My Son’s Death at 23 Gave Me a Crazy Gift. It Might Be Meant for You, Too.
I wish you had known Josh.
If you had, you would know that he would want me to write this article and dedicate it to you.
You would also understand why his passing at age 23 was consistent with his way of doing life.
And that what I learned through his passing, or learned more deeply, was also typically “Josh” and a bittersweet, needed gift.
A 60-Second Backstory Bio
Josh was born exuberant.
He is our second oldest child and came after Rob who was soft-tempered, intuitive, fairly introverted, and quick to cooperate. The contrast was colorful and not a little bit alarming.
While Rob was late Spring with a light breeze and wildflowers dancing, Josh was one of those four season days with periods of everything from sunshine, thunder and gale force winds to sweet, light rain. He loved to lead and be a doer, stepping forward without hesitation, often to make things better…sometimes checking just in time to make sure there was ground under his feet.
I guess you could say he was an impetuous humanitarian.
We sensed early on that Josh was born to fly, that he was a little man on a mission, and that we would be busy keeping up and keeping him safe.
In first grade, Josh was consistently in trouble for finishing fast and then engaging his classmates in jokes, imagination games, and movement. This put him on a fast track to Ritalin, which seemed drastic for such a free spirit, so we brought him home to a more customizable learning environment — 15 minutes at the table with math games or good books, 15 minutes on the trampoline. There was plenty of adventure-oriented learning on top of that.
Somehow, that home-based school environment in combination with Josh’s abundant personality set a firm direction toward being a wonderer. He wanted to know the truth about everything. As he read, listened, wrote, ran, played and created voraciously, he was on a quest to know what was real.
In our faith-centered family, this meant plenty of deep questions and conversations. Nothing was a given for Josh except, perhaps, love. He gave and received love naturally, like breathing. It’s probably most accurate to say his favorite study was people. People and truth.
Which is how he ended up in Guatemala at 21 trying to do some heavy lifting — to alleviate suffering, give a helping hand, know people from the inside out, and offer the truth he’d gathered.
There were nine young men in the pick-up truck, four in the cab, five in the back.
It was a Saturday morning in July — warm, humid, blue-skied and green-leaved. Josh and his companions from a local church were heading up a narrow mountainside road to move the home of a Mayan single mother and grandmother to a location nearer to family and further down the valley.
I have no doubt the boys in the truck were in high spirits, laughing, and that Josh was filled with life. I was later able to meet several of the young men who were with him that day. They loved Josh. Though blond, blue-green-eyed and Canadian, he was one of them. He spoke Spanish well, was fascinated by Guatemalan culture, and had lived in their country for over a year and a half finding ways to help.
Dirt mountain roads erode in sudden rain. Thick vegetation grows in every nook it can. One particular washout was filled with grass and bright roadside flowers. Pulling right to allow another vehicle to pass, the unwitting driver entered the washout and the vehicle began its roll down the mountainside.
Seven of the nine young men walked away from the accident. One had a broken pelvis and couldn’t. The other serious injury was Josh.
What followed the accident is still fresh in my memory. Phone calls, visiting family, questions — so many questions — frequent updates from his supervisors, assurances that everything possible was being done, emergency surgery, a prognosis of crushed vertebrae and the 1% chance of walking again followed shortly by an inexplicable ability of our son to not only move a toe but pull his knees to his chest and say, “This is what I do when I skateboard.”
And so many prayers, and heart-rending messages with offers of support. Over and under all of this was an unexplainable peace of mind. We felt carried.
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Twenty-four hours after the accident, Josh was conscious but severely concussed, able but not yet ready to talk to us, and under intensive care. He was going to survive against the odds, though, and yes, I should come to be with him.
I was kneeling, frankly exhausted, by my bedside in a Houston hotel at the same time Josh’s body gave up. “Cardiac arrest” and “pulmonary failure” were the causes of death.
Everyone agreed that I should fly into Guatemala City without knowing…the plane ride among strangers, you know. Being unable to communicate with anyone while flying, you know. The shock.
It was a compassionate choice.
People who, I believe, loved Josh as much as his father and I do met me at the airport. They had been his leaders, confidants, and surrogate parents for month after month during his stay in the country. They were, or were becoming, his best friends.
I could feel their deep concern as each enfolded me in his or her arms, their eyes misty with compassion. What I hadn’t expected was that the last embrace included the news that yesterday evening, Josh was released from life.
I still can’t comprehend entirely what that meant, or means. Intellectually, I fully understand that my son’s body is lying in a casket six feet below prairie grass in a country cemetery in a beautiful Rocky Mountain foothills valley in the province of Alberta, Canada.
What mystifies me is that a being I carried inside me, nourished, and raised with every ounce of my physical strength ended. That a life I loved more than my own ended.
