Strength for the Climb

My blog is a personal journey of the blessings I have been entrusted with and the strength I have been given to make the climb. I invite you to follow along as I write about faith, family, and Down syndrome.

Don't let go.

Don’t let go.  

It’s been a little over 14 months since we got the worst call of our lives and lived a reality we wish on no one.  You can relive our experience here as it will forever be etched in our lives.

IMG_5386.JPG

The day after Andrew died we responded with the following statement:

"We are deeply heartbroken to share of the loss of Andrew Carroll, an amazing son, brother, uncle, nephew, cousin, teammate, teacher, mentor, and friend who died tragically after a fall at the Chicago O’Hare Airport. We are deeply grieving but have the assurance that he is in the loving arms of Jesus because of his decision to accept Christ. At this difficult time, what also gives us comfort is that his life meant so much to so many people and he was able to give the gift of hope by donating his organs so that others might have life. May his love for Jesus and others live through each of us. We are in the process of making arrangements for his celebration of life and hope you can join us as we honor Andrew." With love, the Carroll Family

As I wrote in the original blog post, we announced that he died as a result of a tragic fall. No one ever is prepared to share such devastating and incomprehensible news, writing words while still in complete disbelief that 20 minutes after Andrew purchased a plane ticket to fly home to St. Paul in the early morning of January 20th, he walked out the door to an overpass, climbed the railing, turned around (as the police officer described to us) and let go.

His death certificate reads jump from height resulting in death by suicide.

Through this journey of being affected by suicide, in our experience, there were no signs, to any of us that were close to him, that ever made us think he would harm himself. 

“Clearly you had to of known?” asked of Chris by a woman at the visitation. No. No.  No, do not ask that. If we would have known he was struggling, we would have tried to help him (as any family or friend would).  But…thank you (no thank you) for asking in assumption that the answer you wanted to hear is really just trying to calm your own fears that this could happen to you.  That question hurts everyone affected by suicide and is not helpful to anyone.  Mental health and suicide unfortunately already carry a societal stigma and questions and assumptions like that only contribute to the trauma of this painful part of our story.

Yesterday was the final interview with the Boston University CTE Center, after the 14 month period of time that they studied Andrew’s brain.  With the number of years he played hockey (collegiate + 9 years professional), the cause of death, and roles he played on his teams, we listened as the neuropathologist explained the condition of his brain at the time of his death.  

The process before the final results were given included clinicians interviewing our family about his medical history.  Many of the questions were basic about his mood, headaches, and eventually led to questions about trauma to the brain. In the years that he played hockey as a forward, he experienced a few concussions and a lot of trauma (as defined by the clinical definition) to the brain while engaging in hockey fights (during his professional career).    

The doctor explained how the testing was conducted and the results indicated that Andrew had Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE).  According to the Boston University CTE Center, CTE is a degenerative brain disease found in athletes, military veterans, and others with a history of repetitive brain trauma. In CTE, a protein called Tau forms clumps that slowly spread throughout the brain, killing brain cells.  Andrew’s frontal lobe was impacted by this protein. Currently, CTE can only be diagnosed after death through brain tissue analysis.  You can read more about the diagnosis here.  There are many people living with CTE and they may not even suspect they have it (as in Andrew’s case). The doctor explained that a majority, if not all, of the donations of young brains are a result of death by suicide. Research and awareness around this disease is something that is vital so that this can be prevented.

The brain on the right has been diagnosed with CTE.

The brain on the right has been diagnosed with CTE.

There have been many different emotions since we’ve heard this news.  Many tears.  On one hand it gives us more clarity, understanding that his frontal lobe of the brain was damaged and the lack of impulse control played a part in his act of desperation. But it doesn’t change the outcome, he’s gone.  And that hurts so bad.  Everyday.  

I watched my in-laws say goodbye to their son. No parent should ever have to experience what they did. The pain each time they walk past his childhood bedroom, his stuff that had to sort through, the daily reminders he is gone. The days and holidays that come and remind you that life as you knew it will never be the same. Andrew would have never wanted them to feel this hurt.

