DENVER (CBS4) – When University of Denver women’s basketball coach Erik Johnson moved to Denver four years ago, he came with the perfect all-American family — a beautiful wife and three wonderful children. But two years ago, tragedy reared its ugly head and the family would never be the same.
Johnson has been successful at DU. This year his team has 17 wins. But Johnson isn’t the same person he was when he arrived four years ago. In May of 2010, Johnson’s 4-year-old son Davis died. He had an undiagnosed birth defect called intestinal malrotation, which created a twisting of his small intestine.
The team and the DU community shared the Johnsons’ grief. The team wears Davis’ initials on their uniforms every time they play.
“The grief and the trauma that we’ve experienced and continue to experience has changed me in some ways, and I think that’s something I’m still dealing with every day,” Johnson said. “It’s just, ‘How do I manage that best; to be the best husband, the best father, the best coach that I can be?’ ”
“Our grief is different, but we’re together. And for me, that has been the key to me to being here and us being here; being a unit and a family and making our kids a priority,” Johnson’s wife Laura said. “We don’t know how long we get them in this world.”
The Johnsons know first-hand how precious and precarious life can be.
“When you love something more than yourself, how can you ever be the same after losing that?” Johnson said. “That’s one of the things that we deal with every day, is that we are the same people. We love each other, we love our daughters, we love our lives, we love our jobs … but at the same time there’s the huge piece missing and how do we fit that all together?”
Davis loved life. He was a talker, a jokester, and a charmer.
“We have lots of quotes from Davis; we used to write down quotes from him,” Laura said. “One of them I’ve said over and over again. One time his sisters were poking fun of him and he started to cry … they teased him and said, ‘Davis, you’re crying.” And he said, ‘No, I’m not crying, I’m just sweating through my eyelids.’ ”
The Johnson family has become regulars at Judi’s House. Former Denver Broncos quarterback Brian Griese lost his mother as a child and created Judi’s House to help grieving children and their parents.
“Our daughters were 6 and 8 when Davis passed away. How do you as a parent then; how do you help them? What’s going on in a 6-year-old’s mind? How do you help them understand? How do you help them grow?” Johnson said. “Judi’s House has been unbelievable in helping our daughters be able to talk about their brother, be okay, happy, and telling funny stories and remembering the good stuff.”
“I miss talking about him and want to talk about him all of the time. But I think you understand very quickly when that’s something that other people aren’t comfortable with,” Laura said. “It’s a hard thing for people to bring up.”
Laura says keeping Davis’ memory alive is very important for their healing. The Johnsons welcome advice from people who have been there. Laura thinks that a widow who she talked to expressed the loss that she feels the best.
“She said for her, it’s just an understanding that, even though it had been 10 years, the music plays on. It’s like your favorite song always playing in the background of your life,” Laura said.
“We’re never going to stop missing our son. We’re never going to stop having that pain,” Johnson said. “The world starts moving on and it still hurts.”