And that I am still here, loving that life.
It is more than my brain cells have capacity to connect, hold or comprehend. I imagine that seems unreasonable or foolish or delusionary. It may be. I don’t know another way to explain what still happens when I think “Josh.”
I accept that Josh died. It just makes zero sense to me that he stopped existing.
When an infant exits a mother’s body, air-breathing begins. Barring fatal anything, that breathing continues moment by moment till years and decades go by. Within that respiration, a life takes shape — growing intelligence, the production of cells and functioning of systems, experience, laughter, regret, learning, connection, belonging, knocks, pinnacles, breadth, depth, and meaning.
Subtracting the breath leaves all but the breath and a body’s-worth of cells.
Josh’s gift (and lesson) to me, by living and dying, is that there is more.
There is more than what we can see.
In 23 years, Josh became a budding master at insight beyond sight. I have lost track of how many people introduced themselves to me and said, “Josh was my good friend.” At a glance, some of these individuals are broken or diminished — maimed by accident, challenged by mental illness, seasoned by time, marginalized in some way by a society that sees differences more than human kinship.
As I’ve come to know these people, I see more of what Josh saw in them, and it fills me with awe and respect — for them, to be sure, and for a young man who saw more.
This ability also applied to art, music, literature, and moments. Josh’s motto was “Live life to the fullest” — past skin-deep, past the cover, past the first listen, past what was initially seen.
There’s always more.
There’s more than we can experience right now.
Josh finished his time here at age 23. That makes this point self-evident — he ran out of time to seek out and pack in the quantity and quality of things to be done that surround us right now in this second as well in our unknown hours in the future.
The lesson to me is we only have today…or even, this actual moment. What we do have is time to make time count, whatever we are doing.
There’s more than our own understanding.
The nearly five-year process of missing Josh and coming to know life without him physically present has been a path I wouldn’t wish on anyone…but would also hope for everyone in this way: we who love Josh see differently. Maybe a more accurate way of putting this is, we are learning to understand things differently than we have before.
The light cast on life in the aftermath of loss has a kind of search-light quality. It’s not that we suddenly know so much more about everything or anything…it’s as if there are flashes of awareness that sweep by in the most unexpected of times and ways.
For example, sitting down to dinner is a practical event in our large family’s average day. It has meant food, discussion, sometimes conflict, and routine.
There are times, even now, when we gather for a meal and the absence of those absent hushes us all. It may be Josh we are thinking of…but it may also simply be the ones who have grown up and eat at tables other than our own, often far away.
We understand being together for even mundane, repetitive purposes differently now. And it’s not like we are always this aware. The search-light sweeps, we notice what is caught in its beam, and we think in new ways, sometimes for a second, sometimes for always.
This applies to so many things I would be hard-pressed to list them: the challenges facing people in Josh’s other homeland (Guatemala) are more understood; the impact one person can have on others is more understood; the priceless, fleeting nature of a childhood is more understood; the value of family traditions is more understood; the meaning of our lives is more understood; even the meaning of death is more understood.
Could we have known these things through other means? Perhaps.
And, perhaps, there was no other way.
There’s more help than we think we have.
We live in a relatively rural area where neighborliness is just how it is. Within minutes of the news of Josh’s accident, we were helped.
Some of this help came in the form of phone calls; very soon, it came as home-made meals, offers to organize our travel to be with Josh, or help with our animals.
Some of the help was simply felt as solidarity in hoping…then solidarity in mourning. The count of fellow-grievers and rememberers at Josh’s memorial service exceeded our expectations. The venue filled to capacity and overflowed — not only with people we knew personally or who knew Josh personally, but with those who understood more because they had first-hand experience with the preciousness of childhood or the struggle of neediness or the ache of loss. The intersection of our lives on that day was our common humanity. And it was help.
It would be wrong for me not to say this:
Not all of the help we experienced at Josh’s passing and afterward was seen. It was simply felt and known. The sources could be many: caring vibes across miles from people we never will know; a community mind, of sorts, united by suffering; the undeniably ongoing sense of Josh in our lives even though we closed a grave over his body; or this kind of whispery flow of comfort that absolutely came to us from real and unseen origins, so experiential in our consciousness that it was like arms around shoulders, the warmth of a hug, and unheard-but-heard assurances in the ear of our souls.
We attribute this to the ongoing presence of those who love us and are not considered alive, and to the presence of heavenly beings — angels, if you will.
What matters in our search to define this is one thing: the help was real and more than we thought possible.
The search-light effect suggests to me that it is universal. It belongs to all of us, here, now or at one time or another.
There is more purpose and design.
If you have made it this far in my attempt to tell a piece of our story, you are probably beginning to tire.
