ORLANDO – It was a tragedy that could have destroyed some families. Looking back, Steve Abbate sometimes wonders how it didn’t.
“Life is messy,” he said. “The death of a child is messy.”
It was in February 2006 when Abbate’s 15-year-old son Luke was killed in an auto accident caused by a classmate who wanted to scare his friends by driving at 90 miles per hour. He lost control and the car sailed down a 70 foot embankment, ending in a crash that left Luke with severe head trauma that he died from two days later.
The shock of getting that phone call about the accident was devastating to Abbate and his wife, Mary Anne.
“There’s a very high statistical rate of divorce among families that lose a child,” he said.
Instead, “We decided we needed to stick together.”
The family has come together, and in a very positive way. They’ve founded the Luke Abbate 5th Quarter Foundation to educate young people about the dangers and consequences of irresponsible driving.
Their story also inspired a movie, “The 5th Quarter,” which opened on March 25 and has played in movie theaters across the county, including here in Orlando.
What really helped keep the family together, Abbate said, was their strong belief in God.
“We are a family of faith,” he said.
That’s part of what the movie is about – family and faith, and how it keeps them together. Producer/director Rick Bieber made the film, which looks not only at Luke’s tragic death and the impact that it had on the Abbate family, but also at Luke’s brother Jon and his decision to play a football game in honor of his younger brother. He even convinced his coach to let him change his long-standing number from 40 to 5 – in a game his team won. That brought the entire community rallying behind the Abbate family when they truly needed that support.
Abbate said when Luke was killed, he initially buried himself in work as a way to cope.
“Work was probably – and the movie depicts this – my escape,” he said, adding that his son’s death was almost too painful to endure at first.
“Luke was the baby, the youngest of four,” Abbate said.
Abbate said he and his wife did turn to faith to give them strength and to provide answers, but it wasn’t an easy process. In fact, finding solace in his faith was initially a difficult task – and that hasn’t entirely changed today.
“I’m still very angry with God at what happened,” he said. “I don’t understand why this happened.
“But I think God is okay with that,” he added.
As he began to find ways to cope with the tragedy, Abbate said he slowly started to understand that God was there to hear his cries, to feel his pain.
“As men, we kind of compartmentalize things,” he said. “We don’t show our emotions much. But my faith played a very high role in this. Now I know God is telling me, ‘I’m here with you.’ “
One thing that helped Abbate and his family was their decision to allow doctors to utilize Luke’s organs as part of a nationwide organ transplant program. Five recipients were identified, including a young woman suffering from a serious heart disease. The transplant with Luke’s heart saved the woman’s life.
“This movie allows some goodness to come out of this,” Abbate said. “It really sheds some light on an issue that’s not talked about much.”
The movie also shows that faith is a process, and not an instant cure, for people coping with tragic and life-altering events.
“It doesn’t portray Christianity as you wake up after the tragedy and everything is fine,” he said. “Everyone handles grief differently. The pain is always there, but like a bad toothache, it gets a little more dull every day.”
Having founded an organization dedicated to educating young people about reckless driving, promoted organ transplants after seeing first hand that it can save another person’s life, and used the movie to promote both messages – as well as the power of family, faith and community – also helped the family heal, he said.
“Those to me are uplifting events,” he said, adding that through all of them, “Luke is still with us in spirit.”
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