On the first Saturday evening in September 2019, Will and Maria Bales slipped into the back of the room at an Alpha meeting at Cherry Hills Community Church in Highlands Ranch, Colo. They weren’t sure they really wanted to be there.
“I noticed them sitting off by themselves,” said Tyler Grissom, Evangelism Director at Cherry Hills who leads the church’s Alpha Course—interactive discussions that explore the basics of the Christian faith in an open and informal environment. “So I went and sat with them. They slowly began to open up. Then the tears started flowing.”
Grissom learned that the eldest of the Bales’ two sons, Nick, had taken his life almost a year earlier. He was only 17.
Their grief hit close to home for Grissom, who also is the father of two boys and lost his father in a tragic accident a few years before. He went through weeks of counseling afterward to find healing.
“I was able to share my own story with them, which helped,” Grissom said. “It enabled me to connect with them in a way I could not have if I had not experienced loss myself.” Most of all, though, Grissom just listened.
He learned that the Bales—who did not have a church home—came to the Alpha meeting at the invitation of a friend.
“I will never forget that day,” said Ashley Gonzales, who attends Cherry Hills. “There were eight of us who knew Maria from playing tennis together. When we heard about Nick all of a sudden there was this chain of phone calls and we were all there.”
The women, who came from all different backgrounds and had never even had a spiritual conversation, did the one thing they could think of to do in the moment. They joined hands and started to pray.
“After the funeral, we wanted to continue to support Maria so we decided to meet every Friday for prayer at her house,” Gonzales said. “We didn’t even really know what to do, so we’d read a devotion from Jesus Calling, then pray and see where it would lead. Sometimes we ended up having deep conversations about life and faith.”
Nick and Maria Bales. (photo courtesy of the Bales family)
The women started calling themselves “The Prayer Warriors” and soon began to grow closer to God and to each other. Occasionally Will also would come in and listen.
“That’s when I got the idea to invite Will and Maria to Alpha,” Gonzales said. “Pastor Tyler had just announced that Alpha would be starting up again. Another friend in the prayer group had been through Alpha at her church, and we both thought it was worth mentioning to them.”
Gonzales had her doubts that they would say yes. But she knew that Alpha could provide some tools that the Bales needed to work through the grief, so she was willing to take a chance.
“I remember walking in that first night of Alpha, so anxious about whether or not they would show up. I realized this was my one opportunity, so I sent a text to Maria during worship saying, ‘I hope you can come.’”
Maria said their initial experience with the Alpha group was both “a good and bad experience,” but they returned the next week. At that meeting, they asked Grissom if he would speak at the remembrance ceremony for Nick in the Bales’ back yard on Sunday, September 29, which was the anniversary of his death.
A divine appointment
At Alpha two weeks later—on the night before the ceremony—Maria raised her hand during an invitation to say “yes” to Jesus. Her hope and peace were now in Christ, strengthened by learning from a relative that Nick had opened up his heart to Jesus before he died.
“I know that I’m going to see Nick again,” Maria said. “As much as I want to have him here, I am thankful to God for taking care of him. There’s no better place to be than in heaven.”
On the day of the ceremony, Grissom pulled into the neighborhood and saw cars stretched down the block, lining both sides of the street.
“There were a lot of people,” Gonzales said. “Young kids and families all there to support the Bales. I was praying hard for Pastor Tyler. I knew he wanted to acknowledge and celebrate Nick’s life, but also use the opportunity to share the gospel.”
Grissom delivered a powerful message, and when he asked if anyone would like to receive Christ, hands shot up all across the yard.
A few weeks earlier, Maria and some friends were in the mountains west of Denver when they were suddenly surrounded by a swarm of white butterflies. Maria said she knew at the time that it was a sign from Nick, so she ordered 1,000 butterflies in individual boxes for guests to release at the end of the remembrance ceremony. As dozens of people made the decision to begin a new life in Christ, the sky above the Bales’ home filled with butterflies rising toward the heavens.
“I believe God creates miracles every day,” Maria said. “Nick had a mission here—to be a light among all of his friends. Losing him was hard, but he has brought so much hope to other kids. I know that was Nick’s purpose.”
When he was 9, Nick lost a friend to suicide. Three more friends took their lives later. His own battle with anxiety and depression started in the 6th grade.
When he was a 15-year-old sophomore, he launched an apparel company called Brought to Reality (BTR). He designed the T-shirts and hoodies to send a positive message, and he donated 10 percent of his profits to mental health efforts. He shared the story of his friend’s death on his website, and wrote these words to his peers: “My message is that life is precious, and I want to live every day to the fullest by being present, being myself, and following my dreams.”
But he started to isolate himself again early in his junior year and grew increasingly agitated. He even pushed away his brother, Tyler, which broke Maria’s heart because the two had always been close. One day after a heated argument, she exclaimed, “I don’t know who you are anymore!”
The pain in Nick’s eyes told her he did not either.
“I will never forget that moment,” Maria said. “The look he gave me was one of desperation.”
She threw herself into the fight to pull her son through his illness.
“It’s like a cancer,” she said. “Their brain is lying to them. It’s real, physical, brain pain. I can’t tell you how awful it is to watch your child suffer.”
As Nick started his senior year the next fall, he seemed to have turned the corner. He was doing well academically, playing on the hockey and lacrosse teams, and planning a Spring Break trip with his friends.
But on Friday night, September 28, he went to a football game, then texted his mom to let her know that he would be getting home late. Maria, who normally would have texted back a quick “Thanks for letting me know. I love you!” was particularly tired that night and fell asleep without responding. A friend brought him home a few minutes later.
The next morning the Bales found Nick’s lifeless body.
“Nick was a really good kid,” Maria said. “Mindful and sweet, athletic, energetic, so full of life. He was kind to everyone, and they all loved him. He was as comfortable with adults as he was with his peers and would talk to everyone in the room. He always liked to make sure people were included.”
Grissom emphasized that the Bales’ grief journey did not end at the remembrance ceremony, and more than two years later continue to walk a difficult road. Yet he noted that the tragedy of suicide is not beyond God’s redemptive work.
“What happened at the remembrance ceremony was all about the things that Alpha is built around—prayer and dependency on the Holy Spirit,” Grissom said. “God is unfolding His plan and allowing us to be a part of it. Only He could write a story like this.”
He hopes that Alpha will continue to be a place where families like the Bales can ask honest questions and find hope in Christ.
“Jesus was asked 183 questions in the New Testament,” Grissom said, “And He only answered three directly. Even His way of ministering to people—especially those outside—was to ask questions and let people wrestle with the answer until they came to a place of receiving the truth.”
The Bales family now runs BTR as a registered 501(c)(3) non-profit organization called the Nick Bales BTR Foundation. The Foundation continues to produce “Street Wear for a Cause” and supports teens suffering from mental health issues and aiding in the prevention of teen suicide.
“All the proceeds go to helping pay for therapies for those less fortunate,” Maria said. “We don’t ever want young adults to make a permanent decision because they could not afford therapy.”
by Kiki Schleiff Cherry
If someone you know exhibits warning signs of suicide, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) is a free, 24/7 service that can provide suicidal persons and those around them with support, information, and local resources.