Family Health

Kemmons Wilson Family Center for Good Grief Brings Family Hope in Time After Tragedy

Nov 22 • 2016

The night began like any other Saturday for Donna Smith’s son-in-law, Jimmy. His wife had left the house to do a friend’s hair, so he was enjoying the evening at home with daughter Megan, son AJ, and their friends. When it came time to take Megan’s boyfriend home, AJ and his friend stayed behind at the house.

Jimmy had been in the military for 11 years, including four tours in Iraq. He kept guns in the home and taught his children the importance of gun safety, including how to properly operate a gun. So when 13-year-old AJ heard what sounded like an intruder entering the home, he and his friend ran to a bedroom, locked the door, and called 911. While on the call with the dispatcher, a loud banging began on the bedroom door. AJ was frightened, so he retrieved a gun and shot through the door.

On the other side, Jimmy had taken a fatal shot. He hadn’t said a word after entering the home and banging on the door – later, family members would note that Jimmy had exhibited some signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the past that they simply hadn’t recognized. Megan did her best to stop the bleeding with instruction from the dispatcher, but Jimmy died before paramedics arrived.

Donna, a long-time Baptist employee, received the phone call that night. She and her husband flew out to Colorado immediately, where AJ spent a couple of weeks in a medical psychiatric facility for kids. While she tried to help her family make sense of the tragedy and formulate their next steps, her supervisor suggested she call the Kemmons Wilson Family Center for Good Grief. Although Donna was aware of the service and was working at Baptist when the facility opened, she never thought she would need the center’s help in such a dire way for her family.

“The event was so tragic,” she said. “I explained the situation to Angela [Hamblen Kelly, Director of the Kemmons Wilson Family Center for Good Grief], and she said it was not a stretch for them. It was very comforting; it provided me with peace of mind in the midst of chaos.”

Donna’s daughter, granddaughter, and youngest grandson stayed in Colorado to finish up the school year while AJ returned to Memphis so he could get into the Grief Center as quickly as possible. “He was only 13 at the time and just devastated,” said Donna. “If he saw a gun on TV, he would have a meltdown. If he heard shots fired on TV, he would panic. If he heard sirens or an ambulance, he would crumble in a frightening heap. He was experiencing severe PTSD on top of the guilt and grief he was trying to cope with.”

After AJ’s mom, sister, and brother moved to Memphis, they all began visiting the Grief Center; in fact, Jimmy’s parents also went there. Three years later, Megan and AJ volunteer their time as counselors and sponsors at Camp Good Grief and get involved at other events hosted by the Grief Center.

“I can’t begin to express my gratitude for the center being there,” said Donna. “At the darkest moments of our lives, my family was able to get help and healing from people who specialize in dealing with grief. It was comforting for my daughter, as well, because she had a couple of instances where other professionals could not really respond to their extreme situation effectively. The fact that there were resources available to handle this magnitude of a tragedy, and that it is offered free of charge, was a tremendous blessing to us.”

The Kemmons Wilson Family Center for Good Grief offers the Mid-South a service specifically for grieving that is completely free of charge. Donna’s family is just one of the many who has been impacted by what the center offers and on this Giving Tuesday, you can donate to help ensure that other families coping with loss can take advantage of what they have to offer.

“AJ went to counseling and there was no specific time limit,” said Donna. “They will work with you as long as it takes. I cannot even imagine where we would be today without the intensive therapy from the grief center. If you could have seen him when he started the therapy in his imploded state and then compare it to how far he has come the last three years – you would be truly amazed. He still has a lot to work through, which is understandable. It’s not going to be something that just goes away. But he can take his tragic story and touch someone else and say ‘I’ve been through this, so you can make it through what you’re going through’ – that’s the hope of the whole situation. My family is better today because this facility was available with staff that counseled and walked the journey with us and to those who graciously donated to make this opportunity happen. We are forever grateful.”

Find out more about the Kemmons Wilson Family Center for Good Grief or make a donation.

  • Misti Haley

    Jimmy, Lauren and their kids went to our church at the time this happened. It was such a tragic event that we were all at a loss of what to say or do to help. I’m so thankful for your ministry to hurting people. God definitely worked a miracle in AJ’s life. I don’t know how anyone could get through something like this without God and those He has equipped for this type of trauma. Thank you so much for helping this precious family! We love them and miss them a ton!