Doug and Justin, March 26, 1985

Justin came into our life on March 26, 1985 and left this life very unexpectedly on September 27, 2010. He was a gentle soul with the most expressive eyebrows and a winsome smile. Cats found him irrisistable and our dogs protected him with fierce devotion.


It has occurred to me that where some of my companions on this journey know Justin’s story, some of you may not. And it can be difficult to tease it out from scattered posts. It’s okay to ask the question how he died, I think we ask the question in an effort to relate and share our story. Grief forms a bond between hearts, and we don’t ask the question “how did he die?” out of morbid curiosity, but as an invitation to speak of it. I refrain from speaking the death story unless asked, and then I keep it clinical and brief, but there have been times when my heart needed and wanted to spill the entire story out. We have to tell the death story so that eventually we can tell the life story.


Justin and Misha, Summer of 2008

Justin and Misha, Summer of 2008

Justin was a graduate student at the University of South Dakota, working towards a Master’s Degree in Computer Science. He had fallen in love with the Midwest and the big open skies of South Dakota. He was a research assistant in the summers and taught an entry level computer class during the school year. I remember the first time he sent us a screen shot of his name under faculty, he was so excited and so were we! He was a devoted instructor and worked hard to make the class fun for his students.


Justin & his godson, Issac

Justin and his godson, Issac

Justin had traveled to Wisconsin to attend the baptism and be godfather to the son of some of his dearest friends from his days at Franciscan University of Steubenville. He was so honored and he took his responsibility seriously. We never fretted about Justin driving or traveling.  He was a conscientious driver and logged many miles crisscrossing the country to attend weddings and celebrations. We were not concerned that we had not heard from him, at that time we weren’t the hovering or smothering kind of parents. And even when Doug called upstairs to me on that Monday that there was a state trooper at the door who needed to speak to us, I didn’t think it was one of the boys. Until that very kind and soft spoken trooper asked us to sit down.


Justin’s vehicle had been found upside down in a drainage pond, submerged with only the wheels showing, in Luverne, Minnesota. The police in Minnesota said that there had been bad weather with heavy rain and wind, they think that perhaps Justin swerved to miss an animal, and the car left the highway. His vehicle was not discovered until Monday morning by a road crew who saw the wheels sticking out of the pond. He had been trapped for hours according to the medical examiner. You can read about our visit to the accident site here.



The cross at Justin’s accident site memorial

We learned that it can take four to seven years just to process the details from a horrific vehicle accident, how the brain must struggle to make sense of the event. As I am writing this, we are three months away from fifth anniversary of his death, each year, each month, each day reveals deeper layers of the profound impact of child death on everyone. I have learned that the journey never ends, there is no path back to our old life, only the new life which we forge out of the remnants.


Justin was an old soul, he was who we wanted to be when we grew up. His last visit home he didn’t even pack any clothes, he packed what was most important to him, books. He had a backpack full of books. He knew he had some clothes still in his closet home and if not, he and his dad were the same size, he was so self-forgetful. He was content with simple things, books, tea, cats, all his belongings fit in our living room when he died.


Justin and Ryan, 1990.

Justin and Ryan, 1990.

Justin and Ryan

Justin and Ryan

He had a strong faith, he loved God, and had a deep affection for St. Francis. He loved his brother Ryan and was so proud of him, loved listening to Ryan’s Navy stories. In all the pictures we have of them when they were little, Justin always had his arm around Ryan, it just came natural. He thought his dad and Ryan two of the smartest people he knew.



He and I had even spoken of death, and he shared what he would want for his funeral, not in morbid terms, we spoke very conversationally, little did I know that we would live out that conversation. I knew exactly what he wanted for his funeral and I believe we honored him well.

Picture 017-001

We were very grateful to have found a hand crafted casket by the Trappist Monks. We knew he was being enveloped in prayer.


Justin’s story has not ended by any means, it is up to us to see that his legacy continues, that we allow his gentle spirit to continue to touch our lives. Justin believed that every child should have access to books, and not just access, but ownership.  He knew the joy of having those few dog-eared, read over and over again best friends and he wanted every child to know that joy. And he loved cats, and they him.  Justin’s legacy page is currently under construction, it has not been an easy project, sometimes you have to walk away and renew your energy before entering back into that creation. We will keep you posted.

Thank you for reading Justin’s story and wandering this journey with us. If you have suffered a loss, any loss, please feel free to share your memories. My dad died when I was thirteen and my mom died when I was thirty-three. Both Doug and I have experienced sibling loss as well. We speak grief.  To view a video tribute to Justin’s life, please click here.

Wishing you peace on your journey,

Love, Terri

Photo by Justin Jackson-2007

I found several files of pictures that Justin had sent to us over the years of pictures he had taken. There aren’t many, but we are grateful to have these. Justin had a good eye and appreciated beauty.

