Heart LessonsNote to new visitors to this blog: Every Friday I write a portion of my story of healing from a broken heart. On April 13, 2002 our only child, Jennifer, fell to her death while hiking with her fiancé, Josh. See post of Sept. 21, 2012 for the complete story. My purpose here is to share how I coped, what worked for me while at the same time showing my struggles. It has taken me ten years to share this story in such a public way. My prayer is that these thoughts help those who mourn as well as those who want to help the mourner.
Every death of a child is a different story – the circumstances, the personality, how parents cope, how community responds. Thus, a parent’s feelings of isolation are authentic, as well as the feeling that this child’s death is unique. No one death is the same. But hearing stories from those who walked the same path helps. The stories help with understanding, with insight, and compassion.
The first family in the Bible suffered through a unique death that I cannot imagine. When their sons were adults, one killed the other! What do you do with that tragedy? How do you react? The Bible doesn’t tell us any of the details about Adam and Eve’s grief. No doubt, when they learned that their first-born, Cain, had killed his brother, Abel, they were reminded of God’s disappointment and sorrow when they did the one thing He told them not to do. Grief is a God-given emotion; the Bible is full of stories of broken hearts. God Himself grieved over his children.
Late Saturday afternoon as we finally understood the phone call from Josh with news of Jennifer’s death, realities claimed our attention. Her body was in a hospital almost two hundreds of miles from us. There would be an autopsy here in Nashville. How do we get her body home? Where is it taken for the autopsy? We called a friend from church who worked part-time at a funeral home. He knew just what to do. All those details were taken care of and at the same time he alerted others from our large church family. In just a few minutes people were at our door to help.
That Saturday evening is just a blur of images – people offering their sympathy, lots of explaining, phone calls to my family, Larry’s family, close friends arriving – just a crowd of bodies who loved us and wanted to ease our pain. Some of the women started cleaning the house – what were they doing? Thinking of the days ahead when even more people would go through our house, sleeping in the extra beds. I couldn’t even think of those details.
Late that night, dear friend, Belinda took the initiative to say to the crowd that Larry and I needed to rest and politely told them it was time to go home. I love her for that! She and her husband offered to stay the night with us, but we really wanted to be alone. Before the last group left, they gathered around us with hands clasped, singing “Surround Us, O Lord” and then prayed for our comfort.
I reached two of my brothers with the news right away, but Steve and his wife were on a retreat where there was no cell service. Early Sunday morning, I got up and began again to try to reach them. Someone else finally got word to him to call me, and I told Steve the news. The signal was not strong and I had to just shout into the phone, “She is dead Steve! Jennifer is dead!” Those first moments for all of us nearly brought us to our knees.
Larry and I had buried both sets of parents and knew the next step was to go to the funeral home and choose a casket. We asked Dan, a former minister and good friend, to go with us that Sunday morning. We faced the questions that no parent wants to consider: when do we have the funeral? Where? When is visitation? What’s the procedure for an obituary? What kind of clothing should we choose? Do we need her underwear? What type of book for visitors to sign?
I found two things on display that I’m so glad we chose to do. A folder of blank sheets could be placed on tables for people to write their memories of Jennifer. This was a new ritual at the time, but I’ve seen it several times since then. I collected all those sheets along with newspaper articles, church bulletins, and other artifacts of those days and bound them in a book. Many days after the funeral I made a book for Josh, one for his parents, and one for us.
I also found cards with a thick paper heart attached to each one; wild flower seeds were embedded in the paper. I sent these in the thank you notes for the many, many kindnesses we received, suggesting they plant the seeds to remember Jennifer.
Sunday afternoon out of town relatives and friends began to arrive. I was anxiously awaiting Josh’s arrival. His family lived near the Cherokee National Forest where Jennifer died. His younger sister, Katie had also witnessed her death, and they all needed to be together Saturday night. Jennifer’s car was at Josh’s house because they drove down from their universities, Jen at Tennessee Tech and Josh from Virginia Tech.
