The Story of Losing My Son: When Unthinkable Tragedy Makes You A Better Leader
June 18,2015 started out as just another Thursday. We were getting ready to go to the 20 week check-up at the doctor. We had done this twice before so it wasn’t a big deal. I was exhausted from work at that time, but found peace in seeing my child bounce around a television screen. At this point in life I was an anxious and fearful person, but felt safe because we were well into that second trimester. We cozier into the room with three year old Jackson and one year old Colin, excited to see their baby brother and sister, but not comprehending really what was going. Up popped our baby, but no sound.
In that moment it didn’t hit me. The nurse went and got the doctor and Emily knew, while I thought their machine was broken. The nurse came back, asked to take Jackson and Colin, and that is when I knew, this would be the worst day of our lives. We walked in planning to see our baby on a screen, little did we know we would be holding him that evening and saying our good byes.
It’s been 19 months since Andrew went to Heaven, but the tears flowing as I write this are just as real as the tears that flowed June 18, 2015 and the ensuing weeks after. Holding Andrew in his basket, seeing his beauty, wanting to be his daddy and protect him (God help me continue this blog…), and realizing just how helpless I was. I couldn’t do anything to comfort my wife or explain to Jackson (Colin was too little) why his baby brother wasn’t ever going to live with him. Losing my wife or boys would be just as painful, probably more if I am being honest, but selfishly I pray I never experience pain like that again in my life.
I think it is important for me to share where I am now, as it leads into my leadership lesson for the week. My wife and I are people of strong faith and in our faith we find our bedrock. Two specific events happened to me that launched me in a direction of peace and hope, the first was Andrew’s funeral. Emily and I sat in the front row, gazing at Andrew’s tiny little casket when Jackson jumped on my lap and said, “Daddy, I prayed for you so you can stop crying now, Andrew is in Heaven”… he also wagged his finger at me when he delivers his instruction. The second was advice from a counselor, shared with Emily, weeks later. The advice was “rest in knowing that because Andrew lived he receives eternal life, and you will be reunited with him one day.
Now that I have thoroughly soaked my shirt with tears and you have read this story…. so what? What does this have to do with business, let alone leadership?! Well let me tell you. It took a good 14 months after losing Andrew to stop responding out of an emotion of fear and anxiety. My day started with fear of making mistakes that would harm the security of my family… and those of you who have experienced fear while leading know that fear mongering is real and bad people will try to capitalize.
I am convicted with the belief that Andrew changed me for the good not only personally, but professionally. Every day for the past 595 days I wake up thinking of my dear son, but not in a “whoa is me” attitude that would be justifiable. I think, “because Andrew lived, I have hope” and I smile. For those of you who are DYI’ers, you know your electricity won’t harm you cause it is grounded. For me, my connection to Andrew is that ground wire to the Bedrock, and I will be okay no matter what happens today, because I have hope.
While that is faith based for me personally, the product of me that I produce at work must be different. Hope translated into professional speak is leading fearlessly. We all face obstacles every day, some enormous, some self-created, and some generated by others. Some problems you can see coming from a mile away, some blind-side you like a dodgeball to the temple. You have a choice: do you respond or do you react.
Most of the time reacting can be dangerous for a leader. Back to the DIY analogy… when you react it is often like crossing a white and black wire, “POP! ZAP”! Followed quickly by a wife quip of “I told you to turn the power off”. In my leadership style I treat reacting like holding a connected black wire in my teeth while connect the white with my wet hand. Do I fail sometimes and react, yes!
Why is responding better? Responding let’s you plan whereas reacting is an imidiate uncontrolled respond to your emotion. Building a brain plan can take weeks/months or it can take a few seconds (long enough for an itchy pause). Your 5-second plan can be as simple as, “my boss is angry and yelling at me, I will speak confidently, own the problem, and the solution”. You may not have caused the problem, or even know about the problem, but you can always be part of the solution. Which is better, “boss, that is Bob’s”!!!! Or “boss, I don’t know what happened but I will work with Bob to identify the cause and drive a solution”. Leaders lead.
When I lost Andrew I clung to the hope of seeing him again. I still cry at times because I want him here, but he, along with Jackson, Colin, and Emily, motivate me every day to be a good man and a high character leader. Andrew’s death taught me that I cannot control everything, but I can always believe, never sacrifice character, and keep my eyes up and not down (where fear, anxiety, ego, and aggression dwell). My encouragement to you is to control what you can control and for the things you can’t control, ground yourself in whatever gives you hope (family, friends, golf, etc) and let that be your catalyst to see you through the rocky terrain of being a leader.
Each year on Andrew’s birthday we visit his grave and release balloons