by Nancy Kerry
~ For Dustin
“Okay, I’m going to call it,” I heard the doctor begin to say… looking at all of us surrounding Dustin there in the trauma center. His best friends, his family, all of us, holding onto him. “No!” I pleaded with the doctor as if my pleading could change anything … “Please don’t say it, please don’t, please….” as the doctor called the time of death early in the afternoon on the same day my father had died 15 years before, my son was declared to be, no longer living.
At 34, he was still the most gorgeous hunk of a boy ok, admittedly, a man by then. But to his mom, he was everything. Blue eyes as deep as the ocean he loved so much. His body tanned golden brown from a life spent in the ocean, mostly along the San Diego coast surfing every wave he could find. His kindness was remarkable, beyond compare of many. And, although I’m a biased mom of course, he was known for being the most kind-hearted, generous, giving, and caring soul you would ever know.
Dustin was “that guy.” You know, he had a smile that literally lit up the space around him; he could make you laugh so hard, your belly hurt. When he laughed, you laughed, you just could not help yourself. He remembered everyone’s name, that was important to him. He looked you in the eyes, he listened, he shared his heart, his passions, and you wanted to be around him. You couldn’t wait to hang out with Dustin, and you’d leave your time with him feeling fulfilled, laughing, and loved. He was everyone’s “best friend” because he loved everyone he met.
This video of outtakes of Dustin and his friends from their filming in Asia, is as funny as it is poignant, happy, as it is sad, and shows him as playful as much as he was thoughtful, as goofy as much as he was a leader among others. That is soooo Dustin.
He was extremely compassionate from the time he was a little boy. As a first-grader, his teacher called me into the office to show me how Dustin had erased all of this correct spelling answers because his best friend didn’t have the correct answers and he didn’t want to have a better grade than his bestie. When he was about 10 years old or so, he found people were living in a nearby water gully under a bridge. I came home to find him making an entire loaf of bread into sandwiches and although he did eat a lot, that looked a little unusual. Upon asking, he said he was taking sandwiches to those folks under the bridge, “Mom,” he said, “we have to do something! People are suffering! “And off he went to bring them food.
And so began an entire life in service to others, until his last breath.
✴ ✴ ✴
Dustin looked for those suffering and those in need. My shelves were often empty of food he’d given to someone. Before long, his bedroom was home to a friend or two. By the time he was a teen, feeding homeless folks in San Diego was a full-time passion; he loved to help out at one mission or another. He became involved with a very active young folks ministry group at church and these kids were often in Mexico building houses or handing out supplies, looking for teens in need, kids needing love, any way he could to show others kindness and love.
In his youthful, “I can save the world,” belief, he and one of his friends started their own non-profit and began raising money to do exactly that, bring more love and kindness to the world. And you know what? They did. Dustin and a friend decided they were going to “backpack through Asia” and bring joy to others in whatever way through could. Honestly, they had no idea what they were doing, no specific plan, but they just got a plane had a round trip ticket and, did it. But, that’s not exactly what happened.
During that trip, Dustin and his friend stumbled across a large number of orphanages in Thailand. The parents of these children had lived in Burma (now Myanmar), which was under a controlled regime and suffering the longest running civil war in the world. The parents, hoping for a better life for their kids, smuggled them into safe territory in Thailand. These parents literally gave their children to others, in the HOPE they would find a better life. The children deeply affected Dustin, he wanted to help them.
Dustin decided he wanted to tell their story of sacrifice and of their hope. So, with passion and purpose, and zero skills in this area, they came back home, got others excited about the idea, bought some filming equipment and off they went… Dustin and friends went back and filmed an amazing story – no experience, no skills, no training? No problem, they had passion, and they had Dustin’s “we can do this, bros” leadership propelling them forward. Believing in his purpose, they finished their film.
That’s Dustin. A hopeful, compassionate, lovely, generous, kind, and tender-hearted, soul.
It is also Dustin who came to a place so sad, he himself lost all hope and died by suicide on that beautiful spring day in 2013. I often ask myself how can we, as a society, can do more to protect those who struggle with self-doubt so they don’t slip down a path to a point of no-return.
How can we help?
