The Reluctant Journey Shawn Michael’s Story
By John “TC” and Joanne Megahan
This is a story of a family and their faith when their lives changed forever. It’s not a pretty story and it doesn’t have a happy ending…at least not yet. It is a real story about real people who faced real problems, who question their faith and who trust in God despite their doubts and fears. It is also a story about their family and friends who loved them and supported them, and about a God who gives grace in the most difficult storms of life.
Joanne and I want to share the story of our family to encourage and strengthen others who may be facing some of the very same storms we endured. Hold fast to these truths contacted in scripture:
“For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, saith the LORD, thoughts of peace, and not of evil, to give you an expected end. Then shall ye call upon me, and ye shall go and pray unto me, and I will hearken unto you. And ye shall seek me, and find me, when ye shall search for me with all your heart.” Jeremiah 29:11-13 (KJV)
You Should Be Here
“Shawn Michael should be here.” The ache of our sorrows can be boiled down to those five words. Here with his Mommy and Daddy, here with his brothers and sisters. He should be here because his birthday came and went and we celebrated his life without him. He should be here because there were no homemade gifts from him on his Mommy and Daddy’s birthdays. He should be here because of the empty seat left at our table at Thanksgiving and Christmas every year, and because of all the presents we don't get to buy that would have been perfect for him.
We have several large bins of his toys, clothes, pictures, and anything Shawn Michael ever wrote or painted in preschool. They have become our treasure chest of memories. In one of them we recently rediscovered what has now become one of our most cherished pictures of Shawn Michael and his Mommy together. It’s a picture taken on his 5th birthday, a day when we invited all of his preschool classmates and neighborhood friends to a party. It is the birthday he received so many great gifts, but the best one was from Mommy and Daddy. I still remember how Shawn Michael’s eyes opened wide as he tossed the wrapping paper aside and slid the glove on his little hand and thumped the ball into the pocket of the glove. “Thanks Mommy and Daddy, I’m a real baseball player now” he shouted as he threw his arms around mommy’s neck and hugged her as I took the picture.
We keep a copy of that special photo in our family room and often look at that picture while we go about our work and play. Seeing the joy on both of their faces that day reminds all of us of the laughter our family shared. Sometimes one of us stops to touch his face on the photo and softly whisper to the picture, “You should be here Shawn Michael...here with us…where you belong.”
Summer is always a special time around the Megahan house, and in the summer of 2001 we needed a break after the crisis with Cassandra’s health, her amazing surgery, and a very tough school year. We had been planned a weeklong vacation of camping and visiting my family back in Pittsburgh, as soon as Cassandra was strong enough. Most of my family had not seen our children for more than a year, and they were all looking forward to the visit.
The end of August would soon bring us all back to school and back to a jam packed schedule. Those seven days were filled with fishing trips, seeing historical sites, the amusement park, playgrounds, water park and baseball games. We crammed as much fun in the week as we possibly could. We haven’t had much fun or free time in the past year and a half, and we enjoyed every moment. We laughed, visited aunts and uncles, and spent lots of time at Grandma’s house. Now, it was time to travel back to Delaware.
The Church Choir picnic
I had to get home and prepare for Saturday’s annual church choir picnic. I had taken over the church choir ministry when the Music Minister resigned, and we were developing an exciting and growing ministry at the church. I was also scheduled to speak at a local Baptist church the following Sunday, and I wanted to get back to prepare for my message. My message was entitled “The Reluctant Journey” and it dealt with Psalm 23 and our long and lonely walk through “the valley of the shadow of death”. We had survived an unbelievable crisis with Cassandra’s illness and now wanted to share our story of God’s grace and mercy. Little did I know that we weren’t at the end of the valley, our journey just beginning.
That Saturday, the weather was perfect and the picnic was a lot of fun. One of the choir members had a beautiful home with a swimming pool and she hosted the picnic this year. All of the choir members brought their children and grandchildren, and we enjoyed great food and fellowship. The kids played in
the pool all day, splashing and swimming together. Our children were all good swimmers and they were playing together in the shallow end of the pool.
At a little after 6pm we began to clean up the food and toys and prepared to call it a day. Most of the families or we in the process of leaving. Joanne had gone inside o help with the food and I began to gather up the children. Panic came over us when we could not find Shawn Michael. He was just there sitting on the chair wrapped in a towel, and now he was gone. Shawn Michael was always shadowing one of his older brothers, but no one had seen him in the past few minutes.
