Story told by Jennifer Byker
Written by Leanne Gurley
Late this past summer, this blog was laid on our hearts for two reasons: 1) to educate people about the choices they have to help their families heal when they go through a loss, and 2) to tell stories of people’s lives that we have served. We want to share these life stories, what made these loved ones special, and help continue their memory and legacy in the future.
In discussing possible interviews that we could make, Cook employee, Melissa Mitchell, immediately thought of her friend, Jennifer Byker. The two of them met at Georgetown Senior Center, where Jennifer works. The connection was made, and on a sunny Tuesday afternoon in October, I had the privilege of meeting and interviewing Jennifer at the beautiful senior center.
Here’s the story of Roger, a man with big, beautiful, brown eyes with an even bigger, more beautiful heart:
The fairytale began on a blind date in August of 1988. Jennifer’s co-worker wanted to set her up with her brother-in-law – she knew they’d be perfect for each other. Turns out her co-worker was right, and now they are sister-in-laws!
With Roger’s caring demeanor and the way he had his act together, this man was someone special. The pair were actually quite opposite in many ways, though. He was a city boy, she a country girl. He went to Christian school, she public. He was the youngest of a large family, and she the oldest.
In April of 1991, Roger and Jennifer Byker were married. They raised three wonderful children together (Kelsey, Casey and Marley.) They were active in their church. Roger was in tool and die, and had a knack for taking care of his family and making sound financial decisions. Roger made life better, not just for Jennifer and the kids, but for so many.
In June of 2007, Roger noticed a few symptoms, but they did not think much of it. He was very healthy. He had only had knee surgeries in his medical history. That August, just before they were heading up to Silver Lake on a family vacation, he saw a doctor. The doctor could not find anything wrong, but thankfully he still ordered an MRI anyway for after their vacation. To them, the MRI almost seemed drastic, but now Jennifer sees it as God’s hand in helping them get the care Roger needed. While on his trip, the symptoms worsened and the MRI was moved up to the week of their vacation.
The test results showed three tumors, and was diagnosed with glioblastoma multiforme stage 4. So, they entered the world of appointments with neurosurgeons. Roger stopped working immediately – his job required precision, and with his symptoms, precision was not possible. The man of the house struggled with this new role of being at home. He graciously helped around the house when he could. Jennifer thankfully was able to continue working for Post Family Farm.
Roger felt great for awhile. Fortunately, he never had a seizure, which is common with his diagnosis. Jennifer and Roger worked hard to keep things normal for their kids. The two of them believed Roger would get better, so they kept their home as positive as possible for the Byker kids.
Doctors were very vague with Roger’s prognosis. Jennifer found comfort in searching through Carepages for others suffering from this illness – looking for treatments, what other spouse’s were experiencing, and anything that would help Roger’s cause as she supported him. Roger fought his fight for 16 to 17 months.
The last 1 to 2 months, Roger declined rapidly. Looking back, Jennifer realizes that Roger was dying but did not know it at the time. They celebrated Christmas early that December in 2008. For the kids, Roger wanted to buy a Wii – a popular gift that year. That second week of December, an MRI showed that the tumor had grown aggressively, and with Roger’s condition, he would not tolerate any more treatment. Roger went home with hospice coming into help. Less than one week later, the morning of December 17, Roger went home to be with Jesus. He “crossed the finish line of a race well run” as his Carepages announced.
Jennifer was 39 when her beloved Roger died. As Jennifer shared Roger’s story with me, these things were so evident: her love for this man, the depth of Roger’s character, the wisdom in all his choices, and the love in how he cared for and treated his family.
However, another story emerged. One of a woman who faithfully fulfilled her vows – in sickness and in health – to that man she loved so dearly. A woman who has kept her children’s wellbeing at the forefront of everything she has done before Roger’s death and since. A woman who has a lot to share from the lessons she has learned and the love she still has to give.
