In October 2016 General Conference, Elder Holland told a story about the tragic death of Troy Russell’s son, Austen, and how he was helped out of despair by a “home teacher extraordinaire,” John Manning.
In this interview we talk with Troy and John as they give more background to the story and the tender mercies that the Lord bestowed upon the Russell family and their surrounding community. Troy shares how it was ward leaders, ward friends, and community that didn’t know what to do, but still showed love to their family, that really made the different and helped them through this tragic time in their life.
John Manning talks about the friendship that was established long before the the passing of Austen that made it possible to be there for John as his home teacher, but most importantly, as his friend. The early morning basketball games gave Troy something to do and to get active again. Now the basketball group wears a jerseys that proudly displays Austen’s logo in his memory.
The Christlike love and service that came out of this story has truly honored Austen and will inspire all that listen to truly minister.
The transcript of this episode is available below.
Emissaries to the Church, by Elder Holland
Lessons Learned at Liberty Jail, by Elder Holland
“Remember Lot’s Wife”: Faith is for the Future, by Elder Holland
Leading Saints (LS): We are talking with, Troy Russell and John Manning. How are you Troy and John?
Troy: Good! Thank you.
John: Great! Thank you.
LS: Great, now, as we will talk about in this episode, John, you are actually Troy’s home teacher and so this may be the first recorded home teaching appointment ever in the Church.
John: Yeah, it’s getting close to the end of the month so I figured I’d come down anyway.
LS: Yeah, you know, I got to encourage you to get over to Troy’s house and do an interview and we’ll call it as your home teaching visit.
I’m joking, of course. … Many people will be familiar with your story, Troy, and in which John played a role in and definitely a story we heard in Conference and that we were touched by as Elder Holland talked about it and shared that story about home teaching but also the story, Troy, of the tragic passing of your son Austen and we’ll get into those details but before we jump into that story and how that Conference talk came to be, Troy, let’s start with you and maybe just give us a background of who you are, where you live, what you do for a living. What do we need to know about you Troy?
Troy: Well I was born in Ohio, my dad was in the Air Force, and so every 3-4 years of my childhood we would move and I spent most of my high school years and half my middle school years in Mesa, Arizona where I attended Mountain View High School there and went up to Ricks for a year and then I served a mission in Perth, Australia and came home to Utah where my dad and stepmom had moved while I was out of high school and went to Weber State where I met my wife, Deedra. She played soccer there for 5 years and then when we both graduated we went to Portland Oregon where I went to chiropractic school there and ended up here in Henderson, Nevada. I’ve been working as a chiropractor since 2002 here.
LS: How long have you lived in that ward that you are currently in?
Troy: We moved into this house about a month or two after Austen was born, and now it has been about 10 years. nwo the ward has changed a few times through boundary changes, but we have been in the same house a little over 10 years.
LS: John, what about you? What led you to Henderson?
John: I graduated from BYU, got a Masters at Utah State and back then there were lots of good jobs in Las Vegas so I came down in ’97 and housing was very affordable. I’m a civil engineer and there’s a lot of work here. Yeah, we moved down in ’97 and have bounced around and we moved into this neighborhood probably six months, maybe a year before the Russells moved in. We’ve been here every since.
LS: Where were you originally from?
John: I grew up in Oregon and my family has since moved to Southern Idaho. I spent some time at Ricks also and then BYU. I served a mission out in Washington DC South, which is the Northern Virginia area. That was ’88-’90, it’s been awhile. I have 3 kids and a beautiful wife.
LS: Just living the dream, right?
Troy: I actually lived out in the area of DC, Mount Vernon about 3 years where that Washington DC South mission is.
LS: So you guys can talk about the DC area a little bit?
John: Oh, yeah, George Washington parkway is right there. There’s a great chapel right there next to Mount Vernon. It overlooks the Potomac.
LS: Other than being a home teacher, John, what’s your calling in the ward there?
John: I’m the priest quorum advisor.
LS: Nice! That’s probably a fun one, one I haven’t done yet. I imagine you enjoy it.
Yeah, if you could ever politic for a calling that is a good one to politic for.
LS: I’ll see if they have an application to turn in. What about you Troy what do you do in the ward?
Troy: I’m the ward mission leader right now.
LS: Nice, great! We talked on the phone before and that calling will come up as far as how you first met Elder Holland. Is that right?
