Speaker Jan Harrison discusses the unexpected death of her adult son, the challenge it posed to her faith, and how she found comfort in God as she was sustained by His grace. Jan also offers hope and encouragement to listeners who are dealing with a similar loss.
Mrs. Jan Harrison: I just want to say, people will give you a lot of advice on how to grieve, but there is no right or wrong, because grief belongs to you and it's between you and the Lord.
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John Fuller: Well, this is "Focus on the Family" with Focus president and author, Jim Daly. I'm John Fuller, and you're about to hear how God helped Jan Harrison make it through one of the most challenging seasons of her life.
Jim Daly: You know, John, as a parent, we all want to keep our children safe. There [are] probably degrees of that. I know Jean and I struggle with that. She's a little more on the safe side than I would be, but it's true. All of us, we think about how are they gonna be safe at kindergarten? Are they gonna be okay on the school ground? How about that summer camp they're gonna go off to for the first time? Is it really safe enough there? It's always that question about safety that tends to grab us by the throat as a parent, and we're tryin' to figure out, what's that right boundary?
And today, we are gonna talk about not only safe for your kids, but what happens when it's not safe, and when God has a different answer there. And I'm looking forward to this conversation, because it will help each one of us as a parent to manage the good times, as well as the tough times.
John: Well, as I said, Jan Harrison is our guest and she's a frequent women's conference speaker and has served on the leadership team of Anne Graham Lotz's revivals. And she and her husband, Frank, live in North Carolina.
Jim: Jan, welcome for the first time to "Focus on the Family."
Jan: Thank you. I'm honored to be here.
Jim: You and Frank, tell us about your family, about your children.
Jan: Frank and I have been married for 38 years, and we have four children—three girls and one son. Our girls are all grown, all married. They have children, so we're grandparents--
Jim: (Laughing) Congratulations.
Jan: --which is awesome. Morgan, James, Caroline and Carter.
Jim: So, you're a very experienced parent obviously (Chuckling), with four grown children now. You know, talk about that idea of the parents who want to play it safe. That's reasonable, right, for a mom? I mean, with Jean, did you resonate with my comment there about Jean's heart and moms tend to be the ones that want to keep it safe. But so do dads. What's happening there with parents who want to, you know, be safe?
Jan: So much love that you're afraid to let them go and such a temptation to try to control their lives and make them and shape them and mold them into what you want them to be.
Jan: Love is an awesome thing, but when we misuse it to try to manage and mold our children, I think into something that we envision for them, instead of allowing them to have the freedom to become the people God has wired them to be, I think that's when we start to get into trouble.
Jim: And that's fair thing, but parents, we do try to over-control and that just isn't a good approach, is it?
Jan: No, it really isn't. In fact, I have found and I think a lot of moms might find this to be true, too, when they begin to grow up, you don't really get to control it. Maybe (Chuckling) when they're little you think you can control nap time and snacks and all of that change.
Jim: That usually goes pretty well.
Jan: Yeah, that goes pretty well, but about the time we send them off to school, you start to realize, you send them off with prayer.
Jan: That's really the only true genuine protection—
Jan: --that you can give to them.
Jim: Prayer and relationship, being—
Jim: --connected. So, here you are, this wonderful, happy blessed family, movin' along and then on October 5th, 2010, you receive some very difficult news. What was it?
Jan: Frank came home at an unexpected time of day and I was workin' in my office and I looked up and I saw him standing in the doorway. And he said, "You need to come back here with me." And so, I followed him back to our room and I still didn't have really any idea that anything was wrong, but when he turned around to face me and I saw the look on his face, I knew that something very, very difficult had happened. What he needed to tell me was going to be very hard.
And he looked at me and with eyes that were brimming with tears, he said very softly, "Jan, we've lost James today." And at that time, James was living in Nairobi, Kenya. He was working with a local pastor, and we had talked to him on the Friday. This was a Tuesday. Some things you never forget. It was a Tuesday afternoon, about 2 o'clock.
And we had talked to him on the previous Friday. He was tired. He was working on putting some things together, tryin' to get some arrangements made, but he seemed fine. We ended that conversation as we always did. We prayed together. In fact, he said, "Lord, thank You, because You take care of our daily needs."
Jan: And we hung up the phone for what would be the last time I would hear that deep bass voice say, "I love you."
Jim: And he was in his 20's.
Jan: He was 27-years-old.
Jim: To say, "I love you."
Jim: And he was working with churches there—
Jan: He was.
Jim: --and helping build churches and transport pastors to the remote villages so they could preach the gospel.
Jan: He was.