I don’t have space or time (and, in some cases, permission) to tell you all the “coincidences” that happened around and after the time of Josh’s passing.
I will share this bit about air travel, however.
Ticketing, seat assignments, and even the choice made by one individual or another to travel on any given day are possibly the epitome of randomness. We are nearly guaranteed to sit by strangers when traveling alone — and, most likely, these may be individuals with whom we share few common interests. They might also really want to rest, watch the movie, or simply be alone in a crowded airplane.
My traveling companions on the two-leg trip to Guatemala were:
First, a young adult man on his way to Houston for oilfield related meetings who had been in a serious accident as a younger man and broken his back. He spent a year in hospitals and rehabilitation to even begin the longer road to mobility. And there he was, sound, able, and grateful, sharing how my son’s crushed vertebrae did not mean an end.
My second seat-mate, the one from Houston to Guatemala City, was a member of my same faith, living in the U.S. but from Guatemala, who was going home for the first time in many years to visit his ailing mom. And, guess what? He had young adult children who had done, and were doing, the very type of work my son was doing. His excitement at meeting me and planning to meet my son spilled over into teasing about matchmaking — his daughter and Josh. It was crazy to me then, and is now, how much laughter we shared as that plane moved me closer to what would turn out to be the hardest thing I had experienced in my life.
On the way home, I got an upgrade to first-class. What do you suppose I would have in common with the wealthy, stylish businessman from the Middle East who sat next to me? Nothing, except that we exchanged our reasons for being in Guatemala and found out one of his work colleagues had also had an experience like Josh’s, serving for the same organization and having life-altering experiences, as well.
We talked for the full flight duration about family, death, dying, and living. I felt a kind of kinship to this well-dressed man by the time we said goodbye, and the family tie was compassion. I had been comforted by an unlikely stranger and, I believe, had given some comfort in return as he felt the weight of sadness around the end of a promising life.
The final leg was sitting next to a confident young woman traveling on a university break to visit a friend in Japan — where I had lived for 17 months at approximately her age. She was pursuing an advanced degree in studies that were also my interests. She wanted to know all about life in a large family, and about my belief in an afterlife. I swear this was better therapy than anything I could have paid for. Nearly five years later I can feel the sense of being thoroughly heard. She literally allowed me to talk about what was most meaningful to me and eased the reality that, in the cargo hold of another plane, my son’s body was also coming home.
The other incidents that coincided with Josh’s passing and our need to be reassured that life would be ok again are many — and I’m talking dozens. To some listeners, they may seem as inconsequential as chance. To us, they are evidences that there is more convergence of meaning and purpose than not in what seem like life eruptions. With the disaster also come the means to recover, to learn, and — quite possibly— rise from the ashes with a measure of renewal.
There are more reasons to keep trying.
Recent days and years have brought the news of tragic deaths by suicide. Sometimes, we are shocked by these voluntary exits. Almost always, we wonder How could we not have seen this coming? How do we prevent future losses? How deeply must someone feel hopeless to make an end of it all?
It was a hard way to learn, but Josh’s death leaves in its wake a monument of more — more than we see now, more experience to come that could change the landscape of our lives, more than we understand presently, more help than we realize, more purpose and meaning, and — by our choosing and by accepting the option — more living to come.
As Josh would say, live life to the fullest. Don’t wait to enjoy the journey. Don’t waste a single moment. Never, never give up.
Thank you, Josh, for these lessons.
I am grateful for the gift of more.
Call to Action:
Hug your kids, and if you don’t have kids, hug a friend, a family member, a stranger.
We have more to give than we know.
Let your heart lead.
PS If the name of a person has come to mind while you’ve read this, please consider sharing the article with him or her. Thank you for that.
If the person has passed away, please know that I believe what I’ve shared here with nearly all of my heart. That other bit? It’s going out to you.
You’re welcome to email me through the contact page on my website: www.heatherburton.ca.
Added July 5, 2018:
I have been overwhelmed by your generous support of this article. Over and over again, I am touched by how we have “met” through my effort to share Josh.
It is in that spirit that I offer this glimpse of who he was and remains to me. It was a promotional video for his first (and only) music CD. (Josh was a classically-trained pianist and budding composer.) I hope you enjoy it. Often, late in the evening, when I am thinking through another day and the whole of life, I’ll visit YouTube and remind myself of what Josh loved here. :) Oh, how we miss him.
If it’s helpful, I can also offer this little experience from some time ago. It’s also on Medium: https://medium.com/@Heatherby/where-grief-finds-you-89a444671988
Lastly, but earnestly, I encourage you to take a few minutes to read responses below from readers of “My Son’s Death at 23.” They will likely underline for you that with all of its ills, the world is a good place to be. You make it that way. Thank you for that.
Kindly, and with more gratitude than I have words to express,