A Year of Miracles amid Tragedy: How the Evans Family Relied on God after Losing Their Wife and Mother
Contributed By Aubrey Eyre, Church News contributor
“We’re still tired all the time, but, you know, most parents are. We still have a lot of help, and we’ve had to learn that we still need it. … We’ve been blessed in ways we couldn’t have anticipated.” —Jacob Evans
Collapsing on the floor in his youngest son’s room after another exhausting day, Jacob Evans felt at a loss. For months he had been trying to balance the responsibilities of being both father and mother, provider and caretaker, while bearing the weight of comforting his six children amidst all the challenges their family faced.
After putting his kids to bed, Jacob could feel the weight of his situation crashing down on him. But in that moment, in what he described as his “darkest hour,” he did the only thing he felt he could. Kneeling there on the floor, he prayed to his Father in Heaven.
“I was just at the end of anything I could take. There was nothing left, I was so tired, and I didn’t see a way forward,” Jacob said. “I didn’t see how we could possibly survive this.”
It had been four months since he had lost his wife, Katie Evans, in a tragic accident caused by a young drunk driver. The accident had happened less than a mile from the Evans’s home late at night on October 6, 2017, when Katie was on her way home from visiting their twin baby girls, who were still in the hospital after being born 12 weeks premature.
Describing that night from February 2018, Jacob Evans said he had never felt more alone.
“But what’s interesting is, looking back, I am confident that I was not alone,” Jacob said, his voice trembling with emotion.
For Jacob, there is no doubt in his mind that the Savior has been with him every step of the way as he has navigated the unpredictable and rocky terrain of beginning a new life following the loss of his beloved Katie.
“He never faltered in his faith,” said Bishop Drew Adams, bishop of the Saugus Ward, Santa Clarita California Stake, where Jacob lives. “He might have questioned how many more trials he would be able to endure, but he never questioned whether Heavenly Father was watching over him and taking care of him, and he never doubted whether the gospel was true.”
But it’s not just Jacob that has shown great strength and faith. Despite the numerous trials the Evans family have faced, faith and a sure understanding of God’s love for all His children have been their defining characteristics throughout all they have endured.
A refining process
Nearly five years before they lost Katie, the Evans family experienced tragedy when, on July 14, 2013, Jacob’s mother, Tanya Evans, was killed in a car crash while visiting family in central New York.
The loss of their wife, mother, and grandmother devastated the family, but no one seemed to take the loss as hard as Jacob and Katie’s oldest son Spencer. At just eight years old, Spencer was a child who was often misunderstood by those who interacted with him. (See related story.)
Diagnosed with autism, Spencer could be a difficult child at times, and he often struggled to engage with people in way that they understood.
When Tanya died, Spencer was devastated, Jacob explained. As an elementary education teacher, Spencer’s grandmother understood his needs better than most, and the two of them shared a special bond.
“When she died, I was so sad because Spencer lost his second-strongest advocate—Katie being the first,” Jacob said. He noted that for years following Tanya’s death, Spencer would spontaneously burst into tears without warning or trigger and say that he missed his “Nanna.”
“So when Katie died, I was so scared that he was going to fall apart,” Jacob said.
The morning following Katie’s death, Jacob worried about how he would handle telling his children the news of their mother. After receiving a blessing from his bishop and stake president in the early morning hours, Jacob waited for his four sons to wake up.
With a house filled with friends and neighbors there to offer support, Jacob sat down with the three oldest boys—Spencer, Travis, and Nathaniel—to explain to them what had happened.
They started off singing “Families Can Be Together Forever,” one of their family’s favorite songs since they had lost their Nanna four years before.
After singing, Jacob reminded them of the plan of salvation, which they had been taught at home and in church.
“I told them that Heavenly Father has asked us to exercise faith in His plan and that their mom wasn’t going to be coming home and that she’d been killed in a car accident, but that we’d see her again someday.”
Once the meaning of his words sunk in, the boys were devastated, Jacob said. It was a morning of tears and hugs all around, he said, noting how grateful he was to have close friends and family there to help console the kids. Letting the boys know that their mom wanted them to be happy was made easier by the help and kindness of those around them, Jacob said.
The thing Jacob said he was most surprised by was how Spencer handled the reality of his mom being gone.
