Today is the anniversary of the worst day of my life. Three years ago today, we received the call every parent dreads. My wife and I had been on a date night at a Christian comedy show having a great time. Leaving, we turned our phones back on in the parking lot. The sudden barrage of voice messages popping up had an ominous and foreboding feeling. With trepidation, my wife answered one to learn that our only son had died. It felt like someone had swung a sledgehammer into my stomach.
How do you react to news like this? You hope it’s some sort of sick joke or a huge mistake. That day we joined a club no one wants to be a member of—the grieving parents club. I would NEVER minimize someone else’s grief as each experience is different and powerful in its own right. I have lost a sibling and a parent, but neither experience was anywhere near as painful as losing my child.
Losing a child rips a hole in your soul. I’ve learned a lot about grief over the past three years. Did you know that 85% of marriages end in divorce within five years after the loss of a child? So far, we are beating those odds, probably due to the little girl (our granddaughter) we needed to adopt after the loss of her father. She is also likely the reason I am still walking this earth as I wanted to die many times over the first two years following his death. Not wanting to leave her the legacy of losing two daddies probably kept me going.
The pastor at our son’s funeral service said something very prophetic. He said, “Dear Lord, help the Johnsons forgive all the stupid things people are going to say to them.” So true. One person told me, “I kind of know how you feel. My dog died a couple of weeks ago.” Really? Many people offered unhelpful or even hurtful platitudes or Scripture verses (He’s in a better place, It’s all part of God’s plan, If you had more faith, you wouldn’t be in such pain, etc.). One good friend felt it was his duty to sit me down at lunch two months after my son’s passing and tell me if I wasn’t so negative I’d be a much more popular writer and speaker. Maybe true, maybe not, but your timing sucked, bro.
We lost many friends (but gained a few wonderful ones). Perhaps most painful was having people I needed and thought were my good friends turn their backs on me. Friends and even family, perhaps because they hurt too much for us or because they didn’t know what to say, were strangely silent and have not come around since.
Or perhaps, because the death of a child fundamentally changes who you are, some of our friends did not want to be around the people we had become—fair enough. I’m a different person than I was three years ago. In many ways, I miss the man I used to be. Others, who we would never have expected such kindness from, have blessed our lives in amazing ways and helped us get through these most painful times of our lives.
If you know a grieving parent, talk to him or her often even if it’s uncomfortable for you. Your discomfort is nothing compared to what they have been through. Mention his or her child by name often. We love talking about our children in heaven. We love hearing stories about them. One of the greatest gifts I have ever received was my son’s former best friend and his father coming over one afternoon. Their home was like a second home to my son growing up.
We sat around the patio table, had a few beers, and told stories about Frank. We laughed and cried, and it was such a cathartic experience for me. They always remember his birthday by dropping flowers by on our porch. Another friend, in the midst of my grief, just stopped by out of the blue and took me places like muscle car shows, gun shows, movies, etc. Those little things meant so much to me. Grief has no timeline and the loss of a child lasts forever. Even years later, your grieving friend is still hurting. Talk to him or her and lend an ear. You don’t need to say anything—just being there matters. I miss you, son.
Thanks for listening.
Written by Rick Johnson
Featured image by Simeon Muller
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