"The sun could have not risen that day and it would have been less surprising than what actually happened." Sammie Wood, a mother of three, homemaker, and cattle rancher from Clayton, New Mexico, spoke through tears as she recalled the events of Aug. 10, 2014.
The night before, a Saturday, Sammie, her husband, and her daughter Clare, 17, went to Mass. Afterwards Clare, her youngest, went to a dance before the start of her senior year of high school.
Tall, slender, beautiful, and fun-loving, Clare valued laughter, friendship, and faith. She often would dance and sing around the kitchen with her mom and two siblings. She played volleyball, and was a cheerleader and National Honor Society member. She would tell people she would pray for them. She loved the Lord and wrote little notes to herself that said things like, "Make God loved."
She was no saint. She did many, many good things and also made mistakes. For her Confirmation saint, after much research, she chose St. Margaret Cortona, famously willful.
That Sunday morning, Sammie went to Clare's bedroom to check in and to snuggle. She asked her how the dance went. Clare wasn't too responsive. She didn't want to talk. She said she was tired. Sammie held her for a moment, then, as she did every morning, she took her rosary beads with a relic of St. Faustina and went for a walk to pray the Rosary and Chaplet of Divine Mercy for her daily intention of praying for someone who would die that day.
When Sammie returned home, Clare was up and asked her, "Mamma, where were you?"
"Out for my morning Rosary and Chaplet, praying for someone who will die today," Sammie said.
The sunny New Mexico morning turned uncharacteristically overcast. Chip, Sammie's husband, grilled steaks outside for lunch, but the foul weather drove the family inside. Sammie and Chip eventually settled in to watch a golf match as Sammie worked on a needlepoint Christmas stocking. Clare settled in another room to watch a different program. At one point, Sammie checked in on her. She knelt beside her and asked her if she wanted to join them. Clare still seemed despondent, and she declined, saying she didn't really like watching golf.
Before leaving her be, Sammie leaned in and told Clare she knew that returning to school for the fall semester wouldn't be easy, with all of the preparation Clare needed to do for college. But Sammie told Clare that she loved her, and Sammie blessed her. She made the Sign of the Cross on her daughter's forehead. That was the last time Sammie saw her baby girl alive.
Clouds continued to roll in across the high plains when Chip and Sammie heard what sounded like a sharp "pop" coming from outside. They figured it was weather-related. But minutes later, Sammie's father rushed into the house screaming, "Clare shot herself! Clare's dead!"
Sammie's parents live on the family ranch, in a house close to the barn. They had heard the gunshot. Clare had driven her car up to the barn, stepped out onto the cement apron, and taken her own life. She was wearing her scapular, which was not typical. She had left a note in her car that read, "I love you guys so much. Please forgive me. I'm so sorry."
As Sammie and Chip came upon their daughter's lifeless body, the skies began to pour. They carried her body inside the barn for shelter and called 911. The Wood family lives 33 miles away from the nearest town. The emergency responders took three hours to get there.
All the while, as family gathered at the ranch to mourn, Sammie embraced her daughter's body. She wailed, wept, and prayed.
The Woods would eventually discover that Clare had been having trouble with girls at school and was a victim of cyberbullying.
She had shared with her sister that a fellow volleyball teammate's ex-boyfriend was romantically interested in her, and though Clare wasn't interested in him, some girls in her class were giving her a hard time about it all.
The Woods also would learn that at the dance the night before, the boy had asked Clare to dance. They were seen kissing on the dance floor. Clare was upset with herself that she had allowed that to happen and wanted to call and apologize to her teammate, but the girl and some others had already started talking about it. In a small town, in a class of 50 people, gossip and rumors spread like wildfire.
"I never saw anything in Clare that I thought was unusual," Sammie said. "She was a typical teenager. But the day Clare died, she was going through the 'perfect storm' in her mind to cause her to take her own life."
Clare also suffered from extreme eczema, asthma, and allergies, for which she was on medication. Sammie later found out that the medication can have a serious side effect — suicidal thoughts.
Sammie immediately turned to the Blessed Mother, who knows as well as anyone what it's like to lose a child.
"The night Clare died, of course I didn't sleep much — tossing, turning, weeping, pacing," Sammie recalled. "We have a big window in our living room with rocking chairs in front of it. In the early morning hours, I got up and went to sit in one of those chairs. The skies had cleared, and it was the night of the big 'honey moon.' The moon was huge in that big window. As many people say, I believe the moon stands for Our Blessed Mother — reflecting the light of her Son. I believe she was silently keeping vigil with me — praying and standing with me."
