When all seems lost and dark...
DONALD R. SERFASS/TIMES NEWS The Rev. Kevin Roberts, Tamaqua, endured a life-changing tragedy and now leads a grief recovery support group to help others find their way through their darkest days.
When you lose a loved one, the pain you feel inside is endless. It's an empty feeling that runs as deep as the soul.
It seems as if your world has been turned upside down. And in some ways, that's true. The spirit breaks and darkness set in. There is no replacing a spouse, soulmate, or a son, daughter, mother, father, or special friend.
The pain of loss can be unique to each person. It can reflect the closeness of your bond with the deceased, someone you knew well, perhaps someone who was the center of your life and the promise of the future.
When that happens, words cannot describe the feeling, except to say it is profound.
"You can't know what it is until you experience it," says Pastor Kevin Roberts, Tamaqua. Life changes with loss, he says. "What was normal is no longer normal."
In many ways, 'Pastor Kevin' might be considered an expert in the grieving process. He leads GriefShare, a non-denominational grief recovery support group. Thousands of GriefShare groups meet weekly throughout the United States, Canada and internationally. But Roberts' group is the only GriefShare program available in the greater Tamaqua area,
The local GriefShare is offered through Bethany Evangelical Congregational Church as part of the church's ongoing program of community outreach.
Many say Roberts, a Lehighton native, is uniquely qualified to lead the group. After life dealt him unexpected tragedy, he found a way to heal, and Roberts' own personal journey through the grieving process has helped him nurture deep empathy and sensitivity to the needs of others.
Roberts grew up in a typical Pennsylvania Dutch family. As with most folks, everyday life was Christian-based, but perhaps not overly-so.
He distinctly recalls the moment he found the Lord and sensed a calling to do His work, even if he didn't act on it right away.
"I was 18. I heard the Gospel and understood my need for forgiveness. It was June 21, 1976," says Roberts, a 1975 graduate of Lehighton Area High School.
One year later, Roberts married the former Nora Haynes of Lansford, daughter of Hugh and Marianna Haynes. Nora worked at the My Place Restaurant and, at the time, Roberts worked in Lansford for Home Life Insurance Company. The happy couple started a family.
But Roberts' calling to the ministry prevailed, and in 1983, the family relocated to Lancaster, where Roberts enrolled at Lancaster Bible College.
Roberts completed three years of the curriculum when family health issues and other matters saw him turn in a new direction. He left school and for over a decade worked in the food industry as night shift manager of Burger King, eventually rising to district manager.
It was during that period he faced the biggest challenge of his life. It was something completely shocking, with not the smallest hint that life would take a sudden, dramatic turn. But it did.
Nora developed what appeared to be a simple illness.
"It was on the Fourth of July," says Roberts. "She complained of a headache." Nora eventually was hospitalized, where she underwent a series of tests. Days later, Nora went left totally blind. Things went downhill from there. In a matter of a few weeks, Nora was gone, the victim of a condition similar to a brain tumor.
"It was unexpected," recalls Roberts, noting that she passed away on August 1, 1990, less than one month from when she developed the headache.
In what seemed to be the blink of an eye, Roberts found himself a single father of four, responsible to provide food, clothing and shelter for Adam, 9, Joel, 8, Sarah, 5, and Bethany, 4.
He credits the help of his parents, now deceased, who helped when the chips were down. Roberts' parents were in a position to offer their time, their home, and their devotion.
"I was fortunate," he says, "my parents were retired at the time."
In a sense, Roberts didn't have the opportunity to actually deal with the loss of his wife at the most personal level. He simply had too much responsibility. There was no time to grieve, and he needed to remain strong for the children.
"The kids dealt with it differently than I did. I had to put everyone ahead of myself," he recalls.
It was a difficult time, a period when, he says, his faith saw him through.
"I was never angry at God," he notes. He says he now recognizes he wasn't alone through the entire ordeal. "In the midst of that situation, God was never closer, and really sustained me and reminded me of the calling."
In 1996, Roberts met a special, caring woman named Danette Wilkinson of Bowmanstown, who understood his plight and his situation.
The two began dating and eventually married. With moral support from Danette, Roberts returned to Lancaster Bible College and finished his degree in 1999, something he never expected to happen.
"I thought that door was shut," he admits.
But, in reality, doors were just beginning to open.
The timing was right for Roberts to accept a pastorate position at Tamaqua's Bethany EC Church. He also earned a Master of Divinity degree from Evangelical Theological Seminary in Myerstown.
But his journey into a new life came with a surprise he'll never forget.
Along the way, he discovered something about himself. He found one part of himself, deep inside, that needed to be made whole.
What he found was that the heartbreaking tragedy of his past still needed to be dealt with at the most basic, personal level.
The man who had put others first now needed to deal with his own reality, his own feelings. And it came about while he was learning how to help others.
"During seminary training I attended GriefShare as part of counseling," says Roberts. "I went there as an academic assignment and had realization that there were still grief issues inside of me."
At that point, Roberts worked toward his own healing, and at the same, recognized he'd someday lead his own GriefShare support group. That inspiration became reality in Tamaqua in June, 2006, and the program at Bethany EC Church has been helping local residents ever since.
"His mission is to spread the word of God," says Donna White, Tamaqua. "He touched my life through his ministry." White lost her husband Bob a year ago. But she also lost other close relatives at the very same time. When it rains, it pours. For White, life had become one steady downpour. But she is healing each day and has found a level of comfort and understanding through the GriefShare group.
Darryl Hummel, Tamaqua, lost her husband Robert three years ago after 57 years of marriage. She also lost a son. To Hummel, GriefShare is a blessing.
"Pastor Roberts is very understanding. He's gone through a lot himself. I have the greatest admiration for him," says Hummel.
According to a neighbor, Roberts is devoted to helping others, and is an all-around good guy. "If I have a question about something, he's always willing to help," says Amy Behler. Behler lost her mother recently and also lost her husband Bruce several years ago.
Everyone seems to have a high opinion of Pastor Kevin, a humble man who downplays his role. He sees himself a facilitator whose main objective is to honor the Lord and, in the process, help to heal those who struggle with the pain of loss.
He is inspired by 2 Corinthians, Chapter 1, verses 3 and 4: "Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God."
In other words, our troubles can give us the ability to help others who are going through the same thing. Scripture says our burdens provide us a way to assist our fellow man.
Roberts has felt great pain and understands the feelings that go with it. He knows that loss can come in a variety of ways.
It can happen suddenly. In fact, sometimes the ultimate bad news comes with a knock on the door, or maybe the ring of a phone. In other situations, loss comes after extended illness and suffering.
No matter which way it happens, the pain can be difficult to manage. In a matter of moments, we can find ourselves without direction in our lives, and with a broken heart that seems unfixable.
Pastor Roberts understands. He has found a way to heal, beating the darkness with a ray of sunlight, and he shares the gift with others.