Roger’s smart financial decisions allowed life to continue in their home, and with help from a community fundraiser, their children remained in Christian school. Jennifer continued to work part-time at Post Family Farm, which allowed her to be home when the kids were done with school. That first year she described as being in a fog, in survival mode. She did what needed to be done.
Their anniversary has always been the hardest. On December 17th the next year after his death, family and friends lit floating Chinese lanterns with little messages written on them to Roger and followed that with hot chocolate and cookies. In some ways, they continue to remember him on those “special days” with his favorite meal or going out for dinner to make it special.
Jennifer recalled crying out to God: Why does grief have to be so much work?
She had already lost her dear husband, but now recovering from that loss required so much effort. However, Jennifer had a defining moment in her grief journey. In attending a particular support group, she saw people who were stuck in their grief, who had made no progress many years after loss. Seeing that reality struck a chord in Jennifer. She would not be one of those people. She would do the hard work to make life good again – as best as it could be without Roger.
Reflecting on how Jennifer has made it through and how her heart has begun to heal, she found the following to be true:
Being a widow is not a label that anyone wants to wear; however, Jennifer says it is an honor to be Roger’s widow.
And in remembering Roger, it’s easy to know that he would be so proud of the wife that she was to him, the mother she is to her kids, the bearer of his legacy, and the strong person she is now. Life looks different than she ever imagined when the fairy tale began, but there is still good in this life, remembering Roger and in moving forward.
From Leanne Cook Gurley
For those of you who would like to have a conversation similar to the one in the previous blogpost, we’ve attached a simple worksheet that we used.
Click here: Family Pre-Planning Worksheet
Ron and I gave this worksheet to our parents a few days in advance after Ron had made the initial call to talk pre-planning. Allowing them to gather their thoughts and discuss these topics with just the two of them helped our conversation go more smoothly.
Surprisingly, as we developed this worksheet, I felt somewhat apprehensive about not knowing some of these answers. We live our lives so closely, but sometimes we don’t have these kinds of conversations or talk about these topics. There really wasn’t a need to be worried, these conversation starters led to a great talk that will always be remembered.
Please let Cook know if we can help you further with having this important talk with your family. Our advance planning consultants will gladly meet with you. Click here to view our Team. Scroll down to Melissa Mitchell and Rachel Norton, our advance planning consultants, for their contact information.
By Leanne Cook Gurley
Cook produces a company newsletter for its employees. In our September / October edition, my brother, Ron Cook, and I had started talking about how to “Have the Talk of a Lifetime.” Despite our family being advocates for advance funeral planning, we had not done so for our parents, Fred & Kathy Cook. This edition was published early September, and the following events unfolded within the next week.
My husband, Scott, was the first to see he had a missed call from my mom at 2:36 a.m. A quick look at mine, I had missed one too. I immediately called my mom back, “What’s wrong?”
She was in the hospital after having symptoms that had seemed like a heart attack, but they were running some more tests. They were ruling out a pulmonary embolism.
She wasn’t a great patient in all honesty. She jokingly texted Scott to help her leave the hospital before the doctors were ready to release her. Her tests were only coming back slight, and so it led them to believe this was more of an emotional attack on her body. The Friday before this day, Monday, September 18, my parents’ dear friend, Joel Boomsma, passed away from a heart attack at his office. Joel and his wife, Dawn, and some friends were supposed to come over that very evening. Joel also had been having symptoms for the previous few days, we later found out, but didn’t get checked out.
As my mom had been weighing whether to go in for her symptoms, she thought, “I can’t be upset with Joel for not going in, if I’m feeling this way and don’t get checked out.” Just within days of Joel’s death, he inspired my mom to take action and be evaluated. Mom says that Joel is her superhero. She is here in some way because of him.
Despite looking like she would be sent home, her echocardiogram stress test showed the lower portion of her heart was slow and her last triponin level (which indicates heart damage if an attack has occurred) was significantly elevated from her previous three levels. She had had a heart attack. A heart cath was ordered the next day, and her heart looked beautifully clear. It ended up being a virus that had caused inflammation and led to the to the heart attack. The doctor’s orders: Rest.
