In July 2014, our 25-year-old son Ryan (my stepson) was killed when the gas can he was using to light his bonfire exploded. For three days, he was a missing person.
When my husband Michael and I found him, our worst nightmare became our truth.
A tragedy like that casts a long shadow. The barbed fingers of grief hook into every aspect of your being. Life split into two parts—before Ryan died and after.
How do you go on in the after?
I wasn’t certain Michael would make it through the heartbreak—especially that first night. Try as I might, I will never forget the pitch-black-night silence broken by the guttural sounds of his despair over the loss of his son.
I started having panic attacks while driving. I’d imagine having a blowout, losing control of the car, and spinning across traffic. My breath would come in gasps, heart slamming against my chest as the parade of nightmarish thoughts trekked through my mind. I stopped driving for a time.
At home, our strong foundation developed cracks while we crumbled under the weight of our broken hearts. Most mornings, I’d wake up to find Michael had slept on the couch. The man who’d once seen me so clearly from miles away, now couldn’t see me at all through the shattered lens of grief. I wasn’t sure we would make it as a couple, a family.
I knew Ryan wouldn’t want that for us, but I had no idea how to keep a marriage when you’ve buried a child.
The only thing holding me—us—together was our faith.
And then in marched the holidays.
The first two Christmases after Ryan died, we decorated, shopped, and sang on autopilot. A simple glance at the empty stocking hanging by the fireplace was like a stomp on the heart. The absence of him filled us, leaving no room in our hearts for rejoicing.
For Christmas 2016, we gave to others in Ryan’s name. With that small offering, came the return of the joy of the season.
That year on Epiphany I was un-decorating the house. I didn’t want to let any of it go—not the decorations, not the laughter, not the holiday season, not the hope.
I got to the nativity set and began wrapping and placing the large pieces in a tote for safekeeping. Our set is a handcrafted heirloom—Michael’s brother Mark painted each porcelain piece over 40 years ago. As I was wrapping up the sweet, blonde baby Jesus, I remembered a story Michael told me about how as a child Ryan used to carry it around with him when he was at his grandma’s house. When it was time for him to go to bed, he would insist on sleeping with it on his chest. I smiled, thinking how that sweet little boy took the saying, Jesus is the reason for the season to heart, when an idea struck . . .
I had another nativity scene, a miniature one, purchased at the dollar store a few years back. It was no longer much of a set, the only pieces not broken or chipped were one cow and the baby lying in a blue manger. Still, I’d held onto it. I raced to the stored, Christmas totes and dug it out. Plucking the baby Jesus from the box, I decided to follow Ryan’s lead and keep it with me.
It sits on my desk from the cold, dark days of January through the twinkling light-lit month of December. For years now, it has served as a visual reminder on those days when my faith feels fragile.
Because the heart-rending reality is that somehow Ryan is gone—before getting married, having a family, or even finishing the latest ink drawing he’d been working on.
The pain of losing a child is still bigger than me. But it’s not bigger than Jesus.
And the Father has been faithful in the years since Ryan’s death.
Snapshots of memories—the girls in their caps and gowns, grandsons with birthday cake on their faces, Michael and I chasing ocean waves on our anniversary trip—fill our fireplace mantel, walls, and my heart to overflowing.
Still, I see the empty spaces, void of the new memories Ryan should be making. I wish he were here. That will never change. I’ve finally reached the point when I can look at pictures of him without breaking down, seeing each captured smile as a gift.
So many people look back at a tragedy and say, “I don’t know how I made it through.”
If you were to ask me how our family made it, I’d walk over to my desk and pick up that miniature baby Jesus with the “Made in China” sticker on the back. I’d hand it to you and say, “We grabbed onto Him, and He didn’t let us go.”
It won’t happen overnight, but if you trust Him, the hope born in that manger so long ago will meet you right in the middle of your mourning—He won’t let you go.
I’m typing this while looking up at our lit white pine, my heart overflowing with reverence for the One who got me to here.
I can’t wait to celebrate Him.
It’s the presence of Christ that has made all the difference.
Jesus is the only thing.
Previously published on the author’s blog