Today is John Robert’s birthday. Our family remembers him every day, but especially on this day. Each one in our family has distinct memories and relationships with him. I remember not only John Robert but also the impact his death had on his sister, niece and nephew, aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins, friends… all of us.
He would have been 28 years old. Still, I can only see him as 18. Occasionally I drift into a daydream of wondering what he would be doing today but I do not really indulge this for long. The truth is whatever I can imagine falls far short of the eternal life he now experiences.
However, as it is written: “What no eye has seen,what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived” – the things God has prepared for those who love him—these are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit. – 1 Corinthians 2:9-10
I’ve looked back at some of the posts I’ve written on this date across the past years. I’ll link a few at the end of this post. Just as there are no new pictures to share, no new events to tell about, and no new updates to his life story … I have no new reflections. Just three words. We miss him. Beyond that, only faith and love have kept us moving on after this loss.
And this is what he promised us—eternal life. – 1 John 2:25
Living in the promise of God among the people of God has been our strength.
Everyone has defining moments in their life. Sometimes they are wonderful. What day did you get married? What was your first car? Sometimes they are marked by disaster. Where were you when Kennedy was shot? Where were you when Katrina hit? Sometimes they are marked by loss. When did your son die? That’s our defining moment. Everything is before or after that date. This day.
From the beginning I knew that grief was an unwelcome guest that moved into my heart and would never leave. The loss of John Robert is the subtext of my life. His face flashes before me at the most unexpected times. A memory will arise out of my mind that catches me by surprise. A moment of tears. A moment of laughter. Grief reminds me frequently. I’m still here.
The loss of a child is not only a defining moment in one’s own life, but it becomes a kind of life preserver on the waters next to newly bereaved parents who are drowning in their sorrows. Many times people have referred strangers to me to just talk about grief. The loss of a child is the only connecting factor, and the only important one. All I can really do is sit in the ashes with them and listen and say ‘I know‘ and ‘It won’t always hurt like this‘ and ‘It is ok to cry as much as you want‘… repeating words that were said to me in the early part of our journey. As I see it, if I cannot shed a little light for someone just starting down this dark path, then my experience would be for nothing. John Robert loved his friends and he would do anything for them. I’d like for that spirit to live on as I try to bless others who are thrown into the Great Sadness.
Since this is the ninth anniversary (that word sounds too nice) of his death, I wanted to gather the posts I wrote before. Starting with the one on the day he died. I can’t imagine how I pulled it together long enough to compose that, except that I have found writing to be cathartic … healing. I guess I didn’t write a post about his death in 2013 and 2016. The 2016 post is a reflection of going to the first graduation since John Robert died just a few days before his own.
HERE is a page of grief resources I update occasionally. Feel free to share it with anyone suffering through a loss.
And as I have shared so many times, HERE is a page where I attempted to tell in a brief way John Robert’s story.
As always, thank you for reading. And for so many expressions of support, love and prayer. We will always believe that we are where we are at this point because of the prayers of godly people. You are appreciated. JD
A week ago all was normal in our household. Then one morning Jackson the dog didn’t want to get out of his kennel. This is very unusual because the morning routine begins by going outside, coming in for the morning snacks, then going back out again. It’s been this way for a long time. But not that day. Eventually he came out and wandered around outside. He came in and laid in his bed – without a snack. I figured something was wrong and maybe he just needed some time to let it pass.
Throughout the day Jackson was more lethargic than usual, never eating. So the next morning when he wouldn’t come out of his kennel I took him to the vet. He has been there for a few days now. He’s not going to come home.
We had theories at first about what he might have eaten outside that caused the issues he was facing. He did eat a lot of buds and leaves off of a hibiscus bush. Was that the culprit? I theorized he may have eaten off of the oleander in the back yard, but the vet said it would have likely killed him quickly – and the bitter taste does not encourage eating. So I don’t think that was it. Significant liver damage is the ultimate reason. The cause? I don’t know. Maybe it’s been coming for a while and just now showed up … or the hibiscus was the last straw. It doesn’t matter. Our hearts are broken to say goodbye to our furry friend.
