Sharing stories helps support parent after loss

Tyler Elliott (from left) and family members including Tiffany Saunders, Chris Elliott, Mike Elliott, Roxanne Cahill, Tara Jenson, and Tasha Jenson gathered in July for some Minnesota fun.

By Lori Fischer Thorp

Correspondent

Since her 28-year-old son, Tyler Elliott of Rolla, Missouri, suffered a medical crisis this past August, “The whole situation has totally rocked my world,” said his mother, Sammye (Jager) Elliott.  ¶  “It’s hard, daily,” said Elliott, a Rochert native and 1984 Frazee High School (FHS) graduate who settled with her husband, Charlie, in Rolla. Their family grew to include six children, Mike, Roxanne, Chris, Ben, Tyler and Zack, plus seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.  ¶  Elliott has spent her career as a parochial school teacher and administrator. “I can still talk about Jesus all I want,” said Elliott of a switch from a Lutheran to a Catholic school, and that fundamental value of faith that has kept her grounded in one of the toughest situations a parent can face.  ¶  Elliott’s vowels have softened after years of living in Missouri, and her voice sometimes fills with tears when talking about her son, but having the opportunity to remember him is crucial to living with her loss, she said. Part of that remembrance includes the decision of organ donation.

Tyler Elliott’s joy for life continues through musical scholarships and organ donation.

Elliott said the events replay in her mind. 

“I was the one who found him at our house, unresponsive,” she said. 

She gave her son CPR, emergency responders arrived and the young man was airlifted to Columbia, Mo. For three days, “we were trying to get some kind of response from him,” said Elliot.

His 28-year-old cousin, Tiffany Haugen Saunders of rural Detroit Lakes (FHS class of 2011), said the family was at first in shock. 

“We were all praying and really hopeful,” Saunders said. Elliott was comatose and on life support. “We read a lot of articles that said you can still come out of it,” she said.

Saunders’ mother, Emily Mott Christensen, is Sammye Elliott’s sister, and cousins Saunders and Tyler Elliott were just 14 months apart in age. When the Elliott family traveled to Minnesota to spend summer time together, “It was always Tiffany and Tyler,” Elliott said. “Tiffany couldn’t wait for Tyler to get there.”

Elliott grew up playing music with his parents and siblings, and as an adult traveled his home area with various bands. Saunders is a licensed childcare provider in Frazee contracted with MAHUBE-OTWA Head Start. The cousins again enjoyed time together this past July, when the Elliotts, including Tyler, traveled to Minnesota.

Contributed photos
Sammye Elliott (left), loves remembrances of her son Tyler Elliott, including his generous hugs.

None of them could foresee that a month later, they would be faced with loss, and a choice.

The third day of Tyler Elliott’s hospitalization, “They said, ‘We have one more test we can do.’ They warned me that if they did the last test and there was no brain activity, they would have to pronounce him deceased,” said Sammye Elliott. 

“A lady came in and spoke to me,” said Elliott. She was told that her son’s age and health made him one of just 3 percent of people who could donate organs. 

“It was a question that really rocked us. On his driver’s license, he hadn’t put anything. That was a hard decision,” she said.

“We didn’t make any rash decisions right away, and then one of my sons said ‘Mom, you really have a rare opportunity here, Tyler can live on in other people,’” she said. 

The Elliotts chose to proceed, and in talking that through with the donation coordinators, the family asked if they could request a specific recipient for one of his kidneys.

“It was extremely hard to leave the hospital,” Elliott said. Even so, “on the way home, we made a call to Barb the organist at our church, and she said they had been praying for him at church.” Barb Jernigan’s daughter Holly had been in crucial need of a kidney donation and the Jernigans had made a number of public requests for a donor, though a match had not yet been found.

Elliott said she told Jernigan that her son would not live, and gave her the information to quickly contact Midwest Transplant if Holly Jernigan would be interested in this transplant possibility. The kidney “turned out to be a perfect match,” Elliott said. That particular transplant was performed at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. In a procedure that normally takes about 4 hours, surgery was done in just an hour and a half, the new kidney “fit like a glove,” and recovery went extremely well. 

