"You don't know if you are going to survive the grief," the singer tells PEOPLE of the death of his daughter Maria

By Eileen Finan
August 13, 2008 08:45 AM
Credit: Courtesy Chapman Family

Unimaginable tragedy struck the Chapman family the evening of May 21 when their 5-year-old daughter Maria Sue was accidentally killed by an SUV driven by her 17-year-old brother, Will Franklin.

“At first you don’t even know if you can breathe. You don’t know if you are going to survive the grief and the deep, deep, deep sadness,” says Grammy-winning Christian singer Steven Curtis Chapman, who sat down with his family for an emotional interview with PEOPLE at their Franklin, Tenn., home. “You just want to lay down and die.”

Wrestling with the pain of his daughter’s death and the anguish of the son who was at the wheel, Chapman says, “every lyric I’ve ever written has been tested beyond what I ever imagined.”

But the deeply religious family says the loss of Maria, who was adopted from China in 2004 (two more daughters, Shaoey, 9 next week, and Stevey Joy, 5, were also adopted from that country), served to strengthen their belief. “Faith is the only way I can tell myself she’s okay. She’s safe in the arms of Jesus and she’s flyin’ around,” says Will, who continues, along with other family members, to see a counselor.

Steven’s wife Mary Beth admits that healing is slow: “I’m broken and I would give anything to have my baby girl back. But that’s not going to happen. So I wake up in the morning and make a choice. You can wallow in the deep end or you say, God, show me what you want me to be about today and how can I honor you, and in turn honor Maria.'”

Steven, Mary Beth, Will and oldest son Caleb, 18, all have gotten tattoos in honor of the little girl they called ‘our laughter’. A photo of Mary Beth’s tattoo and more from the family can be found in this week’s PEOPLE.

• Chapman spoke about the loss of daughter Maria inside PEOPLE