October 14, 2007

One Year Later

What I’ve learned since my son died


By now, many of you have looked in your program and know what I’m talking about today.  It was one year ago, on Sunday, October 15, 2006, that my son Jeff died.  I want to share with you what I’ve learned since my son died, how my family and I have processed, and are processing, this devastating loss.  Everyone here has experienced loss-many of you, like me, have experienced the unexpected loss of someone you love: a parent, a sibling, a child, a friend.  How you deal with loss is transformational: it can make you bitter or better, your faith can flourish or flounder.

Introduction: “It doesn’t matter how great the pressure is. What really matters is where the pressure lies-whether it comes between you and God or whether it presses you nearer His heart.”  J. Hudson Taylor

On Tuesday, I spent several hours reading through my journal for this past year.  It was very moving, and reminded me why journaling is such a valuable habit.  I selected several journal entries to share with you-lessons I learned since the death of my son one year ago.  But before we get to the lessons, I need to tell you a little bit of the story.

Laina and I have 5 children: Andy, Jeff, Sally, Amy and Michael.  The two oldest are adopted and the three youngest are biological.  Some people have said, “Oh you have two adopted and three of your own.”  No-we have five of our own.  God just gave them to us in different ways-but they are all ours.

Jeff was born at Deaconess Hospital on November 8, 1983, and we brought him home two days later.  Pic #1 He had an off-the-charts oversized head-we had him checked twice in the first 18 months for hydrocephalia-he just had a big head.  He had a poor sucking reflex.  He’d nurse for an hour, get an ounce or two, sleep for an hour and then nurse again.  We were very tired!  Unlike most babies, he wouldn’t look you in the eye when you talked to him.  In his first year, my mom told us that she thought he might be autistic; I dismissed that.  I shouldn’t have.  Lesson #1: always listen to your mom.

Jeff was a handful as a preschooler Pic #2 -very active, very impulsive, very loud and difficult to manage.  But the poop hit fan in his school years.  We had him tested and treated for ADHD unsuccessfully.  We spent huge hours at school advocating for him.  We took him to learning specialists, doctors, and psychologists.  By sixth grade we decided to home school Jeff, and when the other kids heard, they all wanted to be home schooled.  So Laina home schooled all five kids for the first year, and Jeff for four years.

When he returned to high school, he struggled socially as well as academically.  By his senior year, he wore out his small group of friends and entered what we called “the dark years”, a four year period of deep loneliness, alienation, anger and frustration for Jeff.  Pic #3 He graduated from high school, tried going to college several times unsuccessfully, and worked at a number of jobs.

When Jeff was 21, after many unsuccessful attempts to diagnose his disability, we finally did.  Jeff had Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of high-functioning autism that is characterized by social disability.  I should have listened to Mom!  Asperger’s kids are often born with large heads and poor sucking reflexes.  They don’t like to look you in the eye, and don’t like to be touched.  Jeff never liked to be hugged.  Pic #4  This diagnosis was a huge help to Jeff and us; we began educating ourselves, understanding how Jeff was wired and how life looked to him.

ILL: Imagine being dropped in another country-let’s say Latvia-where you look like everyone else, but you don’t speak the language, and don’t know the customs.  But because you look like everyone else, they assume you are Latvian, and jabber at you in Latvian.  That’s what social interaction was like for Jeff-a foreign language.  Everyone assumed he got it-he didn’t-and consistently made blunders that offended people, or got offended himself because he misunderstood others.

Can you imagine how difficult that would be?  That’s Asperger’s, and that’s what Jeff faced every day.

After his diagnosis, Jeff became more hopeful.  Pic #5  The dark years changed into better times.  He was making it in school, he was trying to make some friends.  We had finally found some meds that helped him.  That prompted him to start researching meds online, to see if he could find something even better.  And that led him to try buying some prescription meds illegally.