“All the doctors and nurses just felt it was a miracle,” Elliott said, and Holly Jernigan showed her medical team Tyler Elliott’s picture often. Today, her organ function remains at 100 percent.

Other donations were to individuals who have, at this point, remained unknown to the Elliotts except for some general details. Letters can be exchanged and contact arranged through the transplant organization if parties wish to proceed with those steps. Tyler Elliott’s heart and other kidney went to a male in his 50’s in the Midwest, and his corneas gave new sight to other individuals.

Saunders said that her cousin’s story is one of positivity, from the amazing gifts of life to his musical talent, including his favorite music store’s legacy of yearly scholarships of a guitar, amplifier and lessons for a child in the community. “They are trying to give back,” she said, so that Tyler Elliott’s life has a long-lasting impact. For Saunders, the big take-away is “Just always hug the ones you love.”

“I’m still heartbroken,” Saunders said. “I didn’t want that outcome of Tyler dying. I felt so angry with the situation at first because I wanted him to wake up so badly, but you can’t stay angry,” she said. 

Sammye Elliott agrees. “In our bittersweet moments, we think about how we were very, very blessed, very humbled by their generosity (in setting up the scholarships.) It’s one more way of keeping Tyler’s memory alive.”

“The community outpouring has just been amazing,” she said. 

The visitation at the funeral, originally planned for two hours, stretched to three. 

“I was amazed at how many community members who came out shared stories. He worked at Waffle House 10 years, and even people who would travel through the community and visit that Waffle House, the stories were just endless,” said Elliot.

“Just yesterday,” she said, “a priest who would travel through frequently and eat at the Waffle House, stopped by our house and visited us for the second time. He was just overcome with emotion about Tyler’s death.”

That support is a precious gift, Elliott said. “I feel that I have to keep a clear head. Many people will tell you time heals, but your life is forever changed. Things will never be as they were before. It’s a different situation for a parent who loses a child, it’s a whole different story. . . I now see I should have been there for them,” she said of other parents who have lost a child.

“What really keeps me going is my faith in God,” Elliott said. “Without that, I would be lost – I rely on my family, my other children.” She also leans into the memories and the knowledge that there is more to her son’s story. 

“Many people are uncomfortable to bring up the name, but everybody knows that it’s happened. I feel that talking about my child is wonderful,” she said. “I’d much rather talk about him, and share a good memory, than not have him mentioned.”

“The little messages that I’ve gotten from people, it might make me cry, but it’s all part of the healing journey. Each of those helps you feel like his death is not in vain, he’s not forgotten,” she said. 

The stories continue to reveal themselves. About a month and a half after Tyler Elliott’s death, his brother Chris visited the Waffle House where his brother had worked.

“There was a man sitting nearby,” Elliott said. “Chris overheard the man tell the waitress that one night, he’d come into the Waffle House, intending for that to be his last meal. He planned to take his life afterward.” That plan changed, though, because of Tyler Elliott.

Sammye Elliott said her son, who went by T-Bone on his work name tag, “could tell the man was distraught. They talked for hours and the man told Tyler his plan. Tyler told him, ‘Don’t take your life, you are worth so much.’ Somewhere along the line, Tyler took a break, and he saw the man’s vehicle with a revolver on the front seat.”

“Tyler took out the bullets,” she said. Afterward that night, he continued talking with the man and helped him change his decision and find laughter and reasons to live. “It was a God thing,” Elliott said. Chris Elliott heard the man say, ‘Tyler saved my life, and I have to live each day, for him.’”

Tyler Elliott will be remembered for his many gifts – loving hugs to his family and friends, musical joy and, ultimately, life.

Editor’s Note: This story is part two of dealing with grief during the holidays. Part one was printed in the Dec. 27 issue of the Forum.