal story. Your strength and your love and trust in God are a beacon for others who are struggling with hard things. Thank you for this gift. I know it can’t be easy but as a counselor, I know it to be true that it will comfort and heal your heart.
    Gratitude sweet Helen!
    Susan Dames

    Liked by 1 person

  3. So beautiful Helen! Your strength amazes me. God is awesome and He has held you well. Thank you for letting us into you beautiful story of Gods grace, love and goodness.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Reblogged this on themakingsofaministrywife and commented:
    I’m not sure I can even remotely put into words how beautiful this post is. I remember this story unfolding. I remember following it. I remember praying they would find these precious souls and I remember praying for the family and friends as the news was released after each one was found.
    “Remember this week that God is bigger than any difficult circumstances you may facing in your life right now, because quite frankly, He created your life…so He can, and He will, take care of what He created. Be encouraged by that truth, and decide to live differently than the world expects you to by praising God through your trials. ” This. This right here speaks volumes to me and I pray it does to you as well. Live differently than the world expects you to….. Prayers for Helen as she continues on this journey that God has called her to. Blessings my dear friends.

    ~R

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Helen, I cannot put into words how beautiful this is. Your love for God first no matter what the circumstances were and will continue to be is awe-inspiring. Thank you for your courage and strength in following God’s calling to share your story. I will be praying for you and for those close to you as you continue on. Much love and God’s blessings be upon you.
    ~ Robyn

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thank you so much for sharing. You really are an amazing writer! I love your honesty describing the emotional and physical ups and downs during this journey. I was laughing out loud about you wanting to look cute for Craig. During the search for Craig, I read everything I could, praying Craig would be found alive, and now I see how God had a greater plan.The part about Craig being 15 feet away, but it not being time to find him yet, is such perfect evidence of the Lord’s timing. The Lord is doing amazing things through you. I can’t wait to read the next one.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I am speechless and full of tears after reading this. I simply could not imagine life without my husband (who is also a big hunter.. so I can relate to the hunting trips). I cannot fathom the pain and loneliness you must feel at times! Thank you for sharing. Your story is inspiring, encouraging and captivating in so many ways. I don’t even know you and I find myself thinking of you and praying for you from time to time since I heard this tragic story on the news! God bless you!!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Thank you Helen, my sister, for being such a light to the world and allowing God to use your incredibly heartbreaking story to bring hope. I know it has encouraged me so deeply over the last year, and makes my “problems” seem so insignificant. You are a beautiful soul. Keep doing what you are doing!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. WOW….God is good!! I have lost 2 friends of mine only 12 days apart this month and was struggling with all of it… may goodness did you ever make me look at these situations differently. You are truly a blessing to me and many others. Thank you for being so transparent, beautiful and a blessing! ♥

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Just like you said, finding Craig was delayed in order for God to reach more people. Here I am, way out in sunny southern CA, touched and encouraged by your words.

    To be honest, I heard about the whole story developing from the very beginning, because of social media. Here’s how I was led to your story…. it may seem random, but nothing is coincidental. I believe God orchestrated it so that I may eventually be greatly encouraged by your faith. I am a fan of the Duggar family’s show on TLC. One of the Duggars tagged a baker on Instagram that makes amazing cookies, by the IG name “doughmestichousewife”. I started following her because she has an amazing talent for frosting cookies, and frankly, I’m just mesmerized when she posts a video with her frosting cookies!! Anyway, the night Craig went missing, she posted on her IG account a flyer that asked to pray for Craig. It was unlike any of her normal cookie posts, so it really grabbed my attention. It had your picture on it, and she tagged you all, so I started following both you and Craig, and praying for you all. You must go to the same church, or live nearby at least? Well, that’s my path to how I found your story unfolding on IG, and thus, your blog. Small world after all. God bless you and so glad to be your sister in Christ. We may not ever meet on earth, but we will in heaven someday! As my dad always says, “I’ll see you here, there, or in the air.” 😊

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Helen, you truly are an inspiration! I’ve read the book A Purpose Driven Life and it’s about how we are put on this earth for a purpose and when that purpose it fulfilled we return to Him. This certainly makes you look at death in a different way and makes you think what purpose we are put here for. I believe your purpose is to spread the good word and help people reconnect to their faith! Keep up the good work you are touching a lot of lives!! God
    Bless you with love and happiness!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Good day, HEWStrickland! I’ve watched (&prayed for)you from afar during this last year +. Thrilled to see you continuing with THE message. There was another young widow back in the 1950’s who also wrote about her walk (and sometimes crawl) as she took each day with the grace of God only . Her name was Catherine Marshall, widow of Dr. Peter Marshall. If you are unfamiliar with her, she has many books as well as a movie based on ‘A Man Called Peter’, one of my favorites. She also saw her life going a much different route as well but God had a much bigger plan.

