Sorrow has turned into dancing for Heather Gilion. After her father passes away, and her husband and brother-in-law die in the same canoe accident, she joins forces with her sister and reexamines her relationship with God.
“Dancing and ashes don’t usually go in the same sentence,” Gilion said. “But for us, after going through such a tragic time in our lives, the Lord brought us through a time of healing..."
Sorrow has turned into dancing for Heather Gilion.
A year of tragic loss has become a platform for Gilion and her sister, Holly Snell, authors of “Dancing on My Ashes.” The book, released March of this year, chronicles their journey after the women lost their father and, eight months later, both of their husbands in a canoeing accident.
In the summer of 1999, Heather was ready to have the time of her life. Her father walked her down the aisle as she married James Brill. She would graduate the next spring and she had big dreams. In the next year, everything would change.
Three months after her wedding, her father died. He had a stroke nearly 10 years before and, although it was a rocky road, his health had steadily improved. When he contracted pneumonia, doctors tried to prepare the family for the worst. They had heard so many times there was no hope, only to watch dad rebound and hope for the best. This time it did not happen, and in October of 1999, he passed away.
Heather began to struggle with her faith, facing depression and bitterness after her father’s passing. She had been raised to believe in God, but now she had doubts.
“I began to question God and whether or not I wanted to believe in him,” she said. “And even if he was true and there really was a God out there, I didn’t know if I liked him. I didn’t know if I wanted to follow him.”
That spring, Heather and her husband, James, graduated from Southwest Baptist University. In the fall, James planned to go to seminary, but for the summer they put their things in storage and moved to Vermont where her sister and her sister’s husband, Scott Nesbitt, were starting a Christian adventure camp. Campers were arriving and the men left to scout for a canoe trip the next day, but by dark they still had not returned.
“We went to bed not knowing where they were,” Heather said. “It was 9 p.m. the next night when we found out, so it was a full day of search parties going out, and their vehicle and their pictures were on the news and people were trying to help find them.”
The men were missing for 24 hours before searchers found them in the river. It was a month after Heather’s one-year anniversary and this was not how she imagined her life would be.
“Just poof – all the hopes you’ve built upon, all the dreams you’ve already dreamed up, they’ve just been snatched away from you,” she said.
That was a very dark time in her life.
“For me, looking back I think, ‘Gosh, how did I even survive?’” she said.
In the middle of the pain and the whys, she came to a crossroad: a moment where she felt she had to decide if she believed there was a God, and if they were on the same team.
“Even though I’d accepted him early on, it was really at this moment that I felt like I made this huge choice that has changed my life forever,” Heather said.
She chose God.
“It was really at that point, instead of running as hard and as fast as I possibly could away from him, I made a choice in my heart to run as hard and fast as I possibly could toward him,” she said. “I made a decision. I’m going to find out who this God is and I’m gonna really start seeking answers.”
She forced herself to read the Bible, testing it. If those promises did not hold true, she would be done. Was God really going to be a healer of the broken hearted?
“He never let me down,” she said.
Her father, her husband and her sister’s husband were all “amazing men,” Gillion said, and even though time has passed, she still grieves her loss. The circumstances –– that loss –– never changed, but she learned to worship God in the middle of her situation and she began to feel his nearness and his love for her.
“I don’t claim to have all the answers,” Heather said. “But I do know that God did hold up to his promises to me during that time.”
She found support in her family as they grieved together. The sisters moved in with their mother, putting three widows under one roof. Their church family supported them as well, building an addition to the crowded house.
“We just had a great group of people that loved us and let us be real and cry our eyes out if we needed to,” Heather said.
As they healed, they began to share their story, talking to small groups. Holly asked her if she would help write a book, but Heather was not sure she was ready.
“We just started writing, whether it was for our own healing or for other people, we didn’t know,” Heather said. “Midway through the book, as I was writing, I knew in my heart that I was going to share it with other people, which was very scary for me just because I was being so vulnerable and trying to be as honest about my grieving process as I possibly could.”
They titled it “Dancing in My Ashes,” which Heather says is not a normal reaction to tragedy, but it is the way she pictures her life now.
“Dancing and ashes don’t usually go in the same sentence,” she said. “But for us, after going through such a tragic time in our lives, the Lord brought us through a time of healing, and within that — even though our circumstances never changed and even though our hearts were still broken — it was like we were called to worship through that, to dance through that.”
Through the book, they hope to bring an honest look at the difficult journey to healing. Their message, she said, is for people who have questioned God, wondered if he is real, if he cares and if he sees them and their situation.
Both women have remarried: Heather to Dallas Gilion and Holly, who now lives in Texas, to Aaron Snell. Heather now has two boys and, although she misses those she lost, she can’t imagine life without her children.
“God is all about taking the ashes of our lives and bringing about something beautiful,” Heather said. “Different people have experienced different things. We all have stories to tell. Mine’s not as tragic as some, but at the same time there is hope. There is healing. There is a promise of new beginnings and beauty from our pain.”