LS: Cool… well, we’ll get into that. This is one of those episodes, and I’ve done a few that are quite sensitive where I just feel like I am in over my head. I am no professional interviewer. I am going to say some thing I regret and luckily I can edit. I hope I handle this as sensitive as possible and I think you two know where my heart is and I definitely just want to tell the story from your perspectives and maybe get a few more details that would hopefully inspire individuals that are listening to serve to love, to cherish and to be grateful for various things in their life.
Troy, I don’t know where you necessarily want to start. You know, we heard in Elder Holland’s remarks which is entitles, Emissaries to the Church which I guess if people are listening really far in the future that was given in the October 2016 Priesthood Session of General Conference. He talked on the topic of home teaching. A really powerful talk as generally Elder Holland’s talks are. A few years ago with your son’s tragic death, how can you put this into the context? Obviously there was an accident and that happened. Is there anything else that Elder Holland didn’t mention that would be worth mentioning? What was that like?
Troy: Well, I think as every parent, your deepest fears is losing one of your children and it is something that you really never want to talk about or mention, but it always kind of there in the back of your mind if you ever lost a child, but it is something that I think I never thought would happen, but it did. It’s one of the darkest experiences that I could have imagined going through but at the same time it’s an experience that helped me get closer to Heavenly Father. I don’t think in any other way I could have experienced that.
LS: Yeah, just like you said, I have often look at my children thinking, I can’t believe there are parents that lose their children and I can’t even begin to imagine. And there are all types of death, the ways that death come, you know, someone getting terminally ill and you see them degrade and suffer a bit and but you are able to process as it is happening maybe and then there are these other instances where it is in an instant. They are there and then they are gone. I can’t imagine what that is and so I am so grateful you are willing to share the story about that.
So, this audience is an audience of lay leaders generally speaking. I remember when I was bishop there was a 9 year old boy that had a seizure in the bathtub and drowned and it was just so tragic and I was the bishop and they sort of looked at me like, what are you going to say, or how can you help us? Not that they were expecting me to, but that was the burden I put on myself, that I needed to go visit and say something. What was that like? You have John as your home teacher but was there any consoling there that was helpful?
Troy: It’s really interesting. I’ll kind of back up with the story and then tell you our process and just share a few things and then if there is anything else that you want me to add I am happy to share.
So, about a week or two weeks before Austen passed away, I mean the kid the just full of live, an incredible athlete. I had always had as my realistic biggest fear was that my kids would grow up, they’d be gone out of the home and I’d look at my wife and say, “Where did all the time go?” And so we’ve been very involved parents. I had coached all my boys, but particularly with Austen I’ve coached, I want to say 6 or 7 season of flag football. I’ve coached his tackle football team being the head coach. All of them I coached multiple basketball teams he was on and so I just spent a lot of time with my kids but particularly with him. One, because I loved it, but two I didn’t want to regret that he would be grown and gone and wonder where was all the time. I wanted to make sure I didn’t have that regret to look back. We were driving in the car about two weeks before he passed away and just out of the blue he said, “Dad, does everyone have to serve a mission?” And I said, “No, but the prophet has asked that every worthy young man should serve a mission.” And he didn’t say anything else, just kind of paused in the deep thought. At the time I didn’t think anything of it. After he passed away I started reflecting on that and then the day he passed away it was a Saturday. We had cleaned out the garage and we loaded the truck full of stuff to donate. We had come inside and were eating pizza and I had just got a message from my oldest brother, Roger who lives in St. George and he had sent me a video of his son opening his mission call. And so while they were eating I walked into the kitchen and showed Austen and his older brother Kyler the video of their cousin Michael opening his mission call and he got called to a mission in Ohio but after he looked that I looked at both of them and said, “You know, before we know it you are both going to be serving the Lord.” I said that to him about 15 minutes before he passed away, and so the event happened and initially it didn’t seem real, it seemed like a real bad movie that you watch that you just couldn’t wait to end and be over or a bad dream where you just want to wake up from. They rushed him off to the hospital and I stayed with the police officer as he was interviewing me to find out what had happened, and Deedra was able to go with Austen in the ambulance. The police officer then took me to the hospital and I was able to be there with Deedra and Austen’s body where they informed us that he had passed on. She and I sat alone in the room with his body and I knew it wasn’t him and I really felt like he was in there with us but it still didn’t seem real. It seemed like just something that couldn’t possibly happen. We stayed in there as long as we possibly could not wanting to leave. Then we came out and sat down and then one of our really good friends in our ward, whose name is Tom Welch, he’s a nurseanecesist that works at the hospital. He came in and when he saw me, and he had heard what happened and at that point I just broke down. Just having him there was very helpful and then, I believe, John, you were there, right?
