Altar Call – Opelika-Auburn News

Walter Albritton

January 29, 2006


Learning to handle grief is difficult for children


          Every Thursday I carve out some time to write this column. This Thursday morning my grandson Jake Albritton is attending a funeral. It is a rare experience for a 14-year-old.

          The deceased was a mentor and schoolmate of Jake’s. Bryan Valliere, 18, was killed last Sunday in a one-vehicle accident on US Highway 231 in Wetumpka. A friend and younger classmate was driving the truck.

          From all accounts Bryan was an exceptional young man. An excellent student, good athlete, devout Christian, and Eagle Scout, Bryan was scheduled to graduate in May. Jake got to know Bryan at Edgewood Academy where both played on the football team.

          School was cancelled today so students could attend Bryan’s funeral at Thelma Baptist Church near Wetumpka. The entire school is mourning the loss of one of its finest students.

          Bryan took a special interest in our grandson. Jake had a rare opportunity as an eighth grader to practice football with the seniors. Edgewood is a small school and Coach Bobby Carr wanted the younger boys to bond with the older ones.  A lineman himself, Bryan saw potential in Jake and encouraged him. Jake looked up to Bryan and admired him as a role model and good friend.

          I will not attend the funeral but I will be praying for Jake and his classmates. Their school lessons have been put aside this week. Basketball games have been cancelled. The focus of the school has shifted to one thing: the sudden, tragic death of a promising young man.

          Death is like that. It will rear its ugly head and slap you in the face when you are least expecting it. Jake was in the woods hunting when a friend called on his cell phone to tell him about Bryan’s death. Jake stood beside a tree and wept as the awful news shook him.

          That is often the way we meet death. One day you are carefree, enjoying the good life. The next moment you are numb, shocked into disbelief by the abrupt ending of someone’s life. It makes no sense. Questions beginning with the word “Why” jam the switchboard of your brain.

          Jake’s jarring encounter with death is reminiscent of my own introduction to the Grim Reaper when I was about Jake’s age. My cousin “Buck” Johnson died ironically on the same highway, US 231, north of Montgomery. It was also a one-vehicle accident in a truck. Buck was only 13 when his life ended in much the same way that Bryan’s did – in a ditch beside the highway.

          Buck and I were good friends. We enjoyed playing together whenever our families shared a meal on holidays. Suddenly he was gone. No one could explain to me why he had to die. I found no answers that made any sense.

          So I am praying for Jake. He will grow up a lot this week. His life will never be the same. Mine was not. There was a gripping new awareness of the reality of death, a sobering realization that young people might not live to be old just because they wished it so.

          There is another coincidence in Jake’s experience and my own. Seniors write out a “Last Will and Testament” that is printed in most high school annuals. Bryan had already written his. A teacher called Jake aside Tuesday and told him that Bryan had included him in his last will. He had “willed” his football jersey number, 79, to Jake.

          I imagine Jake will wear 79 for the rest of the time he plays football. He will never forget his friend Bryan or the special gift he left him. Even more, I have an idea that Jake’s memory of Bryan’s influence will motivate him to become a good role model for other young men. He will want to continue the legacy left to him by this splendid fellow student.

          I wish I had saved my Wetumpka High football jersey. It would be old and tattered but if I had it, I would give it to Jake to hang on his wall. My number was also 79.

          Today, with Jake, I share the grief of Bryan’s family and pray for all who mourn the lost of this outstanding young man. My heart is heavy for them all, but especially for the children.

          Coping with grief is so difficult for children. Hopefully those of us who are older and a little wiser can provide the love, hope, and understanding that children need in such an hour. + + + +