On Saturday, October 14, 2006, Jeff bought some oxycontin from an acquaintance.  He had no idea what he was messing with, how powerful this prescription pain-killer is.  I hope that any of you who have these powerful drugs at home will lock them up, and take them only under a doctor’s supervision.  He took the oxycontin that evening, and died that night lying on the basement couch, watching a movie, with his snacks and soda spread out in front of him.  Zac and Amy and Sally found him in the morning.  I was sitting right there during our prayer time in the 11 o’clock service, when some friends got me and said I had to go home.  They took me in the hallway and told me that Jeff had died-it was the darkest and most difficult day of my life; it was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to face.  I love my son, and miss him every day.

So briefly, that’s what happened.  Before I tell you what I’ve learned this past year, I want to tell you a couple things I learned from Jeff.

1. Some lessons from Jeff.


A. Don’t give upJeff attempted to go to college four times.  He dropped out after a week the first time, managed to finish one class the second time, and dropped out after two days the third time.  He was four weeks into his fourth attempt when he died.  He was determined to get a college degree or certification of some kind.  He’d get knocked down, get up and try again.

He tried the Marines and lasted two weeks.  Then he tried unsuccessfully to enlist in the Army.  He’d get knocked down, get up and try again.  He tried working on an Alaskan fishing boat and lasted a week, then 3 months later tried an Alaskan freighter and lasted a week.  He’d get knocked down, get up and try again.   Here’s an entry from my journal on Jan. 13 this year.

Luke 13:30 Indeed there are those who are last who will be first, and first who will be last.” NIV  And note this: Some who seem least important now will be the greatest then, and some who are the greatest now will be least important then.*”  NLT.  I thought again of Jeff, who was last in our house, least important in terms of his success, his achievements, his status.  His deficits made him last.  Somehow God will make up for those deficits and he will be first.  Of course, he is first to heaven!  Eugene Peterson calls this the Great Reversal.  Those who went without here will have it there.  Jeff was last in many ways, and yet I saw some remarkable things.  His courage: I would have never tried the Marines or the Arctic fishing boats.  His resilience: he failed at many things, but kept trying.  His effort: life was a daily struggle, but he refused to give up.  Many people who are more gifted than Jeff and without his deficits show far less courage and resilience and effort.  I admire him.  Those things will be rewarded in heaven and he will receive the honor he deserves.

I think about all the people like Jeff, people who live near the bottom of the heap.  It takes so much more courage to face each day than it does for me.  Imagine what it would be like to be one of these people–“the least of these”.  I’m sure they notice the snubs, the brush-offs, the disrespect.  Some day the tables will be turned and they will be first.  God will reward them for the spectacular courage and resilience they have shown.

Most of you are far more gifted than my son; when life knocks you down, don’t give up.

B. Under-react.

I’m a major over-reactor, and Jeff pushed all my buttons.  I’m ashamed to say that there were many times when I blew my cool and did or said things I regret.  And of course, my overreactions were fuel on the fire.  I’d get mad and Jeff would get madder.  I’d overreact and he’d go through the roof.  It was ugly.

I was talking with Rick one day at the office and he related a story about Jeff.  Stan Busby had taken Jeff and some other high school boys backpacking and rock climbing.  Jeff was scaling a rock face, got near the top, and looked up at Stan and said, “I can’t make it.”  Stan didn’t say a thing; he just let Jeff dangle there a moment.  And then Jeff scrambled on up.  Rick said, “He under-reacted.  Maybe that’s what Jeff needs.”

Under-react.  It became my mantra with Jeff.  When Jeff blew up, I under-reacted.  When he said unkind things to his mother, I under-reacted.  I didn’t do nothing-I reacted-but it was a very calm, measured response.  And it worked.  Rather than escalating tensions, it calmed them.  We learned that if we under-reacted, Jeff calmed down and usually figured things out.  He’d scramble up the hill.  But it was hard for me.  It was hard for a major over-reactor to bite his tongue and under-react.

That lesson has served me well with other people as well.  When there’s conflict, when others are upset, I’ve learned to under-react.

Proverbs 15:1 A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.

