Husband & Wife Articles


A Hero in Life and Death

My father-in-law gave his life for his son, and the world took note

By Maryan Vander Woude

I asked my father-in-law one day, “Do you know that my kids point with their middle finger because of you?” My father-in-law, who pointed that way after losing the tip of his index finger in a farming accident, started to make a defense to what seemed like an accusation. “Oh, no,” I interrupted, “you’re misunderstanding me. I’m just sharing. I absolutely love that my kids want to imitate you in any and every kind of fashion.”

Dan and Maryan gather their gang together, with one on the way.

Dan and Maryan gather their gang together, with one on the way.

Thomas Vander Woude, who died saving his son's life, is shown with two of his grandchildren.

Thomas Vander Woude, who died saving his son's life, is shown with two of his grandchildren.

My father-in-law, Thomas Vander Woude, had always been worthy of “little boy hero worship.” Raised in South Dakota as a farm boy, he married his high school sweetheart, Mary Ellen, became a Navy jet pilot in Vietnam, a commercial pilot, and a father of seven sons. To actually list all the heroic things that my father-in-law did truly would take a book, so I’ll try to sum him up in a few sentences.

Tom Vander Woude was a Eucharist-adoring, rosary-praying, family man who loved farm life, his Catholic faith, his country, planes, a good game of basketball, and a person in need. If you wanted to know the man best, you would come out on a 90-degree, hay-baling day and watch him on his tractor with his sons and grandkids. A number of his sons had set up homes nearby so that their kids could follow “Papa” around the farm. His patience for kids as he worked on tractors, baled hay, tilled the garden, or pruned fruit trees rivaled St. Joseph’s. And it’s this patience that makes me think of him, and miss him dearly, every St. Joseph’s Day, March 19th.

Three-and-a-half years ago, on September 8, 2008, the feast of Our Lady’s Birth, my father-in-law gave up his life to save his youngest son, Joseph, who has Down syndrome. On that morning, Joseph fell into an old septic tank on the farm. Papa dove into the filth to save him, but was unable to save himself. We were heartbroken. In a moment, life was completely changed. God wanted his good and faithful servant back, and he gave us no warning. Thousands of people shared our grief at his wake and funeral; local, national and international news carried the story of the father who gave his life for his son. However, we soon discovered that the hardest part of grieving is after the funeral.

Just how do you mourn someone so loved?

Everyone deals with grief differently – especially in a sudden death, and children are no different. My children’s reactions varied. One internalized a lot, and the physical effects of holding it in became noticeable. Another cried freely and looked for lots of hugs. My 3-year-old spent every day talking about Papa, looking for Papa, and waiting for Papa to return. My 2-year-old decided that he didn’t want to go to heaven. Truly, I was at a loss how to console them; we muddled along as best we could – with a lot of grace.

Friends who had gone through the sudden death of a loved one gave us several excellent pieces of advice. The first was to slow down and avoid major life decisions. Be kind to yourself, they said, because grieving is hard work, and takes a toll on you physically, mentally, and emotionally.

The second piece of advice was to get it all out. Talk, talk, talk. Talk to your kids about his death, talk about how we miss him, too, and can’t wait to see him in heaven. Talk about heaven, listen to their questions, and let them know that even though we were so sad, we knew God had a better plan even if we didn’t understand it yet. And if your 2-year old decides that he doesn’t want to go to heaven, don’t worry that he’s losing his faith. He just equates heaven with death, and that wasn’t fun.

Speaking of fun, don’t forget to celebrate your loved one! We plastered our favorite pictures all over the house. We shared stories. Even though my Luke was only 2, he remembers licking spicy salsa with Papa and shared it out of the blue months after his death: “My like spicy stuff. Like Papa.” So we had to have a salsa party! On Papa’s birthday, his sons organized a field day equipped with hay bale mazes and farm competitions in honor of Papa. One benefit of living around a lot of family is that the opportunity to gather and laugh about a good story is just a heartbeat away. It’s so good for the grieving soul.

And most importantly: rely on God’s grace to get you through. Be honest and keep searching even when the questions are hard. He loves you so tenderly. And talk to his Mother – she lost her Son to a horrific death. She intimately understands your pain. Let her take some of it. That’s what mothers are there for: to help take some of the pain away. And let St. Joseph, protector of families, safeguard you while you are hurting.

Maryan Vander Woude, wife to Dan and mom of seven children (one unborn), blogs about their adventures at A Lee in the Woudes.