Honestly, I think it is love. To show more love, less judgment, in fact, less everything else. Within love is compassion, empathy, understanding, but the greatest of these…. Right? Is love.
Looking back there were “lots of signs,” but at the time, we didn’t see things the way we do now. I believed he knew how loved he was then (and still is today). I thought he understood how rich in love he was – he had so many friends! He surfed all the time, he lived for the beach and sun. He played the drums so well. He had many opportunities in life in which he excelled. And, as much as Dustin loved others, he was deeply loved in return. Hundreds of people were friends with Dustin. And yet, he believed we’d be “better off,” without him here.
He was wrong. Very, wrong.
People often ask me, “did you know,” “did you see this coming? My answer is always the same: before he died, I would have told you. “I am afraid for Dustin; I am worried about him.” Yet afterwards, I can tell you, without question, “no, I did not think the bright, silly, funny, gregarious, bigger-than-life, compassionate, humble, soul was actually considering the absolute end of his life. No. I did not believe that as a factual possibility.” I would have done anything to save him, if I could.
He was sad about the usual things at times: broken relationships, careers and jobs, life’s expectations, and disappointment in his mid-30s expecting more of life and himself. I didn’t think he was seriously suffering to the extent he was, obviously.
That said, though, he and I were close. We talked nearly every single day. When he was excited about a new opportunity, I jumped for joy with him and when he suffered a broken heart, so did I, like most parents. We would talk about how life is like the ocean: it ebbs and flows. With it, the sun rises and brightens the day and as it sets, it fills the horizon with a vibrancy of color delighting our senses until it quickly ushers in the night sky.
This is life as I see it: the ebb and flow of life, so much like the ocean. We must hold on in the rough seas and let the sail out when the time is right. Adjusting the sails is a constant work in progress because nothing ever stays the same, thankfully.
Dustin’s death has taught me a few things to share:
Gratitude. I am so very grateful that I spoke with Dustin, openly and honestly, without judgement about his thoughts. Beginning several years before he died, we talked about life a lot, about the disappointments that all of us go through. In the last year or so, we eventually discussed his thoughts of suicide. I had learned to allow him to talk about it, without judgment. I was afraid inside, and fearful, “Could he really be thinking this?” and then talked myself out of expressing that warning. However, I am grateful we talked about how important he was to all of us, how much we loved him, how profoundly he changed the world around him, how much of a difference he made in life. Had I not been open to talking with him about the truth of his thoughts, I may not be at peace today. Of course, I wish I knew then what I know now, that he was seriously considering suicide. It’s one of the reasons I am writing -- I hope his life, his words, his spirit and the loss of him, can teach all of us something. I remain, so deeply grateful for knowing more of his heart and soul through all our talks during his lifetime. Thank you, Dustin.
Confidence in life’s journey. I have 100% confidence that today’s feelings, today’s disappointment, today’s uncertainties, today’s crazy times, will pass. How? Because nothing stays the same, thankfully. We always recover, as long as we keep moving forward.
Loving deeply may hurt. We probably all know that; but let’s not let it stop us from loving. I don’t know anyone who has never suffered a crushing heart break. We grieve deeply because we love deeply. We grieve, because we love. I’d rather grieve, than never love. We all love Dustin so much that we still grieve deeply. His friends tell me, “not a day goes by I don’t miss his presence,” me too. I ache for him, each and every day and sometimes, it’s deeply palpable. Without question, I’d rather feel that, than to not have loved him.
Reset your expectations. “The difference between expectation and reality is the valley of disappointment where all the tears are shed,” –me. So, expect some disappointment. Teach our children, disappointments happen. There will be joys to soak in and celebrate. Dwell on those great times of life, and let the disappointments fade. Instead, we tend to dwell on the disappointments and give them too much time in our head.
