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Wathens use tragedy to ‘glorify the Lord’

Bob and Susan Wathen are pictured at the end of a 'While We're Waiting' retreat, holding a photo of their daughter, Hannah Elizabeth, who died May 19, 2015. Contributed photo.


In late spring, 2015, tucked away inside of pile of bereavement cards, Bob and Susan Wathen of Hannibal discovered a note from someone they didn’t know. Inside the envelope, postmarked Kansas City, were details of a support group organized specifically for bereaved parents.

Still in the throws of disbelief and great mourning following the tragic death of their daughter, Hannah, they read the message with keen interest.

The ‘While We’re Waiting’ ministry, they learned, was conceived by two sets of grieving parents from Hot Springs, Ark. One family lost a young daughter to brain cancer, and the other lost a son - a Navy Seal - in Afghanistan.

The ministry they developed offers comfort to parents who lose a child, via retreats with others in the same circumstances, and through local support groups.

“Bereaved parents are often most comfortable with other bereaved parents,” Susan said. “Losing a child is not the natural order of things.”

While their personal loss was very overwhelming, they decided, early on, “to the best of our ability, we would use this tragedy to glorify the Lord,” Susan said.

“We knew fairly early, we both felt ‘While We’re Waiting’ was something we wanted to be a part of,” Susan said. “It was too early for us to know what that might look like.”


As the ministry, started in 2011, grew, ‘While We’re Waiting’ needed a dedicated space. The organizers had the property in Hot Springs, and an architect donated his time to draw up plans. They had $3,000, and the projected cost to build the building was to be $1 million.

“They never had to stop construction,” Bob said, “The Lord provided what they needed, when they needed it.” Donations come primarily from churches and individuals.

Ultimately, the organization was able to build a debt-free center in Hot Springs, “which has grown organically in the last 12 years.”

But as the organization grew, the waiting list of people wanting to attend retreats grew as well.

Ultimately the founders asked Bob and Susan if they could help find another location, and facilitate a retreat.

Now, once or twice a year, the Wathens host a retreat at Kinderhook Lodge, Kinderhook, Ill. They also travel to the ministry “home base” several times a year to facilitate retreats at the While We’re Waiting center.

In addition, next week Susan and Bob will travel to Outer Banks, N.C., in order to lead a retreat there. “It’s a huge blessing for us to be able to be a part of it,” Susan said.

“We went to our first retreat in October 2016; we founded the local support chapter in 2018; and they asked us to help facilitate retreats in 2019.”

There is no monetary cost for parents to attend a retreat.

“The retreats are free, but the cost of admission is very high,” Susan said.

The retreat

Susan Wathen describes the retreat:

Parents arrive Friday afternoon; they have their own bedroom, their own space.

They get settled in and have dinner together Friday night, then there’s the first session.

We start with a little bit of introduction. Each couple or parent brings a photo of their child, and they are prepared ahead of time to share a 20-minute story of their child. We want to hear about what their child was like, what they liked or didn’t like. We provide a safe space to help parents talk about their children. Ten to 13 is the sweet spot number of couples; more than that there is not time to share stories; this is the right size to build relationships.

After two or three stories, it’s free time; we sit outside at the fire pit, or in a family room setting.

Saturday morning there are more stories.

While We’re Waiting, provides a video 30 minutes long to share the ministry and how it came to be.

This pulls the ministry’s co-founders into the retreat. There is free time Saturday afternoon, and dinner.

Saturday night is topic board time, where parents drive the conversation.

Topics include:

a man’s grief;

a woman’s grief;




the grave; and


Support group

At the support group meetings at Calvary Baptist Church, “there never has been more than 10 or 12 people at a time; sometimes its two or four. When we minister, we get to talk about our Hannah. It’s like you’re looking back on your journey and helping to pull someone else along,” Susan said.

“Our support group is faith-based; we get an opportunity to talk about our faith in Christ,” Bob said. “Not everyone believes the same that we do, but one thing is to give them a safe space to come and talk, and be real and talk about struggles. We are comfortable with tears. That is one of the biggest things we can do for people, is to hear them.”

“A lot of healing is in being heard and understood,” Susan said.

“You feel isolated and alone,” Bob said, “but you’re not.”

The Northeast Missouri While We’re Waiting Support Group for Bereaved Parents typically meets from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. on the fourth Thursday of each month at Calvary Baptist Church, 4605 West Ely Road, Hannibal. The next meeting will be Thursday, Jan. 25.

Brave people

“We tell people who arrive at a ‘While We’re Waiting’ support retreats, “You are the bravest people in the world.

“Coming to something like this,” Susan said, “driving up to a retreat center is a concrete reminder that ‘I am a bereaved parent, I’ve had a very deep loss.’ It takes a lot of bravery to come.”

The Wathens thoroughly understand that loss.

On May 19, 2015, their daughter, Hannah Elizabeth, took her own life, shortly before her high school graduation. “Hannah didn’t struggle with mental illness,” Susan said, “It was a situational suicide.”

Hannah was a member of a special group of eight seniors called the "Carpals." This group was the first class of anatomy/physiology II students at Hannibal High School and all were aspiring to work in a medical field.


“If you know someone who lost a child,” Bob said, “one of things that happens is that people no longer talk about your child. They don’t know how to react, they are uncomfortable, they don’t want to cause you pain.

“There is not a day goes by we don’t think of Hannah,” Bob said. “If someone starts telling me a story, I’m going to cry; it is a gift to meet with someone to talk to about Hannah. You will not cause me to think of something painful; there will be tears, that’s good I think. That’s a sweet gift to a bereaved parent; to talk about their child.”

Learn more about While We’re Wating at: more about While We’re Wating at:

Mary Lou Montgomery retired in 2014 after working 39 years as a community journalist for the Hannibal Courier-Post.


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