J.J. and Melanie Jasper have lived every parent’s nightmare—the sudden loss of a child. Five-year-old Cooper Jasper lost his life on a beautiful summer afternoon in the middle of a special father and son activity the two had enjoyed countless times on the family farm. With Cooper shouting his favorite super hero mantra, “Flame On!” and his dad behind the wheel of their dune buggy, the two were laughing with delight as they made trips up and down the level path, almost slowing to a stop and then flooring the accelerator. J.J. remembers thinking how very much he loved this little boy with the blonde hair and the infectious smile. The low-to-the-ground vehicle had a wide stance and was equipped with a full roll bar and seat belts. It was highly unlikely to flip. And yet, on that July afternoon in 2009, it did flip. Cooper died in his father’s arms.
And life would never be quite the same again. The story of how the Jasper’s put one foot in front of the other day by day is a completely non-sugar-coated, real life experience of God’s grace in meeting them at the point of their need and His ability to answer their first raw prayers to teach them to “grieve well.”
The Family Tree
J.J. is well known as an American Family Radio on-air morning talk show host. He is an in-demand author and comedian whose background would make all of his career accomplishments seem unlikely. Growing up in Owensboro, Kentucky, in a dysfunctional home with a lineage of alcohol abuse, he describes himself as “out-of-control; drinking, smoking pot and running with wild, reckless friends” when he went to live with his grandmother at age 19.
He was doing odd jobs in construction, had dropped out of school, and says he was an “absolute train wreck.” God chose to use his little grandmother’s love and example, along with the godly influence of an uncle whose life had been radically transformed. J.J. had walked the aisle of a Baptist church as a twelve year old—but there on the cusp of twenty, he rededicated his life to the Lord and understood for the first time what the new life in Christ could be.
J.J.’s conversion opened an immediate platform for him in youth ministry. He had always been the class clown so being in front of an audience came naturally to him. But now, he had a story with meaning and purpose to tell. Youth responded to his honest testimony of personal experience with two opposite lifestyles. His “checkered” past gave him credibility with teenagers. They recognized his honesty.
Eventually, he received an invitation to a weekend retreat in Tupelo, Mississippi. That weekend led to an invitation to remain there for the entire summer discipling the youth in that church. One relationship led to another as his sphere of influence enlarged, and by the time the summer was over, he had begun working in the local Christian radio station. That was 1985, and Tupelo has been home ever since.
A decade passed. American Family Radio launched in 1991, and J.J. was the first voice on the air on the very first day. His multi-faceted career was in full force. He loved what he was doing between radio, speaking, and working with youth. There was no Mrs. J.J. Jasper. She simply had not come along. However, being around Christian radio so much, J.J. had frequent opportunity to listen to Dr. James Dobson’s daily programs. Conscious of the fact that he had no firsthand experience observing a vibrant and loving relationship between his parents, he made mental notes of Dr. Dobson’s advice thinking, “I’m going to remember that. And if the Lord ever sends me a bride, I am going to try to put in place these things I’m learning from Dr. Dobson.” One of J.J.’s great joys is that he did eventually meet Dr. Dobson and let him know how much he gleaned from his wise counsel.
In 1997, J.J. was invited to Gulfport to do a night of comedy at Michael Memorial Baptist church. It was there that J.J. and Melanie met, and the rest, you could say, is history.
Melanie was a young single mother of a two-year-old daughter. Recently divorced, she was living with her parents and working hard to put life together for herself and for baby Lauren.
She had recently come to a new plateau of surrender in her life as she realized how dependent she was on the Lord’s guidance for wisdom as a breadwinner and as a mother. She read Psalm 37:4 with new understanding. “Delight yourself in the Lord, and He will give you the desires of your heart.” Melanie decided to do that—to learn to make her relationship with the Lord her greatest delight and to trust Him with everything beyond that.
Two months later, she was helping host a fish fry in her parents’ back yard in connection with their church’s comedy event. It was as if she and J.J. had known each other their entire lives. Six months, many huge phone bills, and many prayers later, Melanie and J.J. married.
As J.J. says, “You could call me a ‘microwave’ dad. I got a wife and a two-year-old daughter on the same day.”
Growing a Family
Despite the stereotypical stories of blended families, warring factions and difficult adjustments, the Jaspers found family life to be close to fairytale perfect. “For it to have worked so well, it had to be the Lord,” says Melanie.
