Three years ago today Jimmy and Lisa Murphy met their son, Daniel, in China. Just months after they adopted him, they took him to the hospital for open-heart surgery. Sadly, his body never recovered from the surgery, and he passed away at only 2 ½ years old.
Lisa shares the family’s story in her book, With an Open Heart, which I read and wrote about last fall.
I asked her whether she would be willing to discuss her family’s story further with me, talking about her Catholic faith, what led the Delray Beach, Fla., couple to adopt three children from China—their daughter, Madi, is 7, and their son, Charlie, is 3—and life after losing Daniel.
Was it difficult for you to decide to adopt?
It’s fear that holds most of us back as humans, isn’t it? When I first spoke with another adoptive mom about international adoption, I was so nervous about the idea of traveling to another country for a child. But I believe that’s what God does—He stretches us beyond our comfort zone, and unless we’re willing to be stretched, we might miss out on His greatest rewards. Each of our three adoption journeys has been so special in a different way, and each a totally unique blessing.
You and your husband, Jimmy, are converts to Catholicism. Can you tell me a little about your journey to the Catholic Church?
Jimmy and I were both baptized as protestant Christians, but neither of us had a particularly religious upbringing, nor did our families attend church services on a regular basis. Our conversion happened after a friend of ours lost her young son to leukemia in 2004—I talk about it in the book’s introduction. Jimmy and I attended her son’s funeral, and I was in sheer awe of her faith. Every word that she said, as she held up the devastated crowd, made me crave that very faith…and I wanted it without delay. Her loss, and witnessing her faith, sent us out on a mission to find a church home. After a thorough search and some signs from the Holy Spirit, we went through the RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults) process and joined St. Vincent Ferrer Catholic Church, which has truly been a Godsend for our family.
Losing a child is almost unimaginable. How did you and your family manage to pull through the initial loss?
Grief is such a personal process. It definitely took time for all of us to heal. Our faith is mostly what pulled us through, because our steadfast belief in God’s plan gave us comfort when losing Daniel didn’t seem to make sense otherwise. We were amazed by Madi’s ability to heal. I think children are so close to God. She loves that we have our own special angel, and she still speaks about him often. I love when I overhear her telling Charlie all about Daniel and explaining who and where he is.
Also, it takes a village, as they say! We were so loved and carried through by family, friends, neighbors, and our faith community. We received countless emails and messages from people we didn’t even know lifting up our family in their prayers, and we could truly feel that love, even across the miles. Writing With an Open Heart was a huge part of the grieving process for me personally.
What can someone say to a parent who has lost a child?
One of the most helpful things for me was talking about our son. I realized that many people are so fearful, as if when they said Daniel’s name, it was going to remind me that I lost him. I used to be one of those fearful people myself, so I totally understand it. And maybe there are people who just can’t deal with loss on an emotional level. But I felt that the more I could talk about Daniel, the better. I felt that if I talked about our son—if I kept him on my mind all the time, it kept a piece of him with me.
In a weird way, even the suffering and the pain—it was almost like I had a will to keep that pain close, because it meant keeping Daniel close in my heart, and it kept Jesus close to me through my suffering. And I was somehow afraid that if I relinquished that pain, I was allowing a piece of him to slip away from me.
When did you begin writing your book?
I started writing With an Open Heart about one month after Daniel’s death. And I knew it was driven by the Holy Spirit by the way it unfolded. I met with our church moms group a few weeks after Daniel’s funeral, and I said to two of them, “I’m going to write a book about Daniel.” I truly felt as if I’d already written half of a book through our family blog. If you’d ask me now, it’s difficult to recall much of the medical terminology and the order of events as they happened in the hospital, so I knew that I truly needed to write our story exactly when I did…when my memories—and my emotions—were fresh. And I knew that I needed to document each and every moment that I could remember about our precious son. It was important for our family, and it was important for Madi and Charlie’s sake.
How emotional was it for you to write about your experience?
It was incredibly emotional for me. I feel so blessed that the Holy Spirit prompted me write the book when I did, because it was such a crucial piece of my grieving process. After Madi went back to school in August, I sat at my computer each day bawling my eyes out and typing. I spent that whole fall season reliving our experience through my keyboard. And day by day, month by month, I built the book. The sadness eventually turned into a determination to keep Daniel alive by sharing his story.
Do people understand why you wrote the book and are trying to spread the word about Daniel’s story?
I hope so! I am sure there are people who are just too uncomfortable to read a story about the death of a child, and I feel sad that there are people who might be afraid to read it. But I don’t see Daniel’s story as a depressing one. After all, he’s in the Kingdom of Heaven right now! I hope that people will see beyond the sadness, because that is where hope and faith are truly defined—during the struggles and the times that God stretches us.
Many of us are quick to be thankful for God’s miracles when things go in our favor, but what about when things go wrong? Doesn’t glory to God need to be there, too? Maybe even more so! How do I explain to people that I feel incredibly blessed by the loss of my son? It seems so wrong and unfathomable. But I do feel blessed by our loss, because we were given the opportunity to have Daniel in our lives and to love him before he went to Heaven. I feel so blessed that God chose me to be his mother. And I truly believe the book has an inspirational message. It’s about listening to the Holy Spirit, and embracing the goodness of God, even in the most difficult of circumstances.
One of the reasons I found so much hope and joy in your book was because of the comfort you found in your faith.
What else do we have if we don’t have our faith, right? I found it troubling that last month, when I was asked to speak at an event, the event planner said, “Can you tone down the God thing?” I was shocked! Uh…no…I can’t tone down the ‘God thing,’ but now I’ll be sure to turn it up, okay?
All kidding aside, I do recognize that there are some people who are, sadly, just turned off. Perhaps those people are afraid—or maybe they’re blind to it and the light just hasn’t turned on for them. But that “God thing” is what made us say “yes” to bring Daniel home and into our family. That “God thing” is the very essence of our story and what made our lives immeasurably richer.
Are you surprised by how people are responding to the book?
I am humbled by some of the responses I’ve received. I love that each person who reads it seems to have a different takeaway, and I’m thankful for that. Daniel’s life seems to touch each reader in a different way. The book has received many beautiful heartfelt reviews. Some have said, “I never got to meet Daniel, and I feel like I know him now.” One friend said, “I want to be closer to God after reading your book,” and she wanted to adopt another child. To receive feedback like that is meaningful beyond words. Some have expressed that they’ve received an education about adoption, and there are others who truly felt like they’d traveled to China with us.
To know that Daniel is still living and giving through With an Open Heart means the world to Jimmy and me. Yes, you will likely cry reading our family’s story, but I promise that you’re also going to smile and laugh at times, too. And it definitely delivers an inspirational ending.
There is a rainbow after the storm.
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