A Journey from Grief to Gratitude

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Sterling Sutton
  • 6th Air Refueling Wing, Public Affairs

In our dining room, the decorations are still on display. The motivation to remove them had not yet arisen. The candles were lit on a cake, and all of his siblings blew them out while we sang to him in heaven. In my experience as a mother who has lost a child, two days are the most difficult. Birthdays and, as my children refer to them, "death days.”

In reality, I have not seen him since I left for basic training in 2021. As a mother, I knew I wanted to give my seven children the opportunity to experience a wide variety of cultures and meet new people from all over the world.

I was disheartened on graduation day realizing that a snowstorm had prevented my family from attending the ceremony on Feb. 3, 2022. I showed my children they can do hard things with passion, sacrifice, and determination to never give up and yet I was proud to be part of something bigger than myself.

Telephone and video calls with my children and husband were enjoyable for me as we continued to adjust to military life. The fact that I had a bunk bed tickled my sons, who thought it was hilarious that their mother was sleeping in a bed like theirs.

Then two weeks went by and on February 19th, our lives changed forever when I received a phone call from my 10-year-old daughter, Serenity.

“Mom, Mackinley is going to the hospital,” she frantically said. “Everyone is in my room staying out of the way because the ambulance is here!”

“Why, what happened?” I asked my voice shaking.

“Ezekiel said Mackinley had fallen asleep while watching a show,” Serenity hurriedly said, “He turned blue.”

“What?”, I exclaimed, “Let me talk to Dad!”

“Dad is busy talking to the paramedics, he told me to call you.”

“Thank you for calling me, everything is going to be okay, please keep everyone calm and turn on your tv while I try to figure out what is going on,” I said reassuringly. “I love you, tell everyone I love them.”

As soon as the ambulance pulled away, my husband called me. “Is he still alive?”, I asked.

“He still had a pulse, and I was able to get his color back,” My husband said trembling. “He is alive and headed to the hospital, they wouldn’t let me go with him.”

I prayed for my son and cried for God’s will. Before my departure from training, I was informed that Mackinley’s brain had swelled. As a form of protection, while I traveled, no one would tell me if he had died when I asked, not my captain, not the American Red Cross, or my family already at the hospital, not even my husband.

“If Mackinley’s brain is swollen, why are they not operating?” I finally asked angrily while listening to silence on the other end of the phone. “Are they just keeping him alive for me to say goodbye?”

The silence was cut with a tearful response from my husband, “Yes… he is on life support. I’m so sorry I couldn’t tell you while you were by yourself.”

As I began to process these words, a deep sadness overcame me. A cry like no other filled the car as my heart broke. I cried for my son who loved Elvis and danced with me to Patsy Cline’s music, realizing that he would never walk this earth again. Memories of us flooded my mind and the realization that I would never see him smile again set in.

Why? Why couldn’t it have been me instead? I would have given any part of me to keep him here. I lived my life; he was young and had a full life ahead of him.

When I finally arrived, his body was being kept alive by tubes and machines. However, he was no longer there. He was empty, and his soul had left. All I could do was hold my 8-year-old son’s lifeless body in my arms.

My tears fell onto his fair skin, and I brushed his deep brown hair to the side with my fingers, as mothers do. I cried harder, knowing that he would not playfully pull away as young boys do when you fix a hair gone astray. I held him as long as I could, in disbelief and shock, I managed to put a brave face on for my family who came to say their goodbyes. One of the hardest things I had to do was to be strong and reassuring that his spirit went to heaven and that we were just saying goodbye to his body.

“We will see him again someday when we go to heaven I told my children.”

Before he was taken to the morgue, we spent some last moments with him, painting his hand and placing it on a canvas. The staff had made a sculpture mold of his hand and captured his heartbeat for a stuffed rabbit. The hospital staff allowed me to bathe my son with dignity, and dress him in a hospital gown, and gently tie the identification tag on his small toe.

How do you overcome this? How do you serve your country and provide a better life for your children when you do not feel like yourself? The new me was broken, and I knew I needed help to continue.

Our small hometown communities came together to show their compassion and share their deepest sympathies for our loss of Mackinley. The joyous opportunity for my return from the military was replaced by somber emotions as I tried to be a good daughter, sister, mother, friend, wife, and Airman.

After Mackinley’s private family visitation, he was cremated, and a Celebration of Life was held in the school gymnasium. He was not buried, but instead, his ashes travel with us and are placed on a special cabinet that will come to each new duty station with us. Now every day I kiss the top of a small urn and place it in my pocket. He has traveled with me every day during my military career following his death to keep my promise for an adventurous military journey.

After three weeks at home to lay my son to rest, I returned to Fort Meade, where the former detachment commander at the 336th Training Squadron, U.S. Air Force Capt. Brittany Curry named Mackinley an honorary Red Wolf after the detachments mascot and for his love for the United States Air Force.

“We wanted to pay our respects to Mackinley by making him an honorary Red Wolf for Detachment 2,” said Curry. “ I believe all leaders need to approach support with an empathetic perspective and allow the person being supported to drive as much of the decision-making as possible.”

After six months I finished training and moved to our first duty station. I have learned many things about being a grieving mother, seeking help, being an Airman, and remembering the mission. It has been over a year since the passing of Mackinley.

Talking to professionals about my grief has helped me to be able to say I have seven children without crying. I realized that I did not want to let my grief consume every part of my life. While I still remember and think of Mackinley, I am still a mother to other children. They deserve to be able to have their mother and father present. The children received counseling provided by the Air Force to assist them in managing their grief and remaining active in their communities.

It was easy to set-up an appointment for grief counseling with the Military and Family Life Counselor for our entire family. The counselors even met with our children at school or the daycare facility. The MFLC service provided us with short-term, non-medical counseling services for free. Having this service relived stress and helped our family work through this difficult time.

I cannot and will not give up doing things for others, so that I may one day be reunited with my son. I became involved with the Booster Club and was elected President. I am in the process of becoming a resiliency trainer assistant to help fellow Airmen cope successfully when faced with hardship. My chain of command informed me of the resources the Air Force provides such as counseling. If you or your family are experiencing mental health difficulties, please contact the Military Family Readiness Center or military mental health in your area.

Throughout this journey from grief to gratitude, I am reminded that I am doing it for Mackinley, my faith, our family, and for the mission, and to share my experience to inspire others to reach out and not give up. I didn't want to say goodbye, but I knew that our time together on this earth had come to an end. We shared so many wonderful memories together, and I will always cherish them. I'm looking forward to the next time we will meet again. Until then, I'll keep him close in my heart and remember the unconditional love we had between a mother and son.