IMG_5338-2.jpeg

Watching my husband, kneeling next to his only brother’s hospital bed, hearing him say his final goodbye is something I never imagined doing when we exchanged vows on our wedding day.  To see him so broken, my heart aches for him as he misses his best friend. He used to wake in the middle of the night with images in the hospital that couldn’t leave his mind.  

Our kids ask about Andrew all of the time. They say his name often as he was a huge part of our daily life.  We open a book to read at bedtime and there is his handwriting on the inside cover, “Jacko-Happy Birthday.  I can’t wait to read this to you at bedtime with Luke and Taylor.” They miss him so much.

Jack and Andrew cheering on Chris’ Blaine Bengal hockey team

Jack and Andrew cheering on Chris’ Blaine Bengal hockey team

Luke and Andrew at the Tradition Hockey Mite camp run by Carroll family friend, Marty Sertich

Luke and Andrew at the Tradition Hockey Mite camp run by Carroll family friend, Marty Sertich

This picture makes me smile because he came to the hospital the night Taylor was born and ate almost all the candy. Classic Andrew. ;)

This picture makes me smile because he came to the hospital the night Taylor was born and ate almost all the candy. Classic Andrew. ;)

While going through a stack of papers, I can remember finding the plane ticket that he purchased in the early hours of January 20th, holding it in my hand and crying out, “Just go to the gate.  Come home.” Don’t let go.

One evening, Chris went over to look through Andrew’s things because he said he needed to find something. He was in Andrew’s old bedroom for awhile and came back empty handed.  A few weeks later, he shared what he was looking for. The red Chicago Blackhawks shirt that Andrew wore all of the time.  After searching for many minutes for it, his mom came in the room and shared that that was the shirt he was wearing that night and it was cut off of him when he was brought to the hospital.  She found that shirt in his bag.  Sally had to unpack that bag.  Imagine that. Imagine that feeling of unpacking your son’s bag who is now gone.  My heart ached.  Chris left that night with another painful moment that sneaks up on the journey of grief.

IMG_1989.JPG

As a family, we’ve all journeyed down this path of grief differently and I’ve realized that it’s never healthy to expect anyone to grieve the same way you do.  People grieve in character so to expect everyone to handle a loss the same way is an unrealistic expectation. Avoiding the pain is easier than feeling it, and that has caused this road of grief to be windier and bumpier (and at times feels longer) than we wished we could say we’ve experienced.  

Please remember that although a person’s smile may appear on their face, the condition of their heart may tell a different story. I’ve learned in the past year, that trauma affects the whole body and I believe we’d be much more open about the process if it was received with empathy and grace, versus someone’s judgement of the ‘appropriate’ timeline of grief. Sometimes the pieces don’t always get put back together as quickly as you’d assume they should be.

Also, please don’t expect us to move on.  When you do, it’s as if we are suppose to do life not acknowledging there is a person that never existed, and a pain we are suppose to ignore. We will move forward because it’s the only choice we have. We choose to honor him and the life he lived. 

Andrew was a one-of-a-kind person. He truly lived each day to the fullest. Investing in others, taking time to see and hear people whether they were 70 years old or a baby. Fully devoted to whatever he committed to. Remembering the memories we had with Andrew brings us so much joy. We’ve seen in many ways how God provides for the brokenhearted. There is peace in knowing he knew Jesus and because of that is healthy and whole again. Oh how this would be so much more difficult if he wouldn’t have accepted Christ as his Savior.

A lot of laughter comes from the memories from others and that helps heal our hearts. Please don’t hesitate to share your moment with us. One of his former teammates created a website to compile some memories of AC and you can read them here. Some of them are of his weird and crazy pre game routines and also a bet of running a sub 6 minute mile after a 5 course meal. The kid won the bet, of course. Here is a memory that means so much to us and truly exemplifies who he was.

