How a TMU Professor’s Journey of Grief Led Her to the Field of Psychology

“There are stretches in life where you feel like all of your dreams are coming true,” said Dr. Natalie Ford in her book Tears of Joy: Finding Hope in the Presence of Bipolar Disorder and Suicide. “Then there are times when life throws you a vicious curveball.”

As Assistant Professor of Behavioral Science, with a doctorate in Professional Counseling, Ford’s education and profession have provided the tools for her to focus on the mental wellness of others. However, her journey was filled with difficulty and tragedy related to the death of her late husband, Michael.

She and Michael were missionaries. “He loved Jesus with all of his heart,” said Ford. “He had such a humorous personality, and people loved to be around him.” The two worked for the North American Mission Board (NAMB) for nine years where they focused on backyard Bible clubs at a local mountain resort. “We both loved this ministry, and being able to do it together was so rewarding.”

A family crumbles

Later on, things began to change in the man who seemed always so happy and outgoing. “He was no longer the enthusiastic, carefree man everyone had come to know and love,” she explained. “Michael would cry and not want to get out of bed. He became very manic. I felt like a yo-yo, being bounced up and down with his ever-changing moods. The worst part was Michael didn’t see it.”

After suffering for a time, Michael eventually sought the help of a medical professional and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

Bipolar disorder, formerly called manic depression, is a mental health condition that causes extreme mood swings that include emotional highs or mania/hypomania and lows or depression (Mayo Clinic). During treatments, Michael underwent counseling and was prescribed medication to help with his bipolar disorder.

For a while, things seemed to be better. The two had a daughter in 2001 whom they named Jorjanne. The new parents seemed to be in a state of awe with the blessing God gave them. “Yet again,” Ford explained, “this was just the calm before another story.”

Through sickness and health

Taking the medication became a constant battle. Michael would explain to his wife how he didn’t need the medications for many different reasons. “Every time he came off the medicines he would put us back on a roller coaster.” In desperation, Ford would pray for God to heal her marriage and allow her husband to recognize his illness.

Once again, doors opened for Michael to be evaluated by a hospital psychiatrist. Ford remembered every agonizing moment of leaving him there. “Michael began crying, begging me not to leave him. Walking away from him in that moment was one of the hardest things I have ever done.”

The change was hard. Ford eventually began taking classes and learned some valuable information on how she had become co-dependent on her husband. “Instead of helping him, I was actually enabling him to continue down a dark, destructive path.” She found herself journaling as a stress relief and a way to cope with the pain and frustration. In an entry soon after Michael went to treatment, she wrote:

“God, I’m praying with all my might for Michael to please see that he is sick. Please make the mania be clear in his eyes so that he can get the help he needs. Lord, I love him with all of my heart and I want him to understand that I just want him to be better.”

After a few months, he returned home. Things began to look better for the family. Hope seemed a possibility in their lives.

In 2005, the couple had planned on hosting a Resort Ministry Conference. Michael had been anxious, and wanted to rest before the event but couldn’t. To help with the insomnia, his doctor prescribed a medication to help him sleep better. The day before the conference, Ford felt something wasn’t right. As if God was urging her to go back to her house. When she did, she found that Michael had attempted suicide by taking all of the sleeping pills. Once again, Michael went to the emergency room for care and transferred to a psychiatric facility where he stayed for the next five months.

The voicemail

When Michael came home, he had learned how to recognize “triggers” that would set him off. “He had seemed more himself than he had in years,” explained Ford. “I felt as though I finally had my husband back.” Christmas came and went, and the house finally had joy within.

Shortly after the holiday festivities, she went to the Passion Conference. It was something she had been looking forward to. Her life seemed to be back on track and this was a time to praise God and refresh herself for this new year. During the conference, one of the speakers began his session by asking the crowd a question that will forever remain with her. “What if the only way for you to become more like Jesus is through suffering?”

After trying to dodge the question, Ford immediately heard the Holy Spirit tell her, “But don’t you want to be more like Jesus? Do you trust me?”

“I remember saying to God, ‘But how could I go through any more suffering?’” After all, Michael had started looking better, acting better. After trying to talk herself into ignoring the question, Ford decided to call him from the conference and tell him about what she was hearing. “Hello,” Michael answered. She immediately heard that same dismal tone to his voice. He was depressed again.

When she returned home, Michael explained that he came off the medications to surprise her, telling her, “I feel like God had healed me.” Once again, they were back to square one.

After meeting with the psychiatrist, and getting back on his medications, Ford could see a difference in him. She specifically remembered a week where he spent so much time with Jorjanne. “He was laughing with her, playing with her, it was like “the old Michael was back,” she said.

A few days later, Ford came home to see a message on the answering machine. Pressing play, she heard, “Natalie, I just want to tell you how much I love you. No matter what happens, I love you.” As his words continued, her heart sank. She knew he had gone hiking that day, as he did often, to spend time with God and clear his head. Throughout the day, she continued to call him, the police, and family members. Eventually, after what seemed like an eternity, he finally answered.

