Out of Her Comfort ZoneJoan Sepp believed in right choices. Instead of seeking to be identified as the mother of two murdered children, she chose to help others overcome grief.
For more than 20 years, Joan Sepp turned down speaking and interview requests but when invited to address the 2007 Ontario Youth and Social Workers Conference in Sudbury, Ontario, she accepted. Shy, creative Sepp said, “I felt a gentle nudge from God that it was time for me to step out of my comfort zone and tell my story.”
Sepp’s story wasn’t an easy one to tell. She introduced herself to audiences by saying, “I was an ordinary woman, living an ordinary life until two tragic events changed my life forever.” Tragedy first entered Sepp’s life on the morning of September 30, 1983, when the body of her 31 year-old son Marty was discovered in one of downtown Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario’s back alleys. Two individuals were convicted and sentenced to prison for Marty’s murder.
Sepp said losing Marty was a long and painful journey that began in university when he discovered the drugs that eventually ruined his mind and his potential. Candid about her feelings, Sepp told listeners, “I just wanted to be the best mother ever and for the most part, I think I was. But when drugs stole Marty from me I suffered from depression and terrible guilt.”
To help Marty and herself, Sepp sought counsel from a pastor who encouraged her to give her life to Jesus. “For the first time in memory, I felt really loved, by God and also by other Christians. They embraced both Marty and I.” Days before his death, a man in Sepp’s prayer group led Marty to Christ. With support from praying friends, Sepp was able to leave her son, and what she perceived to be her failures as a parent, in God’s hands and re-direct her energies to fifteen year-old daughter Krista. Another son, Jan, was 28 and living in Alberta.
After high school Krista enrolled in the Child and Youth Worker program at Sault College in Sault Ste. Marie. Sepp and husband Toivo knew Krista’s career would soon take her away from home so after graduation, the three hitched up the family trailer and headed west to visit Jan and spend the summer traveling through the mountains. “I set up my easel and painted, we had nightly campfires and really enjoyed our two months together,” said Sepp. “I didn’t know that tragedy would soon break my heart again.”
In January 1989 Krista landed a job with Kinark Child and Family Services in Midland, Ontario. Nine days later, while working the night shift in a group home, she was murdered by a 15-year-old resident and her 19-year-old boyfriend.
Since Krista was, and still is, the only youth worker in Canada to die while on duty, her death became a nationwide tragedy. “Strangers took over our lives,” said Sepp, who values privacy. “Our home was full of reporters, television cameras and police from morning till night. Krista’s photograph appeared on the news for days and each time I saw her face, it was like a knife in my heart.”
Sepp then decided to tell her story, not just to relate the tragic deaths of her two children, but because “people need to know how to lift themselves out of grief and I’m living proof that it’s possible.” Peace dominated Sepp’s personality. Her quiet, humble demeanor made her approachable. Privately or publicly, Sepp told one thing to all - “You have to decide to make right choices and wallowing in grief isn’t the right choice.” Hard words but Sepp delivered them with tenderness.
Making right choices was the theme of Sepp’s message. “I had to choose not to be identified as the mother of two murdered children. That breeds self-pity and self-pity is the road to ruin.” Sepp chose to believe her anchoring Scripture: “God did not give us a spirit of fear, but a spirit of power, of love and a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7). Although she turned down opportunities to speak publicly, Sepp often spoke privately with people who wanted to know the secret of her recovery. In some of these encounters, Sepp was instrumental in leading people to Christ.
When Sepp noticed people were awkward with her grief, she chose not to burden them with her sadness. “I didn’t want to become the person people avoided. Friends are so important in my life.” She spoke sparingly of her losses and chose not to be dark-minded. Sepp was friend, mentor and stand-in mom to many younger women. They said, “Joan is a role model. When we’re having hard times, we remember the choices she makes and try to follow her example.”
Sepp knew people would’ve given her permission to opt out of life. “I often felt like curling up and dying, and sometimes I still do, but God doesn’t want me to fall apart. Every day I have to choose His will for my life, not my own will.”
Being a giver was vital to Sepp’s recovery. “I discovered that giving is therapy so I’m always looking for opportunities to be a blessing to someone.” Well-known for her artistic talents, Sepp donated paintings, floral arrangements and handcrafts to women’s retreats, churches and community events. She volunteered for several organizations and was part of the prayer team at Elim Pentecostal Tabernacle in Sault Ste. Marie.
Sepp’s reluctance to speak in public ended with the 2007 Sudbury conference. Since then, she’s accepted speaking engagements at community events, Women’s Prayer Wave, Women’s Connection and then in May, 2008 she was featured speaker at the Krista Sepp Awards in Toronto. This major award is presented each year to the child and youth worker who best demonstrates exemplary contribution to the field.
Sepp said, “I do my best to squeeze every ounce of good from my tragedies.” Squeezing the good out of her tragedies led Sepp out of her comfort zone and up to the podium.
Joan Sepp’s earthly story ended on September 23, 2008 but her strong, quiet trust in Christ remains a testimony to all whose stories intersected with hers. That number increased several fold in the past two years because of her willingness to step out of her comfort zone, share her sorrows and the godly wisdom she gained from them. Joan leaves husband Toivo, son Jan (Sue) and grandson Sean.
Rose McCormick Brandon’s articles on family life, faith and relationships appear in many publications in Canada and the U.S. She writes Bible studies for Community Bible Study for Women and devotionals for the Assemblies of God’s Daily Boost. She and husband Doug have three adult children and one grandchild. Contact her at email@example.com.
Originally published in Testimony, and Faith & Friends.
Used with permission. Copyright © 2009 Christianity.ca.