You can read about the day we suddenly and without preparation decided we wanted to bring him home HERE. That was in March of 2009. Kind of unusual, the way we came across him. He won us over quickly. Here’s a picture of Maggy and Jackson before we got back in the car with him.
I don’t think I ever told anyone this. And if it’s too weird for you, I understand. We found Jackson on March 21, 2009. On May 21, 2009 we were mourning the loss of our son one year ago that day. I know perhaps it’s not theologically sound, but I have always believed that maybe John Robert asked the Lord to lead us to such a puppy as Jackson. It was all so sudden and unexpected … but I do think one of Jackson’s purposes in life was to bring some comfort and healing to our broken hearts. From day one he was so mild mannered, loving, and sweet natured. Whenever we reached to pet him, he always winced down, as if someone had hurt him in the past. Maybe we were a comfort and healing to his broken heart as well.
Today it’s our tears that fall. He has been at the vet’s now for three days on an IV drip with no real improvement and some signs that his liver is not functioning. When we arrived at the vet this afternoon, his breathing was ragged and the fluid in his system causing each labored breath to rattle. To keep him alive would be to prolong his suffering and actually let him live long enough to increase it. We won’t do that to our sweet puppy. For eight years he has trusted us to take care of him and we have done pretty well. We will fulfill our duty to him and send him into the next world. Yes, I do believe that God gave us pets to enjoy in this world, so why not the next?.
I have shared that graphic with others who have lost their pets, so I suppose it is fitting to share it here for us. We are grateful (and amazed) at so many people who were praying for Jackson, and thus for us. Thank you.
We have developed patterns of life that relate to Jackson being in our house. We come by the house a few times each day to let him out. We board him when we go on trips. We have a schedule of feeding him. At night when it’s time to go to bed it is my duty to get him to come and get in his kennel. For the past few months he hasn’t wanted to get out of his bed in the den to come…I’ve had to pick him up and get him out of the bed. I have though he was just wanting me to pet him a little before heading to bed, but now I wonder if this illness wasn’t coming on. We’ll never know. But usually he’ll follow me down the hall and get in his kennel for the night. He’ll use his nose and paws to arrange the blanket the way he wants it to be (come to think of it, he hasn’t done that as much lately either). And tomorrow we’ll start over. Except not this time.
This afternoon with the compassionate help of his veterinarian (who is as pained as we are I think)… we will send him to sleep for one last time in this life. It will be painless and he won’t be hungry or hurting any longer (he hasn’t eaten in four days). I trust the Lord that He knows what to do with these ones we love so much.
Rest well, Jackson. You came along at just the right time in our life to bring us comfort and unconditional love. May you receive the same.
I know not everyone has this feature on their Facebook account, but I do. It’s called ‘On this Day‘ or ‘Memories‘. It ferrets out posts from the same day in years gone by. It’s pretty amazing when we consider how long most of us have been on the Facebook. Posts going back ten years or so pop up in my feed under that feature and they have been fun and mostly enjoyable. Old pictures and events brought to mind that I haven’t thought about in a long time … every day.
But now it’s May. It is a month we expected to have a totally different set of memories than we do. So when ‘On This Day‘ pops up I begin to sift through the posts. I pass the day that darkened our lives forever and see posts just prior. Days I regard now as carefree and joy filled. Days of expectation and pride. We said goodbye to a lot of that when we said goodbye to John Robert. In May of 2008. On that day.
As I read those posts that pre-date THAT day I wish I could go back to my younger self and tell younger John what was about to happen. (i.e. James Rubart’s The Five Times I Met Myself). But that’s not the way things work, is it?
On May 21st we will once again pass through the day that John Robert died. The memories are a bit more vivid, the pain a little more acute. But as those pictures begin to surface I do detect a shift in my feelings about them. If this had happened seven or eight years ago, it would have crushed me. But it will be nine years this time. And some of those pictures are starting to make me smile.
