by Ruth Stoecker
No words can quell the stroke of grief
No sentence spoke will bring relief
So helpless now I long to take
But half your pain, it mine I’d make
To spell you briefly from this storm
To offer solace safe and warm
Oh Lord touch me that I may lend
Some comfort to my dearest friend
My heart pours out, yet what to do
My thoughts, my love, my prayers with you
In sorrows turmoil, small peace
I’ll share This promise always, I’ll be there.
by Jaden Ross Heil
This poem was written by a young man. He had just found out that a dear friend of his had lost her father in a tragic accident. Her father was only 42. His heartbroken for his friend, he sat down at the kitchen table, penned these words, tenderly placed them in an envelope, and mailed them to his friend. Eleven days later, this young man also lost his life in a tragic accident. That young man was my son!
Before I share with you my journey of grief and how others reached out to me during these difficult years, allow me for a moment to tell you a little about my son.
Jaden Ross Heil was born on June 18, 1977. I was ecstatic! As far back as I can remember, I had always wanted a baby. When I was a little girl, the one thing that I desired above all else was a baby brother or sister. Now the chances of this were very unlikely as the sister born 5 years before me was named Alice – which Mom said meant ALL FOR US! And the fact that I chose the very day my oldest sister got married to make my appearance, pretty much sealed the deal that there would be no more babies. By the way, both Mom and Dad missed that wedding. I really don’t know how old I was before I realized my name wasn’t “our little accident”. So, I started dreaming of a baby of my very own. While the other kids my age were circling toys in the Sears Roebuck catalog, I was circling babies.
When Jaden arrived, he was picture perfect and he was truly mine. I remember the first time my sister came to visit. As we stood looking down into his little bed, I took her hand and said, “just look at him, isn’t he beautiful”. Twenty-two years later, that same sister and I stood looking down into a shiny black coffin. He was still picture perfect. I took her hand and said, “Just look at him, isn’t he beautiful”. If I would begin to share with you all the “isn’t he beautiful” moments of Jaden’s life, we would be here a very long time. Jade was everything that a son could be. He was beautiful, smart, funny, athletic, and kind. He filled my life with joy and pride.
He was wise beyond his years. I remember one time being so frustrated with something and saying, “If I were God, I would not have done it this way”. Jaden was just a little tyke, but without missing a beat he said, “Mom if you were God, you’d know why you did it that way”.
He was also very curious. While playing with friends one day, he was introduced to a conversation that to him didn’t make much sense. He came into the house asking many questions. Being the good mom that I was, and given his superior intelligence, I thought it prudent to teach him about the birds and the bees. After I had completed what I thought a very excellent dissertation, he wrinkled his little face and said, “Did you ever do that?” I said, “Yes”. He then looked over at his baby brother and with disgust and unbelief said, “TWICE!”
He was an easy child, always anxious to please. We called him our golden boy. If God hadn’t blessed me with my second child, my quirky musician son, Landon, I’d have thought I was the perfect parent.
Just a few days after Jaden turned 18, he entered the military. I’ll never forget the day I sent him off to boot camp. I foolishly thought “It can’t get any worse than this”.
The army was not something we really planned on, it’s just that Jaden took a military aptitude test in high school and did so well that the recruiters wouldn’t leave him alone. He actually scored higher in his potential for learning a foreign language than anyone had ever scored in the state of South Dakota.
I remember how incredibly proud we were at his graduation from the Presidio in California. He had succeeded in learning the Russian language. As he walked across that stage, all decked out in his military finest, I took my husband’s hand, and said, “Just look at him, isn’t he beautiful”.
Jaden was discharged from the military in August of 1999 and came home to live with us. Those days were so awesome. It’s true, that old saying, “He left home a boy and came home a man”. He started coaching his little brother’s basketball team, took a job at Citibank, and made plans for college. On December 3rd, he and a friend came up with this crazy idea of driving to San Antonio for a ball game. I remember fussing at him not to go; it was cold and too far for just a weekend. But he had just gotten out of the military, he had been a sergeant, and he was invincible. He picked me up, swung me around. “I’ll be fine,” he said. “Mom, you worry too much”.
At midnight he called home, he was fine. They were in Missouri. I went to sleep. The next morning around 7:30, I awakened to the sound of a car door closing. I looked out the window and saw a police car and two officers walking toward our door. I said, “I am not answering that”. But, of course, there was no way of stopping what had already happened.
There had been an accident! It was raining and slippery. Jaden was driving. He had lost control and crashed into a guardrail. He died instantly.
I don’t remember much after hearing the words “I’m sorry”. I remember the feeling of being slammed into a brick wall. I didn’t know where I was. I had never been here before and I had no idea of what to do or how to do it. I just knew that life, as it had once been, would never be the same. Thus began the most painful and incredible journey.