Troy: And some of other of our good friends were in the waiting room that my wife went into and just cried in there with them and then we came home. It’s something that is really hard to describe but when your world just seems like it come crashing down like that we didn’t know what to do. I mean, we just came home, my wife and I had no idea what to do. My brother and his wife came down and took our other children. We just finished putting the things away in the garage and then came in and started cleaning the house and my wife started to do laundry. As she go some of Austen’s clothes to wash them she always checks in the pockets and she pulled out a note that he had written in church the previous Sunday that said, “The worth of souls is great in the sight of God.” It was colored up and he had written it. She had never found one of his church papers in his pants before but he had folded it up and stuck it in his pants. That was like 2 or 3 in the morning. She came and showed it to me and we just hugged each other and started crying again and then that night we tried going to sleep and we couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t. Every time I closed my eyes it was like a high-definition movie of the event playing over and over and seeing my son passing away right before my eyes and I just didn’t sleep a wink that night. There was absolutely zero joy in anything. Like in our life we have tough things that we do but things that we look forward to… a good meal… watching TV… resting… taking a nap. For about 2 months for me there was absolutely no joy in anything. I would go to work, I would play with the kids, I would take the boys to shoot baskets. I would try to do things for them but there was absolutely no joy at all. So that was a different thing to try and experience. Then what was hard was I would find myself actually enjoying an activity and then I’d feel guilty, like I shouldn’t be feeling any joy and so that was kind of a tough transition to go through. But something that really helped us… we had a brand new bishop that the ward had just been split and our bishop he’s just would come over everyday after work and just hangout with us and didn’t really have anything to say, he would just see how we were doing and just sit there and just hang out with our family. That was neat because it showed the love and care that he had for us. He knew there wasn’t anything he could say or do that would just take away our pain. The ward bringing over meals, text messages, Facebook messages, emails, someone had created a Facebook page for my son that people would write notes on or when we found something we would put that on and that actually was pretty good therapy for us. It gave me something to do to look forward to people responding to it. It’s really interesting, I learned that there was some people that stayed away and didn’t contact us and later they told us they wanted to give us space and that is probably what I would have done with someone who had gone through this, just say, “Hey, I’m going to give them their space.” In our situation that would have absolutely been the wrong thing to do. The hardest times were the times we were just alone and all the people dropping buy the little gifts the notes. At Austen’s funeral I describe it as if a big house had fallen on top of us and there was no way we could get it off. But slowly and surely we see this house being lifted up and we realized it is not being lifted up by us, but it is being lifted up by all our friends and family and even strangers that just the acts of kindness that they just keep showing us is just slowly helping us lift this house off of us.
Troy (cont’): About two or three days after Austen passed away I was alone in the bathroom and I just couldn’t take the pain anymore. I cried out to Heavenly Father saying, I just can’t, I’m tapping out, I’m done. The pain is more than I can bear. Right then I felt him say to me that he could take away the pain but he would also have to take away the 8, 9 years we had with Austen or I could keep the 8 or 9 years I had with Austen but I would have to endure this pain. At that moment my perception completely changed I still had the pain and it was still difficult but for those 8 or 9 years I could have taken more pain and endured more for the great blessing for having him in our life and knowing that we would be with him again. But we also had a lot of neat spiritual experiences like that. His school teacher called us said that she never changes her pattern of what her plan is and on the Monday after Austen died they were supposed to write their biography poem, but she said it was late on the last day of school and out of the blue she decided to change and have her kids write their biography poem right then. After Austen passed away she presented it to us and said, “Who is the one person you would like to meet most?” and Austen put that he would like to meet God most. “What’s the one place you would like to see most, or go visit most?” And Austen put heaven. I think the Lord had a lot of tender mercies like that to let us know that this was his appointed time and that He is still in control of everything. But we had a lot of little experiences like that that really helped us. I hope I am not talking too much.
