By Melissa Godber
“I have no words,” said the hundreds of family and friends who reached out to us in the minutes, hours, days, weeks, and months after our son died.
I had no words. On the day I had to write my son’s obituary, I was at loss. No mother or father should ever have to write his or her own child’s obituary. How could I ever begin to truly capture the essence of all that William Wesley Godber, age 13, born March 30, 2004, and died November 22, 2017, was in his short time here on earth?
Son, brother, grandson, nephew, cousin, friend. Humor maker, brownie baker, ice cream eater, farmer boy, Lego builder, quiet observer, kind listener, #88, cross-country runner, seventh grader, drummer, believer.
All these words, but never enough.
What I’ve discovered, though, is that words define our story — a story more painful than anything imaginable. But it is essential to know where we started to see how far we’ve come. By sharing our story and listening to the stories of other bereaved parents, tiny tendrils of healing slowly start to trickle into the devastating cracks of grief. Here is our story:
Wednesday, November 22, 2017, was a day like any other. Better, actually, as the kids (Claire, 17; Will, 13; and Jesse, 8) were home from school and Mark and I were off work, and we were all getting ready to do a few errands and appointments as a family. Following the errands, we would be packing up to head to my brother’s house for the Thanksgiving holiday. Will loved going to the farm. Really, it was his special place, more than any of the rest of us, as he got to spend time farming with the uncles.
Then the unimaginable happened. Our special family day turned into a living nightmare. My son, who suffered from depression, took his own life. My daughter Claire heard a noise. Thinking something had fallen over, she went next door to her brothers’ room to see what it was. It was Will, and there was a gun. The rest is a blur that replays constantly in my head. Frantic, she ran upstairs to us. Terrified, my husband Mark and I ran downstairs. I called 911, and the police arrived in moments. The young neighbor guy who was part of the volunteer fire department, ran across the street to our house. Mark said, “He’s still breathing.” We all told Will to hang on, that help was coming. The police chief guided us into the living room, while they were working on him on the floor. She said the helicopter had been called in, and we should be ready to go to the hospital. Running upstairs to get dressed, I could hear the helicopter coming in. I could see the flares in the cul-de-sac signaling the helicopter. Then she said the words you never, ever want to hear in your life — “I’m sorry, but your son is gone. He’s died.” Then I heard the helicopter lifting back into the air. Without my son. And really, that’s when the real nightmare began. Because the hope was gone.
Here’s what I kept saying in those first moments: “But he’s my boy!” Like, somehow, uttering that mantra was going to make it all change. That just because I’m his mother, he’d somehow come back to us all. The shock was so acute the tears weren’t even falling yet. The rest is just a swirl of people, words, and colors. Mark and I went downstairs to say goodbye to our son. I was terrified to see my son damaged in the way that he was. But they’d bandaged his precious head. And he looked just like he was asleep. Mark and I knelt down by him. And I kept saying, over and over, “But you’re my boy.” I mean, what do you do, when the child you helped create to be life, is now lifeless? All breath was gone, and not just his.
When we arose to let them take him away, I remember turning around to see all of the paramedics standing in the family room behind us. The somberness they exhibited at the loss of this sweet, precious child is vivid to this day.
Family and friends began to arrive. The fire department chaplain came. Someone from the Helpline Center came. I said to her, “But it’s too late.” Why would we need the Helpline Center when he was already gone? What I didn’t know then, but know now, of course, is that we were suicide survivors (Helpline Center was lifesaving for us starting at that moment). And this is when all the should-haves started. I should have called the Helpline Center sooner when I wasn’t sure how to deal with my son’s anxiety. I should have shielded him from the things he feared so deeply. I should have spent more time with him. I shouldn’t have gotten mad when his moodiness was so deep. Despite all those doubts, however, we were in the beginning stages of trying to help him deal with depression — but it wasn’t enough. Why would God let this happen to us? We are just a normal family. What would people think of us — that our son thought life was so bad he couldn’t live anymore? Would everyone think we were monsters? I remember telling the Helpline Center representative, “Now we’re that family.” Like we were so good before, we were untouchable?
Here’s the thing: I believe in God. I believe He sent his own Son to save us. And Will believed that, too. When he was just a little guy in Awana, a children’s ministry at our church, he asked Jesus into his heart. But I just wonder, why? Why would God allow something like this to happen to us? Any other type of death would be preferable to face, than one in which someone chooses to end it all. But depression is a sickness. As the school counselor told me, depression is not a character flaw. It’s a real disease. Somehow, it seems like I could have stopped his death from happening. Then my trusted, godly friend told me, “But you’re not God.”
While I still question God daily, I fully believe in His promises. In my wildest dreams, I could not have imagined the ways in which God brought comfort to us and surrounded us with His love. It was like He was walking ahead of us, clearing a pathway through the wilderness:
- My best friend and her husband arrived at our home immediately after Will died. She was a rock in the midst of our sinking sands, helping facilitate everything we needed in the hours, days, weeks, and months to come. When she wasn’t with us, she called once or twice a day, offering the godly wisdom I so desperately needed in order to stay alive for my family.
- Will’s third grade teacher (and also Claire’s before him) was his funeral director. During a district-wide inservice at the beginning of the school year, she and I (we were both school employees at the time) were paired up in an icebreaker activity. “What is one thing people would be surprised to learn about you?” was the question. Her response to me was that she was 99 percent certified as a funeral director. Then she gave me a pen with the funeral home contact info printed on it – just for fun. Little did I know I would be digging that pen out of my purse less than four months later. She took care of everything. I couldn’t imagine having to leave my son with anyone else.
- The support we received from our family, friends, church, and community was overwhelming. When I thought we’d be ostracized because of our loss, we were embraced. Messages, phone calls, meals, and other things I couldn’t even think of were provided for us.
