A Testimony by Dr. Ron Gellis: From Loss to Legacy
Updated: Aug 2, 2019
When I was a young adult, about 1972, I was on a beach in Florida and somehow came upon a woman who started speaking about the death of her son. After about an hour of listening, I finally asked her how long had it been since he died, and was shocked when she said: “18 years ago”. I thought it had been a few weeks prior.
Years later, May of 1985, my Naval Commanding Officer, a recovering alcoholic, shared his story with me. From that time on, I have never had a drop of alcohol. What emerged shortly thereafter were memories and nightmares of painful events I had buried with alcohol. It was PTSD. My motto had been: “suck it up, box it up, move on”; “Any pain in life could be handled with alcohol”. I learned I had to deal with past pain from trauma without alcohol while discovering you had to work through the pain of trauma and there was no getting around, over or under it. This process led me to my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, The consummate Healer. Several decades later at the age of 65, as a psychologist and Clinical Director of a Christ Centered Rehab I felt a calling to focus on treating veterans who were committing suicide at a rate of 22 a day. Given my age, position and paycheck, it would have been very easy, understandable and tempting to stay in that position but realized it was no longer my purpose. At that time, my son, a Navy Veteran, was going through the VA’s PTSD unit. I became very familiar with the VA. We at Saddleback Church were going through our “Daring Faith” campaign: “According to your faith will it be done to you”. (Matthew 9:27). I left the position as director to focus on working with veterans.
On Easter Sunday, March 27, 2016 my wife and I returned home from Saddleback Church’s Sunrise Service at Coto de Caza. It was 8:15 in the morning and I had received repetitive calls from the same number. Thinking someone was urgently trying to get through to me, I listened to the message: “This is the Irvine Police Department, your daughter has been pronounced dead, call your ex-wife as soon as possible.” I crawled my way to the steps and made an utterly unintelligible sound calling out to my wife upstairs, “Shira is dead”. She drove us to her apartment and there she lay with a cover up to her neck, “dead”. In the same detached, pull it together manner I was familiar with, I dealt with law enforcement officers and the coroner. I was in shock and could only say: “I can’t digest this”. By evenings time, as a psychologist for decades in my adult life, having dealt with countless tragedies and traumas of others, my insane default thinking evolved to : “suck it up, box it up, move on.” In a moment of clarity, I realized, it hadn’t worked all those decades ago, it wasn’t going to work now.” I forced myself to reach out to my “church family”. I called a retired army officer neighbor of mine from my small group and told him what had happened. I also sent a message to various pastors I knew at church. It was recommended that I to go through grief counseling which I did. I was also forwarded a list of some worship songs which would help. I have listened to them countless times, most especially Steven Curtis Chapman’s “Jesus Will Meet You There”.
The first morning after her death I was in my garage where I usually prayed and worked out while listening to worship music. There and then, I reaffirmed that my faith was not a theory but something I lived as a fact. I accepted unequivocally again that Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior and there is no hurt I can’t get through with Him. I also found comfort and solace believing “Shira was in the perfect place, with the Perfect Father, getting the Perfect Love”. Someone who also lost a child shared “we are in a club no parent wants to be in.” It felt like being stuck in hell without an exit.” Over the next 2 weeks, I could no longer exercise as I had been nor maintain the same disciplined eating regimen I had. I had managed to put on 17 lbs. in 2 weeks. As a neuropsychologist I realized the drastic change in exercise and eating was having an affect on my brain and otherwise making a painful situation worse. I realized this pattern could be a bottomless dark descent. Nevertheless, over the next 3 years I would gradually put on a total of 45 lbs. “It’s not what you eat, but what’s eating you”. Soon after her death, I started grief counseling . In my small group, the first two weeks after her death, I just sat there without even mentioning her death. On the third week, I finally committed to mentioning her death. I had to force the words out of my mouth at the start of the meeting and cried most or all of the way through. I will always be grateful to that small group for their love and support. For the first several months of grieving I would slip into unexpected episodes of crying and bottomless sadness.
As it has been stated, use your pain to serve others and bring glory to God. My daughter had been sexually assaulted and entered an abyss that most sexual victims find themselves in and don’t escape. 25% of all women veterans who serve in our military have been sexually assaulted, a shocking and unacceptable reality. As a way of providing purpose and meaning to her death, I have set up a Christ Centered 90 day residential treatment program for women veterans who have been sexually assaulted while serving. In it we have included Celebrate Recovery, the Daniel Plan and Ministry at the Saddleback Irvine food pantry and Peace Farm. In the course of time in setting up this program, I occasionally hear satan’s voice of doubt and condemnation and remember Galatians 6:9 “Let us not grow weary in doing good, for at the proper moment we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.”
I have also become Chair of the Faith Based Working Group of the Orange County Veterans and Military Families Collaborative. A significant number of veterans will reach out to a church for help. The Working Group is involved in recruiting all the houses of worship in the county to assist in connecting churches, veterans and needed services.
Finally, I have gone back to that Christ Centered Rehab to set up a program for Veterans and First Responders who medicate their PTSD by abusing substances.
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His Purpose.
...being confident of this, that He who began a good works in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Jesus Christ.
*If you know of any veterans or first responders suffering from substance abuse or a mental or emotional disorder please contact Integrated Recovery Foundation at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 833-473-4325. If there is immediate danger or a suicide attempt please call 9-1-1.*