Jim: I mean, a wonderful situation. So, how do you respond to that? I mean, here your boy is doing the Lord's work and he dies. What was the reason that he died?
Jan: Eventually the autopsy showed that there was acute pneumonia. He had been there this time. James had been back and forth to Africa for like five years and had stayed for different extended periods of time. This time he had been there about six months.
James had, had severe malaria. James had, had blood poisoning. James was an all-out adventuresome, risk-taking, I'm fine. He would've not gone to a doctor. That was pretty typical of the kind of decision he would make. Not really said anything. He wasn't a complainer. So, it doesn't really sound out of character to me at all that he was just really tired. And so, he checked into a hotel room, just a small hotel room and he died there.
Jan: Alone and that is honestly, if I were to dwell there or stay on that one part of this story, that's the part that continues to just be heartbreaking as a mom and as a dad, too.
Jim: Yeah, absolutely.
Jan: But you know, my comfort in that is that I know that the Good Shepherd walked him through the valley of the shadow, because He belonged to Jesus.
Jan: And though I'm not sure what it looked like or how it happened, I know that he was not alone and at the end, I would've just been distraught, but Jesus was there with His comfort and His care and His overwhelming presence to transfer him from life into His eternal presence.
Jim: Yeah, I mean, it's beautifully said and the heart of a mom is coming out there and I so appreciate that. But Jan, the reality is, many people will struggle, and they start asking why?
Jim: Why, Lord? Why? He was such a bright young man, a good young man. He may not have been a perfect young man—
Jim: --but you know, the Lord, it doesn't equate. It doesn't add up. Why would You let this happen? It's probably the most profound question that people ask, especially with the death of a child, even if that child is a grown child in his 20's, maybe 30's, 40's. When a parent loses a child, they say, it is the thing that we grieve most as human beings is the death of a child, more than divorce, more than loss of a parent. It's the death of a child that we mourn the deepest. How did you get through the "why's?"
Jan: The why's they surfaced slowly for me. And as I let myself sit with the why's and let them surface, and really would just lay them out there, out loud, me and the Lord, just talkin' about it, I think that the way I really got through was because I had His Word in my heart, and His Spirit would witness to my spirit.
Jan: And it was that supernatural thing where deep calls to deep, and things I didn't even realize were deposited in my heart and in my spirit.
Jim: Did you ever feel angry?
Jan: I didn't feel angry. Disappointed, so disappointed. I didn't feel abandoned. I just felt, I guess, mostly I was so deeply disappointed. What about the prayers? What about all the times we've stood on Your Word? We praised Your Word. We believed; we released him. We believed You said to let him go, to let him learn the things he's determined to learn about life. We believed, Lord, that we were doing the things that You directed and showed us to do as parents.
And so, why? Why did it have to turn [out like this]? You know, sometimes you would go, why did he have to die? Couldn't he just be really sick? But he had to die? And so, it's a process.
Jim: Well, and there's no easy answers.
Jim: I mean, that's the reality.
Jim: I would think, too, as we started the show talking about a parent's need to kinda control that environment, here you're the mom of three daughters and one son and they're, you know, probably the delight of your heart. And to lose one of them when really they're just getting started.
Jim: You had to in some way, say why didn't we control the environment better? Even though he's in his 20's, why'd we let him go to Africa? Why did we let him go do these things that put himself in danger? Talk about that. Were you hard on yourself?
Jan: There have been periods of time when we have been.
Jim: You and Frank, your husband?
Jan: Yes, we've been, you know, we have these conversations and thankfully, all through those years of raising James, we learned so much with James along the way about learning to let go and learning to depend on God and learning to thank Him for the hard things and learning to trust Him to overrule and to believe that God would watch over His Word to perform it. It was challenging. He was not easy to raise and he's been even harder to lose.
But we had that history of our decisions all along the path and of James' decisions and of James' personal relationship with the Lord, so that when we got to that crossroads, that deep dark place, as strange as this may sound, it wasn't as unfamiliar as you might think.
I really believe the Lord was preparing and equipping and supplying us with His grace and His wisdom and His mercy.
Jim: So, you could feel His presence.
Jan: It's so real.
Jim: You said something there, though, I want to come back to, because it's powerful and parents are living with a teenager that might not be easy to raise. And what you said was, he wasn't easy to raise, but it's been more difficult losing him.
Jim: That parent that is in the midst of, it's not easy to raise this young man or a woman, because they're doing things that are outside the parent's control and it's disappointing, discouraging, yet think of not having that child. You would take those troubled times in a minute, I would think.
