By Nancy Cawley Zugschwert
“The officer said, ‘We’re sorry to inform you that Matthew and Justin were killed in a crash near Farmington this evening. There was another boy with them; do you know who that would be?’ ‘That would be my son Jacob.’ The officers looked at each other, then back to me and said, ‘Jacob is in surgery. He is in critical condition.’”
—Connie Backstrom, backstrombrothers.com (The Story)
Eight years ago, on October 10, 2004, Backstrom brothers Matthew, 20, Jacob, 17, and Justin, 16, were killed after the car Matthew was driving was hit head-on by another vehicle. Matthew and Justin died at the scene. Jacob died the next day.
The intoxicated driver who hit them was talking on his phone and reaching for a DVD. He survived the crash. The brothers left behind parents, Nathan and Connie, and younger brothers, Ryan, 12, and Charles, 8—a family redefined by the actions of a stranger.
Nathan still vividly remembers when he heard about the crash. “When Connie called me with that news, I laid down my phone and said, ‘Dear Jesus help me.’ Four simple words calling on the God of the universe. I’ve used that prayer many times since.”
Ryan Backstrom, now 20 and a freshman at Northwestern, recalled, “It took quite awhile to come out of that. I was numb for years.” Not exactly your typical childhood.
The Backstrom family’s response to this tragedy was atypical, too. Ryan remembers, “My parents took immediate action with news reporters the first day. Right away they were sharing Christ through this; they took what could have destroyed us and turned it into something that could spread the Gospel.”
Not ‘why?’ but ‘what?’
At their hobby-farm home in Hampton, Minn., where large photos of Matthew, Jacob and Justin prominently adorn the refrigerator, 23-year homeschooling veteran Connie explained the perspective that governed her initial response to the crash.
“You can’t fix what happened,” she reflected. “That was a huge thing, trusting that God was in control, that He’s sovereign.
“Not all things are good,” Connie continued. “I like the NIV of Romans 8:28: ‘God works in all things.’ Most translations have ‘all things work together for good.’ That’s not true. God works in all things for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose. It’s not the things that are working. To me, that’s a huge difference.”
Connie continued with deep conviction, “If we trust that He’s sovereign, rather than asking, ‘Why did this happen?’ I can say, ‘What? What am I supposed to do with what you’ve given me?’”
The day after what the family refers to as “the crash,” Connie and Nathan stood before reporters outside their home at a news conference. It wasn’t exactly a natural role for Nathan, a commercial airline pilot.
His first instinct had been to keep the press at bay. “I had little or no sleep and so I came inside to talk to Connie and I said, ‘Here’s what they want to do, what do you think?’” he recounted. “She said without hesitation, ‘I think we should do it.’”
Nathan told the reporters, “You can interview us under one condition: you will not edit this statement.” He was surprised that all said yes but one, who said, “I’ll do the best I can.” Sleep deprived but bold, Nathan turned to the dissenting reporter and said, “Sir, that’s not good enough.”
The reporters honored that request to a large degree and this statement was on the front of the newspaper and on multiple local television stations:
Justin, Jacob and Matthew each had a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and they are now in the presence of their Lord and Savior. Our prayer is because of this, lives will be changed and our God will be glorified.
“Who would have thought?” Nathan pondered. “But I guess I wanted to make a statement loud and clear of God’s faithfulness in the midst of the incredible tragedy.”
Calling them “God’s fingerprints,” Connie recounted numerous examples of unusual conversations in the days and weeks preceding the crash—even clear assurance of her sons’ salvation.
“A week and a half before [the crash] those three were sitting on the couch and we were doing morning Bible study,” Connie explained. “I stopped in the middle and told them that God had set them apart for something special. I don’t know what, but I know it’s big.”
Continuing, she said to the boys, “I know you accepted Christ when you were little, but did you do it for Mom and Dad or did you do it for you? No one can choose Christ for you except you.
“They kind of looked at me like, ‘Okay, Mom’s losing it,’ but they said, ‘Yeah, we chose Christ for ourselves.’ I remember thinking to myself, ‘Why did I ask them that?’ But a week and a half later I knew it wasn’t for them; it was for me.”
Ultimately, telling God’s story has been the constant in the last eight years. Nathan and Connie have spoken at hundreds of events, often joined by Ryan and Charles, now 16. They speak at high schools, youth events and prisons about the consequences of drinking and driving and the hope they have because, as Nathan explains, “Matthew, Jacob and Justin each had a personal relationship with Christ and someday we will see them again.”
The Backstroms have accepted their walk through the fire of tragedy and grief because they trust God the Refiner. Nathan finds encouragement in a quote by Warren Wiersbe: “When you are in the furnace, your Father keeps His eye on the clock and His hand on the thermostat. He knows just how much we can take.”
Connie added, “It’s easy to trust God when life is good. But when He pierces your soul and puts you through the fire—the refiner’s fire—will you still trust Him?” Pausing, reflecting, she added, “I don’t think we can answer that until we face the fire.”
The Backstroms will share their story at chapel in February 2013.
The lives of the Backstrom family changed dramatically when a car crash claimed the lives of their three older sons in October 2004. The family is pictured here in a 2002 photo (L to R: Matthew, Justin, Ryan, Charles, Nathan, Connie, Jacob).
Growing Up in the Shadow of Loss
Ryan Backstrom was just 12 when his older brothers were killed in a car crash. “That was the most difficult moment of my life,” Ryan recalled calmly.
His memories of the drastic change in his home reflect a young boy’s perspective. “It was boring and empty,” he recounted. “Before, I was able to play games with at least four people.”
Suddenly it was just two.
But the impact went far beyond games. “I felt a responsibility to be the older brother,” Ryan said, “wanting to protect my family, even though I was really young.”
He also dealt with fear when his parents went places and “felt terrified at the thought” of being in the same car as his brother because he didn’t want his parents to lose their last two sons.
Ryan’s eight-year journey with grief has paralleled his path from preteen to adult. As he has grown physically and matured emotionally, his perspectives expanded. “[God has] taught me to rely more on Him rather than myself,” Ryan said.
“I’m a big sci-fi buff,” the quiet freshman admitted. “I love spaceships and time travel. But even if I could make a time machine, I would not change the past. I’ve seen how many this has affected and how many people we’ve shared the Gospel with. I’d love to see my brothers again, but changing it would not help others.”