On Memorial Day, we remember those who died serving their country and recall that while all gave some, some gave all. One year ago, I reflected on the death of my father and brother-in-arms months apart and how we anesthetize ourselves to such loss. Little did I know, as I penned those words, that I would experience another tough loss within months: My little brother—and only sibling.
Like my father and me, Scott was career military (US Coast Guard). Scott was the consummate servant: He was also a full-time firefighter with a knack for sniffing out fires even when he was off duty. He called in multiple fires, saving property and preventing injury before they grew beyond control. Our country lost a valuable servant when death took Scott.
Last year, I recalled how easy it is to lose hope, and I’ve met more than one person whose anger at God stems from the loss of a loved one. A fellow Marine once told me he was “not on speaking terms with God” since he’d lost his father. Death hits hard, and it hits close to home. But aside from first-hand pain, this time I learned how much pain can be amplified when we see the suffering of others. This time I could not negotiate death on my own terms, because this time others were closer to the loss: Scott left behind three little boys, each of whom needs their father.
I already loved these boys, but since Scott died my devotion to them grew in unexpected ways, comparable only to seeing the birth of your own child. I felt the death of my brother and the horror of my nephews’ loss almost simultaneously, and I’m still trying to figure out how to manage these two distinct losses (my nephews’ loss eclipses my own).
I’m normally comforted by verses like Psalm 34:18 and Romans 8:28. But seeing my nephews and sister-in-law in pain, I’ve turned to the call to bear one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:2) and to weep with those who weep (Rom. 12:15) as more appropriate. Further, I’m reminded that, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction” (James 1:27). We need to be with those who live with the loss not just today but every day.
My nephews Zack, Ben, and Jake will never be the same without Scott, and neither will Caroline, his young wife. Today, as we honor those we lost, let’s pause to remember the ones left behind, the ones living in the pain.
Karl “KJ” Johnson retired from the Marine Corps as a lieutenant colonel after twenty years of active duty service. He is the Operations Director for RZIM’s US Ministries.