Last night was the one-year anniversary of the death of Judah Levi Brown.
Judah was the vivacious, beautiful, three-year-old son of my dear friends Mark+ and Christi. He drowned in a tragic accident, and this past year they have lived every parents’ nightmare.
And yet, I have seen more grace through their grief than I thought possible of any human beings.
Mark+ is somewhat of a public figure. He is an Episcopal priest who goes to my church (and often serves there) and he serves around our diocese whenever another priest is needed (called a supply priest). He also has the largest online prayer group in the world, with over 400,000 people on Facebook. His life has been an open book for many years, even through the time he met and married Christi, and they had Judah. When Judah died, there were really only one of two choices: to turn away, shut down and grieve on their own, or to grieve openly with everyone. They chose to grieve openly. It’s one of the most grace-filled, courageous decisions I’ve ever seen two people make.
By choosing to bare their grief process to the world, they allowed people to witness what is usually a private pain. They allowed people to witness them struggle with their faith, struggle with their anger, struggle daily with the devastation of losing a child. They allowed people to witness the deepening of their relationship to God through that struggle. The deepening of their relationship to each other and their other children. They allowed people to see how they guided their other children through their own grief, which they did with such care and love. They allowed people to see them reach out for help, through therapy, for them and the children, and through the church. They reached out to their family and friends. They both processed through writing, but Christi especially took to Facebook nearly every day and wrote journal-like updates, poems, and prayers. Christi’s writing didn’t just tell people what it is like to lose a child. It let us into her heart and soul, to viscerally grieve with her.
As is their nature, Mark+ and Christi used their experience to help others. They created an online support group for grieving parents. They allowed Judah’s story to be used by one of his former teachers to create the Judah Brown Project, which works to prevent drowning in kids like Judah. They’ve worked very hard with his teacher, Annette, to make this project into a full-fledged charity that is saving children’s lives, preventing people from having to feel the pain they are feeling.
Once a month, for the past year, on the day that Judah drowned, and on the day that he died- the two are a couple of days apart, as he lingered in a coma- they lit candles in front of his photo and held a small vigil. In June, we celebrated Judah’s birthday at his grave, and had his favorite foods, shared memories, shared laughter and prayers. The year anniversary drew closer.
I know, from my own trauma, that everyone shows up in the beginning. Everyone is there when the original tragedy happens. As time goes on, it gets less present in other people’s lives, and people begin to drift away.
But it never gets less important in your life.
I don’t know if I’ve really done anything to help, but I’ve made every effort to be a there-for-it-all friend. I’m in, and I’m in for good. I was only friends with Mark+ and Christi for about a year before Judah’s death, and I wish I had known Judah better, but I do remember him and I will never forget him. I wish I could do more, but perhaps the best thing I can do is be there, and make sure they know that their loss is important to me. They are important to me. And their son is never forgotten.
Last night, as we sat around Judah’s grave, we watched a video about him on Annette’s phone. It was a photo series of his whole life. We laughed and cried. Stories of the photos were told. As we watched, it began to rain. It rained gently, and another friend there remarked, “We’re just being baptized.” It was a holy, Spirit-filled moment.
When it got to the minute that Judah’s time of death was called, a candle on his head stone was lit. We held silence for a few minutes. I read a prayer:
With a mother’s strong love
you shelter us in your shadow,
and you mourn as we do the death of this child.
Love Judah forever
as we have loved him.
Guide our steps in the way of peace
till with our eyes we behold you
and shall praise you with all the saints
for ever and ever.
Mark+ shared a little more with us, and closed with a benediction. We left with hugs and prayers and smiles through tears.
Moments like these are why I feel called to be a priest. It was a privilege to be with Mark+ and Christi and their children as they marked this anniversary. It is a privilege to be their friend, to witness their grace and faith. It will be a privilege every time I am with someone as they grieve, celebrate, wed, baptize, die, are ill, or in spiritual distress. To just be present with someone, without trying to fix, is a holy thing.
Thank you, Brown family, for allowing me to be present. Thank you for letting me remember Judah with you. Thank you for letting me laugh and cry with you.
I love you.
He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.
To donate to the Judah Brown Project, please click here.
Prayer above adapted from two prayers by Gabe Huck from the Catholic Catalogue.
Published with permission from the Brown family.