On March 17, 2017, the unthinkable happened. We lost our only son, Justin, to suicide. This after battling a 10-year addiction problem. I can’t even begin to describe the pain, grief, hurt, anger, and depression that followed.
I lost my faith in God. Though raised a Christian, I questioned everything I once believed. I’d been praying for God to help Justin, to take away the pain from the addiction, to take away the addiction all together.
When we lost Justin, I felt as if my prayers were just ignored.
I felt God apparently favored some people over others. I say this because all my life, I had seen prayers answered for us and for many others. So, why not this prayer? Why had God decided to abandon all of us, in Justin’s most dire time of need?
A couple of days after losing Justin, I remember standing in our backyard, having a shouting match with God. I yelled repeatedly, “Where were you? How could you let this happen to him?”
It was then that I heard a quiet but very strong voice. “I was right there with him. He’s with me and he is well.” At that moment, I felt a calm like never before. I didn’t know at the time what a pivotal moment that would be in regaining my faith in God.
As time passed, our faith was still very much in doubt. However, I leaned heavily into my encounter with God. My husband, Ray, and I decided to immerse ourselves with as much positivity and in His Word as possible. We found ourselves reading daily devotionals and the Bible, and watching and listening to Pastors. Many of our friends reminded us of the faithfulness of God. Our goal was to have as much information about God, faith, and prayer as possible, and begin to believe again. Though we had lost our faith, we desperately needed something to cling to. We also remembered what a close friend said to us, “If you want to heal, go help someone else.” We wondered how helping someone would ever help us.
As time passed and we began helping other families, mainly other grieving mothers, my attitude slowly changed. I started connecting with them.
Even as a grieving mom myself, I didn’t always know what to say, but I went to every grieving mom’s side that I heard about. I just sat with them. I looked at pictures of their child. I hugged them as tight as I could. It was my way of saying, “I know how broken you are.” The more I did this, the more I heard, “I was right there with him. He is with me and he is well.”
That started to resonate with me, and I began to have some comfort in the fact that God was indeed there with our son as he passed from this world to His.
Justin took his life on our property. Ray and I talked about selling. He said, “I understand if you want to move, but don’t make a decision quickly, give it time to sink in.” I realized that our home, our land was a very strong connection with Justin. I made my decision to stay. To embrace the memories instead of running away from them.
With the pandemic, my job was phased out. We had discussed clearing the land behind our house to make a memorial area where Justin died. We decided to get some goats to help clear the land. It was almost an afterthought.
It was then that something happened which I can’t explain. These animals could feel my hurt and pain. If I was with them and had one of my uncontrollable emotional breakdowns, they would gather as if they were to say, “we’re here, we love you, all is well.” I could feel a healing that I had not felt since the passing of Justin.
We started a search for additional animals, we just weren’t sure what. Ray was searching the internet for some when he found a llama at Healing Springs in Oklahoma. To us, the name of that farm was another sign from God. And if that wasn’t enough, they had a female llama for sale and her name was Justine. It stopped us in our tracks. We immediately knew she belonged at our farm. So we drove to Oklahoma.
With Justine and the other animals on the farm, my healing became stronger and more consistent. The animals would always manage to be near with that feeling of love and comfort.
We knew we had to share the power of this healing with others. “If you want to heal, go help someone who is hurting”. That quote popped back into our minds immediately.
One particularly emotional day, Ray visited the memorial where Justin was found. Walking back, he sat down and heard what he described as that same voice I heard.
“Erect a 30 cross and put it on the top of this hill”. It was so clear and concise.
Like me earlier, he wasn’t sure he had heard what he thought he heard. I remember him walking in with a strange look and he said, “You are going to think I have lost my mind, but God just told me to erect a 30-foot cross and put it on the top of the hill in the pasture.” I chuckled and asked how do we go about acquiring a 30 ft cross? We found someone to do it, and now it’s a focal point for anyone who visits our property.
Our first llama, Justine, gave birth to a cria (a baby llama) at the foot of our 30 ft cross. We named him Willow. I chose Willow because the willow tree was my favorite tree.
Another sign: Willow was born on “International Bereaved Mother’s Day”. It’s always the Sunday before Mother’s Day. This was more than a little sign; we felt the Lord was clearly leading us down a path. God was taking our ashes and turning it into something beautiful.
We decided to open up our farm with our animals to others who were suffering from grief, addiction, health problems, basically anyone going through trials.
We named it Redbird Willow Farm, after our baby llama and the willow tree, as well as the redbirds that come here to visit so often.
Once opened, we began having more and more visitors. They all told us the same thing; the healing power of the animals and the farm itself was real. Many also told us they could feel the presence of God. Our faith strengthened with each and every visitor who came, and in every story they told.
We began to take our llamas to visit people who couldn’t come to us—nursing homes, schools, and other venues that needed some joy. Requests for visits both to the farm and to other venues started to pour in. We decided to share our animals with anyone interested in seeing them.
The cross and our own personal story brings up conversations about God to some who otherwise may not be comfortable talking about faith, suicide, mental health or other spiritual struggles.
With our new purpose in life–helping those who are hurting–our faith is restored. In fact, even stronger than before. Every day I visit the farm, that 30-foot cross reminds me that God is watching over us. He loves unconditionally, and He gave His life so others may live eternally.
And it reminds me that prayers are answered. God did answer my prayers to heal Justin. Justin has been healed–no more addiction, no more pain. All while God is continuing to heal Ray and me in a very unexpected way. Along with hundreds of others.
Redbird Willow Farm now has 85 animals. Goats, mini horses, llamas, alpacas, a mini donkey, mini cattle, rabbits, a hedgehog, peacocks, chickens, pigs, emus, sheep, a tortoise, a zebra and a kangaroo! Oh, and lots of cats, Justin’s favorite animal.
If you’re thinking about suicide, are worried about a friend or loved one, or would like emotional support, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255