LS: No, I appreciate you telling the story and bringing more context to it. You know, you mentioned the interaction you had with members of the ward, neighbors, whomever it is. I don’t know if we would blame this on our culture, on society, but I think when we see another family somebody else have a tragedy, you know, if they are really close, a brother, a sister, a cousin, we sort of feel we have a role to be there for them, but if they are not too emotionally close we feel like I am just going to give them some space, give them some time to process this. I don’t want to bother them, they are going through so much, I don’t want to say the wrong thing, But like you said, your bishop who… it isn’t that he came over and said just the right words, or brought just the right scripture to read but he was just there, hanging out. Maybe you talk about Austen, maybe you wouldn’t, but just knowing that people were there. I love how you articulated it and shared of that experience. That’s helpful for me. I’ll definitely think twice before I give people space. Hopefully I don’t overwhelm them but that is always the fear.
Troy: I’ll tell you, even though the gifts or messages or the encouragement or the visiting, it definitely wouldn’t fix things or make things better. It’s a nice distraction, and it kind of helps us feel like we are not going through it alone. That isn’t just us. In Mosiah it talks about bearing one another’s burdens and that is exactly what it did. We were able to live that description. Our neighbors, our ward, our friends, home teachers, just amazing fulfilling that part of the scriptures and helping us with our burdens.
That’s helpful, I am glad you shared that. I appreciate that.
LS: John, let’s talk to you a little bit and your perspective in this story. YOu were one of those people that didn’t give too much space was there as a friend and a home teacher. Now you have to live up to Elder Holland’s title of Home Teacher Extraordinaire that he mentioned and there is no pressure there, right?
LS: Obviously I would imagine, and correct me if I am wrong, but I would imagine that when incident happened, this tragedy you didn’t look at your home teaching list and say, “Oh my goodness, I’m his home teacher, I need to go do something.” I would imagine there was some history that led up to this. HOw would you describe your relationship with the Russell family as far as home teaching goes? How did you build that trust so that when this did happen you were there to be a trusted friend?
John: Well, I think we were already trusted friends. I don’t think I was called to be his home teacher until maybe the month before, it hadn’t been formally called for a pretty short time. I had known Troy since he moved in. We had been in the same ward, the same quorum and had gone to a lot of parties together, that kind of stuff that you do when you are active. We had a relationship there. You really could write a book about all this stuff. Right around the event and the stuff right after that just showed where the Lord was involved and the healing and care of this family and all the families around.
But as far as my relationship with Troy as his home teacher, I never did think of it like that much. I am not a good home teacher, I am good friend. I am not a great traditional home teacher, but you know, I think about the Russell family, we pray for them, we make contact with them every Sunday and then when we have young men and they are able to come to scouts. What was the original question?
LS: I think you have answered it, what was your relationship as a home teacher leading up to this moment. Like you said, you were just assigned, or called as the home teacher just a month prior to that, but nonetheless there was a friendship established and you were in the same quorum and you would have called yourself friends even before this had happened. Yeah, to me that is the key with any kind of watching over, just being friends and looking out for each other.
Yeah, so tell me about these basketball mornings. I’m one that really appreciates, I love playing basketball, church-ball. To me it’s great exercise, fun exercise. Is this something that has been going on in the mornings for quite sometime?
John: Yeah, we’ve had this game going for 12 years, something like that. 15 years for me, and then we moved and moved the game out here. We’ve had a lot of turnover of guys. You know we play at 5:30 in the morning.
LS: Wow, yeah, that would lead to some turnover.
John: We’re dedicated and we’ve actually had 5 key guys that have been going the whole time and so over that long time you just develop friendships.
LS: And Troy, both you and John had been going to this basketball prior to the death of your son.
Troy: I had been going for about 6 or 7 years maybe and I have 3 boys, all really good basketball players and it was a bond I would have with the boys. A lot of times I would take them down to the rec center or the church and just work on shooting or drills with them and so basketball is always a tight bond. But what I was saying earlier, after Austen passed away there was no joy in any activity. I didn’t look forward to doing anything, at the same token, I didn’t look forward to doing nothing. Even sitting and doing nothing wasn’t good, so I stopped going to early morning basketball. It was probably 2 weeks after maybe? John finally said, “Hey, I’m going to come pick you up for basketball.” But I still didn’t want to go and he said, “No, you need to go.” And when I went they had purchased these jerseys because everyone brings a jersey just so you are light or dark color, but everyone has their own random jerseys. They had made special jerseys that had Austen’s little logo that someone had made for him, “AR3” with a star in the background and on the back they had all put the number 3 which is Austen’s number and so I came that morning and they everyone was wearing jerseys and they had a jersey for me. They had gotten a few extra to give to my kids. So we played basketball it was still tough to do, but it felt good to be doing something again. I still didn’t really enjoy doing any activity so John at that point on started picking me up every morning we played. Even the mornings that I didn’t feel like getting out of bed I knew he was coming and it helped me get up. What helped me the most was just our talking in the car, the drive down and the drive back and a lot of mornings we would stop in front of my house and continue talking and just like this interview most of it was me talking and John just listening.
