'Grief is messy': Humboldt Broncos pastor searches for right words on anniversary

Humboldt Broncos team chaplain Sean Brandow was thrust into the national spotlight last year when he shared humour, helplessness, and hope during a televised vigil for victims of the crash. He will deliver a sermon in another televised service to mark the one-year anniversary.

Pastor Sean Brandow reflects on public grief, forgiveness and the brevity of life

Pastor Sean Brandow has been the Humboldt Broncos team chaplain for eight years. On Saturday he will deliver a nationally televised sermon to mark the one-year anniversary of the horrific bus crash. (Bonnie Allen/CBC)

Humboldt Broncos team pastor Sean Brandow has become more famous than he would like.

But the 39-year-old pastor will swallow his humility to deliver another nationally televised sermon Saturday afternoon to mark the one-year anniversary of the horrific bus crash that rocked his community and a nation.

Three thousand people are expected to fill the Elgar Petersen Arena in Humboldt, Sask., to remember 16 people who died and pay tribute to 13 who survived. Some of the survivors are coping with paralysis, brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Brandow was thrust into the spotlight last April at a vigil for victims of the crash, attended by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and watched by millions, where he wove together humour, helplessness, and hope.

He joked that he couldn't fit into his suit but was wearing "fancy socks" under his cowboy boots, then sobbed as he cried, "Where was God?" It was a question that resonated with a nation as Canadians grappled with the unimaginable scale of the tragedy. 

On April 6, 2018, a semi-trailer driver, Jaskirat Singh Sidhu, blew through a stop sign into the path of the Broncos team bus, causing a catastrophic collision that ripped the roof right off the bus.

Brandow had driven upon the crash scene with his wife and sons on their way to watch the Broncos playoff game against the Nipawin Hawks. Later, he comforted players in hospital.

Watch Sean Brandow speak at the 2018 vigil:

Moving through the valley of darkness

CBC News

3 years ago
Humboldt Broncos team chaplain Sean Brandow addresses the vigil honouring those killed and injured in a team bus crash. 3:45

In his sermon, he said he'd never felt so empty: "Just to hear groaning, and panic, and fear, and distress, and pain and just nothing but darkness."

Brandow said that as he held the hand of "a lifeless body," he thought, "This is it. This is the valley of death."

That Sunday night, in the small city's arena, Brandow also offered a message of hope. He assured the mourners that "God is with the broken-hearted. … He's with us."

As he prepares his anniversary sermon, Brandow reflects on collective and public grief, forgiveness, faith and the brevity of life.

Grief is messy

When Brandow looks out at Saturday's crowd, he will search for the faces of 29 families whose loved ones were killed or hurt in a crash that made headlines around the world.

There are complexities attached to mourning in the public eye, rather than privately, and grieving collectively — forever connected by a tragic event — rather than individually, says Brandow.

"There's great strength to grieving collectively," the pastor said. "That way, there's great comfort in that. But, at the same time, it's hard to do, and it's hard to keep doing."

He says each person must grieve in a different way, at a different pace.

"So where you have one person who's been able to move to forgiveness, another person can't. And so it creates an issue of, 'Well, how dare you forgive that person?' And then the other person says, 'Well, how dare you be so behind in grieving?" And so it just presents some strain that isn't meant to happen in grief."

Scott Thomas, who lost his son Evan, says the Broncos families communicate nearly every day on a WhatsApp group or by text message. They've reunited frequently at fundraisers, memorials, concerts, hockey games and court proceedings. 
Broncos assistant coach Chris Beaudry comforts hockey player Nick Shumlanski, who survived the crash, at a vigil in Humboldt, Sask., on April 8, 2018. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

"It's been a blessing," Thomas said, but "sometimes it's felt like a curse." 

"Sometimes you worry, just because I'm feeling this, is this normal? Because other people are feeling other stuff. So you tend to compare yourself in the grief path, if you will, and if what you're feeling is the right thing or the wrong thing."

Russ Herold, the father of the youngest player on the bus, Adam, 16, who died in the crash, has reached the exhaustion point with public grief. His family won't be attending the memorial service.

"I think a lot of people are just hoping that we can move on and grieve on our own," Herold said. "We're not going to stop grieving, we're not going to forget. But we just need to do it alone, and not be in the camera."


The issue of forgiveness keeps popping up, but it won't be the focus of Brandow's sermon.

He doesn't feel comfortable instructing people to forgive, as mandated in the Bible, if they don't practise the Christian faith.

At the sentencing hearing for the truck driver, who pleaded guilty to 29 counts of dangerous driving, families expressed a range of emotions from rage to forgiveness.

"You hurt my baby, you broke him, and for this I will never forgive you," Andrea Joseph, who lost her son Jaxon, told the driver in court. "You don't deserve my forgiveness."

Christina Haugan, the widow of Broncos' head coach Darcy Haugan, attends Brandow's church.

"I want to tell you I forgive you," the young mother said to the truck driver in court. "I have been forgiven for things when I didn't deserve it, and so I will do the same."

Brandow says the Bible is clear that those who have been forgiven by Jesus for their sins are called upon to forgive others. It's a conscious decision one must make, according to the pastor, and should not hinge on whether the person deserves to be forgiven. 

"There's great freedom in forgiveness," he said, noting that it has freed him of hatred, anger and bitterness.

"But to dictate whether or not someone should forgive is a very different thing."

Sixteen crosses sit outside the Humboldt Bible Church to honour 10 Broncos hockey players, two coaches, an athletic therapist, a statistician, a radio announcer and the bus driver who were killed in the crash. (Chanss Lagaden/CBC)


Brandow's raw anguish was palpable at last year's vigil, when he cried, "Where was God?"

For him, it was not a crisis of faith. But he understands how it could be for others.

"How could God allow this? That's really at the heart of it, and where was God?"

The crash, and his inability to make sense of it, has only cemented Brandow's belief that God is in charge.

"I've become more convinced that God is in control. I've also become more convinced that I don't always understand," Brandow said.

"If God was a God that we could fully understand and could dictate what we thought should happen, this world would be in rough shape. If I got my way every time, and if I could formulate a God that could fit into a box, whatever I want him to be, he's no longer God anymore."

Make each breath count

As the Broncos' pastor for eight years, Brandow didn't do traditional religious rituals with the players. He didn't lead prayers in the dressing room. For him, it was about forming relationships and being available for chats, usually during outdoor excursions, hunting, fishing, or sharing a meal.

If he could, he'd start a conversation about God. But often, it was about trying to make young men look beyond hockey and find their place in the world.

In one team exercise, the players had to take turns diving to the bottom of a pool to collect and assemble PVC pipes.

They were restricted to just one breath before giving the next guy a turn.

Brandow says the lesson was simple: "Take seriously the breath that we have, and to do well with the time that we have here." 
The team was on its way to a playoff game when a transport truck drove through a stop sign and into the path of the team bus. (Humboldt Broncos/Twitter)

As the anniversary approaches, Brandow is convinced the crash made all of us acutely aware of our mortality.

"The much bigger thing, I think, that really hit people was just the brevity of life. These guys were in the prime of their life. Strong, healthy, you know. That's a hard thing to swallow."

A reminder, he says, to make each breath, each moment, count. It can all be gone in a second.

About the Author

Bonnie Allen

Senior Reporter

Bonnie Allen is a senior reporter for CBC News based in Saskatchewan. Before returning to Canada in 2013, Allen spent four years reporting from across Africa, including Libya, South Sudan, Liberia and Sierra Leone. She holds a master's in international human rights law from the University of Oxford. @bonnieallenCBC


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.