Under-react.  A gentle answer turns away wrath.  This has been a life-changer for me.  I learned it from Jeff.

One other thing: Tuesday night, all the kids came home to talk about this, what we’ve learned since Jeff died.  And one thing they all said was, “I’m a better person because of Jeff.”  We all learned to under-react.  We all learned compassion and understanding for those who may not have our advantages.  We all learned tolerance and patience.  And as Pastor Noel said, we all learned unconditional love.

We thank God for Jeff.

2. Some lessons about life, loss, and faith.

A. My default answer to my family is “Yes“.

On the night Jeff died, he came into my room to ask if we were going to a movie.  I was working feverishly to finish the Sunday talk, so I said, “Sorry, bud, I can’t.”  Those were the last words I said to my son.  And I regret that.  I wish I would have said, “yes”.  So one of the things I determined to do after Jeff died was to say “yes” to my family every time.

  • Can you watch this movie with us, dad? Yes.
  • Can you throw the football? Yes.
  • Can you take a look at my car? Yes.

Yes, even it means dropping something I’m doing right now, something important.

Now I know you’re thinking, “You can’t do that every time.  Sometimes you have to say no.”  You’re right.  But I want to say yes every time if it’s at all within my power.  One Friday, not long ago, I said yes to my kids several times that day, interrupting my message preparation.  So I was up very late, into the wee hours of Saturday morning.  It was worth it.

There’s no one in the world more important to me than my family.  So I’m going to say yes every time if I can.  Here’s what I wrote in my journal on Nov. 22, last year, a month after Jeff died.

Several weeks ago, I had a day when I pondered my regrets with Jeff.  I don’t feel guilty and I’m not beating myself up, but it’s worth learning from my mistakes so that I can be a better dad for my four other kids.  Here are some of my regrets.

1. I regret that we didn’t get a diagnosis sooner.  If we had known when Jeff was young, who knows how much different things would have been for him, and for us.

2. I regret all the times I lost my temper with Jeff.  When he was little it must have been terrifying, confusing and painful; when he was older it was still confusing and painful and usually exacerbated whatever ill feelings Jeff was having.

3. I regret that I didn’t tell him every day that I loved him.  I regret that I didn’t try to hug him more (even though he didn’t like it).

4. I regret that I didn’t take him shooting more.  I only did it once.  It was something he liked that we could have done together.  I was uncomfortable with him and guns; I should have gotten past my discomfort and sought the common ground.

5. I regret that I didn’t take him to a movie that last weekend.

6. I regret that I didn’t invite him to lunch that last Saturday.  I felt bad when he called us and I told him where we were without him.  His “Oh” haunts me.

I’m learning from my regrets, and I’m trying to say “yes” every time to my wife and kids.

B. Loss is normal; embrace it and grow from it.

Loss is normal.  I’m not saying it’s easy; I’m just saying it’s a normal part of life.  Everyone experiences loss-lots of it.

  • There is catastrophic loss: the death of a child or spouse or other family member; a disability; irreversible loss of health; terminal cancer; divorce; rape; abuse; infertility; betrayal by a friend; loss of a job; bankruptcy.
  • There is natural loss: you get older and lose your youth (and your hair, your waistline, your eyesight and hearing, your memory); friends move away; your children grow up and move out; you move and lose your house and neighbors; you change churches; your Life Group disbands; your dog dies. This is all a natural part of life, but it’s loss, and you feel it deeply.

Everyone experiences loss.  And yet when we do, especially catastrophic, unexpected loss, like a 22-year old son dying, we protest.  “This is wrong.  It isn’t supposed to be this way.  Why did this happen?”  And then, not knowing how to grieve, we may become angry and permanently bitter.  Or we may just try to “get over it”, which almost certainly guarantees that we won’t.

Loss is normal; embrace it and grow from it.  Pay attention to your loss.  Don’t be in a hurry to “get over it”; don’t view loss as an interruption.