Troy: It was just really helpful to talk. It’s really interesting, his wife is actually a counselor and so for grief counseling my wife was actually seeing his wife and I think I went a couple times but I hadn’t really… for me I didn’t get anything out of the grief counselor, but for my wife it really help. But really helped me was just talking with John to and from our drives to basketball which we still do. He still picks me up everytime and it has been over a year now.
LS: John, tell us where were you, what do you remember when you first heard of Austen’s passing.
John: Yeah, that’s a story. I don’t think I have ever told Troy. It was a good little testimony building for me. My wife and I were sitting around watching TV in our bedroom, just taking it easy. It was around 3pm in the afternoon and we heard some sirens. My wife is a homebody, and I mean that in the best way. She all of the sudden said, we need to go see what’s going on. She would never chase down something like that so we immediately got up, drove around the corner. We are just two street away from Troy. We pulled up to the house just as the ambulance was leaving and then we were able to follow the ambulance and be at the hospital. And then my wife was able to use her skills to help with the situation. But it was just a testimony builder for me that she had that inspiration that she needed to get active right then and go do something.
LS: Wow, and so what transpired between, I would imagine that you attended Austen’s funeral and were there as support, so what happened between the funeral and then you calling Troy up and encouraging him to keep coming to basketball?
John: I probably gave Troy more space than I should have. To get to Troy’s I have to pass two of his business partners and a couple other people that they vacation with and are really close friends and so I came a few times and it had always seemed, not crowded, but it seemed like there was always someone here watching out over them or hanging out with them. So I tried to not make things more crowded, I probably should have.
Troy: That’s what I would have done too.
John: So, I tried to fill any gaps that I saw and then pray for them and do where I could.
LS: When I heard Troy tell the story of you calling him and encouraging him to come, did you feel like you were being… was it an interaction that seemed a little awkward? Like, “NO, YOU ARE GOING TO COME!” Was there that sense of just backing off and thinking he needs more space? What was that inspiration that really encouraged to push him to come?
John: You know, we were sitting with a friend of mine, we were just talking about the situation and just said, it’s time. This is something we can do and something he will like and it’s a good group of guys that have a long history. There had been a lot of people that had had been to the funeral and participated on Facebook, that kind of thing, that hadn’t taken the chance to see Troy up close and let him know their love for him and so, I don’t know, it was just a bunch of guys that were worried about a friend and wanted to get him back to some kind of normal, if there is such a word for that.
LS: Did the idea of the jerseys organically come up?
John: Everyone was just brainstorming things we could do to help and honor Troy and honor Austen and so, yeah,that was just one of the things one of the guys took on his shoulders.
LS: And so when you invited Troy to come back to play basketball, was that some of the motivation to encourage him a little extra? Does that play into it?
John: No, we surprised him with it when we got there.
Troy: Yeah, I had no idea until I got there.
I want to add something. The incredible support we got from the school, the neighborhood, our friends, the ward, I mean, it was just incredible. Austen’s school had a ceremony for us where he read his biography poem, they planted a tree for him, they put a memorial for him there. I guess he told his kindergarten teacher that his name was Austen with a TEN spelled t-e-n at the end because he was a perfect 10. I had never even heard that story before so that still stands there. We had, I don’t even know who did it, but our washer and dryer, one of them had broken and so, I don’t know who it was, but a bunch of people came over and installed new washers and dryers for us. I talked previously about the Facebook page that was created. I think we had meals brought to us for 4 or 5 or 6 months every night. It was an extended period of time. They put in a new sink, I mean anything that our house needed that they could do for us they did and just little by little, just the love and support that we felt from everyone kind of let us know we weren’t going through this alone. i think there is a lot of people that loved us, loved Austen, knew our family that were hurting, probably not as much as we were but were hurting as well. Just all that together, that support was just incredible. Deedra talked about it one night. The worst times when was when it was just us, nobody else around and that is when we just… the pain seemed to intensify. Not because we were with each other but because we didn’t have the distractions around. I just don’t think we could have made it if every single person says we are going to give them their space and let them heal on their own. I don’t know if we could have done it.
