Photo courtesy of the Rehill family

Giving birth to grief

Essay | Like a mother's pangs, the death of a child brings painful contractions and release

Issue: "Four horsemen of the apocalypse," Oct. 4, 2008

Never did we think we'd receive the phone call we received at 8:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 29, 1998, our youngest son's 21st birthday, from a Boston-area hospital.

Our oldest son, Jeff, was a second-year law student at Boston University and had decided to take a relaxing bike ride after a full day of classes before hitting the books again that night.

The neurosurgeon on the phone told us Jeff had somehow flipped over the handlebars of the bicycle and had suffered severe blunt head trauma. He was unconscious and needed immediate surgery to relieve the pressure on his brain and to stop the bleeding.

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We gave our consent. I asked the doctor his prognosis. He said, "We'll do the surgery and he should be fine." My wife and I quickly packed. Together with our 15-year-old daughter, the youngest of our four children, we headed for Boston, a five-hour drive from our home in northeastern Pennsylvania. We contacted our other two sons and made arrangements for them to come to the hospital.

Curiously, our youngest son, Jared, asked his mother to hang up the extension phone and then said to me, "Dad, is Jeff going to die?" We hadn't said or been told anything remotely close to that, but had told them of the neurosurgeon's optimism. (We learned later that Jared said to those who brought him to the hospital, "If anything happens to my brother, it will kill my mother.")

When we arrived at the hospital, at about 3:30 the next morning, we began to get the distinct impression that things were not "fine." Initially, we could not get any information about where Jeff was or how he was. When we finally got to his floor, it was the respiratory ICU, and my wife, a nurse, immediately said, "We're in trouble, he's probably not breathing on his own."

She was right. He was hooked up to more tubes and machines than I have ever seen. The surgery had not been successful and a second surgery was imminent. Optimism was gone.

At 8 a.m. the surgeons came out and informed us that they had done all they could do and did not expect Jeff to live through the day. How could this be? Less than 12 hours ago they told us he should be "fine." This cannot be happening. This has got to be a mistake.

We contacted everyone we could think of and asked them to contact everyone they could think of, and to pray.

Jared approached me and said, "Some birthday present, huh Dad? . . . Why is this happening?" How to answer such a question? God gave me an answer: I said, "Son, things like this happen in this life. We are not necessarily exempt from them because we are Christians; they are part of the nature of this life. But I guarantee you, they will not be part of the life to come. Jesus came to reveal that life to us and to give that life to us where there will be no more sorrow, suffering, tragedy, pain, or death."

At 10 p.m. I fell asleep on a cot in the lobby area of the ninth floor. Three hours later I awoke with a start. I hurried back into Jeff's room and relieved a dear friend of ours keeping prayerful vigil at his bedside.

Suddenly, it hit me as I looked at all the machines and our son's valiant battle to live (he had been a superior athlete in high school) and how he was suffering (his heart rate sustained over 200) that he was very likely doing all of this for us. I walked over to his bed and said to him, "Son, you don't have to keep doing this for us. If you have seen His face, then you do what the Father tells you." And that was it for me. I had released him to the Lord. He was no longer mine.

My wife returned to the room and I learned that she had said the very same words to him while I was sleeping. We continued to sit at his bedside. Suddenly my wife grabbed my arm and said to me, "Did you see that?" She is a very stable person, not given to hysterics or fanaticism. "See what?" I said. "I just saw Jesus and Jeffrey. They both had white robes on and Jeffrey was perfect. He had all his hair back (most of which was cut off during the surgeries). Jesus had His arms open to him and was saying to him, 'Welcome. Well done good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of thy Lord.'"


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