Hope isn’t an emotion; it is an action to be embraced and practiced. It is hope in a better life that pushed me to leave a traumatic childhood behind and race full speed ahead to make a journey different than the one laid out for me. It is hope in the purpose of life from which I’ve pulled myself up from the depths of sorrow (thanks in great part to all my friends). It is hope and all its glorious power from which I stood at the side of my son as he lay dying and asked the doctor, “can his body be used to save others?” The doctor’s quick reply “yes,” was the hope I needed to bring goodness from such a dark moment. And, from that, the families of six men were notified they were going to get their much needed, life-saving organ donation. That’s exactly what Dustin would have wanted, and I am sure, without question, he knew somewhere in his journey, that’s exactly what we’d do to honor his life. He wanted so much to save others, and … he did.
Dustin, in his movie, quoting Anne Frank said, “where there is hope, there is life.” And when he lost all hope, he lost his life. I say to you, hold onto hope. It is a real thing. Take action to breathe hope into others, breathe hope into yourself, believe in it, for hope, is life.
This article, this story, is not what I wanted for my son, of course. I believe he too would have rather found a path to the light of life than not be here. He had no idea how his death would hurt so many people so terribly and it did (and does) – he never wanted to hurt anyone. I know he would not have caused this loss for all of who love him, if he understood the damage it would do. However, it is also my belief we added years to his life as we stood by him in all his struggles, encouraged him, and lifted him up time and again. I am grateful for that, because in the last year of his life he and his wife welcomed what would be his only child, Ireland.
My hope for you, in reading Dustin’s story, is this:
In honor of Dustin’s life, if someone tells you they are considering suicide, believe them. Let me say that again, believe them. And, believe me, they might be actually considering it. And then, get help. Call Building Hope, call experts, get advice, and do not be deterred no matter what they say, stay involved with them.
If someone you love is depressed, don’t be intimidated by fear. Speak openly, and again, get advice, call the experts. Talk to them without judgment. Handle the tough or scary words they might say without flinching. Talk. It will help them and you.
The happiest person you know, could be suffering. Check in with your friends, especially now. Ask how they are doing, reach out.
Love, deeply. Don’t let the fear of lost love be the reason you withhold love from yourself and others. Tell everyone you love that you do. It is so worth it for them, and for you.
Life is a journey, right? Together, let’s make sure when our time has run out… we are sliding into home, all roughed up and covered in scratches and scars, hopes and fears, challenges overcome and things yet left to do. Life is more than the moment you, or we, or that friend of yours, are in. There are 10 thousand moments ahead and behind us, let’s help each other through the tough ones.
Be there for others. My Dustin, when encouraging the Burmese people who had lost so much of the life they once knew, he said, “remember you are not alone.” He offered them hope. I ask of you, for Dustin, be there for others, leave no one alone.
No matter what happens in life, happy days are always around the corner. I am still laughing, smiling, loving, and enjoying life even though we all miss Dustin, so much. Some of you are hurting. I promise you will move through the pain and sorrow and find your way to happiness. And when you do, reach out and help another. Together, we’ll turn the corners.
Show more love. More love, less everything else.
The Road of Resistance. Dustin’s 45 min movie made by him and his friends. Dustin narrates this movie, you’ll want to bring your tissues as they tell the story of the children smuggled out of Burma into orphanages in Thailand by their parents, because of their hope for a better life. Dustin was very proud of this movie as were all his friends. Keep in mind, these friends had zero experience in movie making, or anything like this. It is a powerful movie about what the Karen people are willing to do, to save their children and each other and about Dustin and his friends, about their passion to help others, to save the world, to make a difference in the lives of others. These are the friends who ache for the loss of Dustin, too. Who wonder what more could they, we, all of us have done to get through to Dustin. His presence, his heart, his life, his friendship meant everything to so many of us. It is his friends that made the outtakes clip played at Dustin’s memorial service. That video brings me to my knees time and time again. I will forever be grateful to Davey for capturing Dusty so well in that video.
2min trailer for the movie.
1min trailer for the movie.
4 min. Narrated by Dustin. Burmese War, the world’s longest civil war. Dustin’s narrated brief history of this war, which is the reason those parents, children, and families marched through the jungle for days and days, out of Burma into the light of Thailand. https://vimeo.com/2188225
✴ ✴ ✴
Story by Suzanne Acker, special projects writer for Building Hope Summit County. If you have a story to share, reach out to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos by Liam Doran /Liam Doran Photography
Video by @dragonfruitvideo