Terry Mermann has always been a devout Catholic. As a young child, he would ride his bike to Mass, listening intently to biblical passages and teachings. He grew up in the church and his faith provided a foundation for the rest of his life.
The Long Island, NY, native became an adult, earned a Ph.D. and married a woman from Georgia. The couple eventually relocated to the Golden Isles, where Mermann signed on as principal of St. Francis Xavier Catholic School in Brunswick.
It seemed like all of the pieces were falling into place for a calm, idyllic life by the sea. That was until Sept. 20, 2015, the day Mermann received the call straight out of every parent’s nightmare.
“It was two days before Daniel’s 22nd birthday, which was nice because I spent the weekend with him. He and his friend were driving back to the Atlanta area and they both fell asleep in the car,” he said.
Daniel was killed in the crash that followed. Naturally, it was devastating for Mermann. But the grieving process was something that forced him to dig deep into his faith. Traumatic events such as the loss of a loved one, especially a child, can often make people abandon spirituality altogether. Questions like “how could God let this happen to me” play on repeat in one’s mind, which can lead to fierce anger and resentment.
“When you have a loss like that, when the child that you love is snatched away, you’re overwhelmed with sadness and pain,” he said. “You feel that void. I had to ask myself ‘how does my faith play into this.
Rather than turning away from God, Mermann chose to let faith carry him through. A primary source of comfort was the Easter story. For believers, Christ’s sacrifice and resurrection offers a way to conquer death. Jesus took on the sins of the world through his crucifixion and suffering, opening the gates of heaven for mankind.
Despite his anguish, it was this promise that gave Mermann hope and the will to carry on.
“You hear (the Easter story) your whole life. You believe it from a distance. The resurrection is great and all, but it’s kind of ‘out there’ and away from you,” he said.
“But when something like this happens, you really have to put your faith into action. You have to ask yourself, ‘Do I really believe in the resurrection and people going to heaven?’”
His answer was an emphatic ‘yes.’ If Christ’s story ended with the tomb, Mermann would not have been able to move forward. But the promise of Easter morning allowed him to overcome this most profound grief and loss.
“Without it, it’s devastating. Without it, you say, ‘What’s the sense of living if we don’t have something to hold on to?’ It really became my prayer that I would experience what the resurrection really means,” he said. “I know my son is with God because that is our faith.”
This belief also allowed him to connect with another central character in the Easter story, Jesus’ mother, Mary. A figure that is highly revered in Catholicism, Mermann was drawn to her through their shared experience.
“I developed a better prayer life with Mary ... she knows my pain. And my kid died in a car crash, he wasn’t crucified, so I looked at how Mary dealt with it. How was she able to lose her son in such a violent way and keep her faith?,” he said. “So the resurrection just became living for me. It was something that had a lot of meaning to me.”
While the pain will never fully dissipate, Mermann has found a way to cope with the loss. He continues to speak to his son and feel a connection through his spirituality every day.
“Daniel is with me in my prayer life and all of the Masses I go to ... I read something Pope Francis had written ... he said, ‘When we embrace the cross in love as Jesus did, there is no sadness. There’s only joy in that we have eternal life,” he said.
It has also given Mermann a new perspective on the present. He now moves through his days with the full knowledge that there is no guarantee of tomorrow.
“I appreciate each day more than ever because I know how quickly life can change,” he said.
“ That morning waving goodbye to him in the car ... I never thought I would get a call six hours later. You never know if it is the last time you see someone.”
Mermann now embraces the moment more than ever. He makes a point to shower the people in his life with love daily. And he stands firmly in the promise of the resurrection, not just on Easter Sunday but every day.
“There is always sadness but there’s the hope of the resurrection. The whole understanding of life after death has a lot of meaning for me now,” he said.
“We all have lots of struggles ... we have real physical losses, like death of loved ones, but there are also people who suffer from terminal illnesses or bankruptcy or something like that. It knocks the wind out of your sails. But it’s hope that gives you the courage to move on through the darkness of your life.”