13 thoughts on “Justin’s Story

  1. Oh, Terri. I had no idea. Since “meeting” you on Instagram and sharing photos & comments with each other, I have finally found my way here. While I have a blog (my third), I am a lazy blog reader and I apologize for my tardiness in visiting you here. It is long overdue. I am so sorry for your loss. The pain must be unbearable and yet you bear it anyway. Your strength is beyond anything I know. I have had the great misfortune to lose both of my parents – one at 34 (2001), while I was pregnant with my son & one in 2011 – and am still coming to grips with their absence. It is raw and surreal at times and being an adult orphan is (as you know) difficult enough. I cannot imagine the loss of a child, nor do I want to, if I’m being perfectly honest. When you write that “Justin was an old soul, he was who we wanted to be when we grew up,” this is my life to a tee. I strive every day to be as good a person as either of my children. Your writing is beautiful and honest and raw. Kudos to you for drawing strength from this experience and allowing Justin’s legacy to live on. It is now my very great pleasure to know you better. And I will perhaps now live a better life in Justin’s honour. Cheers to you, my friend. xo

    • Dear Sarah,

      No apologies! I am so grateful that you visited and spent time reading our stories. That is a precious gift. How you must miss your parents, especially with small ones. I miss my parents more than ever, I don’t think it matters how old you are, I still want my mother. I wish I would have written down her cheesecake recipe and paid attention all the times she made her meatballs!

      When I see the beauty of your posts and pictures, I see a beautiful soul Sarah. I am so grateful to have met you and know you better also, technology can be an amazing tool to connect people. Thank you for your words of encouragement and strength, and thank you for mentioning Justin’s legacy – there is no greater gift for a bereaved parent then to see their child’s name and know that their life perhaps touched someone. He was such a gentle soul.

      Wishing you many peace filled moments my friend, remembering you and your parents. May their memory shine a beacon of hope.

      With love and gratitude, Terri

  2. I stumbled across your blog, and want to thank you for sharing your journey. I can’t imagine your pain. I lost my father when I was 19 yrs, and my youngest brother when I was 27 yrs. He was 19 and died in a motorcycle accident when someone turned in front of him. He did survive long enough (6 days) to be an organ donor. I just remember how hard it was on my mother – the shock and denial. I remember a prayer card that someone sent my mom…a prayer to Mother Mary requesting her to hold your child in her arms and take care of him. It was very beautiful and comforting Mom kept it tucked on her bureau mirror. I looked for that card after my mom had died but never did find it. Maybe she passed it on to someone else?
    I’m glad you have such beautiful memories of your son. He lives on in your heart.

    • Dear Louise, I am so glad that you stumbled across my blog. I am so very sorry for the losses that you have endured in your life. Those six days where your brother clung to life must have been a nightmare. Organ donation is a beautiful gift from one family to another, I am always humbled by those who so generously give of them very selves. Perhaps your mom did share her beautiful prayer card with another mom who was suffering the loss of her child, she would have known the comfort that it would bring, some gentle moments. Thank you again for taking the time to visit and to write a note, I am glad to have met you. Wishing you a very peace filled day.

  3. I am crying and full of love as I read this. What a wonderful, loving young man who left us too soon. May G-d watch over him and you and your family. I am sorry for this tragedy and humbly offer my sincere condolences.

    • Thank you Cathy for the gift of your time! Thank you for reading Justin’s story. One of a bereaved parent’s biggest fears is that their child will be forgotten and it is pure joy when someone reaches out and listens, shares in the tears, a shared sorrow is not so heavy. I miss his gentleness, he had a way of asking about your day that made you feel like you were special. Thank you again.

  4. Terri,
    Jenn Kehl asked if I knew you and gave me this link. I would have liked your son. He comes through as a sweet and gentle spirit in your words. The reason Jenn suggested I contact you is that I am writing a book, Angel Bumps. It came together when I told people about my butterfly signs from my mom. People started sending their stories. My goal in writing this book is to heal hearts and let folks know that although they are gone from us, they are always with us. I’d be happy to share a few stories if you give me your e-mail. I’m hoping you may have some signs from Justin to share. I also have a sweet son named Justin.

  5. I just came upon this beautiful blog – such a beautiful tribute to your beautiful son Justin. My husband and I have a son who was born just about the time your sweet son was born–so I am grateful for the reminder to love and cherish him because our lives on this earth are so fleeting. I am grateful also that you entrusted Justin to us at Franciscan – I just arrived at Franciscan four years ago so did not know him – but I can tell you that his spirit still lives there. Such a holy place – a place that welcomed him and appreciated him so much. Thank you.

    • Dear Dr. Hendershott,
      Thank you for the gift of your time to read Justin’s story and for the comfort of your words. Justin loved Franciscan, his years there were some of his happiest. It brings tears to my eyes that you can sense his sweet spirit there on campus. We miss him, he had such a gentleness about him. Thank you again for reaching out, you have touched my heart. Wishing you a very peace filled evening.

  6. I am grateful you directed me here, Terri. Thank you for sharing this story graciously and for being patient with us. Justin sounds like a gentle and dear young man, and it is very, very right that you honor him by sharing his story.

    • Dear Melinda,
      Thank you for the gift of your time to visit and read Justin’s story. He was a dear soul. Thank you for your kind and encouraging words.

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