Shawn Michael had just turned 5, loved school and was looking forward to beginning Kindergarten. He often entertained his teachers with stories about our large family and the many trips to the hospital with Cassandra. He was small for his age. But, what he lacked in size and stature, he made up in heart. He always had a shy smile on his freckled face and had beautiful red hair and big brown eyes. Although he was the youngest of the boys, he always seemed to be center of attention. He loved sports, especially baseball, and practically grew up with our minor league baseball, the Wilmington Blue Rocks. They attended his first baseball game the day we brought him home from the hospital, and he loved to go into the locker room when I did chapel service. He was well known and well loved at the stadium, and had dozens of friends already in the major leagues.
At first, we thought that maybe he had wandered inside with Joanne, but she had not seen him either. He hadnâ€™t gone to the bathroom or to our van, and he wasnâ€™t over on the picnic table. Everyone spread out to search for him, but after searching everywhere we could not find him. In desperation, our oldest son John Jr. had jumped back in the swimming pool to search, and found him there in the middle at the bottom of the pool. No one knows when or why Shawn Michael got back into the pool, or what happened in those few missing moments.
Our second son Brandon Curtis jumped in to help bring Shawn Michael out, and we immediately began CPR. Shawn was unresponsive and not breathing. We held him in our arms and attempted to breathe life bad into his body. Those who remained at the picnic began to prayer for God to intervene. Joanne
gathered the other children around her like a protective mother hen, and cried out once again for a miracle for our family.
The paramedics were called and the police helicopter arrived within minutes. Shawn Michael was flown to Christiana Care Hospital in the helicopter, and we followed in the police officer’s car. The hospital was only 15 minutes away and when we arrived they had already taken him into a trauma unit to begin working on him. I was familiar with this room and many of the staff members there, because I had spent many hours serving as a volunteer chaplain there at Christiana Care. Dozens of people began to arrive at the hospital. Friends from the church and community, other hospital staff members who knew us, and family members soon filled the waiting room. Together they cried and prayers for God’s grace. Urgent requests went out to church prayer chains, and my family in Pittsburgh was contacted with the news.
The trauma team at the Emergency Room tried everything to revive him, but they were unsuccessful. He had only inhaled a small amount of water into his lungs, but the stress was too much for his tiny heart. Joanne and I were called into the room to spend a few final moments with Shawn Michael before they ceased their efforts. Shawn Michael was pronounced dead a little after 7:30pm, the cause of death was cardiac arrest. His little heart had given out under the strain of the situation. Shawn Michael was the apple of Daddy’s eye. He was a little me in every way. He looked like me, acted like me and followed me wherever I went. We played catch with the baseball, watched John Wayne movies together, and wrestled with all the others boys. To Joanne, he was her little man. He loved to fuss over his new little sister Cassandra and play with his younger sister Brianne. He enjoyed helping with the chores around the house and was always happy go lucky little boy.
Our hearts and minds flooded with contrasting emotions that night. How could this happen to us? Where was God now? Why didn’t He hear or answer our prayers. Our family had just enduring the most painful experience we could imagine, we were supposed to be celebrating, not grieving. We left the hospital that night without Shawn Michael. We were a broken family.
The following week was a blur. Time had seemed to slow to a painful pace, yet lots of things were happening around us. Family from Pittsburgh arrived to comfort us, and friends from all over called or came by to pray with us. Sleep came in short painful fits for Joanne and I, and although we were constantly surrounded by people, we felt very alone.
We have always tried to be a private family, choosing to keep our matters private. Unfortunately, that illusion was shattered when the local newspaper carried several stories about our family’s tragedy. I had enjoyed a high visibility in my ministry with the Blue Rocks, and because of my work in the community, anything that happened to my family was news worthy. We had also been featured in the past with several articles because of our large family and active ministry. Still, we didn’t want everyone knowing our personal struggles and pain.
Cards and flowers came from hundreds of people in the community, and members of our previous ministries. We recognized many of the names from our churches and sports ministries, but many cards came from people who we had never met. They had read or heard about our tragedy and wanted to share their condolences. The outpouring of support was a great source of support during that difficult week.
During 20 years of ministry, I had ministered at more than a hundred funerals. I had sat with families are we prepared the service, and he wept with them over the loss of their loved one. I stood at the grave site and comforted them as they began their lonely journey through the valley. I never imagined that someday I would be doing this with my own family. I could not have imagined reading the all too familiar scriptures passages over the casket that contained the body of my little boy. This would be the most difficult memorial service that Joanne and I would ever attend. We were blessed to have two very close friends in the ministry, and we asked them to assist us in the service. We did not want the typical funeral home service filled with two hours of sadness followed by a luncheon. We wanted something that celebrated the joy of Shawn Michael’s life. We wanted something that spoke of the love and joy that he shared with everyone, and we wanted that message of God’s love shared with others.
