Love & Family

How tragedy turned to love

So sweet!

After facing unimaginable loss following the tragic death of her loved ones, Erin Stoffel-Ullmer knew she had to stay strong for her youngest children.

Connecting through shared grief with a friend, she learned to love again.

Peering over the side of the bridge with my family, I felt so blessed.

The sun was shining and my husband, Jon, then 33, and kids, Olivia, 11, Ezra, seven, and Selah, five, had stopped to watch a group of ducklings.

How did I ever get so lucky? I smiled to myself.

High school sweethearts, Jon and I met when I was just 16 and he was 17, and married three years later.

He was crazy and loud in the best way, and he just loved people.

Thirteen years on, our marriage was stronger than ever and we relished spending time together with our family.

So, late that sunny spring afternoon in 2015, we decided to walk across the new bridge near our home, over a lake, to explore what was on the other side.

When we reached the end of the trail, we were met by a thick swarm of lake flies, so we started our way back so the kids could play in the park.

Me and Jon on our wedding day (Credit: Supplied)

As we approached the middle of the bridge, though, I noticed a man slumped over a bench seat with another man standing nearby.

By now, Ezra had forged ahead with our dog, Sammy, while our girls had stayed with Jon and me.

But as we neared the two men, a strange feeling took over me.

Something doesn’t feel right, I thought, pushing forward.

Then, just seconds later, I realised Jon had stopped to assess the situation.

Always one to help others, he hadn’t thought twice about what he was walking into.

That’s when I overheard the man who was standing up telling Jon that he didn’t know what had happened.

‘He just fell over,’ he said.

Though I was standing quite far away, I could sense Jon was in danger.

Without warning, the man pulled out a gun and aimed it straight at my husband.

Firing it three times in quick succession, he shot Jon and me before turning the gun on Olivia.

As we fell to the ground, I couldn’t believe what was happening.

I’ve got to get out of here, I panicked.

Leaping back to my feet, I was forced to make the hardest decision of my life – stay with Olivia or make my escape to save my youngest two children.

It broke my heart, but I knew that if I didn’t try to protect them, we would all surely die.

So, grabbing Selah’s hand, I ran from the gunman as fast as I could.

Ezra, Jon, Me, Selah and Olivia (Credit: Supplied)

When we caught up with Ezra, Selah turned to me.

‘Mum, you’re bleeding,’ she said.

Looking down, I realised I’d been shot twice more in the stomach and left hand.

Hot blood gushed down my legs, but I couldn’t feel any pain.

Still, I knew Ezra, who was unharmed, would be able to run faster than I could.

‘You need to get help,’ I begged Ezra.

He was scared, but knew what he needed to do.

Once Selah and I finally reached the start of the bridge, I collapsed and pain tore through me.

Thankfully, a kind stranger helped wrap my hand with my sweater to stop the blood flow and helped calm Selah.

By now, I could hear sirens approaching in the distance.

Help is on the way, I realised, relieved.

Peering back to where all the chaos had unfolded,

I hoped the gunman wasn’t following us, but he was nowhere to be seen.

That’s when I saw Jon and Olivia’s bodies lying still on the path. I hoped for a miracle but deep down I knew it was too late.

After being rushed to hospital, I underwent emergency surgery to save my life.

Me and Jon (Credit: Supplied)

When I woke the following day, my parents, Jennifer and Edward, were there by my bedside.

‘Where’s Jon and Olivia?’ I asked, desperately.

‘They’re gone,’ Mum cried.

Suddenly, the weight of what happened came crashing down on me.

I was going to have to bury my husband and my child.

At their funeral a week later, hundreds of people gathered to pay their respects.

I’d been allowed out of the hospital for just a few short hours to attend the service and, as nurses pushed me down the aisle of the funeral home in my wheelchair, I broke down.

How am I going to live without them? I sobbed.

Still, I knew I had to be strong for Ezra and Selah.

I was all they had left.

Shortly afterwards, I learned that after shooting me and my family, the gunman had died by suicide.

The man he’d shot earlier that day had also passed away.

When I was finally discharged from hospital 21 days later, I was overwhelmed with how I was going to provide for my family.

A stay-at-home mum for the last 12 years, it was Jon’s income as a carpenter that paid our bills.

So, for the next year, we moved in with my parents until we could get back on our feet.

When I struggled to get out of bed some mornings, my parents were so supportive.

‘Just take things one day at a time,’ they told me.

Over weeks, then months, we gradually adjusted to our new normal.

(Credit: Supplied)

Then, around two years later, in June 2017,

I was scrolling through Facebook when I read about a woman named Wendy.

Aged 36, she’d died suddenly from a rare heart condition known as cardiac sarcoidosis. She’d left behind her husband Steve and four boys, Liam, 11, Jack, 10, Silas, seven, and Judah, three.

As a single parent myself, my heart broke for him.

Still, I knew how overwhelming the first few months were after losing my husband, so I didn’t want to bother him.

But a few months later, I decided to message Steve with some words of encouragement.

You will get through this, I promised him.

Incredibly, he replied right away to thank me for reaching out.

Connecting through our grief, Steve and I became fast friends.

Steve and Wendy (Credit: Supplied)

The next month, we met in person for the first time.

Sharing our deepest, darkest thoughts, we agreed we were both worried about our kids growing up without a mum and a dad.

As the weeks passed by, though, I realised my feelings for Steve were growing.

At first, I tried to keep them to myself, too scared to open my heart again. But there was no denying I had fallen in love, and Steve admitted he felt it too.

Better still, our kids had bonded and were also supporting each other through ups and downs.

So, when Steve proposed in April 2018, they were over the moon.

Tying the knot in June – exactly a year after I first messaged Steve – it felt so right.

Though it wasn’t the path either of us had seen coming, we felt like we’d been guided together through our grief.

Now, more than two years on, there’s not a day goes by when I don’t think of Jon and Olivia.

Although I’d give anything to have them back, I couldn’t imagine my life now without Steve and his boys.

While I know the pain will never truly go away, I’ve learned to live and love harder than ever before.

Together we’re one big, happy family.

The day Steve proposed (Credit: Supplied)

Steve says:

The night Wendy died, I don’t know why I woke up.

I looked over at her, sleeping, hair spread out across her pillow. Peaceful. Beautiful.

Then I heard her take a breath. But it didn’t sound right, it was more like a gasp.

I decided to wake her, gently nudging her and whispering, ‘Wen, wake up babe.’

Nothing. I shook her and started screaming her name, pleading with her to wake up. But there was no response.

I performed CPR until help arrived, but at hospital, she slipped away.

Driving home without her, I felt like my life was over. I was about to shatter the hearts of my four sons, too.

Over the next few months, I received countless messages of support from family and friends. But there was one in particular that stopped me cold – it was from Erin.

I’d never met her in person, but had learned her name two years earlier when it was splashed all over the news.

There is light at the end of the tunnel, she wrote.

For the first time since losing Wendy, I felt hope.

If Erin could overcome the horror she’d faced, I knew I could make it too.

Connecting through our grief, I felt like I could ask her anything. When we met in person, we talked for hours.

And when we introduced our kids, they too were able to find healing through each other.

Soon, our friendship started to develop into something more, and in April 2018, I asked Erin to marry me. Every day we embrace the chaos that comes with a blended family of eight.

It’s beautiful, it’s messy, it’s amazing, it’s hard. It’s life.

Together we’ve learned that grief will always be part of our story, but it doesn’t define us.

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