Spending time with other bereaved parents at The Compassionate Friends meetings, I understood it would happen one day. The time would come when memories would bring some smiles along with the tears. The tears will never run dry, but the smiles can come alongside. Especially in those initial years, the jagged pain of fresh grief kept the smiles away. But now they seem more natural.
So I thank God for the gentle ways He brings healing gradually … honoring our humanity, acknowledging our pain at being separated, helping to carry us through the darkest of days. Our eyes have adjusted so that we can see more of the light of life, at least until we revisit him in our hearts.
If you are a Christian and you’ve suffered significantly, then you know what it’s like to ruminate on that question. Yes, the one that hangs on a permanent nail near the door to your heart.
God, why did you let that happen?
Or maybe it is more like…
God, are you even there? And if you are, could you take a look at what’s happening to me right now?
When I was reading through some of 1 Peter a few days a word jumped out at me that I had not noticed before.
In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials…
Grieved. It’s in the English Standard Version. Other translations use words like suffer and distressed and struggle. But the ESV uses the term that has found such a place in my life. Grieved. Grief is a term of sorrow, loss, even bereavement. We can experience grief at the loss of a loved one, but also by the loss of important things, pets, relationships, or even our health. There are various things that can cause us grief.
The first readers of Peter’s letter were in extreme circumstances, having lost homes and jobs, forced into a dispersion throughout the known world due to persecution. They did what they were supposed to do – what we still try to encourage people to do today. They gave their life to Christ! Does anyone doubt that in the quietest part of the night someone didn’t contemplate…
God, why did you let that happen? God, are you even there? And if you are, could you take a look at what’s happening to me right now?
When we lost our son many people said to us, “I don’t know what to say.” I could relate. I didn’t know what to say either. I’m sure if I knew the depth of your grief and sorrow, disappointment and heartache, abuse and recovery, I wouldn’t know what to say. But Peter does have something to say. An encouragement for us to think about what we are becoming through the crucible of our troubles.
…So that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.
I wouldn’t go around quoting this to hurting people. But if you will hang on to Jesus, when you are a sufficient distance from your loss you will be able to look back and see the extreme value of your faith. In your sorrow you found out that it wasn’t just words or nice ideas. Faith became for you more precious than gold. By not letting go of God when the trials were at their hottest … causing enormous grief … you find out your faith is genuine.
Oh, it gets ragged. Sometimes you might not even think it’s there. You’re not alone in your dark night of the soul. If it were all up to you it wouldn’t be. But it’s not all up to you. God is near and He’s not letting a single tear go to waste.
God, why did you let that happen? God, are you even there? And if you are, could you take a look at what’s happening to me right now?
So, it’s no secret. The Apostle Peter wrote it down to believers who were scattered by persecution throughout the known world. Having lost everything that resembled security and hope he acknowledged the grief that they were experiencing due to losses. Then he encouraged them that their trials were giving wealth and value to their faith.
I doubt they could see it any clearer than we can. But faith keeps our eyes to a coming day when Jesus will be revealed. At that time I believe we will know fully how God took the worst thing that ever happened to us and made it the most powerful thing that ever happened to us. So don’t give up when various kinds of trials grieve your heart.
Questions for Contemplation
*If you’ve blamed God for your various trials, have you ever considered that there is an Enemy who can bring trials as well?
*When Jesus said that faith as small as a mustard seed was acceptable to Him, do you think he had in mind times when our faith would be barely there?
*If I have a friend who is going through various trials that have brought grief, how can I best be a blessing to them … without words?
*How do I feel about having questions for God about my trials and at the same time having faith that He alone can answer them?
*It’s hard for us to have perspective in the midst of our trials. Have I sought out the perspective of some person of faith who has been through the same thing some time ago?
*Remember that you are not alone in your grief and struggles. What persons in the Bible can we find who went through the same kind of pain and how did they respond? What did they write about it? Maybe those stories and words are preserved for us so we would know we were not alone.