Tears In God’s Bottle “Big boys don’t cry!” or at least that was what I always thought. I grew up believing that tears were a sign of weakness in men. Now, it seems that not a day goes by, that my eyes do not well up with tears. It has been nearly 9 years since Shawn Michael’s death, and still my heart breaks with sorrow. Tears are no longer a stranger to my eyes; they are a daily reminder of our loss. One of the things that I fear the most is that if I ever let myself feel the pain that I sense, I will start crying and never be able to stop. I was brought up in a strong willed, hard working and very proud Irish family. We were taught from our earliest ages that sad, painful, or negative feelings were to be avoided at all cost, and if we were unable to avoid them, at least, not to show them in public. It is precisely this kind of incorrect assumption that can keep us locked up by our depression, and unresolved grief. Many of you can relate to these comments: “don’t cry, it will be alright”, “if you’re going to cry, go to your room, and cry alone”; “knock off that crying or I’ll give you a reason to cry”. The old adage is sometimes true, “smile and the whole world smiles with you, cry and you cry alone.” But, do you know that you serve a God that will not leave you, and is so concerned with what happens in your life that He bottles your tears. The Psalmist tells us: “You keep track of all my sorrows. You have collected all my tears in your bottle. You have recorded each one in your book.” Psalm 56:8 TLB
There isn’t anything that goes on in your life that is so big, or so small or trivial that God doesn’t care. Take a moment to reflect on that. To know that when your heart is breaking, when we are overcome by grief, God knows and he cares. The old gospel song, “Tears are a Language God Understands”, is true and very meaningful. God understands my heartbreak, and He sees my tears. He is touched by every one of my sorrows and every one of my pains. Because God is so awesome and because He holds the world in His hands, sometimes it’s easy to think He only has time for us when we have a major crisis in our lives. But that’s what makes Him so awesome. He can hold the world and take care of little old me all at the same time. What a mighty God we serve! So the next time something happens in your life and you feel no one cares, remember God does. He cares enough to bottle your tears.
A Celebration of life
Shawn Michael’s services were held on the Thursday following the accident and were just as we wanted, a celebration of his life. The sanctuary was decorated with Shawn Michael’s favorite toys and pictures that he had painted. We moved his entire classroom into the church and put his little jacket in his cubicle. His little desk was set up with his favorite lunch of Peanut Butter and Jelly, chocolate milk and cheese curls for snack. His baseball glove and ball sat on the alter rail, next to his very own Blue Rocks uniform top that was given by the team. Hundreds of photographs were displayed in the church, and the sanctuary was filled with all the things that brought happiness to his brief five years on this earth.
More than 500 people filled the sanctuary of our church. Pastor Ron Cheadle spoke of the love that our family shared, and a friend sang a special song that we chose. Together we laughed and cried, as several people stood up and shared stories about Shawn Michael’s short life. Friends from the Blue Rocks shared memories of his days around the stadium, and his teachers spoke of his many friends and playful nature. Each of the older children shared their special memories with Shawn Michael, and the love they shared. Joanne and I also spoke from our heart as we thank God for giving us such a special little boy, and that every day with our children is a gift from God.
Rev. Irv Pusey spoke of life being too short and that every day was important to God, no matter young or how old. He spoke of how much God had used Shawn Michael’s short five years on earth, as a message of His love and grace. He spoke of the believer’s hope of heaven that Shawn Michael knew now, and of living eternally with his Savior Jesus Christ. Rev. Pusey challenged us to live like Shawn Michael lived, and that we would someday see him again when we reached our eternal reward. That day, many people came to a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Shawn Michael’s life and death had an eternal impact on hundreds of lives. God had taken something that Satan meant for evil and was using it for His good.
When the service was over, the older children escorted the tiny white casket, while Joanne and I followed with the two youngest girls. The cemetery was located about 20 minutes from the church, and just a few blocks from where Joanne grew up. The long line of cars in the funeral procession made its way from the church, and slowly passed the neighborhood where we lived.
Eventually we traveled up the highway and toward the city, driving right by the Blue Rocks stadium where Shawn Michael spent so many wonderful days. We smiled as we spotted the large message board in right center field. Usually it showed the score of the game or promoted upcoming events, but today it simply read “Thank you Shawn Michael. We will miss you”!
