April 2011 – Little five-year-old Cooper Jasper died July 17, 2009, in a freak go-cart accident.
The words sound so simple and matter-of-fact, but they represent a horrifying hammer-blow to a family that, had it not been for God’s grace, might have destroyed the lives of the Jaspers that Cooper left behind.
He was young and little but filled whatever environment he was in – home, church, school – with giant-sized amounts of energy and laughter. One of his favorite super heroes – and he had lots of them – was the “Human Torch,” a team member of the Fantastic Four that could burst into flames but not be consumed by the fire. Because the Torch used the words “flame on” to ignite his super power, the expression became a favorite of Cooper’s.
They were also the last words that JJ Jasper, Cooper’s father and the much-beloved AFR morning show co-host, heard his son say on this earth. Cooper told his dad, who was driving the go-cart, to “flame on!” He meant by the words, “Go faster!”
On a flat surface in the pasture, with little Cooper securely fastened in with a seat belt, JJ put the pedal down a little bit more and did a “donut” – like they had done countless times before.
Something went terribly wrong. The go-cart flipped, and even with the vehicle protected by multiple roll bars, Cooper was fatally injured. He died in his father’s arms after EMT workers tried to save him.
‘Ambushed by grief’
The subsequent depth of pain experienced by the Jaspers was crushing and cruel. JJ and his wife Melanie told AFA Journal that in the weeks following Cooper’s death, they would awaken in the morning and sob uncontrollably. Then they would get themselves out of bed and try to live their lives. When they collapsed into bed at night, they would begin sobbing again until, exhausted, they finally fell asleep. The next day it would begin all over again.
After the loss of a loved one – even a child – many people assume the truth of the age-old adage that “time heals all things.” But a friend told the Jaspers at the graveside service that the statement was not true.
“This is not a wound that’s going to heal,” the friend said. “This is an amputation. Just like someone who’s lost an arm or a leg or a hand – they have to find a new normal. You’re going to have to find a new way to do life without Cooper.”
This was evident as the ‘firsts’ began to come during the year following Cooper’s death. “The first Thanksgiving after he died, the first Christmas, his first birthday, the first everything – we got hammered each time,” JJ said. The suffering engulfed not only JJ and Melanie, but also their other children – daughters Lauren, Maddie and Sadie.
It was more than just the bigger events, however. JJ said what made the grieving process so difficult “was how often we were ambushed by grief. We could be having a normal day and without warning there’d be a smell or a song we associated with Cooper and then your shoulders are shaking and you’re sobbing. It didn’t matter where you were. You couldn’t control it.”
Those who know JJ Jasper know him as a go-getter, a man who has always seized life and tried to force it to yield to his wishes. He wanted to be a boxer, so he learned how. He wanted to be a pilot, so he got his license. He wanted to write books and produce a stand-up comedy video – so he did. Boating, biking, horseback riding, cutting down trees. Life yielded to JJ.
That all changed with the tragedy. “One thing that has haunted me – and there is not a better word to use than haunted – is how permanent Cooper’s death is and how out of my control it is,” JJ said. “The second that Cooper breathed his last breath came the crushing weight of, ‘You’re not going to hold him again, you’re not going to talk to him again, you’re not going to celebrate his birthday. And there’s not one thing you’re going to be able to do about it.’”
This was dramatically different from the loss of a grandparent or even a parent – as tough as that might be. Both JJ and Melanie noted that, with older loved ones, there are usually little warnings that help prepare for the eventuality of death. Whether it’s their graying hair or a misstep or aching joints, we begin to realize the mortality of our beloved elders.
“For a child, there is not even a compartment in your brain to tell you that those sweet little babies out there running and playing in your yard, that you are going to wake up one day and one’s going to be missing,” said JJ. “And we had zero warning. So, the suddenness of it, and how permanent it is, was something that just kept knocking me down like a wave. You are out in the surf and it knocks you down, you get up, and it knocks you down again.”
Hints for ‘grieving well’
Out of this tragedy the Jaspers have felt the grace of God upholding them through almost unimaginable suffering and sorrow, but it has been a terrible battle. How does someone even begin to know what to ask God for in the midst of such pain?
“Our prayer was always to grieve well,” JJ said. “We asked God to help us grieve in ways that would bring glory to His name – even though we didn’t know what that looked like.”
However, as they close in on the two-year anniversary of Cooper’s death, there are things that the Jaspers have learned about grieving that they hope to share with other suffering believers.
▶ Stick with the basics –“There wasn’t a magic bullet or a secret formula,” JJ said. “It was just going back to the basics, going to the root of what every believer knows will keep you on course or will help you keep your sanity. You get up, you read your Bible whether you feel like it or not, you pray even when you don’t want to, and you stay connected to a community of believers. Those were the lifelines for us.”
▶ Allow friends near – “I tend to push people away when I’m depressed. I just want to be by myself,” Melanie said. “I think one of the best things that we did was allow our friends and church family to come in and be there for us. They don’t have to say anything. Just knowing that they are there is such a comfort.”
▶ Trust that God has a purpose – JJ said, “I had a close mentor and friend, and for two or three days after the accident he would come up beside me and whisper in my ear, ‘God doesn’t waste pain. He’s going to use this somehow for His glory.’”
▶ Rely on God’s strength – “All those verses like, ‘His grace is sufficient,’ they’re absolutely true,” JJ said. “Those aren’t just words on a page. It’s who He is; it’s what He’s able to do in and through a person no matter how dark a pit that they find themselves in.”
As recipients of comfort from others, there were also things that the Jaspers felt helped them. First, said Melanie, it’s OK to say very little. “So many people say things to try and encourage you. They mean well, but boy, sometimes it just doesn’t come out right,” she said. “I guess the best thing to say is, ‘I don’t know what to say,’ or, ‘I’ll be praying for you.’ Or just be quiet and just be there for those who are grieving.”
Nevertheless, the Jaspers also said that saying something can still be very helpful. “We got almost ten thousand emails [from AFR listeners] within a matter of a few days,” JJ said. “What we did every single night, we sat around our kitchen table and we read, out loud, the cards and emails from our listeners. We would just weep and read.”
A third suggestion: The Jaspers said what they appreciated most was when people sent photos of their own kids in which Cooper also appeared.
“After Cooper died we knew we would never be able to take another photo of him,” JJ said. “These were new pictures to us, and they were worth more than gold.”
Perhaps as a result of such help, the Jaspers found their thoughts turning to helping others cope with their own individual trials. They have shared their story of God’s faithfulness and the love of friends in a new video available from AFA.
Flame On: A True Story of Hope in the Midst of Great Personal Tragedy is an AFA-produced video being offered for free by the ministry. (See below.)
The Jaspers chose 2 Corinthians 1:3-4 as the verses that represented what they were hoping to accomplish with Flame On. The passage says: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion, God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.”
“We know we’re not the only ones to have suffered, but we wanted to say that we’ve been there. If God can help us, He can help you, no matter what, no matter what you are going through,” JJ said. “But when you say, ‘This is the end of the road for me and I just can’t make it, I don’t have any hope and am in such despair,’ we are hoping that people will watch this video and realize God is still good.”
“He’s always there,” said Melanie. “He’ll never leave your side.” It’s a message the Jaspers feel Cooper would approve.
Watch Flame On or request your complimentary DVD for a suggested gift of $5 to cover handling and shipping at www.FlameOn.net or call 800-326-4543, Option 3.