Local Parishes

Tragedy transformed

by Jill Ragar Esfeld
jill.esfeld@theleaven.org

OVERLAND PARK — “Sometimes it just smacks me in the face — gosh, my child is dead,” said Church of the Ascension parishioner Jeane Crossland.

Even after two years, it’s still hard for her to accept that her son Drew is never going to walk through the door again.

Her husband George finds himself waking up every morning at exactly 3 a.m., with Drew on his mind.

“I think about the situation. I think about myself. He was the most like me. We were the same type of person,” he said.

The circumstances of their son’s death are best summarized in an essay written by Drew’s youngest brother, Dallas Crossland, as part of an application for a college scholarship from the Johnson County STOP Underage Drinking Project:

“For the last two years my brother was drinking alcohol. We thought he was getting better, as we begged him to stop. Eventually he moved out of the house and seemed much better. Unfortunately, our hopes were too high. His best friend found him passed out over his computer. He carried him to his car and rushed him to St. Joseph’s hospital where ER specialists hooked him up to life support. We all stayed by his side for the next two days; hoping he would wake up and we could get him to stop drinking and rejoin the family. But he never woke up.”

William Andrew Crossland was 23 years old when he died.

Going on

Dallas’ essay won the STOP scholarship in 2007. That same year, his parents began volunteering as spokespersons for STOP, sharing their very personal story in the hope that it would save another family from the tragedy they’ve endured.

Initially, it was difficult — especially for Jeane, a stay-at-home mom who never imagined she would do any kind of public speaking. The first time she spoke was to a group of 30. She broke down halfway through; her husband had to take over.

But Jeane refused to let emotional pain or stage fright stop her from delivering her message.

It was too important.

“I felt like this was my calling,” she said.

Now, a year and a half later, she can tell her story straight through: from the moment she got the most terrifying phone call of her life to the moment when she realized all hope was lost.

Today, she and George often share their story with crowds as large as 500. George often interjects facts and information about teenage drinking into Jeane’s account. He, too, feels called to speak out — a call grounded in the fact that he believes that his was a typical family; that he and Jeane were good parents who did the best they could to raise good children, just like most of the families in their audiences.

“That’s the reason we feel strongly about doing this,” he said. “Hopefully [those listening] will realize that we’re real people just like any of them. That it can happen; that it did happen.”

A daredevil with a big heart

Drew was the Crosslands’ second of four sons. He loved his family, was close to his brothers and had many friends. He loved playing soccer and rollerblading. He was a risk-taker and enjoyed challenges like rollerblading down handrails.

His dad called him a daredevil and his mom said he “always had this grin on his face like he was up to something.”

He was sensitive — the kind of kid who would cart home stray animals and ask if he could keep them.

“He found a newborn kitten in a parking lot once,” recalled his mom. “He would get up nights and bottle feed that kitty.” Typical of an energetic boy, Drew didn’t care much for school, but treasured the friendships it brought him.

He got into trouble with alcohol for the first time when he was 16. He was at a friend’s home, but the boy’s parents were out. When Drew drank too much, his friends got scared and took him to a hospital. His parents were called to pick him up. When they arrived, they found him inebriated, but not to the point of passing out.

“Like any other parents, we gave him some punishments and that kind of thing,” said George, “but I thought it was part of growing up.”

But, emphasized George, “that’s the wrong of passage,” referring to the anti- drinking program he and Jeane present as part of the STOP coalition. Society’s acceptance of underage drinking as a social norm or rite of passage, the program argues, can prove deadly — as it did for the Crosslands.

On his own

Drew didn’t have another incident with alcohol during high school. After graduation, he studied at a business technology center, became an apprentice machinist, and decided to move out on his own.

Sadly, independence brought poor friendship choices. Drew overindulged in alcohol and was introduced to drugs, developing an addiction to OxyContin. As soon as his parents realized he had a problem, they confronted him and insisted he get professional help, but to no avail.

“We found out that once [teenagers] are 18, legally, if they aren’t willing to get the help, there’s nothing we can do,” explained his father.

Eventually, however, Drew did move back home, and Jeane took on the responsibility of helping him recover.

“She was with him all the time. She detoxed him and he actually got better. He was taking care of himself and running every day,” said George.

“He seemed to be doing great,” he continued. “In May [2007] he decided to get his own place, and we were all for that.

“I remember I went with him, and his biggest thing was he bought his own lawnmower.”

But Drew also had a price to pay for his involvement with alcohol. He had been issued a DUI (a citation for driving under the influence) earlier that year and chose to take diversion rather than fight the charge. He was just beginning to meet the requirements of the diversion program when he moved out.

