Pastors Karla and Peter Coen-Tuff have served as ministers at United Lutheran Church for almost 20 years.

Last summer, on July 7, they suffered the devastating loss of their daughter.

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"The day that Rachel died, we were vacationing together as a family at a lake home over the Fourth of July weekend," Karla remembered. "We'd been having a great time together."

Rachel had just returned from a gathering in Houston, where she had led her church youth group to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Youth Gathering.

Karla had also taken a group there, she said.

"It was fun for me to see the joy and skill that she brought to her work."

On the heels of such an uplifting experience, the family was enjoying good times that make for fond memories.

"That Saturday, we were all just having a lovely day together-we were talking and laughing, kayaking and paddle-boarding, swimming and floating. The evening before, we'd all been on a hike at a state park," Pastor Karla said.

"Rachel was just having this great day-we all were-until the moment that she collapsed," she said. "She was taken by ambulance to the hospital. And when we arrived, they told us that she did not survive. And later we were told that the cause of her death was a pulmonary embolism."

A pulmonary embolism is a blockage in an artery in the lung.

There were no warning signs. She was 29 years old.

"She'd never been sick," Peter said. "So when a young, healthy person dies very suddenly, I think your whole world is shaken and changed in an instant.

"A sudden, out-of-order death like that causes trauma in the lives of everyone they know and love, especially those who love and know them best. And for us, losing Rachel happened in a moment."

Feeling 'adrift'

"I think one of the really difficult things about sudden death is that there's no chance to brace yourself," Peter said.

"We tried to put words to how we felt in the days and weeks following Rachel's death," he said. "It felt like we were adrift in a big, dark mass of water with no land in sight and nowhere to stand. And sometimes it seemed like the swells of grief would just push us under, and we weren't sure if we were going to come up again, or even if we wanted to.

"You can't sleep or eat, and you have trouble even looking people in the eyes."

During that time "we really had to depend on others, and the grace and strength of God to carry us through," he said. "We were very fortunate. The love and kindness of our congregation here at United Lutheran, together with others, carried us through those early days and weeks."

Not long after Rachel's death, Peter said, they received a text message from a church member that read, "I can only imagine that you've been shaken to the core, and as I woke this morning, I wondered who pastors turn to in times of need for spiritual guidance and comfort. It dawned on me that they turn to their congregation. You've taught us, guided us and supported us. It's our time, as your flock, to guide, support and comfort you. We are here. I hope you can feel us. Lean on us, lean on each other. Lean, lean, lean."

Pastor Peter said, "So we just felt very much supported and loved and surrounded in that most difficult of times."

Gifts in youth ministry

Rachel Coen-Tuff grew up in the church and "was very active in the churches we served," Peter said. "She had a firsthand look, of course, at ministry, although she took a different path in ministry than we did."

After earning a bachelor's degree in education at Minnesota State University-Moorhead, she spent one year working in youth ministry in England for Young Adults in Global Mission.

That experience was very influential in her choice of career, they said.

"Her faith was true and real," Karla said, "and she found she had gifts in youth ministry."

Rachel went on to earn a master's degree in children, youth and family ministry at Luther Seminary and served as youth director at St. John Lutheran Church in Fargo. At the time of her death, she was serving as director of faith formation ministries at Faith Journey Lutheran Church in West Fargo.

"Rachel's life and death are part of us now and it influences everything," Pastor Karla said.

"I suppose you'd say we have a new set of lenses as we look at the Gospel," said Pastor Peter. "We also understand our experience is not everyone's experience, and that all grief is significant and needs to be acknowledged. But not all grief is the same."

Parishioners and others who have experienced such a loss may relate to them at a different level.

"Anyone who has lost a child feels a different kind of connection to us," Pastor Karla said. "And there's just a kind of bond and shared experience, even though each one is unique. People relate to us in a new way because they know we understand in a new way."

Such a loss is "unbelievably difficult," she said.

"Grief brings every conceivable emotion and a hundred questions. We felt frustrated because there's no fixing this. But we also trust that God can handle our anger and our frustration, that God is greater than any emotion or question."

"Faith is not about having all the answers," Pastor Peter said. "Faith really helps us acknowledge our grief, continue on in life and continue to struggle with all the questions and the heartache that goes with it."

Reassuring message

In the weeks following Rachel's death, they were looking through family pictures and other items when they found an Easter card Rachel had made for them when she was a college senior.

On the cover was a photo of her and her siblings, when they were little kids, all dressed up on Easter morning. Inside was a hand-written Bible verse: John 11: 25-26, in which Jesus said, "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me, though he may die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die."

They were meant to find that card at that particular time, they said.

"In a way, it felt like she was assuring us through scripture again of the promises of God that we cling to," said Pastor Peter, adding that the card rests on the mantle in their home where he occasionally rereads it.

The message of Easter?

"That there's life after death, and the promise that the worst thing isn't the last thing," Pastor Karla said. "(Also) that death isn't the last word over us, and that God's love and goodness is even more powerful than sin and death.

"And I think that message resonates with us in a whole new way this year."