ILL: When our family met Tuesday night to discuss this, we talked about the timing of this message.  I spoke last Sunday on our church’s vision; I’m starting a series next week that explains a part of our vision.  This talk kind of interrupts that train of thought, that plan.

          Laina pointed out that life does that-life interrupts your plans.  Jeff died on the day we were starting to raise money for the parking lot-that got put on hold for 9 months.  Life interrupts your plans.  But that’s life.

So don’t resent loss as an interruption in your perfectly controlled and planned life.  Embrace it, grieve appropriately and fully.  Your losses are not something to get over but are of great value to you and to God.  If we are unable to mourn, it hurts us and misshapes our relational capacities.  Most of us want to avoid pain rather than embrace it.  We avoid it, medicate and numb it, ignore it, hope it will go away…rather than accepting it, feeling it, and grieving it.  We use work, TV, drugs and alcohol, shopping or food binges, busyness, sexual escapades, unhealthy relational attachments, even serving others at church to medicate the pain of life.  Our inability to face and feel pain leads to superficiality and a lack of compassion.  But when we take time to grieve our losses before moving on, we are deepened

Jerry Sittser, through his wonderful book, A Grace Disguised, and through his friendship, helped me understand that you don’t get over catastrophic loss.  You don’t get over it, but you can grow into it.  It becomes part of the permanent landscape of your life, part of who you are as a person.

I’m not “over” Jeff; I never will be.  I miss him every day.  I see his picture and it still stops me in my tracks every time.  When you lose someone, you try to get back to normal; but you have to realize that it’s a new normal now.  Normal is sitting down for dinner and his chair is empty.  Normal is going downstairs and his room is clean-for the first time ever!  Normal is missing him every day-missing him stomping around the house, complaining that there’s nothing to eat and that the country is going to hell in a handbasket.  (Isn’t it funny what you miss?)  Normal means living with loss.

Embracing the loss gives me a chance to grieve-really mourn the loss-and then grow into it.  So embrace the loss and give yourself time to grieve.  Be patient; it may take a long time.  And grief is very draining.

This surprised me.  I am a very resilient and optimistic person.  But after Jeff died, I lost my energy.  I was tired, lethargic, and couldn’t seem to get enough sleep.  Worse, I had no energy for what I do, no motivation or desire to do anything.  One day in November, I was in the office and was asked about the upcoming Christmas carol sing.  I remember thinking that I didn’t want to do it.  I didn’t want to do Christmas.  I didn’t want to do church-period.  I’d come to church and couldn’t wait to get home.  Being with people drained me, and I already felt tired and empty.

It took 6 months before my energy returned.  There were days when I wondered if it would ever come back.  It did; but it took a long time.  Grief drains you.  Embrace your loss, and grow into it.  Grieve your loss, and then you can heal.

C. It’s ok to be sad but don’t become a sad person.

In March, Laina and I were at a pastors’ retreat that I was leading.  I didn’t want to be there, not because I didn’t love the people, but because I still had no energy.  But there I was.  And God gave us a gift: lunch alone, together.  I told Laina how I was feeling, and we talked about our grief and sadness and how we were processing it.  Then Laina said something that rocked me.

She reminded me of a dear friend of ours who lost a child, and the light went out of his eyes.  This guy was always a very energetic, exuberant, joyous guy, who lost his joy.  The wind went out of his sails…and he never got it back.  Laina reminded me of this and then said, “I don’t want this to happen to you.  I don’t want you to become a sad person.”

That got my attention.  And I promised her that with God’s help, I would grieve, but not get stuck.

Now I know this may seem to contradict what I just said about not getting over it and embracing your loss…but it doesn’t.  Grieve well and you can heal and be joyful again.  You don’t get over it, but you can grow into it, into the new landscape, the new normal.  It may take some people longer than others, but make up your mind it’s ok to be sad, but not to become a sad person.

D. I am a Christian: I believe in God.

Many people have asked me what Jeff’s death did to my faith.