LS: That’s inspiring! I am glad you mentioned all the community that came together and that is wasn’t just tied around the church. I think the first way we came in contact was through that Facebook page. Is that something people should follow that you are going to continue honoring Austen’s memory through that resource?
Troy: You know, at first it was extremely therapeutic because I would probably check that facebook page maybe 50 times a day to see if anyone posted anything about Austen, people posting pictures and then when something would happen that I would want to share I would post it on there. It was extremely therapeutic for me to read what people put or allow me to write or share some of my feelings. I haven’t posted very much on it lately but I think about it quite a bit of things I want to post. You know, just little things that I read. One interesting one was Austen number was 3, the boys picked it because they liked it Kyle Van Noy who played for BYU, he’s number 3 and Tyler Haws for basketball was number 3. And when they decided to pick that number all three of them, it fit because we have 3 boys, the three brothers. So from that point on any sport they played they always tried to get number 3 and so when after Austen passed away his tackle football team would hold up the three fingers so people would take pictures with the three fingers up in honor of Austen and one day as I was studying the scriptures and reading some commentary out of the blue it talked about the significance of the number 3. It talked about there’s 3 in the Godhead, the 3 degrees of glory, that Christ suffered in the Garden of Gethsemane for about 3 hours, He suffered for 3 hours on the cross, there were 3 that were crucified. Then it also talked about He rose on the 3rd day. It just went over the significance of the number 3. That was pretty incredible to me that here this little guy had picked the number 3 to be his number and I came across that so just a lot of little things like that.
I do want to share one other thing I’m thinking about that really significantly helped our family.
LS: Please do.
Troy: My wife, about a week and a day after Austen had passed away she was going through some of his stuff and it just hit her where she was just uncontrollable crying and having a hard time breathing and it looked like she was having a panic attack and there was nothing I could do to console her. So we have some good friends that live a few houses up that lost a child that died at birth the day that child was born. I called her and she came over and spent a few hours with Deedra until she was finally able to calm down and so from that moment on I was praying as passionately and as fervently and as strongly as I could that Deedra would either see Austen or feel his presence. Something that would give her more comfort and help her. So every time I pray I would pray for that. About four days later we came home from Deseret Book and my sister was here staying at the house and just to kind of be with us.
She said as she walked in, she said, “Did you just hear what Maddie said?”
Maddie was our three year old, she turned three three days before Austen died. And I said, “No.”
And she said, “Say it again.”
And she’s playing with her Barbie doll, she’s brushing her Barbie’s hair. And she said, “I saw a ghost last night.”
And we said, “You saw a ghost?”
She said, “Yeah.”
We said, “What did it look like?”
She said, “All white.”
And she kept playing with her doll and I said, “Do you know who the ghost was?”
She says, “Yeah.”
She kept playing with her doll and I said, “Who was the ghost?”
And she turned and looked at me and she goes, “It was big Austen.”
I said, “It was big Austen?”
She goes, “Yeah.”
I said, “Your big brother?”
She said, “Yeah, it was Austen.”
And she keeps playing with her doll like it is no big deal and we are like… “You saw Austen?”
And she said, “In your room.”
I asked her, “When did you see him?”
And she goes, “Last night.”
And I said, “where were we?”
She says, “You were asleep.”
And so, every single night we put her to bed in her room but she comes into our room at some point in the middle of the night. 1, 2, 3 in the morning. So she apparently came into our bed, got between me and my wife and Austen had appeared to her above our bed where our feet go, that is where she pointed. She said that he didn’t say anything he just looked at her and put his finger over his lips like, quieting her. I’m assuming saying, “Don’t wake mom and dad up.” She said he stayed there until she went back to sleep and then he was by himself. But she kept calling him “Big Austen” so I was a little confused by that and so we have a big picture on our wall of a recent family picture and I was holding her and I pointed to the picture of Austen and I said, “Was he big like that?”
And she pointed to me and said, “No he was big like daddy.”