I have learned a lot of things in the years since Jaden’s death. I’ve learned that death plays no favorites. We had a baby die in the womb. My father died at the age of 59 and left his parents to grieve. I’ve learned that there are no rules in grieving, there are no instructions, there are no time limits or quick fixes, and really there are no stages. Oh, maybe two. The first being numbness, shock. How else would you pick out a coffin, plan a funeral, walk away from a gravesite? The second being acceptance and that will take a lifetime. And I’ve learned that others who care can make a world of difference.
In the last several years, I have come into contact with a multitude of grieving parents. Many tell wonderful stories of how friends and family supported them. But many share sad and painful experiences of how previous friends, and even family members, dropped out of their lives because they didn’t know how to respond to their loss. It is my desire to share my experiences and present suggestions of how to “be there” for others and help them shoulder this tremendous loss. It has been my joy and privilege to present the following ten suggestions at many different venues. I have found that in reaching out to others, I have received healing for my own broken soul.
TEN WAYS TO OFFER COMFORT TO A GRIEVING HEART
(1) Be there One mom put it so well. She said, “It’s not the words you spoke, it’s the tear you left on my check”. I’ve known friends who have received a card every week for the entire first year. Another friend, whose sister committed to walking in the valley with her no matter how long it took. And it may take a while. Statistics show that a parent is considered NEWLY bereaved for 5 years. I may tell you, “I want to just be alone”. Yes, you should honor that, but know that I don’t mean forever; just may be right now. What I really want is for you to be there!
Let me tell you about Joan. She’s my very best friend. She was just an acquaintance before Jade’s death. She was at my door soon after the accident. She was always available. We walked together, we cried together, and she just let me talk and talk and talk. Jaden died in December. In May, Mother’s Day came around. Joan showed up at the door with a bouquet of flowers. Her words: “You are still Jaden’s mom”.
Then there was that first birthday without him. I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t just ignore his birthday but… what do you do with a birthday when there is no birthday boy. Joan showed up. In her hand she held balloons. Blue for a boy, green for life, and white for eternal life. It began a tradition for us. Every year on Jaden’s birthday, we get balloons; one for each year, and rent a helium tank. I make little slips of paper and write birthday wishes, and we tuck them in each balloon. We let them go one at a time and share a memory of Jaden. It is a wonderful healing time. I always put our return address on each slip of paper and almost every year I receive a note back from someone, somewhere who has found the note.
(2) Don’t expect very much from me… especially those first few months. It is a challenge for me to get out of bed and on a good day, I may remember to brush my teeth. Even though my world has crashed, life continues. I have to cook, clean, take care of my remaining family, and often go back to work. How can you help me? Bring over a meal, take my children to the park, a movie, do my laundry, run to the grocery store. Don’t wait till I ask you, I probably won’t. Studies show that grieving takes 80% of our energy. I am so tired, and chances are I can’t even sleep. Personally, I had never been one to drink but now found that it would numb the pain. I would pour myself a BIG glass of wine, fill the tub with water, turn off the lights and soak and sob until I was exhausted. I’d take a drive, park the car, and beat the steering wheel crying, “My Jade, my Jade, my beautiful Jade” until my fists were bruised. I would wake in the night, paralyzed in fear that something would happen to my other son. My second marriage began to fall apart. I had not the energy or the desire to hold it together and my husband and I parted. I didn’t eat and the pounds dropped off. I didn’t care, I wanted to die; I just wanted to be with Jaden.
(3) Remember special events… Not just that first year. Every year! I will always be a mother who misses her child. Transfer those dates from one calendar to the next and send a card, drop a note, make a phone call. For me, there’s the Walthers (wonderful friends of our family). Every year on December 4th, they remember… a plant arrives at my door. It is a beautiful Poinsettia. And every year I actually wait for it. I think I am prepared, but when I open the door and see the delivery man standing there, my heart thrills, the tears flow and I say, “Thank you, thank you, thank you for remembering”.
Then, there is the card that always arrives. Sometimes, it comes with a little package. It’s usually an angel from Jan, a gal who worked down the hall from me. We didn’t even know each other that well, but she had a son Jaden’s age, and she wrote down the date. She didn’t just send a note that first year… But every year! I wonder if she truly realizes what her kindness means to me.
(4) Don’t try to “fix” me… Don’t lecture me on how best to grieve. Don’t offer me clichés such as “time heals all wounds”, “he’s in a better place”, “it was God’s will”, or “you are young, you can have another child”. Don’t assume you know how I feel. No one truly understands another’s grief. As we are all unique, so is our grief journey. Just walk beside me, listen to me… be there.
(5) Say his name… I love to hear it! Remember a story? Share it with me. Let me talk about him… don’t change the subject. I may tell you the same things over and over and over, but please just be there. I remember a mom who came to me on her son’s birthday. She said, “I CAN’T DO THIS!” We got out the photo albums and page after page she told me of her child. When we reached the last pages, through her tears she said, “I THINK I CAN NOW!”
