It was a beautiful spring night in early April. The trees were budding. The days were getting warmer, but the nights were still cool. Heather and Emma Claire were at a movie. I (Stephen) was bowling with our youngest sons, Henry and Teddy. Elijah was off at a friend’s house for a birthday party. We had just finished our first frame when my phone rang. It was the kind of call you never want to get. Heather was on the other end. She had a serious and panicked tone in her voice. “Stephen, they’ve taken Elijah to the hospital. He fell in a fire pit. Meet us there.”
I made my way into the back of the emergency room and into the cramped trauma bay to find my son surrounded by a team of doctors and nurses. It was terrible. He was in horrendous pain, and there was nothing Heather or I could do to give him relief. Tragically, that was the easy part, because the next two weeks in the burn unit took all of us to places we never planned to go.
When a person gets a burn, it’s not just the burn that hurts. The recovery is worse. The skin graft donor sites bring the most excruciating pain. A human skin graft is basically human sod off one part of the body transplanted to another part that needs to grow new skin. So my son had a quadrant of flesh taken off his thigh. I’ll spare all the traumatic details of recovery, but several days later, once he was strong enough, the physical therapy started.
The physical therapist told Elijah that he needed to be able to walk two laps around the burn unit before he could go home. Because of the pain on the donor site, he could barely walk two feet. Two laps might as well have been a marathon. The first day of rehab he walked just a few doors down the hall. The second day he made one lap. His face told us the full story. There was nothing we could do to help him except encourage him and be present literally every step of the way.
After one particularly painful procedure, he broke; it was one of many times. And because he was raised in a home where he could have heart, through his tears he was able to ask questions such as “Why is God letting this happen to me? Why doesn’t God protect me? Daddy, why did you let those doctors take me into that room by myself when you said you wouldn’t?” He was able to cry out in his pain, and we were utterly powerless to do anything—except to stay.
A few days later, he made five laps. He had to dig deep within himself and push himself. Watching him fight through the pain to make those laps was inspiring. He was heroic. Heather and I stayed with him through it all. Friends came, and we prayed. We took turns sleeping by his side. Full recovery took a long time and included physical healing and many sleepless nights of night terrors.
This was a life-altering event for our entire family. The physical trauma was significant, but more so were the emotional scars created. The experience was terrible for him. It was terrible for us because we love him so much.
He paid a price to find that strength within himself—to push himself so he could go home. The cost was the loss of his own innocence. His belief that the world was good was shattered (though he still believes there is goodness in the world). Elijah is not a melancholy person. He loves to laugh. Now, years later, we are closer as a family because we faced the fear and the hurt of the trauma and stayed in the struggle with him.
We also got through this because we let others love us in the midst of it. The people who loved us, and were with us, and came and sat in the hospital room all night with us, and brought us ice cream, and prayed with us, and continued to care for us as we cared for him for many months made it possible for us to persevere. Still today on the anniversary of the event, people send texts because they remember. People still care. We got through it, broken hearts and all, because we are known well by others.
A huge component of perseverance in grief is having people know us, encourage us, and stay with us in the midst of our grief. People loved us in the midst of our story so that we could love Elijah. We were forced to let the events of this season shape his life in ways we would not have wanted, would not have hoped, and could not have prepared for.
When tragedy strikes, our ability to stay with our children in it, as opposed to creating a world in which no grief exists—no loss, no pain, no hurt—is the difference maker. To have this ability, we have to be really good at living from our own hearts—really adept at recognizing our own feelings. We also need the support of many people to encourage our hearts in the process. No human is made to do life alone. We need others and God.
Parenting corners us with a reality that life is less than what we can dream. If we dare love our children fully, parenting disarms us of our control and certainty. We are left to face life on life’s terms: life is wonderful, and it is going to hurt. This is our struggle.
This is an excerpt from Parenting with Heart: How Imperfect Parents Can Raise Resilient, Loving, and Wise-Hearted Kids, by Stephen James and Chip Dodd
Stephen James, MA, LPC-MHSP, NCC, is the Executive Director of Sage Hill Counseling in Nashville, TN. He is also a best-selling author of five books, including Wild Things: The Art of Nurturing Boys. He is active in training other mental health professionals as well as to speaking to audiences around the country on the topics of living fully, servant leadership, family relationships, and spiritual authenticity.