My life had a road map that included stops at soccer games for the grandkids, having my children and their families over for cookouts and spending my retirement days with my son on the golf course. That road map changed the day I got the phone call that my son was found deceased in his hotel room on February 5, 2011. Everything changed, and I was left with a bag of grief that I didn’t know what to do with. I founded Wrenched Hearts — Delta Air Lines’ peer support group for bereaved parents — and gave my grief an avenue to work through. Helping other parents walk this road has given me a why and helped me heal. I still miss my boy, and I always will. I know he is looking down with pride knowing that his life left this mark on the world. Let’s walk this dark road together so that the shadows are not so scary.
I have spent a career trying to be the best mechanic, engineer, project manager, even fleet manager that I could be to move up and grow my career. My whole career has been in positions that allowed me to “fix” things. It is what I did! As a mechanic, I was a troubleshooter. The really hard to fix airplanes was where I thrived. As a fleet manager, I was tasked with bringing 49 foreign-owned MD90s into our fleet and finding a way to make them just like our other planes. I fixed the broken and made it work again. For over 20 years, when tasked with a job, I got it done and did it well.
On February 5, 2011, I got a phone call that changed my life forever. It was a normal Saturday for me: golf in the morning and then relaxing at home watching golf on TV. That day, my wife and my son’s fiancee were out buying stuff for the upcoming wedding. I had been trying to call Jason, my youngest son, on and off all day with no response except his voicemail. Jason was my golf partner, friend and confidant. We talked almost every day. When the phone rang, the voice on the other end was a police officer in Ogden, Utah, telling me that my son Jason had died. Jason was only 25 years old and was working as a welder assistant on the pipeline to save money for his wedding. He was a member of the pipeliners union and traveled all over the United States working. He had been planning to come home in a month to start his life with his new family. In an instant, I went from planning a wedding to planning my son’s funeral.
Most of that time is still a fog to me, but I reverted to what I knew. I got busy organizing and putting things in place in an attempt to “fix” the situation. I was broken and deep down inside, I knew I couldn’t fix this. I tried to fix it, I tried to fix me. I really wanted to be able to do something that could make this all better.
My teammates at work were so good to me and took care of me during this time. They told me to take all the time I needed before I tried to return to work. They came to the viewing and funeral; they covered my work so I didn’t fall behind. I was inundated with emails and notes of condolences from people trying to make things better for me. My teammates did whatever they could for me, but they couldn’t understand what I was going through. I needed to talk to someone who truly understood. I felt alone in a crowd; I felt like I was the only person who had to go through something like this.
After I returned to work, I met a man who had lost his son four months after I had lost Jason. We had a friend in common who knew about both of our losses and was smart enough to introduce us so that we could talk. We talked and shared stories about our kids. We cried together, and we connected. Imagine a couple of old mechanics hugging each other in tears between the hangars. The mechanics who walked by us gave us plenty of space. It had been a year since Jason had died, and I had been stuck in a dark fog just going through the motions until that talk.
As I drove home that evening, I realized that I felt better because I was able to share my pain with someone who could relate to my pain. I was able to experience true understanding from someone who had been through what I had. If just talking to another dad who was broken felt so right then why couldn’t we do that in the workplace for other parents who were walking that dark road alone? I approached our leadership team at work and asked if I could start a support group for parents who had lost children. The support was immediate. I planned the first meeting, and about ten people showed up. It was an awkward first date. We had no idea what we were supposed to do in our support group. We told our stories and shared our deepest thoughts with each other because we all knew that “we all knew”. We asked each other how we were each doing because the reality is that the rest of the world won’t ask because they are afraid we might tell them. Just having the ability to talk openly and honestly about our thoughts, feelings and emotions with other people who shared our experience was healing. That day, Wrenched Hearts was born. Before the group, most of us didn’t want to talk about what we had been through. It just seems weird to cry at work. We named our support group Wrenched Hearts because what we had been through was heart wrenching, and we started with our mechanic group who were a bunch of gear heads so it worked in more ways than one.
After a year, Wrenched Hearts grew to about thirty members in my division, and we approached Delta’s leadership team to open this up to all 80,000 employees. Again, we were met with great support. Today, we have over 200 members of Wrenched Hearts, and there are satellite groups in Atlanta, Detroit, Minneapolis-St. Paul and Salt Lake City. Each group meets once a month, and the bonds that develop are like family bonds. This is a group that no one wants to be a member of, but when the worst nightmare of any parent becomes a reality, having a group that can help people navigate their new normal is necessary for healing. Just the response and the growth has proven that this was the right thing to do. Helping others is healing.
A national study done by Compassionate Friends, a national bereaved parents’ organization, found that 10-15% of all parents will lose a child. In a company of 80,000 employees, that translates to over 4,000 employees that are affected by and actively trying to cope with their new normal. Odds are that you work side by side each day with a parent who is struggling to deal with the loss of a child and trying to find his/her way out of the fog.
I hope that none of you ever have to be a member of my group, but I am so proud that we have this resource in case you do. Wrenched Hearts is my son Jason’s legacy, and it is now my passion. Jason had a heart for the underdog, the downtrodden. He stood up for kids who were picked on in school. He could be found sharing his faith with the janitors at the hotels he stayed in when working on the pipeline. I know I cannot fix this hurt for our members, but I can listen, share and walk this road with our employees who don’t know where to turn for answers. We have an army of ears and hugs ready to help the next mom or dad who has to endure the loss of their child. Wrenched Hearts has proven to be the one tool that can help when there is no other solution. Something powerful has emerged from my loss, and meaning has been created through empathy. Jason’s life and death has given hope to people. They are included in the humanity of fellow employees. Wrenched Hearts has saved lives. This kind of empathy in action should not be an afterthought in business. It is vital for growth and success. It is human! My hope and prayer is that Wrenched Hearts will live on long after I have retired, and that people will continue to be helped. That will continue to give meaning to Jason’s life as well as his dad’s loss. What better legacy to leave behind? What else could bring good from the most horrific moment of any parent’s life?