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Healing My Grief

This famous photographer found spiritual growth and the start of his successful career because he wanted a place to escape the loss of his son.

By Clyde Butcher, Ochopee, Florida

As appeared in

The bulldozer drove back and forth over the mountain of photographs–several hundred thousand dollars' worth, more than a decade of my hard work. I stood at the Fort Myers, Florida, county dump, watching it get ground into the dirt. Was this all my whole life really added up to?

Some weeks earlier, on June 15, 1986–Father's Day–my teenage son, Ted, had been killed by a reckless driver. Nothing had given me a moment's peace since. Not my wife, Niki, who was lost in her own grief, not my work, not even my faith.

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Everything I'd spent my life doing just plain stopped making sense.

For years I'd supported my family as a photographer. Seashores, sunsets, stuff like that. I'd begun taking pictures out of a deep love for God's natural world, a beauty that nourished my soul, but soon that was swallowed up by the concerns of making a living.

I'd set up my camera, and instead of marveling at what God had created, I'd be calculating how many prints of the scene I would sell.

Photography had become something I did without thinking. I'd even found myself mechanically kicking into gear, loading photos into our van and making the drive to Ann Arbor, Michigan, with Niki for a big art show just a few weeks after our son's death.

Not that Niki and I were up to doing much of anything, but this show was part of the routine in my line of work, a long-standing business commitment.

We'd set up our booth as usual, with all the popular scenic shots out front. I went through the motions, chatting with customers. Once they left, though, I sank into my chair, the emptiness in my heart overwhelming me again.

God, where is the beauty in a world where my son could die so senselessly?

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My eye traveled to the half-dozen "art shots" I'd relegated to the rear of the booth. Black-and-white photos of the Everglades that I'd been experimenting with. Niki and I had driven through the area countless times.

From the car, the Everglades hadn't looked like much, a featureless sea of sawgrass taking up space between the crowded beaches and tourist attractions. Nothing to take pictures of, I'd thought, until Tom Gaskins, a real Florida old-timer, and Oscar Thompson, a fellow photographer, convinced me to get out of my car and get my feet wet.

The moment I stepped into the swamp, I knew this was a whole other Florida, hiding in plain sight.

A whole other world, really, I thought, sitting there at the art show. Untouched, mysterious, profoundly peaceful, like it had come fresh from God's hands.

All at once I knew what I wanted–no, needed–to do, for myself and for my grief.

As soon as we returned to Florida, I bought another camera–a bulky, old-fashioned 8-by-10 view camera with accordion-pleated bellows and all. It took large-format film that needed to be loaded shot by shot in big, black plastic film holders. Time-consuming, but perfect for high-definition black-and-white shots.

See more of Clyde Butcher's work at clydebutcher.com.