ILL: The day we buried Jeff, I lowered the box containing his ashes-all that remained of his physical body-into the grave, and I took the shovel and filled the hole.  As I did that, it struck me with stunning clarity that there were two faith options open to me.  I can believe that God is there, and Jeff is more alive than ever in God’s presence.  Or I can believe that God is not there, that this life is all there is, that Jeff is dead and gone forever, and I’ll never see him again.  Which do I believe?

I am a Christian.  I believe in God.  So I believe that Jeff is more alive than ever in God’s presence and I’ll see him again.  How can I be sure of that?

Hebrews 11:1 Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.

I believe…and so I’m sure.  Whichever you believe-that God is there or that He’s not-you can’t prove.  It’s a matter of faith.  And my faith was never more clear to me, or more sure, than when I buried my son.  I am a Christian.  I believe in God, and in the resurrection.

ILL: Jerry Sittser told me this week that when he lost his mother, his wife and his daughter in a car accident, that he often wished for a reversal.  He wished he would have stayed 5 seconds longer at the rest area, or stopped for treats for kids-anything that would have prevented the accident and reversed the situation.  I wished that with Jeff-wished I could do something to reverse it all.

          Jerry was sharing this with a friend who told him, “Suppose you could.  Suppose you could reverse it and get your family back.  Then what if Linda got cancer five years later?  Would you reverse that?  Of course.  And what if one of the kids strayed?  Would you reverse that?  Of course.  You’d be in control, but it would be selfish.”  Did anyone see the movie “Click” with Adam Sandler?  Sound familiar?  This is why God doesn’t give us the remote, doesn’t give us the control to do reversals.

But God give us something better.  Instead of reversals, He promises a resurrection.

Do you believe it?  Can you trust God even when catastrophe strikes?

I learned that I couldn’t think my way out this; I would have to trust my way out.  I discovered that I had a new hunger for God.  It took me awhile to get back into my daily time with God, but when I did, it was with a new hunger for God’s word, and for prayer.  It was in one of those times, on Jan. 12 of this year, that God spoke to me.

Luke 12:6-7.  “What is the price of five sparrows–two copper coins?  Yet God does not forget a single one of them.  And the very hairs on your head are all numbered.  So don’t be afraid; you are more valuable to God than a whole flock of sparrows.” (NLT)  And cp. Matthew 10:29.  “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny?  And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.”

Jesus chose something common and inexpensive-a sparrow-to illustrate God’s care for us.  We take no notice when a sparrow dies; God does.  Not one is forgotten.  Not one dies apart from our Father.  Not one is forgotten, overlooked, unnoticed.  God knows.  God even knows the number of hairs on our head.  He knows the tiniest details about me.  He knows every thought, every deed, every motive, every fear, every sorrow, every tear, every joy…everything.  Not one is forgotten.  So don’t be afraid.  We are more valuable to God than sparrows.  What an inspiring, fear-defeating thought!

As I reflected on this, I thought of Jeff.  He was a sparrow…not forgotten by God.  God knew every thought and deed.  God knew when he bought the drug, and when he took it.  God knew he would die, and was there to meet him.  Jeff didn’t die because God forgot him, even for a moment.  He was not forgotten…not even a single sparrow falls to the ground apart from our Father.

The Lord said to me, “You and Laina were good parents to Jeff; now it is My turn to be his Father.”  That image is so comforting.  I’ve had fears that Jeff died and is gone forever, and will never know how much we loved him, and he’ll never know what he did (how he died) and how that hurt us to lose him.  But this is a different picture: a Father who knows all that I didn’t know, and was waiting to love him and father him when I couldn’t.  A Father who didn’t forget him, who knew everything about him, and who valued him more than I ever could.  My little sparrow has gone to be with this Father…this perfect, loving, all-knowing Father.  Thank you Lord. You are my comfort in my grief.  I will not be afraid.

You have to trust your way out.

I was praying a few days ago, and thought of meeting God when I die.  And I thought of Jeff seeing me and hugging me, his face bright with joy.  He could never do that in this life; but he will there.  I’m sure.  Because I’m a Christian.  I believe in God.