Family tragedy leads to a journey of faith

Gavin Ward

Death struck suddenly as it often does. It slammed squarely and viciously into the Ward family — part of the United Local family — on Aug. 3, 2009.

The loss of a child is always the very worst of losses. It came the day after her husband Mike’s birthday as Denise Ward recounts in her just-released book, “Defining Moments — My Journey Back to God.”

Mike is a longtime area football coach. He and his wife are longtime educators within the United Local district. That summer Mike was helping with the Golden Eagle seventh-graders. Including his 12-year-old son, Gavin. An opportunity to teach and mold your own son is every coach’s fondest wish. But it was not to be.

It had been very hot that week in August. Practice was scheduled for the evening. Throughout his short life Gavin struggled with allergies and asthma. His parents dutifully made certain their boy was always hydrated. Just before leaving for practice, Denise handed Gavin a gallon jug of water she had frozen for him. He came back up to her on the steps threshold in the garage. Smiling widely, he gave her a hug. The really big kind that bears give.

“He always gave the greatest hugs,” she remembered.

That was the last time she would hold her son. A tender moment that became a lasting, precious part of her heart and very soul.

Gavin’s asthmatic condition was not considered exercise-induced. He could experience an episode while sitting on the couch and watching TV. There had been trips to the emergency room during his lifetime. Though there was never a need for an ambulance. But this time there would be no return trip home. This attack would become a “perfect storm” of conditions as the Ward’s family doctor would later call it.

During practice Gavin drank water and used his inhaler. But his airways would not open enough to provide relief. After practice, Mike decided to get Gavin to the emergency room at Salem Community Hospital. A portable nebulizer was in the car. Before Mike could pull out of the United Local Schools parking lot, Gavin was in distress. His eyes rolled back and he slumped in the seat — gone before his dad could stop the car.

Despite all of the resuscitation efforts: by his dad, by two Samaritans, one of whom was a nurse, who were in the parking lot that fateful moment; by the EMTs and by the hospital staff, Gavin was gone. The so-very-likable boy with the biggest of smiles and hugs was gone.

In her book which is an inspiring read, Denise recalled having to tell her 8-year-old daughter Rhys that her adored big brother was dead. She recalled Mike’s lips swollen, cut and bruised for days after — damaged trying to revive his son who wore braces. How heavy must be the burden for a father whose son died in his arms?

Denise recalled donating Gavin’s corneas and the skin from his back for burn patients. Donated too were his leg and arm bones and connective tissues. She remembered the United Local community — what would become the Ward’s extended family — rallying and providing so much support. She recalled virtually being suspended in sheer, numbing shock. “My beautiful baby boy was gone forever,” she wrote in “Damaged Soul,” an aptly-named chapter in her book.

“I had just told my husband the week before Gavin died how much I love my life. I had two incredible kids, a fabulous husband, a beautiful home, and a fulfilling job. What else was there?”

Then Aug. 3, 2009 struck.

“I didn’t think I would ever be able to say that I loved my life. How could I? Part of my life is gone, leaving my soul permanently damaged and scarred,” she wrote.

But Gavin’s death forced her to do some deep searching of what remained of her soul. Denise admitted to being someone who had rejected God and was a “self-proclaimed agnostic” — a move that spread over years.

Through inner searching and with the ministry of a friend, Andrea Groubert, the barriers began to crumble. She was reaching out to God. And He has reached back and is still doing so.

“My return to Him happened in a few short weeks,” she wrote. “I just couldn’t ignore Him anymore. As I struggled to climb out of the ruins of my life, it was clearly evident that I could no longer do it by myself, nor could I pretend He didn’t exist.”

The tragedy of Gavin’s death led her back to God. And although answers come much slower than the tears and anguish, today she stands steadfast in her beliefs.

“It compelled me to examine my life and what I wanted it to mean.”

She did and continues to do as the tenth anniversary of Gavin’s death approaches rapidly. Part of the rebirth is her book. She exposed her innermost feelings: her defining moments and, yes, her steps taken back to God.

“The book is not entirely about Gavin,” she said. “I was forced to do a lot of reflection. It was difficult for me to let it (the book) go. It was a couple of months before giving the go-ahead. It made me feel vulnerable.”

As detailed in her book, she stresses a need for others to engage in self-reflection even though at times it is not easy. What you discover may not be want you want to know. But there has to be acceptance and reconciliation.

“There are things that can’t be changed,” she said. “You can’t beat yourself up over it. You have to let it go. Leave it up to God.”

She also feels that we all have a story — sufferings that are carried around day after day. Often quietly, unknown to others.

“We never know what burdens people carry every day. Treat others with kindness because we don’t know what other people are dealing with.”

Denise – who overcame breast cancer and had, ironically, reached her five-year survival goal almost to the week when her son died — remains overwhelmed and humbled by the response of the United community.

A book signing will be held from 6-8 p.m. Thursday at the United Local High School Library where Denise is a librarian. For 20 years she taught Spanish and honors English. The book is self-published through Christian Faith Publishing. It had to be accepted and meet standards. “Defining Moments — My Journey Back to God” is available through Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Pre-orders may be made through family friend Jenny Swords at or by calling 330-429-4161.

List price is $12.95 but the asking price is $15 to provide funds for a scholarship. In 2015, Gavin’s classmates gave $15,000 in scholarship money when they graduated.

Jenny and Denise became very special friends through Gavin’s death. Jenny’s son J.D. was Gavin’s good buddy. Their daughters, Rhys Ward and Loren Swords, will be presenters of the scholarship during an awards ceremony this spring.

“We are more like family now than friends,” Jenny said. “We share holidays and vacations.”

Denise began writing about three months after her son’s death.

“It was never meant to be a book,” she confides. “It was an outgrowth, very cathartic. I never thought I’d write a book. I would think of something, write it on a slip of paper and shove it into a notebook.”

Those slips of paper — expressions of her deepest thoughts — became a book through encouragement from others including Michelle Huffman of Salem. She lost her son, Dustin, tragically in a fall and wrote “Huffman Legend — Miss Me but Let Me Go.”

“I connected with her,” Denise said. “We share similar griefs and bonds. She encouraged me to finish the book and get it out. My co-workers proofed it.”

Despite being uncomfortable with attention brought by the book Denise feels it can provide compassion for those inflicted with their own torments while providing scholarship assistance.

“I’m overwhelmed with the community response and those wanting to buy the book,” she said.

Denise said it certainly doesn’t seem like it has been ten years ago since the death of her son. Tragedy is like that — always lurking, always trying to pick at emotional scabbing. It can be unrelenting.

“I asked why when it happened,” she said. “But I quit asking why because I don’t know and I’ll never know until I die. Gavin was very faithful. I have always told people that if God said to him at that moment that he had two choices: to lay there and go with Him with the promise your mom, dad and sister would be OK or go back he would’ve went with God.”

So a whole decade later, Denise continues her journey back.

“So my question is did God keep Gavin with Him knowing that losing my son would bring me back to Him?” she wrote.

“I have not voiced this until now,” she confided. “But is it really out of the scope of possibilities?”

It surely does seem that from her young son’s death came a mother’s spiritual birth.