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Finding Light in the Shadow of Tragedy

Johns Family Love Story

“I know that nothing can take the pain away, but there’s something about pain and tragedy and grief. When we allow Jesus to walk with us, and surrender it to him, it is precious to him. On the other side of that grief is heaven where there is no pain. There is only love and joy and goodness.” —Sarah Johns 

She danced in worship with a childlike faith, blonde hair flowing as she captured the goodness of Jesus with every heartfelt twirl. The empty pews of Church of the Rock were filled with warmth as Elise Johns engaged in the most joyous of praise. It was her second home and a place where she felt liberated in honoring the Lord—the occasion lovingly recorded by one of her biggest fans, her mother Sarah Johns. It is a moment that would forever encapsulate the essence of who Elise is. But it is the events that occurred just weeks later that would release Elise’s divine spirit far beyond the walls of this Kansas City church.

The morning of August 23, 2017 began in typical fashion of a busy family of five, Kaden, 10, Elise, 8, and Hope, 5. Jason and Sarah Johns were amid balancing pastoring in the inner city, work life, family life, and community life, and Sarah Johns was up before sunrise to get a start on her heavily scheduled day. At a time when two of her three children are usually sleeping, Sarah was blessed with a rare request when middle child, Elise, sought a morning goodbye. She looked up at her mother with a smile of adoration. The mystical beauty in Elise’s eyes said that no matter what the future would bring she would always be with her family. It is an instant that Sarah would be forever grateful. 

A Life Altering Accident

The morning progressed as usual, and Sarah went to work at a local gym while her husband ensured the children were prepared and loaded into the car just in time to get to school. But this trip was different—it is a trip that altered the course of their lives. Right before 9 a.m., Sarah received a shaky, tearful call from Jason letting her know there had been a bad accident. He handed the phone to police where she was immediately told the accident was not her husband’s fault but that there were significant injuries: Jason had glass in his hand and a lacerated spleen; Kaden suffered a broken wrist; Hope, severe whiplash, a concussion that would eventually result in spinal cord injury, and a compromised appendix; and Elise, a traumatic hit to her head that left her unconscious and not breathing. Miraculously Elise’s heart was resuscitated, and she and her siblings were transported to Children’s Mercy. 

Driving with a flood of emotions, Sarah arrived at the hospital. Hope was in surgery, and her husband was being treated next door at Truman Medical. She recalls entering PICU room 11 where a team of physicians surrounded Elise with the neurosurgeon standing near her head. The heaviness of the events was enhanced as they took Sarah to a private room with Jason being telephoned in. The words, “Your daughter has brain death and there is nothing we can do,” caused her to collapse to her knees and proclaim, “There is something we can do! We can pray!” Prayer is something she continued to do throughout the night, and it was one conversation with God that elicited a mindset switch. Sarah pleaded, “What am I going to do? How am I going to make it without her?” 

Light + Love

His response was swift: “How would Elise want you to live? Would she want you to wallow and be depressed, although you have every right to be? Elise would want you to make every moment count. Elise would want you to be a good mommy to Kaden and Hope. Elise would want you to live your best life. Elise would want you to bring light and love wherever you go, not out of obligation but out of honoring her.”

In that moment she made the choice that for the sake of their daughter, she would live life to the fullest, and this decision would be continuously challenged. On August 28, 2017 Elise transitioned to be with Lord. The beauty in this tragedy is that the Johns family received the gift of five additional days with Elise when she was not expected to make it beyond the site of the accident. And because of this her organs were able to be donated. Beyond her time here on earth, Elise was able to give life to people who had been on waiting lists for years.

But life does not stand still in the shadow of tragedy. Following the accident, Hope was in the hospital for more than eight months as she underwent several surgeries and therapies in the wake of her paralysis. It was because of her tenacity that she has made incredible strides despite her medical setbacks. The journey with Hope was overwhelming, but the family decided to take care of all her needs at home, and although she faces challenges daily, she is thriving. Kaden, now 13, also had to come to terms with the accident and questioned why it happened at all. But, Sarah explained, there simply is no why. It was just an accident. Now they choose to focus on the power of forgiveness and not to stew in negative feelings and not to blame God. 

“We live in a fallen broken world,” Sarah explains. “I don’t blame God. He’s the one that I turn to who can help bring any sort of life and healing and redemption from tragedy. Not just in big tragedy but also in little tragedies that happen in life.”

Sarah is forever thankful that before the accident she allowed the Lord to fully capture her heart. The family is overwhelmed by the amount of support they have received through the community. She also credits Jason in making this time livable. He helped ensure they had more time with Elise. She credits his being an incredible man, husband and father as a reason they can walk together in grace. Even though his journey and grief are different from hers, both have grown in who they are and how they heal and choose to live their lives in a way that celebrates every breath. It is through the legacy of Elise that the Johns family has been enriched by the power of grace, the power of community, the power of choice and the power of forgiveness.

“My relationship with the Lord and running to Him and worship has been the No. 1 key that has helped me personally walk through it the way that I have. Knowing and encountering the goodness of God and discovering more of that is what has truly helped me.”