How do you grieve well after the death of a child?

by Warren Cole Smith
Posted 7/21/14, 02:15 pm

Radio talk show host JJ Jasper had a great life. He was a syndicated radio personality, a successful author, and a happily married father of five. His life was so good he could tell jokes about it as a standup comic. But then the unthinkable happened. Following an accident on his family farm near Tupelo, Miss., Jasper’s only son, Cooper, died. It sent Jasper and his wife, Melanie, into the depths of a grief from which they’ve never fully recovered, but which, over time, Jasper has been able to talk and write about.

Today, five years after Cooper’s death, Jasper’s account of that terrible time and what happened afterward has been published in the book Losing Cooper: Finding Hope to Grieve Well. I had this conversation with Jasper in Atlanta at the recent International Christian Retail Show. 

Would you just tell everybody who you are and what it is that you do? JJ Jasper, a morning on-air personality from American Family Radio Network. We have almost 200 stations in 36 states. I’m also a speaker and an author and, of all things, a comedian, so, I stay very busy.

Would you talk about Losing Cooper? I’m married to Melanie, a Proverbs 31 woman. I’m the father of five children. We had a charmed life on the radio, bought a farm, had horses, … and just life is picture-perfect for us. And then, five years ago, I was riding in a dune buggy with my only son, Cooper. Platinum blonde hair, bright blue eyes, big dimple, always smiling. We’re riding in a dune buggy on a level there on the pasture, up and down the dirt lane. After we had ridden and had fun—a father and son, a daddy and his boy making memories—I decided to head back to the house. I was just going to turn the wheel and just do what we always called a donut, just turn the wheels, spin it around, and head back to the house. 

When I turned the wheel and floored it, it spun around. The dune buggy rolled over and the unthinkable happened. Our little boy, the rollover broke his neck and he died in my arms five years ago this month.

Clearly that’s not what anybody wants to happen, a parent losing his own son, especially in circumstances like that. It’s every parent’s nightmare. It’s the unthinkable. … I don’t have words today to describe the shock and the horror and how we just stumbled forward like zombies for weeks and months after the accident.

And yet, you did find words eventually and you are now here talking about Losing Cooper: Finding Hope to Grieve Well. A couple of months into our grieving, American Family Association approached us, and they said, “You haven’t turned to drugs or alcohol, you’re not mad or angry at God, your marriage is still intact.” I did not realize that 89 percent of marriages fail when there’s a death of a small child. … They said, “Your story needs to be told. ” … We agreed to do that, we made a documentary called Flame On, and we gave away over 50,000 copies. Over 100,000 people have seen it online. Losing Cooper: Finding Hope to Grieve Well is the … movie in book form, with much greater detail.

You said there were no words to describe what happened. How did you get to the point where you could talk about it? The hero of our story is Jesus. We’re a Christian couple, and we would wake up each day, and we would read our Bible whether we wanted to or not. We would pray even though we didn’t feel like it. We had a wonderful network of friends and family, a great community of believers, a local church where we were members and still are. … 

You read Matthew 7 where Jesus talks about the wise and foolish builders, and you build your house on a rock or you build your house on sand. He talks about the storms that come and the rains come down and the winds blow and the flood comes up. It’s not a matter of if bad things will happen, it’s when, because you cannot go from cradle to grave without some trouble, without some difficulty, trials, and temptation. The tragedy did not take God by surprise. It certainly took us by surprise, but we were able to draw from the reservoir of knowing Jesus and loving him and knowing that he loves us. It’s because of the cross; it’s because of the empty tomb. 

If you lost your job, or if you had a marriage failure, or you’re having difficulty with your teenage children, it’s tough to make it from Monday to Sunday, slugging it out in the trenches of life. But those words on the pages of the Bible are true. His grace really is sufficient, and it’s because of God’s grace, because of his mercy that we are able to grieve well.

What would you share with people who are still in valley of the shadow of death, coming from someone who maybe can still see that valley over their shoulder? At the graveside service, … a friend and a mentor shared these words. He said, “In the few weeks and months, people with good intentions, they’ll tell you that in time you’ll get over this.” And he said, “Unfortunately that’s not accurate. It’s simply not true. You’re never going to get over this. You’ll get through it with the Lord’s help, but this is not a wound that will heal. This is an amputation, … and you’re going to have to find a new normal.”

What is that new normal look like for you and your family? How have you carried on? The pain is more than I can describe. I don’t think there’s a graph or a pain scale to say what it feels like as a parent. … It’s different than [losing] a grandparent. Anyone’s loss is significant—I wouldn’t want to minimize how someone is hurting. But your great-grandparents, your parents, you’ll see that they get gray hair, they start to get some wrinkles, and you know you’re going to cross that bridge, you’re going to get that phone call. But with a child, there’s not even a category in your brain where you think you’re going to have them on one day and they’re not going to be there the next.

