The Grief of Losing a Close Friend
Bad news travels fast these days, as I discovered last week through the modern equivalent of the back fence: Facebook. A family member posted an RIP for Tom Sirotnak, an evangelist in Southern California who I had known for nearly 24 years.
Until I met Tom through a writing project that led to collaborating with him on a book, I didn’t know you could have a good friend who lives more than 2,200 miles away. But that’s how I felt.
I sent him birthday cards every year (early, since they don’t deliver mail on Veteran’s Day). One year I sent his oldest son a birthday card and signed it: “Uncle Ken & Aunt Janet.” I kept that up with his son and Tom’s other two children as well until the youngest graduated last year from high school.
A Real Buddy
Tom was more than a co-author. He was a buddy. One time when I was upset over a particular matter, he called, saying God had told him to call me “right now.” Although I definitely needed someone to talk to at that moment, I was especially impressed that he sensed the Holy Spirit’s urging at that exact time.
Five years ago, when I was in the midst of an extended economic slide during the Great Recession, he sent me a note that said, “Believe God for the breakthrough.” That email is still pasted on my office wall.
When things turned out in 2014, I called him to thank him for that word of encouragement. No matter who we are or what we’ve done, at times we all need that.
Tom and I connected originally when I called him with a few questions I had after reviewing a transcript of a speech he had given to a Christian businessmen’s organization. What I thought would be a five-minute conversation lasted for 45. It also touched off the collaboration that led to Warriors, the first book I ever co-authored that was released by a major publisher.
Over the years, we only met a handful of times in person. The first came when he sent me a frequent flyer ticket so I could spend a week with him in Anaheim, working on the book that grew out of our original conversation.
Nearly two more years passed before that book hit the market. Right before it did, he sent me another plane ticket so I could attend the annual Christian booksellers convention in Denver. We did media interviews and promotional appearances, and our photograph wound up in a Denver Post story about the meeting.
When I learned that Tom would be in Nashville for a meeting a few years later, I made the three-hour drive from Louisville just so we could spend some time together at lunch. And, when I attended a conference in Los Angeles three years after that, I arranged to stay over an extra day once the conference ended so I could spend the night at his home.
Gone in Mere Moments
After I recovered from the initial shock of his passing, I called a mutual friend in Florida. I discovered that several days before, Tom had been feeling bad and drove himself to the hospital, where he had a stroke.
A few days later, they disconnected him from life support. This stunning turn of events made me eternally grateful that I had managed to connect with him on a trip to LA in late March. I was glad that flexibility that particular day allowed me to take a two-hour lunch break, and that I had also later called him in early August to see how he was doing.
In recent months Tom—the first walk-on to ever make the University of Southern California football team—had been working with a Hollywood screenwriter on his “Rudy”-like story. I hope that movie still gets made.