“Michael, where are you?” Although he wasn’t quite sure where he was, Ford finally felt comfort hearing his voice and knowing he would be okay. She continued to coax him to come down from the mountain as search and rescue attempted to look for him in the area he had gone. By now, she had friends and family in her home praying for him as they waited for Michael’s safe return.

Around 2:00 a.m., a police car pulled into her driveway. “Had they found Michael?” she thought to herself. Out from the dark-colored car stepped a police officer and a man wearing a clergy collar. As she opened the door, the priest looked into her eyes and said, “I am so sorry.”

The news of Michael’s death sent her to her knees. She sobbed uncontrollably until tears could not come anymore. She could only think of the horror it would be to share the news with the young four-year-old that lay asleep in the room down the hall.

A new ministry

The next few months were a blur. The funeral came and went, and the house was much quieter without Michael. Ford explained how the church became the “hands and feet of Jesus to me and Jorjanne during that overwhelming time.” The church allowed her to be real with the pain.

“I started to deal with anger. I was mad at God, I was mad at Michael, and I was mad at myself for not being able to do something to prevent this.” Ford eventually started counseling to heal her wounds and to deal with the guilt that she faced.

“Looking back, there were a lot of warning signs,” she said. “I would not have let him go hiking. I would have made sure we had better communication with others. We felt we had to keep it a secret, yet we could have been better if we had a support group. I remember there was a day when I went in and he was on the computer researching suicide. I was in denial.”

Ford said that she struggled with the “why” question. But God never left her side during this tragic event. “Why did God allow Michael to die? I don’t know. But I do know that God is still in control, and He wants me to be honest with Him.”

A few months after his death, Ford went to Mexico on a mission trip. There, she spent some alone time with God. “At that moment, God spoke to my heart. God wanted to give me a new life and a new ministry.” She said, “That was a turning point in my life. He still had a plan for me.”

With the encouragement from friends, Ford began writing her book Tears of Joy which reflects practical tools of what you do when someone is dealing with depression or suicidal thoughts.  “After Michael died. I wanted to share his story – our story,” she said.

Continuing her newfound ministry, Ford started college to pursue a degree in counseling.

“I wanted to bring mental illness and suicide out of the shadows,” she shared. “We need to talk about these things. There is still a stigma about personality disorders. Those who knew Michael were shocked to find out he struggled with bipolar disorder because he was such an amazing man.”

Professor Ford

Over the next few years, God did open her world up to helping others. She received her master’s degree, doctorate, and now teaches at Truett McConnell University while also a source of comfort for so many students on the TMU campus who have needed to share their story.

“I have always loved teaching,” Ford said. “For years I taught high school students at Catalyst Christian Learning Center. Once I obtained my Ph.D., I knew that I not only wanted to counsel others, but I wanted to pour into students so that my impact would be greater-reaching. Teaching at TMU is so special to me, because, not only am I free to share about my faith in Christ, I am encouraged to do so. My faith defines me and my worldview, so discussing it in the classroom is the natural overflow.”

With a biblical worldview taught in all her undergrad and graduate classes, Ford explained the passion these students have is not just about the learning, but about the way they learn. “We require an interview with our graduate students prior to admission and ask them, “Why TMU?” Almost without fail they mention their desire to study psychology through a biblical lens.

Moving on

Seven years after the loss of Michael, Ford found love again with her husband Jeff. Jeff was a resort missionary and friend of Michael’s and is currently the Director of the Catalyst Learning Center. Jorjanne, who was four at the time of Michael’s death, just entered into her freshman year at Georgia Southern University.

Ford explains that even now, she will sometimes feel shame when she tells others about how Michael died. “I know these thoughts are unmerited, but I have them nonetheless,” she said.

She quotes Isaiah, in her book, whom she says gave her strength to soar again: “Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.”

We know that there will be suffering in this world. For Ford, it brought pain and heartache. However, she is closer to Jesus because of it all. “We may not understand why life is the way it is, but we can trust God to empower us in and through our sorrows.”

For Ford, her mission is to spread advocacy and education on suicide. “What would I want others to know?” she said. “60% of people will be touched by suicide, 20% within our immediate family. Don’t be afraid to ask them hard questions. Be there when they need you and reassure them that somebody cares.” Every third Thursday of each month, she leads a suicide survivor group at The Bridge Church opened to anyone struggling with grief.

For those who are struggling, Ford says, “Don’t let shame or embarrassment keep you from seeking help. The key is to refuse to give up!”

To her students, she says, “I hope the next generation will not only have a thorough understanding of psychological principles but also a solid foundation in theology. I hope that they will participate in research to shape and mold the future of the helping profession. It is my desire that the students who graduate from TMU will be the hands and feet of Jesus in all that they do.”

If you or someone you know is struggling with depression or thoughts of suicide, reach out to your local church or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Please, don’t do this alone.

Photo by Jenny Gregory/TMU

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