Friday afternoon, I was playing with my best buddy. … A daddy and his boy making memories, that was Friday evening with the blue sky and a beautiful summer afternoon. And Saturday, mid-morning we were at the funeral home and they were saying, “Pick out a casket for Cooper.” … Having said that, Jesus promised to never leave you, never forsake you. Those words are true.

It really does hinge on a personal relationship with the living where Jesus is real. He conquered death and the grave, and he offers hope to anyone who’s hurting. In tragedy, during trials and difficulties don’t run away from God. Run to the Lord, and he can sustain you, and he can offer you grace and give you help and hope in your time of need.

I wanted to ask you about something that you said a moment or two ago, which is that 89 percent marriages that experienced the death of a child break-up. I would think that might have been a special risk in your case because, as you said, you were behind the wheel during the accident that caused the death of Cooper. He died in your arms, there must have been guilt on your part, accusations perhaps on your wife’s part, [and] on the part of others and your family. Did that happen, and how do you all deal with that? You’re exactly right. Everything you said. … My guess is blame is part of the big reason that the marriages fail. … The child was in your care. … I actually wrote an entire chapter called “Guilt and Regret” and explored that in great detail to address the elephant in the room. Not only was I the one driving, it was my idea to buy the dune buggy, it was my idea to buy the farm, so I couldn’t have had more implication in those kinds of things. It’s going to take a lifetime of grace to conquer that.

My Melanie, she is an amazing person who does not hold to grudges or bitterness. … I couldn’t have gotten to the place where I could grieve well if she had chained me to that guilt. … I actually have an entire chapter called Forgiveness because when you have an opportunity to hand someone the key and let them out of that cell of guilt and regret, you do them a favor and you do something very freeing in your own life. If she had not forgiven me … Her only son is gone, and it was on my watch.

Having said that, some wonderful things happened immediately after the accident. The very next morning a man I barely know knocked on the door, reintroduced himself, put his hands on my shoulder, and said he … thought he latched the gate around their swimming pool. He inadvertently did not latch the gate, and their young son drowned.

He put his hands on my shoulder, looked in my eyes, and he said “Don’t you dare carry this weight of guilt, this was an accident. You did not do this on purpose. You loved your child. Every parent loves their child … You do anything and everything to keep them safe,” so that was a good word. That was really rich, and he took a real risk not really having any relationship there, not knowing us and coming to say that. 

Another dear friend, we walked out to the pasture. I just wanted to see if there was a hump, what caused this to happen. As we are walking he said “Can I ask you a question?” I said “Sure.” He said “Do you think God was watching yesterday when this happened?” This was the next morning. I said, “Yes.” He said, “Do you think that he was paying attention to detail and that he could have prevented it, had he wanted to?” I said, “Yes”. He asked me a dozen more times the same question over and over from different angles. He said, “What I hear you saying is that God had not wandered away from his post. He is sovereign, he was completely in control, he was completely in-charge and he was looking and watching. And had he wanted to, yesterday, he could have reached down with his little finger and prevented that dune buggy from rolling over.” And then with a unique boldness, he said, “Well then how dare you carry all of the weight because God is as responsible for this as you, because he’s God and you’re just a man. All things pertaining to life and death, that’s his department, that’s his category, and you don’t need to carry this. You will be no good to your wife and children if you let this cause you to be marred down.” And that surged me forward in terms of grieving.

There must be some consolation knowing that God gave up his son. Yes.

In a severe way, you are in a severe way following God. Able to connect with him in a way that others can’t fathom.

And it’s further consolation to know that you’ll see Cooper again one day. We don’t grieve as those who have no hope. We have that promise of Heaven. We know we’ve got one child safely home. You wish the circumstances had been different. You want your child to live a long life and be committed to the Lord and raise a family. You want to see them prosper and flourish, but I think anyone who loses a loved one, you want to think that their life mattered. You want to think that their life had significance. … We’ve heard from thousands of people … who have watched the movie Flame On, and now with this book that’s coming out, we trust we’ll offer further hope, but we’ve heard from people who have said it was a faith-builder. It helped them to turn a corner in their grieving. Some say it helped them start the grieving process. As you mentioned, that’s a wonderful consolation to know that God is so good, and he’s a redeemer, and he can take a bad situation and get good out of it.

Hear JJ Jasper and Warren Cole Smith’s complete conversation on WORLD Radio’s Listening In:

Warren Cole Smith

Warren is vice president of mission advancement for The Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview and the host of WORLD Radio’s Listening In. Follow Warren on Twitter @WarrenColeSmith.

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