Out of a shared grief, two women find purpose and friendship volunteering with the Victim Assistance Unit
Knock. Knock. That sound holds wonderful possibilities—a package dropped off by the door, a porch crowded with relatives ready to celebrate. But for some, it heralds a dark moment that changes their lives forever.
It means someone won’t be coming home.
Mary Lyn Jones and Michelle Scott were two women living normal lives. But one day, their “normal” shattered. They stood on the side of a door no parent should ever have to be on.
Mary Lyn’s son, Levi
Levi Jones was home from Tarleton State University for the summer. A college football player, Levi loved sports and embraced a life philosophy of “no regrets.” Following in his mother’s footsteps, twenty-year-old Levi aimed his sights on becoming a high school coach. He’d gotten a summer job coaching kids’ basketball camps in Austin.
Sitting at the table on Sunday night, Mary Lyn helped Levi prepare for the week-long camp. “The night before, when Levi and I were working on his camp stuff, he said, ‘Thanks, Mom. I love you.’ That’s what I remember,” says Mary Lyn.
On July 12, 2004, Levi was heading home to Liberty Hill for lunch when he fell asleep at the wheel. His car crossed four lanes and struck a tree, killing him instantly. Mary Lyn was on the porch waiting to have lunch with him.
“My doorbell rang, and the DPS trooper just looked at me and said, ‘Levi didn’t make it.’ And I’m like, ‘What do you mean?’” Mary Lyn remembers.
The news cast Mary Lyn into a pit of grief. A fog enveloped her mind as questions (Where was Levi now?) and to-do lists (She needed to tell the family) aimlessly popped up. If it hadn’t been for a comforting friend who’d accompanied the trooper, those first moments would have been even worse.
Little did Mary Lyn know that seven years later, she would draw on her tragic experience to help others in their first moments of grief.
Michelle’s son, Josh
Josh Scott was a young man with a lot to live for—a loving family, his baby daughter Bethani, and a will to survive. In February 2010, Josh was in a severe car accident that left him with multiple head injuries and a lot of pain. But he fought back. A year after his accident, Josh flew to Colorado, where Michelle was then living. He snowboarded down the slopes and trekked the Colorado wilderness with his mom. When it was time for Josh to go back home to Austin, Michelle drove him to the airport and hugged him goodbye.
It was the last time she would see him.
That summer, twenty-seven-year old Josh moved into a new apartment. He and Michelle always kept in contact throughout the week. But one weekend, Michelle couldn’t reach Josh. Maybe he was busy moving furniture. Maybe he’d lost his phone. She decided to call the Austin police to check on him.
On June 11, 2011, police found Josh’s body in his apartment. An autopsy report six weeks later revealed a startling finding—Josh died of a morphine overdose.
“I believe in my heart that it was an accidental overdose. The drug use was a shock for me,” Michelle says. “Why didn’t I know this? What could I have done? For me, it was the initial shock of his sudden death, and then it was the secondary shock of finding out the cause of death.”
Michelle’s grief was tinged with shame and guilt. For years, she struggled to share her feelings and thoughts about Josh’s death. Was he using morphine to deal with residual pain from the accident? Or was his drug use recreational? Michelle will never know. Even within her own family, she felt what no parents should feel when their child has died—judged. After moving to Williamson County in 2012 to be near her granddaughter, Michelle looked for a way to make Josh’s death mean something.
Empathy on call
Michelle and Mary Lyn found purpose volunteering with the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office Victim Assistance Unit. Volunteers are there when someone’s knock on the door comes. They offer comfort in those first hours and provide information and resources for the next steps in dealing with a traumatic loss.
VAU volunteers respond to requests for assistance from law enforcement agencies across Williamson County. All volunteers go through a training process: eighteen hours of classroom instruction, a ride out with a deputy, a four-hour observation shift in dispatch, and on-going monthly trainings. “It’s important to be sensitive but able to maintain composure during what are often traumatic and emotional circumstances,” explains Julie Hobbs, Volunteer Coordinator for the VAU. “I look for applicants who not only have the time to commit but who seem compassionate and have a heart to serve.”
Many, but not all, VAU volunteers have gone through some kind of personal traumatic life event. Mary Lyn’s and Michelle’s experiences have enabled them to reach a deep level of understanding when they meet grieving victims.
“When I’m on a call where someone’s loved one has committed suicide, or I’ve been on calls where someone—especially a child—died of a drug overdose, I can really empathize with the survivor’s guilt, if you will. It’s just another layer of empathy or compassion I can bring with me when I go out to help these people,” Michelle says.
Two years ago, Michelle and Mary Lyn met on a call in Hutto. They sat down afterwards for a cup of coffee. “Finding Michelle that day was comforting because she was telling me about her son, and my son died in an automobile accident. It just connected us,” says Mary Lyn.
That connection created a friendship bound by a shared experience and a deep empathy that only those who have gone through a great loss can truly understand. “I think God puts people in your path for comfort and for support,” Mary Lyn explains. “We’ve been on the other side of that call when they knock on the door and say that your loved one did not make it.”
Maybe today a spouse or a parent will get a knock on the door, and Michelle and Mary Lyn will be there. The two friends hope not—every day they don’t get called out is a good day. But on bad days, they’ll be there.
“People ask me if I enjoy what I do, and that’s always a hard answer. I don’t know that ‘enjoy’ would be a label I’d put on it. I don’t enjoy when something bad happens to somebody, but I do feel like this is a good fit for me to be of service and to be of help,” says Michelle.