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  • July 11, 2014 - Reflections

    By Jean S. Horner
    The other day while walking down a corridor in a public building, I saw what appeared to be someone walking toward me. On coming closer, I found it was my own reflection in a huge mirror. For a moment it frightened me. Somehow a full-length reflection of one’s self is a startling thing. ...

Connections: Elvia Atherton

After a Son Dies

In February 2000, Brian Atherton died two weeks before his 21st birthday. High on marijuana and psychedelic mushrooms, Brian jumped out of the moving car in which he was riding with two friends and ran into a snow-covered field. His frozen body was recovered two hours later.

Brian’s parents, John and Elvia Atherton, have been active at Community Bible Church in South Burlington, Vt., for 37 years. They currently lead a marriage class at the Assemblies of God church. Pastor Michael Kriesel and his wife, Diana, are lifelong friends of the Athertons and godparents to Brian and his older brother, Michael.

Elvia wrote the book One Step Closer: A Bridge From Grief to Healing in 2008. She recently talked with News Editor John W. Kennedy.

evangel: Although you knew Brian was smoking pot, his death caught you off guard.

ATHERTON: It was totally unexpected. We knew both boys were using drugs at that age, but when they left the house, we were unable to control what they did. They knew right from wrong because of how they were brought up. Sometimes children get involved in a slide that takes them downward into a crowd that is not healthy. In this case, this crowd became their best friends.

evangel: You mention in the book that you had unrealistic expectations. You didn’t think a churchgoing family would have to deal with such heartache.

ATHERTON: When the kids were smaller, it was easy to see the faults of other parents: This kid is pulling away because he doesn’t communicate; this father is a workaholic; this mother is controlling. I took mental notes of what to do and not to do so my kids would be OK. I thought if we brought them up in the way they should go, they wouldn’t depart from it when they were teenagers. I was a stay-at-home mom. When the boys started pulling away in their teenage years, I saw myself as a total failure as a mother.

evangel: Years earlier you left your husband.

ATHERTON: We were separated for nine months. I filed for divorce. I thought John could do a better job of parenting than I could. Thank God for the counselor we had. Peoples’ prayers carried us to a miraculous reconciliation, to a place happier than we ever dreamed we could be. When Brian died 13 years later after that whole mess, we had a solid foundation to stand on. The worst disasters can happen to Christians, absolutely. But God is faithful. He can restore everything and then some.

evangel: After Brian’s death, you didn’t find a support group helpful.

ATHERTON: It was a sad, co-dependent scenario of people enabling each other to stay where they were — in pain. One mother was still angry that a drunk driver had killed her daughter 16 years earlier. Nobody in the group said unforgiveness was not helping her nor was it hurting the man who drove the car. I walked away from that environment that offered no hope.

evangel: You say everyone in a family must process grief in their own way and on their own timetable.

ATHERTON: One reason that the divorce rate is so high after the death of a child is because husbands and wives grieve so differently and often blame each other. Instead, they need to just be there to support and love each other without judgment.

evangel: How is blaming yourself — or others — counterproductive?

ATHERTON: After I got through all the “what ifs” and “if onlys,” I got to the point of thinking, This is my fault. Because I walked away 13 years earlier, my kids got into drugs. We’re so much harder on ourselves than we are on other people. We don’t give ourselves the grace we would give to anybody else. I had to come to terms with what I was responsible for and what the boys were responsible for. Yes, I was wrong. I may have caused my kids to do things in anger. But they are responsible for their own choices.

evangel: For the family to survive, you chose the road of forgiveness and healing — even though you had a strong legal case against other parties.

ATHERTON: God gave me an amazing gift the morning that Brian died. I was so moved by the two boys who were crying hysterically at the hospital. I stood between them and wrapped my arms around them and said, “This is not your fault. God is greater than this. I forgive you.” I meant it with all my heart. I had no idea at the time what that would do for my life.

When we found out later that those boys had left Brian in the field on the coldest night of the winter, driven for miles down the road to ditch their drugs, and only then called us, there was no going back for me. Forgiveness had already been given. I didn’t regret it one bit.

I cannot pursue a road of forgiveness, freedom and healing if I choose to take a detour of bitterness, anger and revenge. These guys were Brian’s best friends. They were scared for their own safety. Me releasing them does not free them from their responsibility of what happened that night.

evangel: Nevertheless, grieving can take months or even years.

ATHERTON: Years. A grief counselor offered through the state told us that in sudden traumatic death the healing process is three to five years. It took me five years.

evangel: How did friends from church help you through the process?

ATHERTON: Brian grew up in the church, and everyone knew him because we had been there so long. They grieved with us. They were like a blanket around us, protecting us from raw pain. We felt the prayers of the people.

I was dreading my first Mother’s Day after his death. I didn’t want to go to church. But the young woman who had sung at Brian’s funeral cried her eyes out. God gave her my load to bear the entire service. Being in a church is so invaluable. It’s like family. Friends called us every day for a solid year after Brian died.

evangel: Through it all, what have you learned about how God can use tragedy?

ATHERTON: I’m a believer in the recycling ability of God. He takes all the garbage in our lives and makes it into something good that we can use for someone else, if we let Him. You actually can thrive after a child dies.


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