“He loved his mom, and he misses his mom, but for some reason, he was able to just say, ‘Oh I’ve dealt with this kind of crisis before; I’m going to just file this situation there.’ And he had an easier time dealing with Katie’s death than anyone else in the family for some reason,” Jacob said. “For me as a parent, I was really grateful for that because I was already at my wit's end, and if I had had to deal with anything even close to the challenge of dealing with him when my mom died, I would have really struggled with that.”
Spencer Evans waves to the camera at the wedding reception for Jacob and Marin Evans. Photo courtesy of Jacob Evans.
Looking at it now, a year later, Jacob said that he has realized just how much losing his own mom prepared him and his family for the loss of Katie.
With his dad having experienced a similar loss, Jacob leaned heavily on his father for advice in the weeks and months following Katie’s death.
“As much as I hated losing my mom, and I still miss her, in a way it was a blessing because it really did help prepare me for this,” Jacob said. “I want to say it kept me from being broken too, but the truth is this experience did break me.”
A showing of love
In the weeks and months following Katie’s death, the Evans family experienced the love of their Heavenly Father through the many contributing hands of their family, friends, and neighbors.
With the twin girls, Sarah and Hannah, still in the hospital at UCLA, which was just over an hour’s drive away, a list was organized for people to take turns visiting and holding the babies in the NICU, since Jacob couldn’t get there as often as needed.
Sarah and Hannah Evans during their time in the hospital at UCLA. They spent the first few months of their lives in the hospital after being born premature. Photo courtesy of Jacob Evans.
Cindy Moffitt, Katie’s former visiting teacher and dear friend, helped organize visits to the twins as well and spent a great deal of time with the kids.
Ellie Williams, the Saugus Ward compassionate service coordinator, compiled a list of all the various brands and types of foods that the Evans children could eat, because of their numerous different allergies, and helped coordinate assigning members to provide meals for the family.
“Everybody just wanted to do something to help,” Williams said.
Janine Wilson, a member from the stake, offered to drive Spencer to school each day, which, with all the boys attending separate schools, has been an immense blessing, Jacob said.
Others offered help by donating money through funds set up to help the family or organizing drives for needed items like diapers for the twin girls and the youngest son, Gideon, who was just two years old at the time. A year later, Jacob said they are still using those diapers, and they couldn’t be more grateful.
One of the greatest blessings for the family was the contributions of Jacob’s niece, Christina Hodson.
Recognizing a need for a more stable system of care for the Evans children than could be provided by friends and family in the Santa Clarita area or from the ongoing rotation of day and night nannies, Hodson, who had just started school at BYU, offered to take a couple semesters off from school to move to California and be a live-in nanny and helper for her uncle and cousins. And as Jacob put it, he doesn’t know what he would have done without her for the months she was there. She was a true blessing in a time of need, he said.
Christina Hodson, Jacob’s niece who stayed with the Evans family as a live-in nanny for several months, poses with the twins, Hannah and Sarah, on Jacob and Marin’s wedding day. Photo courtesy of Jacob Evans.
“There has been no shortage of help from the ward and the wider community,” Bishop Adams said. “And there have been so many different little miracles that have happened for them.”
An unexpected miracle
Among the miracles that have occurred for Jacob and his family, including clear promptings of guidance from the Lord and even a chance to meet Elder Gifford Nielsen, General Authority Seventy, and Elder Neil L. Andersen of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and receive a priesthood blessing—which Jacob said has become like a second patriarchal blessing to help direct his new life—perhaps the greatest blessing for the family was the least expected.
Elder Gifford Nielsen with Jacob Evans and Elder Neil L. Andersen. Jacob Evans visited Elder Nielsen and Elder Andersen during a trip to Salt Lake and received a priesthood blessing. Photo courtesy of Jacob Evans.
Just weeks after that night in February, when Jacob pleaded with the Lord to help him in his darkest hour, Jacob came across a profile of a woman named Marin Arnell online.
After speaking with Katie’s father, Ken Snyder, about the reality of likely needing to remarry, and after seeking advice from Katie’s aunt who had chosen to remarry after losing her own husband, Jacob had made the decision to begin trying to date as soon as he felt emotionally ready.
Prior to seeing Marin’s profile, Jacob had been on a few unsuccessful dates and had felt a bit discouraged, but something about Marin stood out to him.
Before really getting to know her, he even told his father that Marin was someone he could really see himself with.
