Strengthened by faith, Sharon and Lee Johnsen persevere through heartbreak
Jun 6, 2019
Sharon and Lee Johnsen’s home sits on top of a quiet hill in La Plata, Maryland, with a large porch looking out upon what used to be a tobacco field. On the inside, it is filled with statues of angels, family photos and drawings by their oldest son, Kyle. Neither of them can quite remember how long they have lived there, but it is long enough to have carried them through some of their happiest and saddest moments, raising their three children and having to say goodbye to each of them.
The couple met in 1972 when Sharon was home on college break and working at the same company where Lee had just begun working as an insurance investigator. They dated for two years before getting married on Jan. 12, 1974, and this year are celebrating their 45th wedding anniversary.
Sharon was still finishing up her last two years of college when they got married, and she then went on to get her master's degree, while Lee was working full-time and studying for his bachelor’s degree part-time. Sharon went on to teach for 35 years, and Lee worked as a building inspector for 30 years before retiring.
Nine years into their marriage, Sharon and Lee had their first child, Kyle, followed by Chad and Rachel. In 1990, the family learned that Chad, who was 4, had leukemia.
“Of course, your whole world changes when something like that happens,” said Sharon.
His younger sister, Rachel, who was just one year old at the time, served as his bone marrow donor. One and a half years later, he relapsed, and she donated a second time. Her donations allowed him to live for eight years after his diagnosis. But when he relapsed a third time, his body couldn’t handle the disease again, and he died in 1998.
“Losing a child, of course, is the worst thing that can happen,” said Sharon. “We were so sure that he was going to make it through his third transplant because he had made it through those other two.”
Through that process, the Johnsens said they had a lot of support from their church and from Archbishop Neale School in La Plata, which their kids attended. Outside of Archbishop Neale School, there is now a Sacred Heart Statue dedicated to Chad, which stayed standing even when the school was destroyed by a tornado.
“We put our trust in the Church and the Lord, and we tried to do the best we could,” said Lee. “I went up to our church and fell on the ground in front of the altar and begged, ‘Please save him.’ And it didn’t happen, but we had him a lot longer than we would have.”
Sharon recalled how students at Archbishop Neale School would make cards for Chad, and they would get a big packet of mail at the hospital for him to open and read. They also made pins for the students that said, “Sunshine for Chad,” which was the theme they used to raise money to help the family out.
Though they got upset, and at times were angry at God and asked Him why He would let such a terrible thing happen, Sharon and Lee never stopped going to church, and continued to pray together.
“He would lean on me and I would lean on him. We really did support each other,” said Sharon. “When I was down, he would help me through it. We would cry together, and then we would feel better.”
About 10 years later, when their daughter Rachel had just finished high school, she was driving home on a rainy Sunday morning and slid off the road into a telephone pole, dying instantly.
“I always think Chad just reached down and said, ‘Come on Rachel, let's go,’” said Sharon.
Kyle died in his sleep in 2011, when he was 27 and just about to graduate from plumbing school.
After each child’s death, Sharon and Lee believe God sent them signs through nature to tell them that the kids are okay. On the day of Kyle’s death, there was a triple rainbow in the sky.
“Thank you, God, that you gave us that sign, and we know all three of them are together,” said Sharon. “It helps. It doesn’t totally take away the pain of losing all three of them, but it helps to know that the three of them are together.”
Since they spent so much time in Georgetown University’s hospital while Chad was there, the Johnsens saw many families come through, and many of them split up when faced with hardship, they recalled. They believe it is their faith in God that kept them together.
“We are asked frequently, ‘How do you do that?’” said Lee, adding that he always thinks in response, “What do you mean, how? Faith… Of course, faith.”
While the kids were growing up, the Johnsens were parishioners at Sacred Heart Parish in La Plata, but they now attend St. Ignatius in Chapel Point, because that is where the three children are buried.
“We help each other…we never did stop going to church,” said Sharon. “When I think back on it, we needed God, we needed the help.”
Now, the Johnsens try to provide that help to others who look to them as models for how to handle the loss of their own children. Whenever Sharon has someone reach out to her to ask how she did it, she hopes “that at least maybe what I’ve gone through will bring people closer to God,” she said.
Beyond comforting others who have lost children, the Johnsens try to give back in other ways as well. After each child died, they did something in their honor.
After Chad died, the family got involved with the Charles County Relay for Life, with a team called ”Chad’s Chargers” that drew family, friends and coworkers to participate. After Rachel’s death, they began cleaning Route 488, where the car accident had taken place. Now, there is a sign on the road that says “family and friends of Rachel Johnsen.” And after Kyle died, Sharon began volunteering at BRASS Camp, a summer camp held for one week at Camp Maria in Leonardtown, Maryland for siblings of children who have cancer, run by Special Love, Inc., which is based in Winchester, Virginia. Both Kyle and Rachel participated in the camp as kids, and Kyle had become a counselor there as an adult.
“We want to help and give some sort of return for all the help we’ve gotten, so that is how we are trying to repay, as little as it is,” said Lee.
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