They agree that because both were at a place in their lives where they were committed wholeheartedly to Christ having both experienced a slice of life without His guidance, their shared values and priorities were in sync. They knew the Bible was going to be their guide, a Bible-believing church was going to be a huge factor, and they would do their best to practice the love, respect, and forgiveness that Christ taught toward one another in their daily lives. “After that, things pretty much fell into place,” J.J. says.
Melanie says, “I watched my mom and dad be madly in love with each other. I did not think I would ever find that kind of love. But I did, and I would think, ‘Is this a fairytale?’ When I waited on God and did not try to fit a square peg into a round hole—when I waited on God, He did give me the best.”
That is a lesson she has often shared with her daughters. “God always gives the very best, and his timing is always the very best.”
Melanie wanted more children although J.J. says he wasn’t looking to have a lot of them. He had been a bachelor for so long that he wasn’t sure he would like the normal chaos that comes with lots of little people running around. For the next three years, it seemed that even one more baby was not to be. They came to accept that Lauren would be their only child, and though they were both disappointed that they could not have just one more, they really came to the place of being okay with that.
Close friends continued to pray that God would bless the Jaspers with more children, and it was an incredibly joyous day when they discovered they were expecting. After the birth of Sadie, the babies kept coming as the Jaspers added one surprise baby a year for the next three years! Maddie, then Cooper arrived, and life was full, hectic, crazy, and wonderful. J.J., to his surprise more than anyone else’s, was beside himself in love with each one.
He says, “For as long as I’ve been a Christian, I have been reasonably pro-life, but now I am radically pro-life. There is nothing more valuable than those little ones. When you stand there with your spouse and you look in and they go to sleep, and they’re in the crib, and the way they coo and those little tiny hands and tiny feet, well, how could anybody destroy that? With each child we considered what God’s word says in Psalm 127—they really are a gift.”
J.J., the bachelor, adapted quickly to his role as father of girls. Who would have thought?
“Girls are so special,” says J.J. “There is something so special about the bond between a daddy and daughter. Girls have the capacity to make a dad feel 10 feet tall.”
He admits, however, that as an All-American guy, he wondered what it would be like to have a son to hunt and fish and play catch with. When they discovered that their fourth (and surprise baby again) would be a boy, everyone was excited, especially the sisters.
Samuel Cooper Jasper was born on February 24, 2004. His big sister Lauren, who was eight when Cooper entered the world, recounts the day of his birth in the book Losing Cooper. She says, “I had never felt so much love for something that looked so much like a potato…Staring at this just seconds-old, wrinkly little creature, I knew someone special had just been born…”
And “special” was a word that followed Cooper everywhere for the next five years. Looking back, it seems as though God compressed in that short life all the components for a legacy that would influence, impact, and impress farther and longer than most of us who are much older, could ever hope for ourselves.
Melanie and J.J. can laugh together when they recall Cooper’s unique personality. It was as though he was “born smiling,” they say. He was one of those rare individuals with a happy disposition, a desire to serve others, and a zest for life that was electric!
His death left a gaping hole in so many hearts, but in the days and years that followed, his legacy has been one of love, joy, and peace—three qualities that just happen to be the first three listed in Galatians 5:22, the passage we call the “Fruit of the Spirit.”
In those first months after Cooper died, Melanie and J.J. woke up every new day with an almost debilitating shroud of pain engulfing them. The tears felt as though they would never stop. J.J. says, “When we finally got our composure, we would pray together, ‘Lord, help us grieve well. And we prayed those words over and over. I didn’t even know what that meant or looked like, but that’s all I had the strength to say.”
Clinging to the God they loved and trusted, they took intentional steps toward their “new normal”—life without Cooper. J.J. was conscious of his personal past and the alcohol abuse that had plagued his family as a child. He remembered, too, his reckless behavior before he knew Christ. As much as he wanted to escape this heartache for even a few hours, he wanted even more to be there for Melanie and his daughters. “I would just continue to pray, ‘Lord, help me grieve well. I do not want to be a statistic.” And he adds, “God is that big and that wonderful.”
Melanie describes getting supper on the table. Many nights she would find herself serving that sixth plate for Cooper before she would remember that he was gone. There were a million little things like that—expecting to see him walk through the door, looking in the rearview mirror for his blonde head, starting to call his name when it was time to load up the car to go somewhere— and then remembering, and the pain was without end.
