I had barely finished this article in 2008 when I received the sad news that Joan Sepp had passed away. I’d written about Joan several times but after her death I didn’t submit this article. For some reason, and I believe it’s what Joan called “a nudge from God,” I feel impressed to share this now. It seems a shame to let this piece languish in a computer file when others can benefit from Joan’s inspiring outlook on life. She was a dear friend and an amazing source of encouragement to me. I share her story with a prayer that you too will find encouragement and inspiration in her story. Some of you who read this also knew Joan and benefitted from her godly example. This will be a special gift to you.
Joan Sepp: A Woman Who Refused to be Identified by her Losses
by Rose McCormick Brandon
“I was an ordinary woman living an ordinary life until two tragic losses changed my life forever,” Joan Sepp says.
Joan’s heartache began when her oldest son Marty went to university. Excelling in academics and music, Marty seemed destined for success. But a year later, he stunned his parents by dropping out of school. “We didn’t know about his addiction to drugs and that they had stolen his mind and his potential.”
Marty returned home to Sault Ste Marie, Ontario where his reliance on drugs continued. Joan reveals that Marty’s years of self-destruction intensified her own chronic depression. “Like all mothers my happiness was connected to my children’s wellbeing. I constantly worried about Marty and often asked myself where I went wrong as a mother.”
Looking for answers, she sought counsel from a church pastor who showed concern for the spiritual and mental health of both mother and son. “The pastor told me I needed God in my life and I knew he was right. The simple prayer we prayed that day in the church office changed me. My depression lifted. And my dependency on alcohol and cigarettes left instantly.” Following the pastor’s advice, Joan began attending Bible studies, prayer meetings and church services where she made friends with praying people who cared about her prodigal son.
Frank, a young man from Joan’s church visited Marty on the city’s downtown streets where he’d become a familiar roaming figure. Over time, the two men developed a relationship and eventually Marty said yes to Frank’s invitation to accept Christ as Saviour. Subtle signs of improvement raised Joan’s hopes for her son’s recovery but less than a month later, on September 30, 1983, Marty was stabbed and left to die in a back alley. Two men went to prison for Marty’s murder.
To avoid falling into the old cycle of fear and depression, Joan made a deliberate choice to set her grief aside and look toward the future. While praying one day, she heard God say, “Marty is with me.” Moving forward meant focusing on 15 year-old Krista, a child born when her two older brothers were teenagers. After high school, Krista enrolled in the Child and Youth Care Worker program at the local community college and volunteered with several care agencies. It pleased Joan to see her daughter investing time and energy in helping others.
The January after her graduation, 21 year-old Krista landed a job with Kinark Child and Family Services in Midland, Ontario. After returning home from settling her daughter into an apartment, Joan called and left a simple message – “Hi, it’s Mom. We’re back home safe and sound. Just want you to know I love you.” Nine days later, on February 3, 1989, while working nights alone at the group home, Krista Sepp was murdered by a 15 year-old resident and her 19 year-old boyfriend. She was stabbed 18 times.
For the second time, police officers arrived at the Sepp home with tragic news of a child’s death. Since Krista is the only person in Canada in her field to die while on duty, her death stunned the entire nation. Reporters, television cameras, police and mourning friends camped out in the Sepp home. (one reporter’s viewpoint.) “The pain of our loss and the circus atmosphere that followed was too much for us,” says Joan, whose husband, Toivo, landed in hospital with heart problems. Seeing Krista’s photograph on daily news broadcasts pierced her heart like a knife. “It didn’t seem possible that another of my children had been murdered. I felt caught in a nightmare. I hoped I’d wake up and the world would be normal again.” In the months following Krista’s death, Sepp experienced “an almost touchable presence of God” enveloping her in a cocoon. She heard Him promise, “You won’t fall apart; my grace will be sufficient for you.”
When Joan overheard two women in a restaurant refer to her as “the woman whose two children were murdered,” she thought – “if I accept that label, I’m doomed to sink in self-pity and maybe even to lose my mind.” Those whispered words caused Sepp to recall something she had learned through Alanon during Marty’s years of drug addiction – the power of making choices. Joan talks a lot about her life-saving choices. She chose not to be identified as the mother of two murdered children saying, “My losses don’t define who I am.” She chose to stand on her anchoring scripture, “God did not give us a spirit of timidity (of cowardice, of craven and cringing and fawning fear), but He has given us a spirit of power and of love and of a calm and well-balanced mind. (2 Timothy 1:7 AMP)
Joan chose to live a giving life and found it therapeutic. “Being a giver helps me build a new identify. I’m always looking for opportunities to bless other people.” When grieving parents call her for support, she listens, prays and offers kind wisdom gained from her journey of tragedy. She can sincerely say, “I know what you’re going through.”
Sepp talks reverently about her most difficult choice – to forgive the young girl who took Krista’s life. The idea came to her gradually over years. Information given to victims of violence from the justice system, allows the Sepps to know the perpetrator’s background. “I learned of the abuse she’d suffered since birth. I wanted to harbor resentment toward her but it became impossible. I couldn’t help wondering what kind of person I’d be with the same upbringing.” Joan still prays for the girl who spent 6 years in prison for Krista’s murder. (The male, tried as an adult, is still incarcerated.)
Every day Joan lives by her choices. Choosing to replace every dark thought with a prayer and being grateful that her last words to Krista were “I love you.” Choosing to think of others first. Choosing to squeeze good out of her tragedies. One good thing resulted from a day Sepp and husband Toivo spent with RCMP officers. Together they hammered out 200 recommendations for improving job safety for youth workers. Some were implemented.
Making right choices helped Joan carve out a new identity for herself. She is a role model, adopted mom and mentor to many. Many people say, “When we’re having hard times, we remember the choices Joan makes and try to follow her example.”
A private woman, Joan refused interviews and speaking invitations for many years but she surprised friends by accepting several recent engagements. She felt a “gentle nudge from God that it was time” to share her story. In May 2008 she spoke at the Krista Sepp Award celebration in Toronto, Ontario. The Award is presented each year to a child and youth worker who emulates the professional Krista would have become.
Joan says, “I’m living proof that even after tragedy, life still has purpose and meaning. People need to know that.”
Note: Joan Sepp passed away in September 2008 but her legacy as a woman who refused to be identified by her losses lives on.