Originally published on December 21, 2013, in Living on Jesus Street, this story is offered again in memory of its author and our co-founder, chief stewardship officer, and chairman of the board, Molly F. Greene, to honor her passionate faith and life’s work.
It was the year that changed everything. Our family was so looking forward to celebrating Christmas in our new home on Coburg Creek in Charleston, S.C. Being sailors and loving the water, we had searched for a year for the perfect lot to have a deep water dock and to build. Although we were far from settled in, my husband George and I wanted our extended family to celebrate our first Christmas in our new home with our three young children.
The holiday passed typically in a happy blur of wrapping and unwrapping gifts, carving and serving the turkey, enjoying each other’s company, and celebrating the birth of our Lord Jesus. Yet tragedy crashed into the cozy scene on December 28, 1984.
It was an unusually warm, sunny day. The family had enjoyed lunch on the front porch. Along with George’s parents, my mother and aunt had come to spend Christmas with us. Despite being only partially moved in, we gladly hosted this house full of family; it was a joyful time.
After lunch, we bid George’s parents traveling mercies as they left to return home to Florida. My aunt had already returned to Mississippi, and my mother was staying with us until mid-January. I put our 2½-year-old, John Christian, down for a nap. He had just started sleeping on the bottom bunk in his big boy bed. Jeni, our 10-year-old, and George IV, age 8, were busy playing. George and I had our punch list and were checking all the things that needed the builder’s additional attention; my mother was resting.
Where is John Christian?
After an hour, I went up to check on John Christian. He was not in his bed. I started looking for him, thinking he was probably in the playroom rummaging through the stacks of boxes. Not there. Perhaps he had climbed back on the red toy tractor, his favorite Christmas gift. Not there!
Feeling unsettled, I called to my husband for help. We checked with Jeni and young George. They hadn’t seen him. I tried not to imagine the worst; John Christian had never wandered outside by himself. Our home sat about 70 feet from the tidal creek, and there was no fence.
After scouring the house, the four of us ran outside, calling out and searching everywhere for our precious John Christian. There was a home being built on the lot between us and the neighborhood boat landing; several construction workers were on the job site. Yet no one had seen him.
Becoming frantic now, we continued calling for John Christian as we ran through our island neighborhood. We knocked on doors, alerted our neighbors, and searched the woods next to our home.
Word spread quickly. Friends and neighbors just showed up to help with the search. Our minister and his son arrived by boat to our dock. They had been fishing, and Father Dority said he felt the Lord was directing him to us. He had never been to our new home and especially not by water.
The police were notified, and they posted John Christian’s picture on the news stations. Neighbors were in their boats searching the shores of the creek, and we continued looking everywhere possible. Thinking back, I am not sure how long the search lasted; it seemed like an eternity, and yet we were in a race against the nighttime. I was even to the point of hoping a stranger had picked him up; at least then my little boy might still be alive.
“We Found Him!”
The dread and fear that he could have gone into the water was something I didn’t want to face…I don’t think I really realized, but the divers had arrived; teams were dragging the creek for our toddler. After darkness fell, George, Jeni, young George and I were huddled together on the steps of the home being built next door, just praying together. Where was my beloved child?
The flash of searchlights cut through the night. Indistinct shadows and shapes of the people were moving around on the shore and in boats. Then, a yell came up from one of the divers, “We found him!”
When we heard that terrible cry, we understood that our child’s body had been found lying in the river. The worst had happened; John Christian had drowned. The four of us clung to each other and called to the Lord for help. “On our knees in the neighbor’s front yard we cried out through tears, ‘God, show us clearly your purpose for us in this awful darkness we’re now engulfed in and we will commit our lives as never before to do your will for us in this life,’ ” my husband would write nine weeks later in a letter sent to our many family members and friends.
After our family prayer, my mind went numb. I felt unable to function or to think clearly. Our home and yard were soon full of people (friends, neighbors, and even strangers) all wanting to assist in whatever way they could. We were engulfed by the darkness, and lost in a state of shock. The downstairs of our home was full of lights and people. In a daze, I took the children upstairs. Jeni, George IV, and I just clung to each other on a pallet on the floor. We cried ourselves to sleep. I kept thinking, this cannot be real. Surely this is just a horrible nightmare.
Downstairs George and our many friends who had appeared from who-knows-where were praying together. In his letter, George recalled, “A small, nagging question began to manifest itself – What if all this joy and salvation we profess isn’t real?” He felt a strong need “for reassurance that John Christian was in fact engulfed in perfect glory in the presence of God in heaven.”
A Vision of Four Angels
George expressed his terrible fear to his friends, and they began praying for a sign or a comforting sense that John Christian was indeed with God. I have no idea what time it was when it happened. Throughout the night I was praying for John Christian and the Lord gave me an incredible vision of our little boy being lifted out of the water and taken up to the heavens by four angels. I have never had a vision before or since, but this wonderful image gave me a peace that only comes from the Lord. It was so very real and reassuring. I knew that my precious child was in our Lord’s loving arms, and we would one day be reunited!
