Last night on Beauty From Ashes, we talked about living through loss. I was joined by Crystal McGinley, who has faced more loss in her life than most of us will ever know. We were also joined by Jessica Shipers, a lifelong friend of mine, coworker of Crystal’s, and one of the funniest and I have ever known.
“You can’t tell by getting to know someone on the surface, the losses they carry with them.” – Crystal McGinley
Crystal has survived the unthinkable losses of four of her seven children. In addition to that, she understands that the grieving process applies not only to the loss of children and loved ones, but to the loss of dreams, the loss of hope, the loss of love, the loss of marriage, and the loss of communication with someone you love.
Crystal became a mom at the age of eighteen. Just two weeks before her son Jason’s second birthday, Jason went went with his dad to the family farm, as he often did, playing in the yard as his dad worked nearby. Crystal arrived to the farm and asked where Jason was, his dad thought he was inside with grandma, grandma thought he was outside with dad. He had wandered off. Frantically, Crystal began looking for him, she got on the four-wheeler to search the property, hoping to find him playing on the acreage somewhere. But, she found him in an irrigation pond that he had fallen in. She pulled him out of the pond and started CPR. Crystal and her family spent five days at the hospital with Jason on life support. He had been declared brain dead. With an eight month old baby in her arms, hoping and praying for a miracle, at the age of 19, Crystal and her husband had to make the decision to remove life support and let her precious son go.
Crystal battled with grief and emotion after Jason’s death. She found purpose in living for her other child, pushing through the overwhelming emotions and clinging to faith. She battled most with reconciling that she had asked for a fence to be put around the pond, and it hadn’t been. The sting of that bitterness lasted for a long time.
“I remember praying, and in my 19-year-old mind, I was praying, “God let everything be OK. It took me a while to realize that even after Jason died, that everything was OK. It’s just that my OK looked different than God’s OK.” – Crystal McGinley
With two sons and a daughter at home already, Crystal learned that her life long dream of having twins was coming true. She was ecstatic as she prepared for her two bundles of joy. Four months into the pregnancy, Crystal noticed that her stomach was shrinking. The doctor’s office laughed a little when Crystal called, knowing that she was understandably cautious during this pregnancy after losing a child. They explained that as babies move around, her stomach would change shape and appearances. However, her mommy heart knew that something was wrong.
The doctor agreed to do an exam to easy Crystal’s mind. Upon further examination, they found only one heartbeat, one of the babies had died the previous week. Normally when the baby dies in utero, it seals itself off, but in this case, it didn’t. So as the baby decomposed the waste circulated through the live twin. Her brain disintegrated due to the waste clogging her circulation. The sonogram showed that Kacey would be born with only a brain stem, but not the top part of her brain. The doctor tried to get Crystal to abort Kasey, and even called her cruel for making the baby live when Crystal declined the abortion.
“I did not make her life, I allowed her to live.” – Crystal McGinley
Crystal went in every week for bloodwork to make sure that the waste from the deceased baby did not endanger her own life. Kacey was born with only a brain stem. She had visible differences as a result, her skin was shriveled on the top of her head, and her head had a “walnut shape” to it.
When Kacey was two weeks old, Crystal’s two-year old daughter was severely burned and had to spend three weeks in the burn unit in a Denver hospital. There was a day when Crystal was in the store with Kacey, that a stranger gasped in horror at her, “What is wrong with your baby?” Crystal wasn’t fazed, in her calm, matter of fact manner, she stated, “She was born without a brain” The lady replied, “You must hate God.” Crystal stared in shock.
“It had never even occurred to me to hate God.” – Crystal McGinley
Kacey lived for eighteen months before she passed away in her sleep.
On February, 3, 2019, twenty five-years to the day from when Kacey died, Crystal received a call from her ex-husband. Her son Ryan, who lived in Colorado, and Crystal had been estranged from for fourteen years. Against advice, Ryan and his best friend took the Snowcat onto a frozen lake. The ice on the lake was not thick enough to support the weight of the Snowcat, a huge piece of equipment designed to move snow. Ryan didn’t come home the next day, so his dad sent his cousin out to search for him. Once he found the truck Ryan had been driving, he was able to follow the tracks from the Snow Cat across the lake to a giant gaping hole.
The first team of divers weren’t able to complete the dive because of the altitude and temperature. Through research, Crystal’s son in law found a diving team that had a specialized drone that had a retrieval mechanism attached to it. They were able to locate both boys bodies and retrieve them with the assistance of specialized dive teams and the drone.
One of the hardest losses Crystal faced was the loss of that hope of reconciliation with her son, which had a different, but very real grief process that proved to be harder than even the loss of a body.
Despite all that she has endured, Crystal continues to shine with compassion and grace. She lives out her calling every single day, working in education, pouring into the lives of children. Anyone who has witnessed her in action, knows that she loves kids. Crystal is recognized by all who are around by one word: grace.
“I have learned through everything I faced, I cannot control what happens in life, I can only control my reaction to it. My goal is to react with grace. I want to live gracefully no matter what happens.” – Crystal
One the most important lessons in this story is that death is an event, life is not. Going on with life means allowing the process of grief fully. Crystal’s advice for anyone who has experience loss is to allow themselves to go through the process of grieving in their own way. She recommends finding an outlet to express yourself, whether it is talking, singing, art, or. Talk about loss and tell the story. It brings strength and comfort.
“Grieve with a purpose. There is not a set of rules for grief. There is no time limit, or expectations. Just go through the process.” – Crystal
Crystal also found tremendous peace and strength in surrendering to God. The phrase has never rang truer, “Let Go and Let God” as when Crystal says it to describe her approach and coping with losses far beyond what many of us could ever fathom.