They saw only their grief and their pain. Others who loved the Jaspers, their friends and J.J.’s co-workers at American Family Radio, saw the family as working through their devastation with grace, strength, and a measure of faith that was inspiring to behold. It was a powerful testimony on so many levels.
Several months after Cooper’s death, some of the leaders at the American Family Association approached Melanie and J.J. about filming a documentary, something that would be a true resource for families dealing with the death of a child.
Cooper’s story was even more poignant because he was in his father’s care at the time of the accident. How much blame and guilt could have been heaped on J.J.’s head because of that?
As J.J. said, “At first blush people might think, ‘They are trying to exploit you,’ but that is not the case. Number one, they were going to give the DVD away. There was no money to be made here. Number two, they truly wanted to help hurting people.”
AFA’s mission is to return this country to its Judeo-Christian roots and to encourage families. The fallout that comes in the aftermath of a child’s death often includes other broken lives and broken marriages, even among Believers. It is simply the most gut-wrenching loss there is. As Melanie and J.J. had realized in their own grief, there are few resources that tell you how to get through it. Apart from God, they seriously doubt they could.
The goal was to offer the hope and future that God’s grace is sufficient even in a situation as devastating as this one. Yes, they were still in the grieving process, but that fact meant that families who were grieving would know that this was real.
And so, Melanie and J.J. agreed to open their hearts to such an undertaking. Over 50,000 copies have been given away so far, and over 100,000 people have seen it online. (Find it on YouTube).
J.J. says that he rarely goes to a speaking engagement that some couple doesn’t show up early while he is setting up or doing a mike check. They almost fall in his arms saying they have seen the DVD and they are just desperate for answers because they have also lost a child. They have come to hear him talk because whatever he has to say, they know they want to hear it. J.J. uses the word “ricocheting.” The story of Cooper is literally doing just that and offering hope to people that are hurting. You can almost see Cooper smiling about it. He would be overjoyed!
There is a measure of redemption there. God does redeem our pain. Yes.
Making Sense of What Doesn’t Make Sense
J.J.’s recent book, Losing Cooper: Finding Hope to Grieve Well, is a must for any grieving person. He records word for word the eulogy their minister, Robert Garland, gave at Cooper’s funeral. This short excerpt frames a perspective that comforts all who grieve.
“Most often, in situations like this, the questions are asked: A missionary friend that was serving God on the mission field had a death in this family. He had to come home from that field for a while. While he was at the funeral someone walked up to him and handed him a small piece of a jigsaw puzzle. On the back of that jigsaw puzzle piece there was a reference. It was Romans 8:28. ‘We know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to His purpose.’ He looked at it a little bit puzzled for a moment. The man who handed it to him said, ‘We can’t see the whole picture. But God can.’ The piece of the puzzle that we see oftentimes is a blank piece of the puzzle. Oftentimes it is a hard piece of the puzzle for us to comprehend. Often times that piece brings us heartache or it brings us tears. But we don’t see the whole picture. God sees the whole picture and God’s picture is beautiful. Our part is to trust Him to finish that puzzle in our lives…”
The God of Surprises
Kasie James Jasper was born a little more than a year after Cooper’s death. She is a true gift from God. With the birth of Kasie James, the Jasper’s decided their family was complete.
Melanie scheduled an outpatient surgery to insure that there would be no more little Jaspers. On the day that she was to have her procedure early in the morning, the doctor was delayed by one emergency call after another. The day dragged on and late in the afternoon Melanie was still hooked up to an IV waiting her turn.
Just before the orderlies came to wheel her back, she received a phone call from her brother that her mother had been in an accident. “I don’t know how bad it is, but they did take her away in an ambulance.”
Melanie had the nurse disconnect the IV; she got dressed, and headed to check on her mom.
Fast forward. Her mother was fine, but life with four girls just got busy and she had not quite gotten around to re-scheduling that procedure.
And then the God who understands all the puzzle pieces surprised them again. The Jaspers are awaiting the birth of twins—a girl and a boy—in a few short weeks.
Five years have passed since that July afternoon when everything in Melanie and J.J. Jasper’s lives changed forever. What they have discovered in these subsequent years is that God is indeed faithful, that his grace is sufficient, and that even though life does not look exactly the way they thought it would at this point in time, it is full, rich and wonderful.
He is the God of Hope and He is faithful.