“He called us the day before he died,” his mother said. “He said, ‘Mom, I’m doing good. I passed my drug test!’”

“So, he was celebrating passing that when he got drunk and died,” said George starkly.

No going back

That fatal day, Drew and his roommate were having a party. They’d been drinking Red Bull and vodka — a dangerous combination because the energy drink reduces the drinker’s awareness of the alcohol’s side effects.

Drew’s roommate went out for a while. When he returned, he found that Drew had passed out. He rushed Drew to St. Joseph Medical Center in Kansas City, Mo. He called the Crosslands en route.

“It was 10:30 when the phone rang,” recalled Jeane. “He was frantic. And I was like, ‘Who is this?’ Then I understood,‘Drew…CPR…St.Joe…’”

“When we got there, they had Drew in the ICU and were doing CPR and stripping his clothes off of him,” said George.

The emergency medical team at St. Joseph Hospital managed to revive Drew, but he had a shallow heartbeat and poor respiration.

“His brothers and family, all of us were there for a couple of days. He wasn’t responsive. His eyes were dilated. They figured there was probably some brain damage,” said George. “They brought us together and told us, because there were no brain waves, there wasn’t much hope.”

Ascension pastor Msgr. Thomas Tank came to the hospital, gave Drew the sacrament of the sick.

When Drew died, George recalled, “there were probably 40 of us in the room — all his friends and relatives.” Msgr. Tank came to the Crosslands’ home that evening, where friends and family gathered for support.

“He talked to all Drew’s buddies and his friends,” said George. “We talked openly together, which was really good for everybody that night.”

“The kids were just overwhelmed,” said Jeane. “They don’t expect their friends to die at 23.”

Dealing with grief

The Crosslands relied heavily on their strong faith and their Catholic community as they worked through their grief. They said their parish family at Church of the Ascension was “outstanding” in its support.

George had begun an interdenominational Bible study earlier that year. He was grateful for the way it strengthened his faith.

“It’s strange how things work,” he said. “You always wonder if someone is moving you in a way to help prepare you for what is about to happen.”

After Drew’s death, Msgr. Tank told Jeane to be prepared to see signs of life she never would have noticed before.

“And it’s true,” she said. “As soon as we got home from the hospital, I got out of the car and I found a robin’s egg. Then, I was walking down a dirt road at our lake house and I found a rock in the shape of a heart. I just feel like [Drew] is our guardian angel.”

The Crosslands created a memorial around a redbud tree Drew had planted, incorporating rocks decorated with messages from his friends.

The family was only gradually learning to cope with their loss when Dallas entered STOP’s scholarship program, and God gave their tragedy a purpose.

Healing through sharing

Karen Leisner, coordinator for the Regional Prevention Center of Johnson, Leavenworth and Miami Counties in Olathe, said the scholarship essay submitted by Dallas was exactly what the agency was looking for.

“His application was exactly what STOP wanted to reward kids for — someone who was impacted and wants to take a stand against teenage drinking,” she said.

Leisner met the Crossland family at the STOP scholarship awards banquet in June 2007. When Jeane and George asked if there was any way they could become involved, Leisner didn’t hesitate.

STOP provided the perfect venue for the Crosslands to share their experience, suggested Leisner. By sharing their story, the couple could perhaps prevent future tragedies by helping to change old attitudes toward teen drinking.

Audience reaction to the Crosslands’ speech has been “nothing but positive and supportive,” said Leisner. “They’re the last ones to leave the room at these presentations because so many people come up and want to talk.”

The schools have embraced the program and several have made it mandatory for both students and parents to attend. Leisner said STOP is extremely grateful to the Crosslands.

“They’ve been so helpful to our coalition, and I’m very thankful that they’re volunteering and giving us that story to share,” she said. “They’re there to say, ‘Look, we are the typical family. We tried everything, we raised great kids, and this happened. So it could happen to anybody.’”

“It’s really tough getting up there sometimes,” said Jeane. “But I know what happened to us happens to a lot of families.”

“I just want to help one child,” she added quietly, “and I hope I have.”

About the author

Jill Esfeld

Jill Esfeld

Jill Ragar Esfeld received a degree in Writing from Missouri State University and started her profession as a magazine feature writer, but quickly transitioned to technical/instructional writing where she had a successful career spanning more than 20 years. She returned to feature writing when she began freelancing for The Leaven in 2004. Her articles have won several awards from the Catholic Press Association. Jill grew up in Christ the King parish in Kansas City, Missouri; and has been a member of Holy Trinity Parish in Lenexa, Kansas, for 35 years.

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