Jan: Oh, they are exhausting, and they're draining, and they take you to the edge of your [strength]. You just think, now what, Lord? Now what? And you know, to the parents that are in that place, you know, I would just say, all you can do is continue to take their hand and put it in the hand of Jesus.
John: Well, our guest today on "Focus on the Family" is Jan Harrison, sharing very vulnerably about some deep loss and some challenging times in the way God carried you through those. Jan has captured many of these thoughts in her book, Life After the Storm. And we've got that at www.focusonthefamily.com/radio.
Jim: Jan, let me ask you this. Everyone grieves differently, and if I could gently pry into you and Frank's relationship.
Jan: Oh, yeah.
Jim: Were there differences in how you grieved, you and Frank?
Jan: Oh, yes. There were big differences. And before I say how we grieved differently, I want to say we are closer and more committed to each other than we have ever been.
Jan: It's been a journey. It's been a new level, but so different, you know, my pastor, and I'm gonna share this because it was so profound, he said something that ministered so deeply to me in those first few days. And he said, "I just want to say, people will give you a lot of advice on how to grieve, but there is no right or wrong because grief belongs to you and it's between you and the Lord."
And over the months that followed, when our grieving really began to take hold, at first you're in shock. You're just making decisions, moving through a fog. And when that fog lifts and the reality of "never see you again" starts to settle in, and you begin to really grieve, we worked it out very differently. And it was a beautiful lesson for me, his antidote for suffering was to serve. He could not be more available or minister to more people.
Jim: So, he just ramped up on that area.
Jan: He just was available, and he was open, and he shared, and he cried, and he cared. And he reached out to people and the hurting people collected themselves to him.
Jan: I turned in, not reclusive, I continued to teach my class, but I just needed quiet.
Jan: And I needed to be very still with the Lord.
Jim: Were there days you didn't want to get out of bed?
Jan: I got up and I got dressed every single day to the glory of God, is the only reason I share that.
Jim: Sounds like it wasn't easy.
Jan: No, it's not easy, but you know, the weeping does last for a night, but joy comes in the morning. And it's not a 24-hour night and day period, but the Lord was faithful to meet me whether it was just to simply sit me up and dry my tears. And so, Frank and I gave each other a lot of space. And we would remind each other, grieving is yours.
Jan: And it's personal, and if you need to go and move and do, then I'm going to freely encourage you to do that.
Jim: You know, so often with couples, it's the opposite, where they both turn away from each other, because the grief is so hard and so powerful. Was there anything that you could share with them to say, think of it a little differently? Grief is tough. The loss is tough. That's all true. It's all real, but what can they do differently perhaps to turn toward each other the way you and Frank did?
Jan: I would say that the most important thing to remember is no one, not even your husband or your wife, can give you that comfort that is abiding, that is supernatural, that strengthens you. It's not fair. When I would be a little frustrated and think "you're not being very sensitive, or don't you understand this was my baby boy?" You know, I had to remember, no, he doesn't understand.
And I think to just share with each other, what you're thinking and say, "What I need from you is this, but I know it's not fair for me to expect for you to fix this. I need you to let me have my quiet time." Or "I need you to let me go be busy. I love you; I'll be back." And "I love you, but leave me alone. I don't want to go."
Jan: And we just have to talk through it.
Jim: I mean, that's beautiful. That's the thing. Talk through it; open up. Connect with each other, and that'll draw you closer together typically. You look at a life that was far too short, yet it had a great impact. James' life continues to impact lives today. Talk about that, how what he did in Africa and investing in pastors, not just there, but around the world in what he did to reach out, how is that work continuing today, what he invested in, even as a young man in his 20's?
Jan: James, if he saw a need, he was such a compassionate young man.
Jim: You saw that at 8-years-old. What did he say?
Jan: Oh, we were in New York and he saw a man digging through a trash can and it broke his heart. He said, "Dad, dad, we have got to help that man. Can you give him some money?" That was his answer for that need at that time. And really through his whole [life]. His principal at his high school told us, "You have no idea that things James did for some of the underprivileged kids here at the school, the things he would bring for them, or the things he would do for them."
So, it's who God wired him to be, which is one reason, if you pray for your children, and you watch your children, and you listen to your children, you will begin to know them and understand what they need to go and do and be and engage in, to be fulfilled.
Jan: So, when he went to Africa and saw the needs of people that were so great, he was so impacted by their faith and their joy. They had nothing, but they lived with just this abandoned joy and it deeply moved him.
So, when he called home from Sudan, South Sudan, he said the same thing almost exactly again. He said, "Dad, dad, we have got to help these people." And I do want to say to his dad's credit, he listened. He listened, and he took James seriously.
Jim: He didn't just give it lip service.
