I experienced many memorable moments from the recent Helping Parents Heal Conference in Phoenix including meeting several Soul Peeps in person, hearing dozens of fabulous speakers like Dr. Mary Neal, Jeff Olsen, Suzanne Giesemann and many others, and of course the opportunity to speak to the attendees on the 10 Life-Changing Lessons from Heaven.
But for me, the most sacred and special moment actually occurred before the conference even started…
Due to a most untimely illness, two Shining Light Parents from our home state of Wisconsin, Jeff and Nan, had to cancel attending the conference at the last minute. Of course they were heartbroken – and I was too for them – and because I was looking forward to seeing them there.
Nan had recently been a part of our Soul Peeps Discussion Groups and shared with me the terrible news that she and her husband Jeff wouldn’t be able to attend. Not wanting to impose or make me feel uncomfortable, Nan mentioned that all the parents would be wearing buttons with their kid’s pictures on it and wondered if I would consider wearing Austin’s. She said others could easily do it too but they wanted to check with me first.
Tears immediately welled up in my eyes… I knew instantly what a special honor this was. The sacred opportunity to represent Austin and his family (brother Kevin and sister Baylee) at the conference humbled me and I understood the gravity of the request. I quickly replied that I would be most honored to wear Austin’s button and thanked them for trusting me with it.
Since Nan had been a Soul Peep, I knew some things about Austin but I wanted to know more about him if I was truly going to shine his light at the conference. Nan graciously shared the following with me about their beloved son:
Austin was super intelligent. As a 1-year old he could spell his name and he could read and do all sorts of math by 4 years old. He was a human calculator – numbers were just intuitive to him. Kevin and Austin had a few college classes together since they both attended UW-Oshkosh and had similar majors. Kevin said Austin would be on the ESPN website the whole hour studying sports stats, but could answer any question the professor would throw out and always mastered the content and would tutor others. Several guys we never met told us at Austin’s celebration of life that they wouldn’t have made it through the tough classes without him. Above all, Austin was so kind and always looked out for others who needed help. In middle school, he was giving up his cold lunch to feed kids without lunches. He would go without. Once I found out, I just started sending multiple lunches so he could eat too. He was very close to Kevin and Baylee too. He just always went out of his way to show them how much he loved them. He loved animals, especially our cats. They loved him too and always gravitated to him. He was irreplaceable for sure.
As I signed in for the conference, I proudly pinned Austin’s button on my name tag and he and I went to every presentation and meeting.
We first went to the Helping Father’s Heal breakout session. Austin’s dad Jeff actively participates in Helping Father’s Heal, a subgroup of fathers who have had children pass, and finds great value in it.
The Helping Father’s Heal workshop reminded me that men often grieve differently than women because they feel they have to be stoic and strong – despite the devastation and despair they feel.
I discovered a great group of men who were willing to be vulnerable, real, raw, and helpful with each other – while still being guys. They talked about many things including how so often after the death of a child that acquaintances often become best friends – and unfortunately best friends often become mere acquaintances because so many people don’t know how to deal with death. (If you are a grieving dad, be sure to check out Helping Father’s Heal.)
Over the four-day conference, each time I draped the lanyard over my head with Austin’s button on it I thought about the many Soul Peeps I’ve learned so much from about life, death, grief, hope, healing, and resilience. I admired how through their grief they courageously shine their precious kid’s lights into the world.
I also thought of my own daughter Jillian’s 45-foot fall in a climbing accident that could have taken her life –– but miraculously didn’t. I knew how UNBELIEVABLY FORTUNATE my wife and I were that Jill somehow survived her death-defying fall. I knew the button I wore could have very easily had Jillian’s face and name on it rather than Austin’s.
Soberingly, I realized by the grace of God I could have been an attendee at the conference – not a speaker for it.
In honor of Austin and all the kids who had passed, I sent Jill a heartfelt text expressing how fortunate I was to still have her in my life and reminded her how much I loved her – knowing that the 900 parents around me could never again send that text.
At the book signing, several people asked me about my button and I excitedly told them about Austin. I was sure to mention that I was not Austin’s dad but I did have the sacred opportunity of representing Austin, Nan and Jeff, and their family at the conference.
The final day of the conference, which was also the day of my presentation, I put the lanyard with Austin’s button on it over my head one last time. I looked at Austin’s picture and drew inspiration from him. I realized that while Austin can’t physically shine his beautiful light anymore here on Earth, I knew he could shine his light through me during the talk. I smiled back at him and said, “Let’s go do this, Austin.” And Austin and I went out and delivered a light-filled presentation to provide inspiration, hope, and healing to so many hurting parents.
Having the sacred opportunity to represent Austin and shine his light into the attendees of the conference was undoubtedly the most humbling and sacred part of the weekend for me. While fortunately I don’t know the depth of despair of losing a child, I do know that we can continue to shine our deceased loved one’s light into the world by truly living and loving in a way that honors them – as I tried my very best to do with Austin.
Thank you Austin, Nan, Jeff, Kevin, and Baylee for this sacred and special honor and privilege! We’ll all continue shining Austin’s bright light in our lives and into the lives of others… because like his spirit and his kindness, it will never fade.