He finally pulled up in her little red car, and it hit me again. She was not coming home — ever. My main concern was that Josh feel our love and compassion, no anger or rage. His pain was as deep as ours. We cried together, then he grabbed his waiting friends from Cookeville and formed a circle of strong young men beneath the pear tree in our front yard. The scene is burned in my memory – heads bowed, arms wrapped, around each other, weeping.
Later that night we gathered a small group upstairs and sat on Jennifer’s bed to plan the funeral: Josh, Larry and I, Dan (friend, minister, one of the speakers), Keith, (the music minister at church). We chose songs, who would speak, music for the slide show, all the details for a celebration. We told Dan to make this a celebration of Jennifer’s life, and he guided us through the details.
Monday, the logistics of finding beds for family, picking up relatives at the airport, managing the deluge of food that poured in, answering the phone, shopping for funeral clothes, delivering Jennifer’s clothes to the funeral home all whirl around a crowded house, and then we get a phone call from the funeral home. Her body is ready for us to see. Who will go? Does Josh want to? Do we need others to go with us?
In the end Josh stayed at our house to be ready for a television news team coming to interview him. Larry and I went alone. I told Josh later, “It was easier than we thought. She wasn’t really there. Her face was lifeless – no famous smile.”
Monday afternoon: Time is swiftly getting away from us. Visitation begins at 4:00 P.M. Still so much to do – gather up memorabilia of Jenifer’s life to display (don’t forget her hiking boots), be sure all the family knows when to be at the church, more logistics. Hands always there to serve us food someone else prepared. Supper brought to us by a women’s Bible class. And I can barely eat. Just not hungry.
Details fall into place; pictures of her life gathered by her youth minister, a slide show prepared by office secretary, display of her artifacts arranged by Liz, her former 6th grade teacher, copies of the sheets set out on tables. We gather as family around her casket to see the shell of Jennifer. This family, these friends all believe that Jennifer has gone home, her final home in heaven. Our faith solidly gives us the ultimate comfort that her life has just begun.
Josh places the engagement ring back on Jennifer’s lifeless finger. When they began hiking on Saturday, she handed him her ring for safe-keeping. He wrestled with whether he should leave it on her body for burial or keep it? After consulting with several people he decided to keep it.
And a marathon begins. The line stretches out the door of the small chapel in our church and winds through the lobby and out the door. I have no idea how long it is, but hours pass by and I ask for a stool. We stop a bit and eat, and I feel the muscles in my neck and shoulders have locked up. Youngest brother Paul gives me a shoulder rub, and we go on.
Over 1000 people came through that line to hug our necks, love us, and weep with us. Whenever I stopped and walked someone up the steps to her casket, Larry would be there in a minute quietly saying in my ear “These other people want to see you. You need to come back.”
A friend once said that the circle of friends around Josh and Jennifer was like a Venn diagram, they intersect and touch each other. I’ve tried to make a diagram of all the ways people in our four lives (Larry, me, Josh, and Jennifer) touch each other – like the six degrees of separation thing. I couldn’t get enough circles in the diagram and gave up trying to include the subsets of those circles.
We heard story after story from mothers and fathers telling us how Jennifer had made an impact on their son or daughter’s life. One mother said, “She got my daughter to eat raw carrots instead of chocolate!” That was our future nutritionist, totally into healthy eating!
When I began this post I thought it would cover the events leading up to the funeral and then her funeral. I’m up to 1700 words and have yet to tell stories of Jennifer I want to share with you.
This is where my story becomes her story. I must share with you at least a few of the comments people wrote about her, then you will understand why so many times during those four days Larry and I were comforted. Comforted to hear how Jennifer blessed the lives of young campers, teenagers, college friends, and adults. Her funeral was a celebration of a life in service of our Savior, and that story must be shared also.
This father and mother’s hearts were broken but also mended in many places by the love of others and the joy of a daughter who lived her life as a child of the King. What more could we ask for?
I wished for more time. I grieved that she and Josh did not have more time. But it could have been so different. Think of all the what ifs that would have changed this story.
I count the joys of old friends, close friends, family and friends from Texas, Kansas, Colorado, Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, and Ohio who held us up when we were to weary to stand. They filled up our hearts with love and wrapped us in hugs to dull our pain. God was honored and praised those sunny spring days in April.
Monday’s post will continue the story.