Jan: Yeah and he didn't just go, "Okay, well, he's into that; I'm really not." So, they established together With Open Eyes, and it is a ministry to help mobilize pastors to go to the unreached people in remote areas.
Jim: And that's a foundation that continues today--
Jan: It does.
Jim: --thanks to you and your husband, Frank.
Jan: It does. It's in eight countries now. We have over 230 "mobile messengers," we call them, and they go out, and they preach the gospel and people come to Christ. There have been thousands of people come to Christ through their ministry, and they plant churches, and it's just been an amazing way.
Jim: Jan, when you describe James, all of us probably think of our sons or daughters, and we think, okay, we've got a son or daughter that, you know, may not have all the behavioral things that we want to see. You know, they don't maybe put the dishes away. (Chuckling)
Jim: They don't always say please and thank you, whatever it might be, and we're troubled as Christian parents, 'cause we're so, I guess the standard is so high on the behavioral side.
Jim: Yet, like James, work on their heart.
Jim: Let their heart shine. Don't be so tight on the behavioral side. Sure, boundaries are important and explaining why those boundaries are important is a good thing to do, but as a parent, what we really want to develop is the heart of our sons and daughters.
Jan: Yes, that they would love the Lord, that they would serve Him with all of their heart in whatever capacity that means. Those are the priorities. I think we labor over the minor things way too often.
Jim: Well, we're right at the end and Jan, this has been such a great conversation about how to get through the most difficult loss anyone can face and that's the loss of a child and you did it with such grace and such commitment to the Lord. And I know Frank has done the same. I've talked with him. Your book, Life After the Storm: God Will Carry You Through. Can I ask you to pray for those that are maybe in this similar spot or maybe it's a different dark place.
Jan: Sure, right.
Jim: But can you lift that person up who is strugglin' and petition the Lord for His intervention, for that peace and that sense of joy that you talked about a while ago, when it's hard to find?
Jan: I'd be honored to do that. Father in heaven, thank You for the privilege to speak Your hope, Your words and Your truth. Thank You for Your ever-present help. God, I lift up any person who hears my voice right now. Lord, I pray that You would show Yourself strong on their behalf. I pray they would turn into You.
I pray they would cry out. Never once, never once, when someone cries to You, do You turn a deaf ear. So, God, I pray for that person today who feels desperate in their marriage, desperate trying to raise in God and lead the children, desperate in their job, desperate in the loss.
God, I pray that they would cry out to You, they would bring their lives, they would bring their sorrow, and they would bring their pain. Father, I pray with confidence, because I know You will meet them right where they are, and that You will begin to pour Your love and Your encouragement into their lives, that You are their hope, and You are a healer.
God, we thank You and praise You, because You redeem. You can make anything beautiful when we release it to You. Help us to open our palms and release our pain to You. I ask this in the strong name of Jesus, amen.
Jim: Amen. Thank you, Jan, so appreciate it.
John: What a wonderful prayer from Jan Harrison and if you're struggling with loss, it might be that you're right in the middle of a storm or you know someone who is. We have counseling services here at Focus on the Family and they can provide an initial consultation with you and then help you get back on the right track. Call for counseling or ask for a copy of Jan's book, Life After the Storm. Our number is 800-A-FAMILY; 800-232-6459. And by the way, because of call volume, we might have to take your name and number, but we will get back in touch with you just as soon as we can.
And we also have a counselor referral tool to help you find someone nearby that you can have an ongoing counseling relationship with. That and other resources, Jan's book included at www.focusonthefamily.com/radio.
And if you can help us financially today to assist others in need with counseling, please make a generous contribution to the work here. We rely on friends like you to reach out and to offer programs and our counseling team and so many other resources. Come alongside us to help others and when you make a generous gift of any amount today, we'll send Life After the Storm to you as our way of saying thanks.
Our program was provided by Focus on the Family and on behalf of Jim Daly and the entire team, thanks for listening. I'm John Fuller, inviting you back next time as we once again, help you and your family thrive.
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Jan HarrisonView Bio
Jan Harrison is a popular Bible teacher and speaker at women's conferences and retreats. Her ministry, Stepping Toward Hope, helps people embrace peace, strength and comfort by encouraging their faith in Jesus Christ and equipping them with God's Word. Jan is the author of Life After the Storm, which documents how the unexpected death of her son tested her faith, and offers hope and advice to readers weathering their own personal storms. Jan and her husband, Frank, reside in North Carolina. They have three grown children and two grandchildren. Learn about the global missions organization With Open Eyes, which is a part of the incredible legacy left by Jan's deceased son James, who co-founded the ministry.