- A dear friend, who was also a school co-worker, just happened to be Will’s library teacher. She had him in class the day before he died. She had asked the students to name something they were thankful for. Will’s response? “My mom.” She said he was steadfast and serious in his answer, despite some teasing from classmates. I know without a doubt she was meant to offer those words to ease my mind and relieve some of the natural guilt I felt for his death.
- Will’s visitation and funeral were bigger than I could even comprehend. People stood for hours, waiting for the chance to express their condolences to us. It was only by the grace of God that my husband and I could stand there for hours, offering comfort to people who loved us and loved our Will, while holding ourselves together. Our pastor gave a message that proclaimed the gospel to all the hundreds of people who were there to hear it. He said that Will was not lost, but rather, he was right in heaven with the Father who loves him. “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” - Romans 8:38-39, NIV.
- A few days after the funeral, I awoke one morning to an anonymous text with a Bible verse. When I asked who the sender was, I discovered it was a friend I knew in an acquaintance kind-of way. She texted verses and words of encouragement to me on a daily basis for nearly three years, until she went home to heaven herself.
- Many of Will’s friends and their mothers visited us. On one of those visits, they brought over a necklace with Will’s own handwriting engraved onto a heart (a huge process that many people contributed toward – not just money, but searching for Will’s own handwritten words). That necklace is a talisman for me now, and I run my fingertips across the words when I need comfort.
- Another mom showed up at our door one night as I was literally on the floor, violently sobbing and grieving. She sat down with me and handed me a Clinging Cross, which she had just purchased and wanted to drop off for us. I desperately clung to that cross for many times in those early days and nights after Will died.
- At the time of Will’s death, I was employed as the librarian at his school. Somehow, after a couple of months, I went back to work. Every school-day morning, a few girls from Will’s class came into the library. They’d hang out for a while, but before they left for class, they each gave me a heartfelt hug. These same girls baked cookies for me over the Easter holiday (Will’s birthday was on Good Friday) and brought them to school for me after the break.
- An acquaintance, from my past years at MOPS, messaged me. She was in contact with a gentleman who was traveling around the country, advocating for suicide prevention among military personnal. He happened to be in town for a few days; would I be willing to meet with him? I was desperate to understand how I had failed so miserably at keeping my son alive, so I went to meet with him and his wife. Through the course of our conversation, I discovered he was a colleague of the man who had led Will to Christ in Awana. Coincidence? I don’t think so.
- One morning before work, more than a year after the first anniversary of Will’s death, I was at the cemetery. I bowed my head and prayed to God, “Please. Just show me that you have my Will in your arms and that he is safe.” I went to the museum where I work, and continued on with my day. Hours later, at an evening event, a friend I knew years ago from MOPS (I attended the local group when my kids were little) arrived at the event. We exchanged pleasantries as she and her family walked in the door. A few seconds later, she stepped back outside and said to me, “The Lord is holding your son close in heaven. I know Will is there, and someday you will see him.” I immediately knew God had heard my prayer. I hadn’t said anything to my friend about Will, but she was prompted to speak the words I so desperately needed to hear.
- The summer after Will died, we half-heartedly contemplated getting a dog, wondering if a pet might distract us from the upcoming fall and anniversary of Will’s death. I had just messaged a trusted dog breeder, who had previously sold a dog to my friend, to set up a time to visit her new puppies. At the same time, my friend sent me a message saying that a family, who wanted to stay anonymous, felt God had laid it on their hearts to gift us with a puppy. The puppy we were considering cost exactly the amount of money they had chosen to give. In those early days after Will died, I prayed to God constantly, begging for some tangible evidence of His peace. I knew immediately He had answered the prayer through the gift of Grace. Grace, our little angel puppy, has brought much comfort and love to us in the years since she came to live with us. [Note: If that family happens to read this article, we want to thank you from the bottom of our hearts for your kindness and generosity.]
I could go on and on. The blessings have been huge, and when I pray to God for confirmation that He’s got this, He’ll show me, in one way or another.
Our hearts are broken. Literally. But somehow, we all seem to put one foot in front of the other. I tell everyone that my kids saved me. My daughter is so strong. Despite the horror she witnessed (and that she and Mark shielded me from) that day, she has exhibited a strength and faith that is overwhelming. And my youngest son, Jesse, possesses a spunk and zest for life that forced me to get up and face life in those early days of grief.
An Anchor in the Storm
The first year after the death of a child is about survival. Nobody forgets, but the world keeps turning. Friends and family continue to reach out, but they have their own life to contend with, and gradually the phone doesn’t ring as much. The residual effects of the trauma we all experienced that day, however, continue. We keep breathing, but we stumble along on the path of grief. We mourn Will’s loss constantly.
Just before the first anniversary of Will’s death in the Fall of 2018, Compassionate Friends (another vital resource for grieving parents) connected us with Denny and Karri Allen. Healing Hope Ministries has saved our life in so many ways. Mark and I attend a monthly grief group; we have participated in a Walk to Remember; we have Painted Prayers; I’ve attended a ladies’ retreat; we celebrated a Blue Christmas. The relationships and support we have found at Healing Hope have truly been an anchor in the tempestuous storm that ensues after losing a child. One of the truths we’ve embraced from the Allens is the notion that grief comes in waves. Sometimes the water of our life is calm. But some days, the waves are churning, constantly hitting our vessel from all sides. For me and my family, we hold on tight to the ultimate anchor – God. In Him, we have the absolute hope of reuniting our family in heaven one day.
“But those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.” – Isaiah 40:31
Originally published in Gritty Faith Volume 15 as part of the Healing Hope Ministries Feature written by Melissa Godber.