In the corner of that wall we have a picture of Christ holding a little child’s hand but Christ is wearing a white robe. And earlier she kept saying he was wearing a white dress. She lunged down and she pointed to the picture of Christ and said, “he was wearing a dress like that.”
You know that really gave confirmation to me that the Lord had answered our prayer and how symbolic to us that he was right above us. That he appeared to our 3 year-old and to let us know that he is fine and maybe he is watching over us to some degree but that he’s fine and will be OK. One last part of that story, about 2 weeks later she was playing this Christmas match game on our iPad and one of the matches is an angel and the angel has big wings and so an angel popped up and I said, “Oh, does Austen have big wings like that?” And she looked at me like I was stupid and said, “No!”
And that was a really neat tender mercy that really helped our whole family. Especially my wife to know that Austen is fine and he is doing well and we will see him again and be with im and this is just a life experience for us to go through and we still miss him, we still cry at times, we hurt when he is not with us but we know that this is our life experience and it’s OK to be sad. It’s OK to miss him and hopefully we continue to use that as reminder and strengthening our desire to live the way our Savior would have us live and strive to be that eternal family and use our story anyway we can and try to bless the lives of other people that may be going through their own trials.
LS: Troy, when we talked a few weeks ago you mentioned the power that Conference talks were to you during this time. You just couldn’t find joy in life, in any measure. Maybe tell us about that role that Conference talks had and that sort of leads into how this story became part of a Conference talks.
Troy: As I mentioned a lot of times there was no joy in anything, especially TV, movies. They wouldn’t even cross my mind to sit down and watch any TV or movies. So I started listening to Conference talks but I went back to the very oldest one on the LDS app which I think started in 1971. I just started listening to every Conference talk and there were some incredible messages that I heard that felt like they were just talking to me but I just kept listening to all of them. I would read my scriptures, I’d listen to BYU talks and there were a lot of things that helped me but two particular talks that I listened to that I listened to numerous times that really stood out to me were both by Elder Holland. One was The Lessons Learned at Liberty Jail, which he spoke at BYU devotional. And in that he talks about in the worst of circumstances where Joseph Smith received one of the greatest revelations and he was talking about no matter what our circumstances we can be at the worst situation it can be that moment when we receive our greatest inspiration our greatest communication from the Lord and that is exactly what happened in my case. I’ve been to the temple numerous times and had great spiritual experiences but nothing like the love and comfort I got from our Heavenly Father through this experience. Nothing like that peaceful feeling I felt when Austen appeared to our little 3 year-old Maddie and she told us about it. So that talk had a really special impact on me and then another one that he gave was Remembering Lot’s Wife. It was another BYU talk and in that one he talks about we don’t know why Lot’s wife turned back when the Lord told them not to look back and when she did she was turned into a pillar of salt. He says in this talk that maybe she didn’t trust the Lord that he had better things ahead than what she was leaving behind and as I listened to that talk it really helped me think that even though losing my son is an unbelievable difficult thing to do, I have to have faith and belief that better things are in the future. Whether that is in the next life or whether that is in this life, hopefully both. But I can enjoy the memories of my son and remember them and be happy about it and grateful for it. But I can’t just dwell on the past and think that great things are not in store for us. That’s really how I’ve tried to look at this. Being a chiropractor I get to speak to a lot of patients but anyone that brings up my son I am happy to talk to them about it and I just have to believe that the future holds more ahead, just trust in the Lord. Good things are to come. So those two particular talks really had a huge impact on me and just the love I have for Elder Holland and who he is and what he has done with me without him even knowing just really close to my heart. And then as a ward mission leader they told me that one ward mission leader from our stake gets to meet with Elder Holland and they asked me if I would like to go do that and I was like, “Absolutely!” Here’s a guy that helped me more than he’ll ever know and so I was able to sit at a high council table with him and about 20 other people, just sitting about 3 chairs away from him, kiddie corner to him and I just wanted to keep bursting out in tears and not anything of what he said, but just the gratitude for what that man had done for me and to help me. And so as he was listening to everyone give their input on missionary work he brought up home teaching. He shared the story he shared in conference about the lady who had flooding in her house and home teachers came and she thought, “Great, they can help!” and they said, “This is obviously a bad time for you and they left.” And he talked about how that is not the point of home teaching. He asked if anybody has an example of home teaching that they would like to share and I raised my hand and I told him about John and I said, “I’ve had some great home teachers in the past but none of them have ever done anything close to what John has done for me.” And I said, “I can’t think of a lesson or anything, just being there picking me up and taking me to basketball and listening to me talk. He helped me more than any home teaching lesson ever could.” And he looked at me and said, “That’s exactly the message the Church needs to hear.” He said, “I’d like to have your phone number.” He called me a little while later and it was a neat conversation with one of the 12 Apostles calling me. The only thing I would remember about that conversation is that he told me he loved me about 8 times. It wasn’t just the words it was the feeling I had of how much he loved me and he asked if I would put my story in an email to him and and I sent it to him and then he sent it back with a copy of that portion of his talk and if I would approve it and I sent it over to John and asked John if it would be OK.
