Our lives changed forever on Good Friday, 2004. As my husband, Brett, mowed the lawn on our riding lawnmower, he didn’t see our 3-year-old son, Jake, run up from behind. Brett looked over his shoulder before putting the mower in reverse, but Jake was too small to see. In an instant Jake was underneath the mower.
I was at work when I received the call. “Something horrible happened,” Brett sobbed. He could barely speak the next words: “I backed over Jake with the riding lawnmower.”
In that instant, my world stood still. Thankfully, Jake had not been killed. But the blades had amputated three of his toes and done extensive structural damage to his right knee and thigh. Little did I know that his physical injuries would consume our family for the next six years. Jake would endure 16 limb salvage surgeries, and at age 8 become an amputee.
Although the physical damage was extensive, the emotional damage was more difficult. In an instant we found ourselves in unchartered territory. We called upon God, turned to His Word and sought counsel to survive each day. Eventually we discovered our new normal, and I have found comfort in sharing the lessons we have learned. Here are four ways to help your child navigate personal tragedy.
Offer your child a safe place to heal
The first time I saw Jake following the accident, he was in ICU. I could see the fear in his eyes. In that moment, I knew this experience would require my most selfless parenting. I fought back the tears as I looked into his eyes. Despite my own uncertainty, I said, “Jake, Mommy’s here. You are going to be OK.”
He closed his eyes and squeezed my hand. He felt safe.
Our words matter. Our children hold on to them. Our kids rise and fall with our hope and discouragement. It wasn’t that I couldn’t be sad, but my son needed to know that I was right by his side. Brett and I would continue to repeat those words, “Jake, it’s going to be OK” for years to come. Eventually, we all adjusted to the new normal and it was OK.
Validate your child's feelings
Years later, after the accident, Jake sometimes had bad days where he asked, “Why did this happen to me?” I remember many mornings where, after receiving a prosthetic leg, he would say, “I’m not wearing my leg today, and I’m not going to school.”
Rather than fight him, I would sit down on the floor, take a deep breath and say, “Jake, I don’t blame you. It has to be hard wearing a prosthetic leg. I would be frustrated, too. But you have to go to school, and I know you can do this.” I could not change Jake’s circumstances, but I could come alongside him and validate his feelings.
That empathy seemed to soothe his soul and make what he was facing seem manageable. Each time we offered validation, he built a little more inner resolve. Eventually, the day came when he put his leg on by himself, had a smile on his face and was ready for school.
Remind your child that God's mercies are new every day
After the amputation, nights were hard for Jake. His phantom pains made it difficult to sleep. But each morning, when we opened the blinds, the sun would shine and Jake would feel the warmth of a new day.
On his worst days, when suffering was great, I began reminding him of God’s promise in Lamentations 3:22-23: “The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.”
No matter our circumstances, God gives us the gift of waking up each day and starting anew. Sometimes this reminder is just the encouragement our children need to keep moving forward.
When tragedy comes, we can become distracted by adult responsibilities and forget how important our presence and undivided attention are to our children.
For several years following the accident, Jake lost his mobility and spent a lot of time on the couch, which must have been lonely and even confusing. I would walk by and he would say, “Mom, Cozy wants you to cuddle.” Cozy was Jake’s guinea pig.
In the beginning, I would say, “Cozy’s fine, give him some love for me” and carry on with my chores. I really didn’t have time to cuddle on a couch with a guinea pig. Then one day, I stopped and snuggled up next to Jake and Cozy. I could see the joy flood my son’s face. My presence offered him comfort.
When I slowed down and settled in to the moment, we shared some of our best conversations. We talked about his leg and his courage, and I reminded him that this was just a moment in time that would soon pass.
Jake is now a senior in high school, and every day after school, Jake gives me a check-in call. Whatever I’m doing, I make it a priority to answer. That little window of time allows me to hear about his life — homework, friendships and dreams. Our relationship got its foundation in those early days because I was willing to pay attention and be present.
The bigger picture
Helping a child deal with tragedy and loss is a difficult path. Jake recently wrote a college entrance essay that began with these words: “I learned at an early age that life is not fair; not everyone gets the same slice of pie. But I believe it’s those unfair experiences that shape you as a person. The question becomes: What are you going to do about it?”
After reading his essay, I reflected on all those difficult years. His suffering, deep sadness and longing for circumstances to be different. But through his battle scars, he began to find balance and peace. When we send Jake off to college, he will take with him the visible scars and the invisible burdens of his heart, and some days he will still struggle. But he knows he will always have a safe place, validation, the hope of our heavenly Father and the support of his parents.