We arrived at the cemetery and to an all too familiar location. Shawn Michael would be laid to rest next to Joanne’s father and two brothers who had already reached their eternal reward. We couldn’t help but imagine the wonderful greeting that was have awaited Shawn Michael the day he passed from this earth. My father died when I was 7, Joanne’s father who died weeks before our wedding, her brothers Doug and Tommy who both died too young, and scores of other aunts, uncles and grandparents who had gone before. What a reunion!
There was so much outpouring of support and encouragement from so many, we were overwhelmed. The Blue Rocks made our family guests of honor at one of their games, people gave our family many beautiful gifts, and Shawn Michael’s school built a playground in his memory. The church coordinated all of the financial contributions to pay for the funeral, and Shawn Michael’s class planted a beautiful butterfly garden. Each day now, his classmates would play on the slides and swings, and watch the butterflies rest on the flowers and bushes. The garden was the idea of his Pre-K4 teachers and it was complete lots of purple flowers, a beautiful plaque and a statue of a little red headed boy.
The Reluctant Journey begins
All too soon though, the services were over, and the friends and family were headed home. Not long after that the calls and cards stopped coming, and was time for our family to return to our normal routine. Life continued on at its rapid pace, but we were still stinging from our lose. The problem is, how do you go back to normal when a big part of your life has been ripped out. Nothing was normal anymore, not play time, not meal time, and certainly not our family time. We had experienced the emotional roller coaster ride from hell, and now we found ourselves struggling to make it through each day.
I remember reading CS Lewis’ “A Grief Observed” and feeling sorry for the old guy. He seemed so sad and lonely and I was a young and active college student full of life and energy. I knew nothing about how painful life can be, I never knew what grief was like. It was just as he described, that sense of fear, emptiness and self doubt. I had no energy, no desire, and the fire that once burn bright in my heart had been extinguished. I too felt like I walked around with “leaden feet” and experienced the “double bolting” of the door of heaven. I too felt like I was an embarrassment to myself, my family and friends, and especially God. Maybe that is why He seemed to remain silent.
The laugher and joy that once was abundant in our home was now replaced with sadness and silence. The reminders of Shawn Michael were everywhere in our house. His clothes and toys filled the room that he had shared with his brother Tyler Jordon, his bottom bunk bed was still covered with his Buzz Lightyear comforter, and his tiny sandals were sitting by the door. The walls were decorated with his original paintings, and his bookshelf was full of his videos and books. His autographed baseballs were on the desks next to his puzzles, and a variety of action figures lay on the floor.
More important to us, were the signs of Shawn Michael in all of our lives. He had his assigned place at the dinner table that was now empty, and so was his seat in the van. He would no longer tag along to the boys soccer games or go with me to the Blue Rocks. Shawn Michael was no longer there to make us
laugh, play silly games or sing his favorite songs at bed time. He would always be in our hearts, but we missed his presence in our home.
It soon became apparent that we were not the only ones who did know how to handle the grief over Shaw Michael’s death. It seemed like everyone was struggling with how to return to the normal we once enjoyed. The problem was, there was no more normal for us, our lives were forever changed. Everyone else returned to their homes and family, and thank the Lord that it didn’t happen to them. We had become a living example of just how painful life could be, and people just didn’t know what so say or do around us. Most people avoided us at church or in the community, they weren't being mean they were just afraid. What hurt more than that, were those who tried to comfort us by saying dumb things in the hopes of comforting us. They would say things like “Shawn Michael was taken because God loved him so much”, or “just accept this as God’s will”. We were even told by a local Pastor that, “Maybe this is God’s way of getting our attention and getting us back to his church”.
I had grown tired of the empty platitudes and thoughtless remarks, but I tried to be kind. I had realized all the insensitive things that I too had said with good intentions. I was just as guilty as others, and I knew no more about grief than they did. In Bible college we were taught how to preach a funeral sermon, but not how to comfort a grieving family. Now, nothing else matter but our family and our very survival. Each one of us were so deeply pained, and everyone handled their grief differently. I decided that it in the best interest to return to teaching at the Academy, and to cut back on my ministry schedule. I had resigned the numerous ministry roles that we serving in, and tried to focus all of my energies of making it through each day. I was discouraged, disillusioned, and most of all angry at God. He had given us a miracle with Cassandra and then crushed us with Shawn Michael’s death. It seemed like a cruel and vicious joke. How could I minister to others, how could I profess a faith that I now doubted? Everything that I stood for was in question, maybe God didn’t have a plan for me. It took many months and personal pain and struggle to find peace with Shawn Michael’s death, and even longer to feel that I could be used again in the ministry.