It was in late February that they first began messaging, and right away they hit it off, Jacob said. And after a few trips from North Carolina to California to meet Jacob and his family, Marin said things really started to click for them.
Just a few months later, in May, when the Evans and the Snyders all gathered for the baby blessings of the twin girls, who were then home from the hospital and doing much better, Marin finally had the opportunity to meet Katie’s parents.
It was something she wanted to do before they really moved forward, Jacob said.
That same weekend, Marin and Jacob got engaged.
Jacob Evans with Marin Arnell during her second visit to meet his family in California while they were dating. Photo courtesy of Jacob Evans.
“Everyone was thrilled when he found Marin. It was just a miracle. Marin is a gift for that family,” Williams said.
For the kids, some of whom had expressed concern over the idea of their dad remarrying, Cindy Moffitt said Marin came into their lives in a way that lifted a burden. “They wanted their mom back, but Marin just fell into place and she filled this hole, but without taking Katie away.”
Since the very beginning, Marin has expressed a profound respect and love for Katie and has encouraged all the children to talk about her and keep their memories of her alive, explained Cindy and her husband, Mike Moffitt.
“The boys have very open hearts, and they have just completely welcomed me in,” Marin said. “And we’ve worked to make it very clear that I’m not a replacement but that they have two moms.”
One of the things that Jacob said he appreciates most about Marin is that she has worked hard to keep Katie a part of their lives.
“She is really special because she loved these kids like they were born to her. They’re her kids in every sense, but they’re still Katie’s kids too,” he said. “Her heart is big enough that she can love them and still have room for Katie, and to me that is maybe the best example of Christlike love I have ever seen.”
Before getting married, Jacob shared with Marin the interview questions that his sons had come up with to ask any potential future stepmother. Among the questions were “Do you like to hug?” and “Are you willing to follow God’s commandments?”
Marin passed all the questions with flying colors, Jacob said.
The couple were married on July 14, 2018, in the Los Angeles California Temple. Since that time, they have been working as a family to move forward with a new life while holding on to the important memories of their life before.
Jacob and Marin Evans with the six Evans children and Katie’s parents, Ken and Claudia Snyder, on Jacob and Marin’s wedding day. Photo courtesy of Jacob Evans.
“We hold on to good memories of the past, but we’re also going to make new memories. We want to build memories as a family, and it helps to bring the family together,” Jacob said, noting that they have already instituted regular family dinners, weekly family home evenings, and even taken some family vacations.
As a family, they are working to create their own new “normal.”
“We’re still tired all the time but, you know, most parents are. We still have a lot of help, and we’ve had to learn that we still need it. We don’t have everything we want, but we have everything we need,” Jacob said. “And in some cases, we’ve been blessed in ways we couldn’t have anticipated. … I could never have anticipated finding someone like Marin.”
Jacob and Marin Evans at their wedding reception. Photo courtesy of Jacob Evans.
The strength of one’s faith
“The truth is, we don’t really know how strong our faith is until it’s tested,” Jacob said.
This last year has been a time of testing and trial in more ways than one, but despite all the Evans family has endured and all they’ve lost, together they exemplify the Christlike attributes of faith, love, and forgiveness.
“It’s hard to think about it. It’s been the most heartbreaking, terrifying, beautiful, inspiring, and faith-building thing to watch the grace they’ve had through all of this,” Cindy Moffitt said, noting the particularly impressive way in which Jacob’s family handled their actions and words towards the young girl, Alexia Cina, who caused the accident that took Katie’s life.
In June, at the sentencing hearing for Cina, both Snyder and Jacob spoke openly about the loss they felt at Katie’s passing and the trials they have had to endure as a result. But they also spoke about love and forgiveness for Cina and her family and acknowledged that they too have undoubtedly endured feelings of pain and loss as a result of the situation as well.
Remarking on how Jacob and Snyder’s words affected the courtroom, Bishop Anderson said even the judge was in tears during the proceedings and that the defense attorney for Cina noted that he had never seen such compassion shown toward a defendant.
“The two sides of the courtroom were all embracing as they exited,” Bishop Adams said.
It was fitting, Jacob said, because Katie’s legacy is one of love.
“Katie had an open heart. She loved everyone,” he said. “We can see that in the kids, and that’s a really great legacy.”
Jacob Evans with his four sons outside the Los Angeles California Temple on his wedding day. Photo courtesy of Jacob Evans.