    Know I will continue to pray for and follow you.

    K2 @restored159

    Liked by 1 person

  13. I started following your story as soon as the news first posted. In the very first moments I felt God was going to birth a ministry in you . Each day as the search continued I prayed for you and all your families. I have continued to follow you and pray. I have been so certain that it is not an end at all but rather a new chapter of God’s ministry for your life. Thank you for listening to God and being a vessel that was willing to yield to his direction.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Wow! I got chills reading this. It is so beautifully written. I remember when Craig went missing and I prayed for you and your family every day. I so wanted the outcome to be different but God had different plan. He has the bigger picture that we can’t see. You are an inspiration in your journey with Him. Bless you Helen and thank you for sharing your journey with all of us.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Helen, you are such an inspiration to everyone!! You have turned a tragedy into an amazing way to turn those to Christ!! You are a true Christian and amazing role model to everyone! Please know we are all here praying for you!!

    Liked by 1 person

  16. I followed this story from the first news reports and prayed for you and your family. Although I’ve never met you, Julie S. and I were in the same church choir for a time. I knew she would be a source of strength for you. You are an incredibly strong, young woman and truly inspirational all because of your faith in God. Thank you for continuing to share your story. No doubt many lives will be impacted for Christ.
    James 1:12

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  17. One thing resounds so clearly through your beautifully woven words…..God speaks through every brush stroke in the courageous story of faith and love those words paint for all of us. The image you shared of God knowingly and lovingly preparing those in your life who would steady and support you through darkness is so important…..that your heart was able to remain open to see His love for you and for Craig and Chase through unspeakable grief….and then to be able to share such personal pain….is SO powerful….powerful and life-changing testimony to any who hear your story. You are precious, Helen….a precious sister and I pray goodness and joy find you daily in many unexpected ways. Thank you for making a difference in my life. Keep sharing as long as you feel led….praying for you! ~ Laura

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  18. I, like many of your readers, started following your Instagram account when the news broke that your husband and his friend went missing during their hunting trip. I prayed for you and your family then- and continue to do so.

    I am so grateful you have come out with this blog. I will be honest with YOU and tell you I have strayed from my faith and have struggled NOT to doubt God in the midst of my own struggles and imperfect world we live in. But this changes now. I WILL strength my relationship with Him and trust in the journey He chooses for each of us.
    I am so excited to get back to my faith. I have struggled with anxiety and depression and I know that I can get back to the happy, grateful girl I was born to be as I refocus my attention and trust in God.

    Helen, I have you to thank for this. You are truly a gift!

    Keep writing!!
    Love,
    Alli

    Liked by 1 person

  19. I have read your blog, watched videos of you being interviewed over the loss of your husband, and I am truly amazed at your strength and how strong your faith is. I don’t know how you do it. But you are such an inspiration to me, and have caused me to re-think my relationship with God, and how I can make changes in my own life. Thank you for the difference you are making in my life, and I don’t even know you. You are touching so many lives through Craig, and what an honor that is for him. Thank you! And God Bless.

    Liked by 1 person

  20. Helen. I have been following your story and I am so amazed at your stength and tenacity as you walk through such a tough circumstance. It’s amazing how Jesus shines so brightly through those who love Him-when life is tough He shines even brighter-and you are as bright as can be!!!! Keep shining the light and showing the Way, the Truth, and the Life! God Bless you!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  21. Thank you for the courage to be as honest and vulnerable as you have been through your posts. You have taken this 27 yr old kid through all the emotions…from tears to laughter to moments where you have kicked my butt and made me realize where I need to be less selfish with my life. Keep it up!

    Liked by 1 person

  22. Helen,

    This post made me tear up in the middle of a busy restaurant. Your post was written so eloquently and the feelings so deeply personal. Thank you for sharing your story. You will stay in my thoughts and prayers.

    Best, Meleah

    Like

  23. Thank you for sharing all of this. I just barley got through the first part and unsure of how I will be able to get through the second part. I lost my cousin of 24 years old only a few short months ago in December. It has been a really hard time for our family but you are right, God has a plan and he is so much bigger!

    Thank you again for the openness and honesty of your feelings! and I am so so so sorry for your loss!

    Like

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