Jim Johnson's Story of Growing in His Faith Through Grieving the Loss of His Son
Grief is one of the most difficult parts of life. It has many stages and there isn't one stage that is easier than the rest. Cottonwood Creek offers Grief Share, a ministry that doesn't let people walk alone in their grief. Jim Johnson is one of the many that has been through Grief Share and now teaches the class. Through his own loss and experience with grief, he has grown in his faith and has been blessed with the chance to walk alongside many others during difficult times.
Jim grew up in a secular family. Growing up, he always had an emptiness in his life without knowing the Lord. "I had a great family, but I was searching for a faith," Jim said. "However, it wasn't until the attacks on 9/11 occurred that a light switch went off. I became a Christian six months later at age 48." Since then, Jim hasn't been a passive Christian either. He takes advantage of every ministry opportunity. "I always want to grow in my faith," Jim said. "Back then, I wanted to walk with the Lord as quickly as possible."
However, Jim's faith was truly put to the test years later when his son, Matt, passed away. "Matt had a wonderful skillset," Jim said. "He went off to college at the University of Colorado in Boulder to double major in international baking and Chinese. I thought he was doing well with his reporting of good grades and evidence of progress," Jim said. "Somewhere in there, however, nobody knew that Matt had lost himself and who he was. He was going through depression."
Four years later in 2007, Jim traveled to see Matt graduate from college. Jim had talked to him five times the day of his graduation. "He was supposed to graduate with a dual major and he sounded fine on the phone," Jim said. "However, he didn't show up at graduation and his name wasn't on the program." Jim hurried to Matt's apartment to find it depressing and disheveled. "What should've been a dad's best day was the day I found Matt with a gunshot wound in his temple, dead," Jim said. He had arrived about 20 minutes too late.
Matt's death started a very much unwanted new chapter in Jim's life. "Before becoming a Christian, I probably would've exited the 10th story window of that Colorado hotel that night," Jim said. "However, being a new man in Christ, I called a minister named Bill Peal who stayed on the phone with me all night. I had to get the images out of my mind, so Bill worked with me."
Two men Jim worked with picked him up the following day. "My entire church came around me and I had such a support at work to see me through the first phase of that process," Jim said. "I had been so active in my church for five years and kept thinking of 2 Corinthians 1:3-5:
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ.
I knew I needed to exhibit my faith at that time," Jim continued. "I gave myself time to initially grieve, but at his memorial, I had to take that opportunity to witness to people that God will comfort us."
Jim moved through the process of the first phase of grief: shock. "It was a traumatic loss," Jim said. "If someone has been sick terminally, you expect the illness to take their life. For Matt, his psychological issues were every bit as terminal for him." Matt's suicide came as a total shock for Jim because Matt never asked for help. "He had written me a suicide note that morning," Jim said. "It wasn't that Matt wanted to hurt me, he just wasn't well. Technically, he was mentally ill and not the mature, young man that he made himself out to be."
For the first three to four months after Matt's passing, Jim and his wife traveled to Europe. "We hid on the road in England, Spain, Portugal, and Italy," Jim said. "It was nice to not have a big bullseye painted on our backs. The amenity of being away was comforting, but the anxiety and stresses of grief didn't go away, so we came back."
Jim's wife began to feel that Jim was in a fragile place, so they decided to go through Grief Share, six months after Matt's death. "Grief Share is a thirteen-week program where you meet with a group of newly bereaved people who are in really rough emotional shape," Jim said. "When I first went, there weren't any others grieving from a suicide, but grief is grief!"
Jim and his wife, Brenda, began Grief Share at Christ Fellowship, where they attended church at the time. "While Brenda took notes on every page, I was shell shocked," Jim said. "I was there, but didn't fully participate. I knew I was on the right path and I was starting on a long journey."
Several years before Matt's passing, Jim had been working with a division of Campus Crusade for Christ called Military Ministries. Having always been a big supporter of the military, he was one of the volunteer workers with the soldiers. "I was treated to a front row seat to some really stout Christians and began to learn about what I was going through," Jim said. "Previous to Matt's death, I hadn't worked with post-traumatic stress disorder victims." After Matt's death however, Jim had a passion to help service men and women who suffered with PTSD. "I took it upon myself to start getting trained in it, going to various programs and workshops," Jim said. "Of course, I had a case of it myself since a traumatic stress had occurred in my life. It was not a battlefield, but it was full of the smell of gunshots and blood, and it was a loved one."
Jim then reached a sort of rocky plateau. He related it to Gideon in Judges 6:11:
Gideon son of Joash was threshing wheat at the bottom of a winepress to hide the grain from the Midianites.
"Sometimes we aren't equipped for what we need to be doing," Jim said. "I was treading water. I wasn't crying every day, but I wasn't getting better or moving forward. I was stuck and this had now been four years since Matt's death."
One of the final parts of Jim's healing process from his grief was listening to Matt's iPod. "There were 5,500 songs on it," Jim said. "I listened to that iPod through and through, trying to figure out what he was thinking. I was stuck there." During that time, Jim met a woman whose son was serving in Afghanistan. "He had asked his mom to send him music," Jim said. "He liked Texas red dirt music. That's what Matt's iPod had on it, so I gave it up to the next person who needed it." Giving that iPod up was the thing that Jim needed to do and graduate to the next part of recovery, which was now helping and comforting others.
During that time, Jim and Brenda had also changed churches and started attending Cottonwood Creek. "This church makes your faith life come alive," Jim said. "I started attending Bible studies and eventually did a 9-month long ministry called Iron Men of God and attended Pastor John Mark's Tuesday morning men's group." During that time, Jim was asked to start serving at church. Jim decided to go back to Grief Share. "I introduced myself and told them that I was still struggling with grief after four years," Jim said. "I told the Grief Share leader that I was there to serve as her assistant." Six months later, Jim inherited Grief Share and took over.
"That was how I came to be a Grief Share group leader," Jim said. "At first, I had the feeling that I was doing it at great personal expense. Sharing about Matt was painful." However, over time, Grief Share became simpler for Jim. He began to see how God wanted to use him. "As I tell the story of Matt's passing to people, it opens a window or doorway where it can relate to others what they're going through," Jim said. "I sat in their chair at one time. When people first come to Grief Share, they're completely broken, so it's a delicate process." Some people are fast learners, while others are slow. However, Jim guides the class to be actively leaning into each other and finding comfort in God.
Jim realized that God had comforted him over the four years of grieving for Matt. "God brought people into my orbit and it was through them helping me and me learning to help other people that I started to find meaning in my life," Jim said. "I've taught Grief Share now for four years. I've had approximately 125 people go through these programs where I'm a group leader." Jim knows the ultimate healing comes from God. He is only a facilitator. "Grief makes sense to me," Jim said. "We grieve because we loved. [Tennyson] said it best: ''Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.'" God uses Jim profoundly now, which is where Jim finds his comfort.