The next morning broke cold and stark as George and I were faced with the reality of our son’s death. We did not understand how the events had played out; John Christian had started in his bed, he had ended up in the river. We would never know what our son had been thinking or what had led him to wander outside and venture down to the water. I don’t know if understanding those details would have brought comfort or more torture.
Wrapped in one another’s arms that first morning, George and I tried to console each other. That was when I shared the vision of the four angels. My husband was almost joyous; it was only then that I learned of George’s prayers for reassurance and made the connection between his plea and the glimpse of John Christian entering God’s kingdom.
Next came the pressing details of planning a funeral. We had no burial site; we were completely unprepared for losing our healthy, happy young son. It was overwhelming to determine how best to say good-bye to John Christian. We were like walking zombies. Thank heavens my mother was still with us; she kept Jeni and George IV close to her as we made the arrangements with help from friends.
How did we survive this initial brutal phase and the sorrowful weeks and months that followed? Mostly, it was through the ministry of presence. We were surrounded by friends who hardly ever left us alone. These friends didn’t need to say a word, but just by being available, they were such a comfort. We cried together, we reminisced and even laughed — something we thought we would never do again. In George’s letter, he said: “If you haven’t experienced the kind of loss we’ve experienced, it is simply not possible for you to appreciate….the empty darkness we’ve been cast into…..but by coming to the edge of our darkness, you have experienced at least a glimpse…and to the extent that you have been drawn into our darkness, somehow, in this awesome mystery of this great God of ours, you have helped us beyond imagination.”
In contrast, it hurt when people avoided us because they didn’t know what to say. My suggestion to everyone who has a grieving friend or relative is just to show up; you don’t have to say anything wise or profound to try to ease the hurt. Sometimes we even sat in silence with others. Having caring friends around helped me cope with a wild storm of emotions.
Why Did This Happen to Us?
In the beginning, I was angry with God, myself, and George. Why did this happen to us? We love the Lord; we are bringing up Godly children….I felt guilt that I was responsible; it’s the mother’s duty to care for the children. Also, I was mad at George because before moving in, I had said we needed a fence, and he’d responded that all of his family had grown up on a lake, and the parents watched the children. We didn’t need a fence. We had to work through all of this in order to support each other.
When a tragedy like this happens, you have two choices. One is to become bitter and look to ourselves, and the other is to admit our helplessness and turn to God. In any crisis, God is our life raft and will get us through the storm. I can’t imagine getting through a loss like this without a faith. Even being able to cry out at the Lord was better than not having anything. What got us to this point and continues to sustain us is the hope we have of being reunited with our precious child. We committed ourselves to stand firm and to grow in our faith, always claiming the truth of Romans 8:28, that all things work together for good for those who are in Christ.
I learned that all things are possible with God; without Him, I am nothing. While I know my salvation is a gift that comes from sincere faith, my desire to scoop up John Christian in my arms again motivates me to serve God with my whole being. I don’t want to take any chances of not being welcomed by the Father! Also, the night of John Christian’s death, George was directed to a chastisement in the book of Revelation for being lukewarm. That is a tough scripture.
In his letter, George said, “It was about one o’clock in the morning….Molly, Jeni, George, and I had cried ourselves into a restless sleep. I awoke and wandered aimlessly downstairs to find a very dear friend sitting alone in the family room…..his presence that night was a great source of comfort….I felt a strong drive from within to seek God’s help. Though I really didn’t know what I was looking for at the time, I opened my bible to Rev. 3:15-22 and, with the help of our friend, worked through the thoughts in these verses. It quickly became clear to me that God was telling me and my family to be serious about our lives and to be sure that we became aware of his purpose for our lives on this earth.”
God Must Have a Higher Plan
Although we considered ourselves Christians, we had lots of room for growth and commitment. This really put us on a course of seeking and living out our purpose. We must be intentional in living our lives to honor our Lord. We are here for a purpose and must identify our purpose and live it out. I want to meet the Lord and hear Him say, “Well done, good and faithful servant!”
God uses all things for good. We have seen relatives dedicate their lives to the Lord and know that it was related to John Christian. I have such sensitivity to parents who have lost a child. I try to reassure them that with time, it does get easier to cope. That was a question I had early on, “When does this raw pain lessen?” Talking with people who have experienced it and seeing that life goes on helped me through the early months and years. At the same time, I was somewhat resentful that life did go on for everyone else. I had so many conflicting emotions.
For me, a turning point came some months later when George and I participated in Cursillo, a spiritual retreat for Christians seeking to grow in their faith. Toward the weekend’s end, they had a healing prayer service. With a broken heart, I trudged to the altar and was prayed over by a young priest. During his prayer, I felt as if the weight and the heaviness were being lifted away from me. What sweet relief. I will never forget that time!
Despite the pain, George and I determined to let God use this tragedy for good in our lives. In his letter, George wrote: “God allows Satan to bring adversity into our lives to give us the opportunity to turn to God for help. So, if we allow it, God will use adversity to strengthen us and to better enable us to use our lives for the particular purpose we were put here for in the first place. It is through adversity that we have an opportunity to draw closer to God and to store up treasures in heaven for ourselves.”
Read a letter of reflection from George Greene, III, from March 8, 1985.