5b0aecc780428.jpg

“Selfless, encouraging, enthusiastic, courageous....these are just a few of the many traits Andrew Carroll possessed and practiced on a daily basis. I remember meeting Andrew in the locker room in Hartford, CT when we were teammates and line mates on the Connecticut Whale. One of the first things he told me when we were going to play together on the same line was "don'tworry about anything, I am always going to be the first one on the forecheck and going to try to get you the puck as fast as I can." I'm thinking to myself, "now this is my kind of winger!" Come to find out I think he just loved to forecheck and throw his body around in the form of playing physical and checking someone into the boards! But that's honestly how Andrew lived his life day in day out, selflessly putting himself out there for the benefit of others, whether on the rink or outside in his daily life. He was one of the most genuine human beings I have ever met in my life. I am not saying that just for this story or some sort of tribute to him...that is literally the truth about him. He exemplified what it meant to be a genuine, God seeking, God loving man. He lived it! Every single day! Who can say that they do that!?”

IMG_5369.JPG

So we move forward with this new news and I kept remembering Chris’ tribute to Andrew at his funeral:

But, regardless of how our hearts are marked by life’s events…what truly makes who we are… is our response…because that is what we can control. My response and outlook as I move forward is based on the questions I have been asking myself.

 Not why or how? 

 But simply asking myself, what?

 What can I do to honor my brother? 

 What can I do to carry out his legacy? 

 What can I do that can make me stronger, kinder, more patient? 

 What can I do to be mentally tough…yet also be mentally healthy?

 This will not only help me grieve, but strengthen my response and mend my heart into what MAKES me. 

Those simple questions, in the face of some really tough stuff will make me who I am.  

 I know I need to wake up each day and ask the right questions of myself.  Because that’s the only thing that will carry my brother’s legacy.

 And my response matters.  Quite possibly, our greatest contribution in our response may not be something that I do, but rather, who may witness it. Our influence is far more powerful than any position that we hold and…this isn’t just about me.  

Look at this room filled with so many people.  That's a reflection of Andrew’s influence on all of us. He saw each of you.  He made you feel important, and took the time to do that. May we all honor him by doing that more.

 As I close, I want to share one last thing with my brother, something that I didn’t share enough…. 

 I was out on a run early in the morning while we were in Chicago and the one thing that gave my heart peace was that I am so proud of you.

 I am so proud that I am your brother, that there is only one person in this room that can call you brother.   And that's me.  

 And I can’t even describe how proud that makes me.

 THANK YOU FOR MAKING ME BETTER.” 

IMG_5344.JPG

On May 7th, it would have been his 34th birthday.  There are many simple things you can do to celebrate him. Take extra time to listen to someone, and ask them questions about their life. Show up late because you were investing in someone. ;) Wear your AC20 gear (email (carissa@jacksbasket.org), text, or call us if you need some!) and tell one person about him. Open your bible and read his life verse, Joshua 1:9, and write down what you are going to do to be strong and courageous in honor of AC and his love for Jesus.

IMG_5385.JPG

On Sunday, May 5th from 2-5pm, the plan is to be in the backyard on the AC20 sport court where we will be doing ‘AC Skills and Drills’, enjoy his favorite snacks and have fun! Come on over with your families (stay for a little or stay as long as Andrew would have ;)) and help us celebrate the guy we all love and miss so much! Reach out to Chris or I, Bill or Sally, and we wiill give you more details! He’ll be smiling (and chirping) from Heaven.

IMG_1425.jpeg

Finally, please go tell someone how much you love them. Tell them why they matter to you. If it’s not you to verbally express it, write in a card or note. Send it. You will never regret telling someone how much they meant to you. People need to hear more often.

You make me better.

IMG_5370.JPG

If you are hurting and need some help, please tell someone.  No matter the story you are telling yourself, you are loved by God and loved by those around you.  Tomorrow needs YOU.  Don’t let go. 

 Call the suicide prevention line at 1-800-273-8255 for help.

 As we navigate down this path, we will continue to talk about how we will honor him. We have set up an Andrew Carroll Memorial Fund so that his life continues to impact others as he did when he was living. Organizations that were close to Andrew’s heart were Hockey Ministries International (HMI) and Jack’s Basket, and a gift will be given to a foundation that supports suicide prevention and those impacted by CTE (TBD). If you would like to contribute to the memorial fund click here or send a donation directly to those organizations. We are hopeful that those living with CTE will not find themselves at a point Andrew was when he let go.

IMG_5485.JPG