Our entire family was so grateful for that report, and all of the support and well wishes she received throughout this process. Fast forward to October 9, her birthday. It was a meaningful family dinner as we appreciated the wife, mom and grandma she is to our family. We know all too well that so many stories don’t end with this happy ending.
My parents were headed out of town soon to go help Mom rest at the U.P. cabin in Rock, Michigan. However, Ron and I were both very aware that in our last edition of the Cook Connection, we said we would meet with our parents to set up pre-arrangements. The time could not have felt more awkward.
As we stood in the restaurant parking lot trying to find a time before they left to help us meet our publishing deadline, it seemed like an emotional task to undertake after all we had just been through. The very next morning was the only timeframe that worked for us all.
Honestly, that morning came, and Mom had overdone things over the weekend, and she wasn’t feeling her best. The weight of the situation was not lost on any of us. We were planning our parents’ funerals.
But you know what? With the four of us – Dad, Mom, Ron and me – we had such a wonderful time together. To discuss our parents’ accomplishments, favorites and wishes was so meaningful. We learned things we never knew about each other. We could say things that meant a lot to each of us. There were some surprises in the way everything came together, and there is a reason Ron Cook II is in the work he is in – he’s so good at it.
Our pre-arrangement conference wasn’t your typical conference. The four of us were pretty well-versed on the options, but all of this had been unspoken until that morning. Together the four of us put a plan in place that honored their wishes, while keeping those surviving in mind.
Mom has the gift of hospitality and her pride and joy has always been her kids and grandsons. Hearing the message that she wanted conveyed as we would celebrate her life meant a lot to me. It’s always been about God’s faithfulness for her. At her visitation, full-size Hershey’s with almonds will be given out. She loves reading, blue hydrangeas, and the colors turquoise and blue. Now, typically, some of these details aren’t addressed in an advance planning meeting, but since they knew what services they would like and what would best help their family and friends, we found this unusual part of the conference to be fun and memorable. These are things that you should take the time to talk about prior to or following pre-planning.
Our dad is a man of many talents and passions. What a sense of pride we could draw from looking at the list of his accomplishments. He’s been an entrepreneurial businessman, but it’s his hobbies that really helped us select his services. He wants his Harley in the visitation room, and we thought hot and cold appetizers seemed more like him instead of the usual church luncheon that’s served. Even though he has spent many hours in a suit, we agreed that he should be buried in his favorite Filson shooting vest. We also learned that he loves when a service ends with the traditional hymn “By the Sea of Crystal.” What a burden lifted off our shoulders knowing that when the day comes, we will be confident in the plan that is in place.
After such a big season behind us, we all said that we were so glad to have done this. Not just for the peace of mind, which is so important, but for the bonding that happened that morning. Death is a hard subject – one we don’t like to internalize too frequently, because our family has to go about our work. However, we encourage you to have these important talks with your loved ones, either for yourself or your parents. They will see that you care enough to ask about these things.
For this funeral directing family, the temptation would have been easy to say that since we know what’s available, we can wait. However, we would have done things differently in some cases, and now we have a special family memory from a Tuesday morning in October.
If you would like to start having “The Talk of a Lifetime,” you can find more information here.
Today we are so grateful to hear from Heather Chatfield. She shares insight into how she has navigated her grief journey after her husband Matt passed away.
My husband and I had what we considered the “perfect” life. A teacher and police officer, with three kids, involved in many activities keeping us busy loving each other fiercely along the way.
All of the sudden, 22 months ago my life was forever changed. My husband, Matt, passed away after a 13 month battle with colon cancer on Thanksgiving Day. He was so brave and so strong every step of the battle. Even as we were told he was dying, I just couldn’t believe it was true. There I was left with a 14 year old, 10 year old and 7 year old, trying to figure out how to rebuild and create a new “normal” for us. Everything we knew life to be was suddenly different.
