Easter is the celebration of Christ’s resurrection – the event that makes our redemption possible and allows us to rejoice in the fact that we will be able to reunite with our family and friends some day in heaven. That’s a powerful and comforting thought for anyone who’s lost a loved one—and who among us doesn’t fit into that category?
Jay Fagnano and his wife Mary sure do. And they’ve experienced the most devastating loss possible: the death of a child, their son Nick.
I first heard about the Fagnanos in an article by Brian K. Kravec, and couldn’t help but think of them this Easter season because theirs is a story not just of tragedy but also of Easter hope thanks to an essay they found on Nick’s computer after his death.
It was the summer of 2014, and Nick was looking forward to attending the University of Southern California’s Sol Price School of Public Policy, whose mission is “to improve the quality of life for people and their communities, here and abroad.”
Nick attended Mass at St. Brendan Church in Hancock Park, Los Angeles, with Jay and Mary, then joined some friends on Venice Beach to enjoy the sunny California day. Just as he went into the water, several dark clouds came out of nowhere and produced lightning that hit 13 people. Nick was the only fatality.
Jay and Mary were shattered at losing their son, who was known for his winning smile, friendly personality, and deep faith that caused him to radiate God’s love. During an interview on “Christopher Closeup,” Jay told me, “I, much more than Mary, went through a phase of [asking], ‘Why God? Why did you take him from us?’ And I think in this last year and a half, I’ve come to a greater understanding. Maybe what Nick is doing is much more important now.”
Jay’s assertion that Nick is doing something now might sound strange to some people, but as a person of faith, he firmly believes that Nick is living and thriving in the next life because of the profound spiritual relationship he had with God.
Jay notes, “Nick embraced [his Catholic faith] from when he was little and raising his hand in kindergarten when the priest would say, ‘So, who in this room would like to become a priest?’ Nick would throw up his hand and say, ‘I do! I do!’ From the beginning, Nick had a special relationship with his spirituality, with Christ.”
The depth of Nick’s faith went beyond what Jay and Mary ever imagined – but they didn’t find out about it until after his death. For instance, two months after they lost Nick, Mary was going through his old school backpack when she found a letter he had written to himself as part of a Kairos retreat he attended in high school. The retreat organizers ask participants to write a letter to themselves, then they mail it to them two years later.
Nick wrote about how important it was for him to go to church every week because it made his week that much better. He also said, “My relationship with God is very good, but it can always be better.”
The most profound message from Nick, however, came when Jay and Mary found an essay about heaven on his computer that he had written for a college English class. It included the following passage:
“Regardless of heaven being beyond my comprehension, the afterlife that I want to be a part of involves joy, excitement, and gratitude, as we will finally be reunited with the loved ones that we have lost on earth. Perhaps ‘rest in peace’ is actually not the best term in relation to death; rather, a phrase such as ‘thrive in joy’ best represents how I will want to spend eternity.”After reading that, Jay and Mary looked at each other with tears streaming down their faces and said, “Nick is talking to us.”
Not only did the essay bring them spiritual and emotional comfort, it also inspired them to keep their son’s name alive in a way that reflected the type of person he was. They founded the “Thrive in Joy Nick Fagnano Foundation.”
Nick had always been devoted to helping others through his church. And as a 13-year-old, he took it upon himself to collect baseball equipment for kids in the Dominican Republic after seeing a story on TV about how they loved the game but had no gloves, bats, uniforms, etc. After all the donations came in, Nick sent 300 pounds of equipment to those kids.
Therefore, one of “Thrive in Joy’s” outreach efforts takes place in the Dominican Republic, which Jay and Mary will be visiting for the sixth time this April with various volunteers. Tia Tatiana, a Christian school in the worst slum in Santo Domingo, has been a focus of theirs for some time because of its poor physical condition – but high graduation rate. They were there putting a computer lab together when they decided to do a project they dubbed “Extreme Makeover: Tia Tatiana.”
Jay explained, “In one afternoon, we remade a classroom. From desks that were falling apart and nothing on the walls, we [brought in] real desks, real chairs, learning aids on the wall, books, games, a cabinet for the teacher. We came back the next morning and watched as the kids and the teacher came into the classroom for the first time. Kids were beaming and laughing, and the teacher cried. [We also went] back and remade every single classroom in that school. And we have ambitious plans as we continue to work with Tia Tatiana School and also with the Remar Orphanage that has about forty-five kids right now.”
In addition, the Fagnanos have established various ways to give young people the financial support they need to get through school, including the Nick Fagnano Memorial Scholarship at U.S.C., where Nick had planned to attend.
Jay realizes that it would have been easy for him and Mary to simply lock themselves away from the world and live in despair after Nick’s death. Thankfully, they chose a better road. Jay said, “I look at The Christopher motto, “It’s better to light one candle than to curse the darkness,” and think of that every single day. We try to incorporate ‘Thrive in Joy’ with keeping that candle lit.”
And while some might find their faith shattered after losing a child, Jay found his grow stronger: “Mary was always a very devout Catholic and I admit I was not the most devout Catholic. But my faith journey has been profound and much deeper, and I think this is Nick calling out to me. If [Mary and I] can bring some joy to vulnerable children here and abroad, then I am giving glory to God. I am doing God’s work. And it’s Nick that’s guiding us each and every day.”
(To listen to my full interview with Jay Fagnano, click on the podcast link):