LS: Doesn’t he criticize your jump-shot, John? This is your chance to defend it.
John: Yeah, my family certainly latched on to that.
Troy: I was actually going to have him take that part out and John said, “No, no, leave it it.”
LS: And it’s perfect Elder Holland humor. He delivered it great.
Troy: Yeah, and Elder Holland had a good point, he said, “It’s going to be a touchy subject and it is nice to add a little humor in there.” That’s kind of how that came up.
But I still didn’t know if he was going to use it so I didn’t tell anybody but John and was sitting there watching Conference with my boys and when he started telling the story it was rough listening to and brought tears to my eyes, but as I said, if our story can help anyone else get through a tough time I’d love to have them hear it.
LS: I appreciate hearing that background. It’s tender to hear how our leaders love us and how they show that.
I’m not sure the best way to end this conversation but to me I feel like I am sitting here listening to a podcast and I forget I’m the one actually hosting it. But I appreciate you being so detailed and sharing so much of a personal story.
In closing, John, the thing I love about the story, and from hearing from you personally is that there’s no mention of, “Well, what happened is that I visited them for 12 months straight once a month and that is the secret. It really came back to the love and how you were his friend and you were his friend before you were called as his home teacher which made it easier to be his friend during the time as his home teacher and during the tragic time. Any testimony or thought you want to share in regards to how you try and serve as a disciple of Jesus Christ.
John: Well, there’s a lot to that, I guess. I think it’s about people. The one thing I know in my life more than anything else is that God loves me. I teach my priests that about every week. God loves me as an individual and he sees me and so the people in my life, my home teaching families, I try to see them. I don’t necessarily get over there every month but I do have them in my thoughts and I try and give what I can and so to me serving other people is what helped bring me closer to Christ more than anything else. I’ve read the scriptures a lot in my 47 years. Way more than that I get out of the personal interactions with people and conversations. So I just, I don’t know, to me it comes down to being friends and helping people where you see you can help. In this case I was able to do something that felt pretty natural and I’m getting all this credit for it, but really there are 20 guys that should be getting this credit too. It’s just a naturally outpouring of being friends with people.
LS: Troy, maybe as your closing remarks here… what would you say to that parent maybe listening has going through their own tragedy, obviously you can relate to them and you have already articulated that already, but anything you would say to those as far as your testimony goes and just get through this through the Grace of Jesus Christ.
Troy: I would say to a parent that lost a child is realize that our Heavenly Father loves all of us and that child was Heavenly Father’s before it was ours. It’s a gift from Heavenly Father. It’s through these very trials that we have that are what help us become more like our Savior if we get through them well. I don’t think life was meant to be easy and I don’t think we learn and grow through the easy times. Any event that we have in our life that is tough, if we just get through it well we learn more compassion, we learn more love and as we do that I believe we start to become more like our Savior. One other thing that John said that really helped me is even to this day I look for any opportunity I can to serve and help people and I think the exact opposite is people that go through tough times just feeling sorry for themselves and not doing anything which I think is a natural part of recovery for some people. Anyone that is going through this, if they can just use this as an experience to try to grow closer to our Savior and try to serve and help other people. I know I am talking a lot, but one other thing I need to say about John is, I can tell I have a great home teacher when my family needs anything if he is the one I turn to and that is exactly what our family does if we need any blessings, or if we need help with anything, I call him and he is right there willing to do it. I can’t say that about other home teachers I have had in the past. For me the signs of a good home teacher is someone that you know cares about you, loves your family, and that they really want to serve your family, not that they want to serve themselves by getting their home teaching done.