From grief to God

Wendy Victora
Christie Bartleson holds a photo of her daughter Jane Bartleson, 25, who died in a car wreck in November 2017 in Destin. [NICK TOMECEK/DAILY NEWS]

In the days and weeks following the loss of her only daughter, Christie Bartleson has wept more tears than she knew she had.

She started smoking again. Her grief became a prison as she spent hours and days in her daughter’s room and rarely left the house.

Jane Bartleson was just 25 when she was killed in a car accident Nov. 16. She was on her way home from seeing a friend in Destin when her car struck a concrete construction barrier in the middle of U.S. Highway 98 late that evening.

“I love you Mommy! I had fun,” were the last words Jane spoke to her mom, who didn't know anything had happened until two law enforcement officers appeared at Christie's house the next morning.

Everything since learning of her daughter's death has been a blur. People told Christie that her daughter’s service overflowed the funeral home, spilling into the parking lot. They have told her how much they enjoyed her daughter’s photos, which are mostly posted on her Instagram page. Jane was an adventurer, who went camping almost every weekend and had traveled extensively.

In the weeks after her daughter's death, Christie was lost. She needed her daughter. She needed to be with her. She needed God.

"Jane was alone and I couldn't be with her, and that's all I want to be," she said.

Then she thought of the young female missionaries from the Jesus Christ Church of the Latter Day Saints who had knocked on her door many times, politely offering pamphlets. Their church was right down the road.

Two young "sisters" — as they are called in the church — came to Christie's home and sat with her in Jane's bedroom while she cried.

"I mostly just rocked," she said of the repetitive motion that is the endless channeling of her grief. "They prayed with me a lot. They're always comforting."

And the missionaries — each of whom pledge to an 18-month trip — came back again and again. They convinced her to come to the church and they told her that, through baptism, she could be with Jane again someday.

She bonded with the young women, both of whom have since left for new assignments. One of them still writes her. But they were replaced by two new missionaries, Sister McKinzie Smario and Sister Brynn Jack, who have quietly slipped in to fill a small corner in the cavern of Christie's soul.

"All of them are so sweet and kind," she said.

When Christie decided it was time to talk about her daughter to The Destin Log, there was only place she felt comfortable doing the interview — the church.

While she sat on a couch with one of her daughter’s close friends, the two “sisters" pulled up folding chairs and sat quietly nearby, ready to help if needed. With matching long dark hair and long modest skirts, they sit with their hands folded in their laps and their legs crossed.

Christie talked. She cried. She can never talk enough about Jane, her baby, her heart.

But if she has another topic, it is this church, these sisters and the hope they have given her in leading her back toward Jesus. Someday, she wants to be baptized here. And, according to the church’s teaching, one year after she is baptized, she can seal her closeness with her daughter by inviting her to be baptized in spirit as well.

First, Christie needs to become pure. She needs to stop smoking and has started attending addiction classes at the church.

For now, she finds comfort in small things. Last week, Jane's former coworkers at Islanders Coastal Outfitter on Okaloosa Island called to tell her they were planting a tree in Jane's name.

The grieving mother also found a card Jane sent her three years ago. In it, Jane wrote, "I love you beyond life."

"She is beyond life right now," her mom said, telling the story.

This first year, Christie didn't do Thanksgiving or Christmas or Easter. Maybe that will change in the future. Maybe her walk toward Jesus will help her. Maybe these young women who aren't her daughter but embrace her anyway will guide her.

They never met Jane and will someday return to their homes in faraway states. But she feels safe with them and, maybe, the smallest bit of hope.

"I will someday be with Jane again," she said, tears spilling out of her bright blue eyes. "I feel like there's something in that hole."