I was visiting with a stranger the other day, the question always comes, “How many children do you have?” When I told her about Jaden, she told me that she too had lost a son, over 16 years ago. I asked his name, she said, “Matthew”. I asked, “What is his middle name?” She began to cry. She said, “It’s Edward. Matthew Edward. It’s been so long since anyone even asked his name. It feels so good on my lips and to my ears”. Just say his name.
(6) Pray for me… Don’t stop, although I may even tell you to. Don’t give up on me. I am a woman of faith, I love the Lord, and I’ve been through some stuff. I’ve had many disappointments and I’ve made many mistakes. I sat by helplessly as my first husband walked out on me and our two little boys. I’ve felt the rejection of adultery and the pain of an unwanted divorce. I’ve watched friends struggle with addictions and experienced firsthand the terror of abuse. I lost my father when he was much too young and sat at the bedside of my pain-ridden mother as she took her last breath. But nothing prepared me for the plunge into darkness that I experienced in the death of my child. You would have thought that in this, my darkest hour, I would have run into the arms of Jesus. Instead, I ran away.
When Jaden died, all that I believed, all that I had determined as truth became distorted, and in my grief and pain I lashed out at the Lord. I was so angry. I would rail at Him, “Where are you? How could you allow this to happen? You don’t care at all, do you?” Often I would scream at Him, “You don’t even exist!” Then wonder, if that’s true, just who then was I screaming at.
It took me many long months before I woke up one morning with the song in my heart that says He was there all the time. He was there all the time waiting patiently in line. It was the beginning of my healing. It was at this point that I began to believe again that God was with me. He didn’t do this to me; He was in it with me. He loved me! He could be trusted. He was there! I began to hope again. To believe that maybe someday I would smile again.
I realized that I truly had so much to still be thankful for. Another son, Landon, is such a delight. For my husband, Kim, who although we had been separated for over a year, still loved me and was willing and anxious to begin life together again. For a wonderful extended family. And, for the many friends who stood by me and encouraged me. Pray for me! I am too wounded and weak to pray for myself.
(7) Accept that I am different now… I will never be the person I was before. A mom told me the other day that she was watching old videos and as she saw herself laughing and having fun with her daughter, she not only missed her daughter she said, “I missed me!” We have lost our innocence, we have lost a portion of ourselves, and we are different now. Even if you really miss that other person, please accept me now.
(8) Don’t judge me… I may need to surround myself with memories for a time. You might see my child’s picture everywhere. I may even wear a T-shirt with his picture and visit his grave every day, sometimes twice. Allow me! I remember when I was young, I worked at a bank. One of my co-workers received flowers on the anniversary of her child’s death. It made me uncomfortable; I thought it inappropriate to bring attention to the event. Why would she want a reminder? God forgive me. She didn’t need a reminder. It is all she had thought about the weeks and days leading up to that day. The flowers were not to remind her, but to let her know that someone cared; someone appreciated the magnitude of her loss. Then, there was the mom who had made her office cubicle into a shrine. It made her co-workers “uncomfortable”. I understand that. I even agree. Hopefully, this is only for a time, but in the interim think about that word “uncomfortable”. This mom had watched her child die in increments, going from robust to skeletal. She had been afraid to leave his room even for a moment; what if he died and she wasn’t there? She had walked out of the hospital with empty arms and a broken heart. She planned a funeral, chose a gravesite, and fingered his name written in granite. That I believe is uncomfortable.
(9) Visit the cemetery…and when you do, leave a note, a flower, some indication that you have been there. Or maybe just tell me that you stopped by his grave today and said, “Hi”. Jaden’s grave is 350 miles from where we live. We don’t get to visit very often, but I love knowing that my family does. They often remark on how the grass is growing, how lovely the flowers are, or just that they stopped by. It means so much.
(10) And lastly, watch for the signs…There are those who cannot move beyond their pain. Be alert to behavior that may be dangerous. Encourage them to talk to someone in the professional field. Search out a support group for them, offer to go with them. About a year after Jaden’s death, I joined an organization named Compassionate Friends. It is for moms, dads, grandparents, and siblings. We all have this one thing in common… our child, grandchild, or brother/sister has died. I found a sanctuary there, it was a place where I could be real, I could cry, or I could laugh. These people understood.
Twenty-one years have now passed since that day when my life changed forever. I miss my son every day. I mourn the time I am messing with him here and thrill at the anticipation of seeing him again in eternity. I am often reminded of the last line of Jaden’s poem, “this promise always, I’ll be there”. There are so many considerations in that short line:
#1. Jaden’s spirit, always there, right beside me
#2. God, my Heavenly Father, closer than a brother, always there
#3. A plea, an entreaty for me and for you, that we be there for others
About the Author: Ruth Stoecker lives in Sioux Falls, South Dakota with her husband, Kim. She is the mother of Jaden Heil (deceased) and Landon Heil. Ruth is passionate about educating people on how to “be there” for others in their grief journey. She is the facilitator of the Sioux Falls Chapter of The Compassionate Friends and also the Regional Coordinator for North and South Dakota. You can reach Ruth at 605-201-1426 or firstname.lastname@example.org