Below are the notes for the eulogy I delivered at the funeral of my dear friend and church elder Mike Riley on March 2, 2017 at Forsythe Church of Christ. There was standing room only and an overflow crowd to honor Mike and support his family. Kevin Riley offered the first eulogy and there’s never been a more fitting one. Every dad would love to have his son speak about him in the way Kevin did. An audio recording of the entire service is available HERE. jd
NO GREATER HOPE
It has been a few days since we said goodbye to Mike Riley, but the reminders of what he meant to us will continue to persist throughout our lives. I am grateful that we are having this assembly today to honor him and I’m grateful that you are here to honor our friend and his beautiful family.
I have no doubt that for the rest of our days members of the Forsythe Church of Christ will hear the laughter, wisdom, and joy of Mike Riley throughout these halls and in this pulpit. I am sure that when we pass by a certain pew or sit down in a specific room we will have flashbacks of a time when Mike was right there beside us urging us on in our faith, encouraging us when we were low, sharing a story from his arsenal of interesting experiences. He paid attention to us, all the while he was battling cancer and other illnesses, but you wouldn’t really know that.
I know that many of you know him outside of these walls. Lifelong friends, Rotarians, Real Estate professionals, medical professionals, and many others connect his presence with the times of your lives that you loved the most. Family members and friends alike have a nearly inexhaustible supply of stories and experiences with Mike Riley. He had a way of bringing life to every moment. We will miss that.
Surely Mike had a natural disposition that drew people to him. There is no question that the foundation of Mike’s joy and spirit was his faith. Mike had a way of being a devoted Christian that didn’t make anyone uncomfortable. He loved the Lord and he loved his family and he loved people. He loved his church and the doors were never open that he and Mignon didn’t come inside. They came early enough to visit with anyone who was here. They participated openly. They served devotedly. Mike Riley, like his father Max, loved and served this church for decades as an excellent leader.
Friends, family, church, community – they all were made better by Mike Riley’s presence.
I believe this is because Mike found his hope in the Lord Jesus Christ. How else can one explain the joyous demeanor of one who has lived for so long under the threat of cancer. He did not succumb to self pity (that any of us could witness), but even made sure to visit friends and associates who had cancer, often giving them a copy of Dr. Amy Givler’s book about surviving cancer. He took the most painful element of his life and used it to bless others. No wonder we loved him. He was a great example of the Lord in whom he trusted and followed.
Yes, it was hope in the life-giving power of Jesus Christ that kept Mike smiling in the face of giants all of his days. He had hope. Hope in the Lord can carry us through the most difficult days. There is no greater hope than what is expressed in Luke 24.
On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb. 2 They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3 but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. 4 While they were wondering about this, suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them. 5 In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? 6 He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: 7 ‘The Son of Man must be delivered over to the hands of sinners, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.’ ” 8 Then they remembered his words.
There is no greater hope than that which arises from the empty tomb. Jesus is alive. No amount of philosophical reflection can overcome that one historical fact. Mike had no greater hope than the hope that he received by following after Jesus Christ in his life, with hope for eternal life given by a Risen Savior.
I pray that all of us would pursue a life of hope on this basis.
In 1939 a preacher from another generation published a book of sermons. In one of them Clovis Chappell tells of the experience of the passing of his father.
“Years ago, I watched my father pass … He had a good voice. He used to lead the singing in our village church. As the end drew near, he stretched out those once strong hands, that were very weak now, and sang, “Jesus, Lover of my soul, let me to thy bosom fly.” He was joyously confident that the Everlasting Arms, upon which he was leaning as he pushed his tired feet into the waters of death, would sustain him through those waters, and on into the eternal yonder. …Therefore, we join our voices with that of Saint Paul, and shout, “the victory is ours, thank God!” (Clovis Chappell, Values That Last, 1939)
I have no doubt that Mike is shouting today, “The victory is mine, thank God!”
I offer to you one of Mike’s favorite blessings:
“The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace.”
Because of hope, it is well with our souls.
(At this point in the service Tommy Inman beautifully led us all in singing It Is Well With My Soul.)
The Lord’s Prayer together to end our service.
Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil:
For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.