SALT LAKE CITY — Sam Williams doesn't remember much of what happened before he arrived at the hospital.
"It never crossed my mind once why I was there," he said. "I just went with it."
Williams was 6 years old when a 2007 car crash left him with internal bleeding, a head injury, broken collarbone and broken ribs. He recalls walking "like a hunchback" down the long hallway to the therapy room, he said.
On the night Sam was released, his father Chris was tucking him into bed when the boy asked, "Where's mom?" That's when he learned his pregnant mother Michelle, his brother Ben and sister Anna had been killed in an accident involving a drunk driver. Tears flowed from his father's eyes as Sam sat expressionless, trying to comprehend what he'd just been told. Sam and his father had survived, along with his older brother Michael who was not in the car at the time.
"Now I tell you this because I want to talk about the hope the gospel provides," Sam Williams recently said while delivering a talk to a Latter-day Saint congregation. "Over the last 12 years I can't tell you how many times I've thought 'Why me?' or 'Why is life so hard?' The secret truth that I've had to rely on is (that life) is supposed to be hard, but that doesn't mean life can't be good, too. Through Christ all can be made whole again."
It's been 12 years since Sam and Chris Williams survived the tragic accident that forever changed their lives. It's been a journey of many tribulations for Sam but he's learned some valuable lessons along the way. It's part of what he hopes to share with the people in Nashville, Tennessee, where he's about to serve as a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
"I want to be a strong voice for hope," Williams said in an interview with the Church News. "I want people to know there's a way for all of us to make it through our pains and hardships of life."
One change Sam Williams wasn't ready for came less than a year after the accident when his father remarried Mikkel, a widow with two kids of her own. The transition was hard for Sam but some advice from his father helped him find new perspective, he said.
Chris Williams, whose experiences with the crash were later published in a book and made into a movie, told his son it's helpful to "live in the present" and "accept things as they really are," a principle he learned from studying the Jacob 4 in Book of Mormon.
"I've found it helpful to accept things as they really are and let go of things as you think they should have been," Chris Williams said. "Then we can celebrate and be grateful for the things we have. What I saw in Sam was suddenly he was much more thankful for what he had instead of being upset about what he felt was taken from him."
During his high school years, Sam endured some bullying, struggled socially and at one point entertained suicidal thoughts, he said.
"I felt life was against me. My relationships with family and friends weren't good. I felt alone," Sam Williams said. "But I wasn't looking in the right place for happiness. I realized I was going at it alone and not relying on the Savior to heal me."
His situation improved when he transferred to a new school and made some new friends. An answer to prayer helped him to find more joy in his life, Sam Williams said.
Chris Williams recognized his son was going through some dark times and wondered if he might be losing him, but he found comfort in knowing he wasn't parenting alone. Sam had his Heavenly Father, the Savior and other family members, both living and deceased, who were looking out for him, Chris Williams said.
"I relied on the fact that I was one of several fathers," Chris Williams said. "I held on to the faith that he's going through a wonderful learning experience and I wanted to make sure that I didn't disrupt that experience before it had fully born the fruit it was going to bear. I could have confronted the behavior, but I sat back and let things kind of work itself through, having faith that I had other support people I couldn't see."
One time Chris Williams stood in front of his son's bedroom door, ready to enter and address some things he didn't agree with, but something stopped him.
"As I got to his door, it was almost as if my deceased wife was there telling me to be quiet, don't go in, let him figure this out," the father said. "I felt myself being shut down so the Spirit and the people on the other side of the veil could in their way have their say in this and influence him. As time went on, to see his progress, and to see his testimony developed, it reassured to me that as parents we don't parent alone. There are so many people involved in our lives and in the lives of our children that we can't see. If we have faith in their input and ability to help us, miracles can come from it."
As he's grown, gained a testimony and prepared to serve a mission, Sam Williams has learned to count his blessings and recognize the Lord's hand in his life. He's grateful things have worked out and understands that when trials come, you've got to trust in the Lord and push forward. He's also grateful to know his family's story and his father's example of forgiveness has touched many lives.
"Life may be unbearable at times but all will be made right in the end," Sam Williams said. "We just have to push through."
Sam Williams also learned it's important to keep an eternal perspective when making choices. He's often heard other kids use the acronym "YOLO," which stands for "You only live once," to justify doing something bold or rash. He prefers an expression his brother taught him, "YALF," which they say means, "You actually live forever."
"The choices we make here will affect our lives and existence forever," Sam Williams said.
Chris Williams said it's been "amazing" to have a front row seat in his children's lives to witness their growth and develop through life's experiences.
"Just to hear this witness after 12 years of all the parenting and everything else, it's a wonderful payday and milestone," the father said.
Chris Williams also thinks the day will come when we'll thank the Lord for our adversity and afflictions. In the next life, when we look back on everything we've learned, he said, perhaps Heavenly Father will ask us if we would have wanted to do anything differently, such as avoid scraped knees or wish he had fixed every problem immediately, preventing growth?
"I think we would say, 'No way, the experiences we have are too valuable, especially those experiences that bring us to Christ and allow us to understand him better. They're just too valuable to not pay the price to go through,'" Chris Williams said. "So I am very grateful that Heavenly Father doesn't prevent every bad thing from happening so that we can go through it and in so doing experience His healing power, and then come to a greater appreciation of Jesus Christ."