The Crystal McGinley Story: Living Through Loss

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.

Last Week I Watched a Family Do the Unthinkable

Burleson seems to have grown in leaps and bounds since we first moved here when I was six years old. I remember that year so clearly, because it was the year that I had Karen Sanders as my first grade teacher. It was the year that I met classmates that I am still friends with today. In the last thirty-something years, the town has changed. Restaurant chains have moved in, there are plenty of places to shop besides Walmart now. There are new churches, and double the number of schools as when I went to Nola Dunn. I-35 traffic is infuriating and speaks to the growth in the community. However, this town has never felt smaller and more close knit than last week when the whole town rallied together to pray for Raven Goff and support Tanner Trujillo and Shane Goff as they made the ultimate sacrifice. They are a huge part of the community and while I didn’t know them, I know their church, I know their friends, I know their work colleagues and workout partners, I used to work at the school Raven attended… it was all so close to home. Literally millions of people all over the world have been touched by this story and they all have a piece of our little town with them now.

The Bible says it rains on the just and the unjust. I remember when Stephen Curtis Chapman spoke about losing his daughter and he said you start to buy into the hype that this couldn’t happen to you, you have done so much for God’s kingdom. Then he said, “But why not me? I am human and live in the same fallen world as everyone else.” I thought that was the coolest perspective, filled strength and humility.

With similar strength, the world watched Tanner’s updates from her daughter’s hospital room. After a tragic accident, Raven was declared brain dead. Tanner and Shane made the impossible decision to donate her organs. They chose to donate every organ that could be used. In a video I will never forget, Tanner sat next to her six year old little girl who was on life support. With a complete blanket of peace, Tanner shared an update on the organ donation. In this tremendous sacrifice, keeping Raven on life support for two more days after her official time of death as they waited for the organ matches to align for one perfect surgery where Ravens organs would be harvested and sent to save the lives of other children.

In that moment, when most of us would have completely shattered, Tanner said something that will stick with me forever. She said, “God is so good. He is so much sweeter than I could ever be bitter.”

There were other images throughout the story that solidified God at work. From Shane’s broken cry of worship after losing his beautiful daughter, to Tanner’s perfect peace and composure that God promised us all. To Tanner’s biological father and bonus father talking about not using the word “step” and how they are a united family. We have learned so much from this journey.

Lord, may I trust you, as much as Tanner. May I worship you with that kind of unconditional love that Shane displayed. May I always see your beauty even in my own tragedies. This, surely is your most beautiful creation from the ashes.

Confessions from someone who compares themselves to everyone else

It’s 11:53 pm and I tried to go to bed two hours ago, but I have stared at the ceiling recapping a day that I want to remember for the rest of my life. The day I first partnered with an editor for a book I wrote.

I partnered with Andria Flores, and she’s wonderful. We have two decades of friendship and deep deep rooted history. Our paths our intertwined, and our hearts speak in the unison that only friendship can decode. There isn’t anyone I would rather partner with on this book. I feel safe to be open and vulnerable and essentially say, “here is my life, edit it.”

The joy of this milestone is clouded by my dad being in the hospital. This is his second night. He has congestive heart failure and there is fluid on his lungs that is not responding to lasix. Praying hard.

Then there is the message board. I LOVE it. My mom asked me if I could use it to make social media posts, and I jumped at the chance. My first quote was something that I have been struggling with as I write, “Don’t be an extension of someone else, be uniquely and powerfully you.” Beaunique…. the beauty in being uniquely you.

Confession: that message is so powerful for me because I constantly compare myself to others.

I worry about what people say. I worry about what they think. Even in learning how to build a social media brand, I find myself over analyzing everything. Why did they like that post instead of love it? I didn’t have great engagement? What do I need to change up? It can become obsessive fast.

We weren’t designed to be replicas of other people. The world doesn’t need another Lisa Nichols or Brene Brown. I’m not supposed to be an extension of someone else’s message, effectively standing in front of my crowd to say, “Everything Mel Robbins said, and Jesus. The end.” That doesn’t help anyone in their journey.

The truth is that nobody else can tell my story. My voice and message are just as important as theirs. They have a bigger audience, and the business side of this business, but that doesn’t diminish the importance of anything I have to say.

When we compare ourselves to others, we tend to talk ourselves out of a lot of things. Once we realized that the only thing holding us back from being where our heroes are… is ourselves, then we will be uniquely and powerfully ourselves.

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