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 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 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.
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.
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.
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,