At the funeral, many students approached Sammie to tell her that Clare had helped them through difficult times, including deep depression. Some shared that Clare had protected them from bullying.
Sammie racked her brain for days and months trying to make sense of it all. Had she missed something? Did she somehow give Clare "permission" to kill herself by telling her that her daily prayer intention was for someone who would die that day?
Why didn't God save her daughter? Why didn't He show her what Clare was going through? Why did she go out to pray instead of staying at home when she saw that her daughter was downcast? But she came to realize that she would never understand all of the "whys," and even if she did, it would still never make sense to her or be enough of a reason for her daughter to have done what she did.
Seeking help and support in her grief, Sammie looked in her parish and in her Catholic faith, but could not find any specific program or ministry that could help her.
"I knew the devil wanted to use this to annihilate my family," Sammie said, "but I refused to let that happen."
Two months after Clare's death, Sammie took one of the notebooks that she had bought Clare for school and began to record suitable passages from Scripture, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and quotes from saints who had made it through hard times. This notebook has become the makings of her new life's mission — to create a Catholic grief ministry program that can spread from parish to parish so that no one would have to grieve alone.
In the meantime, Sammie, her friends, and her family have offered hundreds of Masses for the repose of Clare's soul. Sammie wants others to know the importance of praying for the souls in Purgatory.
"People need to remember to pray for their loved ones who have passed," she said. "Don't just assume they went to Heaven."
One night about six months after Clare died, Sammie begged her "Clara" to come to her in a dream and let her know that she was OK. She needed a sign.
That night, Sammie couldn't sleep. She walked around the house most of the night. Not until the early morning hours did she finally fall asleep — and she got her sign. She dreamed she was in a big hotel. Two girls were playing inside a gift shop and trying very hard to make her laugh. She laughed and smiled at them. She couldn't see their faces because they had donned masks and feathers from the gift store to cover their faces. At one point, though, the girls exchanged masks, and Sammie saw that one of the girls was Clare. She ran up to her and called her name and kissed her on the cheek. Clare had a huge smile. She took Sammie by the arm and led her down a hallway.
In the dream, Clare said, "I have to get back now, Mom. I have to get back!"
Sammie replied, "Clare, why do you have to get back?"
"I've tasted everything here, Mom," she responded, "and everything tastes so much sweeter there. I've done everything here, Mom, and everything's so much greater there."
Sammie said, "What's so great there, Clare?"
She said, "I gaze on the beauty of God."
At that moment, Sammie's alarm went off, and she awoke. This dream brought great consolation to Sammie, and she even wondered if the other girl was the baby she had miscarried before having Clare.
Since then, Sammie's journey has been one of healing and forgiveness.
"I don't seek out the girls who bullied my daughter," she said, "but I do forgive them, and I pray and sacrifice for them so that their lives go well and they be good and holy young women."
Forgiveness, she said, is a process that sometimes requires a bending of her will.
"Eventually the bending of your will softens your heart," she said, "and forgiving becomes much easier."
Even more difficult, though, has been forgiving herself. Even today she still struggles with guilt. "She was my baby," said Sammie. "There are days when I scream out into the air, 'Clare, please forgive me!' I pray to the Blessed Mother to lend me her hope, her trust, and her faith."
She said, "The future is hard, but I stay close to Jesus and the Blessed Mother, and I feel closer to Clare now more than ever before. I'm a simple woman, I don't have much to offer, but I don't want anyone to have to grieve alone or turn to other things like mediums or 'seers' or anything else. In our Catholic faith, we have redemptive suffering, the saints, the Blessed Mother, the Eucharist. These are what can bring us through anything in life, even the most difficult times."
Her other children, Sally and Gus, have been tremendously helpful in reminding her that she is, and always has been, a good mother. Sammie continues to pray the Chaplet of Divine Mercy every day for Clare.
"I know that God is outside of time and space," she said. "I know He can apply graces from my prayers to the moment of her death. I leave it in His hands, knowing that mercy is His greatest attribute. I know He loves Clare infinitely more than I am capable of. I trust that my God has Clare in His loving care. As St. Faustina taught us, our words have to be 'Jesus, I trust in You'!"