One of the biggest struggles was learning how to allow myself to grieve the loss of my best friend while supporting my children through their grief. I knew they were depending on me. Slowly, we began figuring out the day-to-day aspects of life. I had to accept the help of many friends and family, even though that was really hard for me. There was just no way I could do everything on my own and do it well. We attended support groups through Starlight Ministries that were invaluable. Our first family dinner without Matt took my breath away. Staring at the empty seat across from me, deciding who was going to say the prayer, not hearing his high and low of the day, and not having him to sit a few extra minutes at the table after the kids finished eating, left me sitting alone with an ache in my heart.
You see, it is the little daily things that were harder than the big events. I had prepared my kids and myself for those moments, as best as I could. Having a plan for the days I knew would be tough was crucial. Eventually, new traditions were formed, marrying gently with the old ones. Finding the balance of knowing life will, and has to, move on but not wanting to let go of the past that was sliding further and further behind us, was challenging.
This journey called grief is so unpredictable. All four of us have difficult days, weeks, or months, but we know the support we need is never far away. One day at a time has become our motto. We have made it 22 months without him. I can honestly say, I wasn’t sure I would get to where I am today. Thankfully, God has been so present in our lives and provided so much direction. My husband had a servant’s heart and warrior spirit. Honoring that legacy by sharing a piece of our journey to help others continues to help our hearts heal as well.
If you would like to follow Heather’s journey further, click here for her Chatty’s Cheerleaders Facebook page.
By Ron Cook II
Without the benefits of technology, my family’s journey would have been somewhat different. Two times in the last four years, my wife, Erin, and I have received pictures via email from Korea that changed our lives forever. Along with our son, Greyson, we were eagerly looking forward to expanding our family through adoption. The visual of our soon-to-be sons’ faces allowed us to have something tangible to sustain us until their homecoming.
As much as technology and those two emailed photos of our sons impacted our family, the moment we laid eyes on them, we were in love. As quickly as they melted our hearts in the pictures, it didn’t even come close to the first time we got to meet them in their foster homes in Korea. Those in-person moments and introducing our new sons to family and friends at the airport are cherished parts of our life as a family. We often hear stories from older adoptive parents who share that they were matched and then showed up at an airport and received their new baby right there in the terminal! The emailed photos were a wonderful benefit of technology.
So while we embrace the benefits of technology, remember there is something incredibly important about being physically present with family and friends when you or they experience the death of someone important to them or any life-changing event. Those vulnerable moments shared face-to-face or side-by-side strengthen the bonds of family and friendship. Engage through technology when appropriate, and whenever possible support someone in person. Make the effort – it is the difference between an emailed photo and holding your baby for the first time.
At Cook, we serve families whose loved ones are spread around the globe. They are used to communicating via Facetime and Skype, so we utilize those types of services for their visitation and/or service when the serviceman or missionary cannot make the trip home for their loved one’s funeral. People sign guest books, watch memorial videos, and send flowers, all on our website. Facebook has become an important way for people to connect related to funerals, whether it is sharing an obituary, connecting in a grief group, or following an inspirational feed.
Technology has opened wonderful opportunities for support, communication and sharing. The heart of our business is “Helping Families Heal.” With the help of technology we are no longer limited to only helping those within a certain proximity to our chapels. This new blog by Cook will help make our families, their stories and their need for healing front and center.
We’ll help families heal with educational pieces covering:
With great anticipation, we are pleased to announce next Friday, September 15, we will have our first guest blogpost by Heather Chatfield, wife of Officer Matt Chatfield, who Cook served almost two years ago. Heather has used her Facebook page “Chatty’s Cheerleaders” to talk about her journey during Matt’s cancer battle and how she and her children live life and honor Matt’s legacy. She writes with honesty, transparency and hope. She will talk about this new season in her life, and how she has worked hard to create a healthy, new normal for her family as they remember Matt.
See you next week!