Unfortunately, I learned the hard way that the funeral is just the beginning of journey that King David referred to in the 23rd Psalm, as the “valley of the shadow of death”. The real battle of grief begins when the funeral is over and the cards stop arriving. I never knew what David was talking about, until I took the first steps of that journey. A journey that we will all take someday, because nobody escapes the sting of death bite, not even the King of Israel.
For David, his journey also began with the death of his son. He too had been through his own roller coaster ride of blessings and trials, and he experience every word that he would write in that Psalm. He could talk of the “valley of the shadow of death” because he walked every painful step of the way. Fear and evil were all around him, but he was comforted by the presence of the Lord.
Now, my ministry is to anyone who has felt the way that I have felt, and questioned the things that I had questioned. I am one of the walking wounded, bruised but not broken. I have traveled a painful journey and come out of the other side of the valley, wiser, stronger and more committed to reaching people for Christ. I am not proud of my struggles and the pain that our family has shared, but I know that “all things work out for the good, to those who love the Lord and are called according to His purposes”. Good things are happening in our lives because He loves us, and our calling is for His purpose only.
Let me close with the most extraordinary theological lesson I have ever learned in my life. It didn’t come from my Bible college days, or from a seminar that attended. It was delivered by our youngest daughter Cassandra Rose while we were playing basketball in our driveway one day. It was hot and the sun was bright, casting long shadows on the ground next to us. Amazed at the length of the shadows, she remarked “Hey Daddy, have you ever noticed that you only see your shadow when you turn your back to the Sun?” That day, my life and ministry changed forever. I had come to realize that I would forever see the shadows of death if I continued to keep my back to the Son.
When Daddy Canâ€™t Fix Things
Men go through all kinds of identity changes when they experience the loss of a child, especially a child who is older and has lived long enough to create established memories with his father. A man identifies himself by mainly two things: the job he has and the family he has. When a child is taken away by death, a man suddenly loses part of the largest, most important part of his identity and a real crises situation has been created, not just for the father, but also for role the father plays with the family. Fathers love to feel needed, and they love to feel like they are the one responsible for the happiness of the entire family. Men are far less verbal than women by nature, and it makes it much more difficult for family members and friends to understand the changes that are taking place with a father when his loses a child. He often feels like a total failure because he was unable to prevent the death or to fix the death once it took place. This is especially true if the childâ€™s life was lost due to an illness. Fathers are notorious for fixing things that are broken or in need of repair, and when they cannot fix their childâ€™s illness and the end result is death, a father goes through a deep grieving period of feeling tremendous guilt and failure.
A father who loses a child also loses such a large part of his dreams. Fathers don’t always openly talk about their dreams of hunting and fishing with their children, or of taking bike rides together, going to ball games together or of tossing a ball in the backyard, but they think about these events all of the time. Fathers of girls daydream about walking their daughter down the aisle and dancing that first dance at the wedding. They dream about taking care of all of their child’s hurts, wiping their tears away, and being called “hero” for all of the ways they show their strength to their son or daughter. Child loss, in a father’s eyes, often represents weakness. Men believe fathers are to be strong and in charge, not at a loss for knowing what to do when death turns life upside down. Child loss is such a helpless feeling, and often this is a foreign emotion for fathers who have been immersed in the lives of being a tower of strength for their child. What is a father to do? How can a father go on and feel whole once again? It takes time to work through the pain of loss. It takes a long time to build back a feeling of belonging as a father. It will often take years for a father to be able to reclaim his identity of a father. It will take lots of working through feelings of failure and loss to feel like a man who can always proudly wear the name father. Take it a day at a time, a step at a time. Begin by telling yourself over and over that you will always be a father. Nothing can change that – not even death. Remind yourself often that some things cannot be fixed by you. Remember often that lost dreams are part of the pain every parent feels when a child dies. It takes a lot of tears and years to work past the milestone markers of such things as dreams of your child playing ball, driving a car, dating, getting married, and having children. These are not easy dreams to release, but with time you will be able to more vividly remember the times you had with your child than to sorrow over the time you never had. Be patient with yourself! Be kind to yourself! And, when you fall into the emotional pain of feeling like a failure, remind yourself that you will always be a father and nothing can take away that badge of honor, not even death! Lastly, remind yourself that you will make it! There will be a day when you can say with confidence, “I am a father – always and forever, and I am so thankful for that!”