A Thanksgiving Birthday

Editor’s note: On March 19, 2011, 6-year-old Benji Easler of Gaffney died when an amusement train ride derailed and overturned at a Spartanburg public park. Benji’s parents, Dwight and Tabitha Easler, along with his two brothers, Seth and Matthew, were injured, as were other members of Corinth Baptist Church in Gaffney, where Dwight serves as pastor. Less than a month after losing her son, Tabitha gave birth to a daughter, Hannah Hope. Dwight said his daughter’s name was suggested by Benji, who offered the opinion that “Hannahs are always beautiful.” Easler recently sat down with Courier editor Rudy Gray to talk about the day his son died, his grief, and his journey of faith in the two years since. Watch the multipart interview at BaptistCourier.com.

“But He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.’ Therefore, I will most gladly boast all the more about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may reside in me” (2 Corinthians 12:9).

On Nov. 24, 2004, Benjamin Samuel Easler, our son, was born on the last night of our fall revival — and the day before Thanksgiving. He was two weeks early.

Seven years later, on Thanksgiving Day in 2011, I stood and watched balloons float up and out of sight into a crystal-clear blue sky, and I experienced the startling realization that I couldn’t give Benji anything anymore.

Easler family 1

A family trip to the ocean, with one member missing.

It hurts to type those words, because the raw emotion of that reality still cuts deep. As I think about those two contrasting birthdays, I think about a statement my wife Tabitha made then, even as her tears flowed: “The Lord knew that we couldn’t have Benji long, so he let him come two weeks early.”

I have watched the power of God be quietly manifested in Tabitha since March 19, 2011. When our daughter, Hannah, was born, Tabitha would say that Hannah might never talk because sometimes all Tabitha could do was hold her and cry. Sometimes she would lie in bed and listen to the voicemail message that Benji left her, hearing him say, “I called you, Momma!” As I have witnessed her walk through this dark valley, she has always voiced thankfulness in the midst of her grief. Sometimes, on family trips, when we miss Benji’s ramblings from the back seat, she will simply say, “Benji got to do so much in his little life.” We smile and recall the Southern Baptist Conventions, Disney World, all the preschool and church field trips, and the family beach fun with the brothers.

Sometimes when Tabitha wakes up, she will say, “I am so thankful when I can dream about Benji.” These are the cries of a broken heart — but a thankful heart. Many times while riding down the road, we have recalled Benji’s rather dramatic conversion experience. He yelled out from the back seat of the van, “I don’t want to go to hell!” and started to cry. When we got home, Tabitha sat down and shared the gospel with him while his brothers, Seth and Matthew, and I looked on. After Benji prayed, Seth said with joy, “Now our whole family is saved!” We have thought about this event often as a gift from God. We have questioned many things in the tragedy that happened only a few months after that night, but we never questioned Benji’s faith. He was at peace with the knowledge that Jesus had forgiven him and that he would be in heaven one day. For that we are thankful.

Benji’s owl

Dwight and Tabitha Easler questioned many things after their son’s death, “but we never questioned Benji’s faith.”

My wife has taught me that, in every moment, we can be thankful — even in grief. I have found that the only way to do this is by faith. She has shown me how to grieve with grace and hope. Yes, we are both different now. We suffer from anxiety about our children’s safety. We have to give each other room to grieve in our different ways. Life is sometimes harder and darker now, but we have found that God’s grace is sufficient in our weaknesses.

Tabitha has taught me to appreciate the little things more. She has taught me to be aware of moments and to be more sentimental about the little things of life. Now, when I watch my son Seth hold Hannah, I am thankful that Hannah has strong big brothers who will love her so sweetly. When I watch Matthew play football, I am thankful for the fear and tragedy he conquered and the courage he expresses, even at 11 years old. When I look into Hannah’s sweet smile and see a little of Benji, I am thankful for the blessing she is … and for the blessing of seeing a glimpse of the boy who helped me build his sister’s crib just a couple of weeks before he went to heaven.

When I see the blue Samaritan’s Purse shoeboxes on the front row of the church each November in memory of Benji on his birthday, I am thankful for his young friends who love Jesus and love their friend who went to heaven. I am thankful for the church family that still loves to talk about Benji and has poured out love and grace upon us. When I visit the grave and look around at the manicured site, I am thankful for the older couple who babysat Benji for years and gave him so much joy. Now they make trips to the cemetery almost weekly to clean the grave stone on their hands and knees.

Here is an entry from Tabitha’s journal from Nov. 21, 2011, three days before Benji’s first birthday in heaven:

— I am thankful that God chose me to be Benji’s mommy and I had him for 6 years, 3 months, and 23 days.

— I am thankful for all the great times we had together as a family.

— I am thankful that God has helped me and given me grace and comfort.

— I am thankful that Dwight was not killed in the accident and he loves me and is my best friend.

— I am thankful that Seth was not killed in the accident and for the laughter and joy he brings to me.

— I am thankful that Matthew was not killed and for his caring, thoughtful and teachable spirit.

— I am thankful that Hannah was kept safe and for the comfort and healing she brings.

— I am thankful for parents that support us and raised me to know that God is in control and He always loves me!

 

When I read these things, I stand amazed at the power of God, and I am filled with love and thanksgiving for the wife the Lord gave me. I have learned what Paul meant, and I have witnessed the power of God in the midst of brokenness in the life of my family. We can boast — even in our pain and in our weaknesses — because the power of God is manifested in our thankful hearts, even when our hearts are breaking. Happy birthday in heaven, Benji.

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