MOWEAQUA — From the front yard at his Moweaqua home, Trevor Higgins sat in a lawn chair and began fidgeting with his wedding band and the bracelets that wrap around his wrist.
He knew the ensuing conversation would hurt, it would be uncomfortable and the words would be tough to come by, but he was ready to tell his story.
Higgins, an educator and head football coach at Pana High School, and his wife, Jeri Ann, face battles every minute of every day and have for the last 11 months after their son, Evan Higgins, tragically died on July 28, 2019 after drowning in the family pool at the age of 4.
The family has leaned on their faith as they’ve spent the past months trying to move forward as best they can. That process has been grueling and some days are better than others, but their faith continues to grow stronger.
“This is the best spot that we’ve been in mentally since it happened,” Trevor said. “The one year is coming up and I know that’s going to set us back. We also know that there’s got to be a reason for the pain. Our reason is to tell our story, to get people to know the God we serve so that when our days are over here, I want all my friends, all my family, I want everybody to be there when I see Evan again, when I see my mom again. That’s going to be a joyous place.
“People read this story and hear this story and evaluate their relationship with God. Even if there’s not one and they start thinking about a relationship with God, we know that Evan is saving lives.”
Their goal is to pass that message of faith on to others, along with one of the importance of water safety. They’re moving forward as best they can. They want to give their 2-year-old son, Owen, the best life they possibly can — the kind that Evan had.
“I’m not going to be misleading and tell you there haven’t been days where there hasn’t been bitterness or anger,” Jeri Ann said in a statement. “There have been days where I’ve wanted to throw in the towel, the days where the pain seems relentless and unbearable. We miss Evan like crazy.
"Even on the better days when we’ve really focused on trying to make Owen’s life as normal and happy as possible, I still beg God every night to take us all home. That’s the only way our family will be complete again. With all the craziness going on in this world, the end has to be close, right? But until that day comes, we know we need to continue to be the good for others and use the tragic situation we’ve been given to glorify God.”
A family built on faith
Trevor and Jeri Ann have made faith the bedrock of their marriage. Sitting inside a room at HSHS St. John’s in Springfield in July, they knew that foundation had to be strong. Without it, pressing forward in the face of their new reality would be an impossible task.
“Strong is not a word I would have ever used to describe myself,” Jeri Ann said. “If you would have asked me a year ago if I could survive child loss I would have said, ‘Impossible, absolutely not.’ And the truth is I’m not surviving child loss on my own. That would be impossible.
“The night we learned that Evan wouldn’t be coming home with us was the night Trevor and I had the first opportunity to sit down and try to figure out how we were going to navigate life on Earth without him. We knew without a doubt that we were going to have to lean on our faith in God and love for each other more than we ever had.
“When the boys came along, church and our family’s relationship with Christ needed to be a priority. I find a lot of comfort in knowing the day Evan went to heaven he knew who Jesus was. He loved singing and dancing at church and learning about Jesus.”
A relationship with God, Trevor said, is like any relationship on Earth. There’s anger, friction and questioning. He has scriptures posted on his bathroom mirror, and on days when the battle seems too big to wage, he repeats them over and over inside his head. Their faith hasn’t wavered, but there’s still the here-and-now and the pain that comes with the days without their first-born son.
“One of the things they said right off the bat is, ‘It’s OK to fight with God,’” Higgins said, pausing to gather his words, “‘because he understands what it’s like to lose his son.' If you’re going to ask big questions like, ‘Why,’ then you’ve got to start digging into the resources that he’s provided. That’s what I’ve done.
"With all this stuff going on, it’s given me plenty of time to start digging into the Bible and figuring it out if there is a why. By doing that I’ve found scriptures that I read everyday. … How this grief is not even going to be comparable to the joy that we’re going to feel after our lives are over. That gives us hope.”
Trevor said digging deeper to look for answers has caused their faith to mature
“It’s really easy to say you have faith when things are going well" Trevor said. "But when the worst thing that can happen to you, happens to you, you’ve got a choice to make. That’s where you finally find out how strong your faith is.
“We hope by sharing our story that other people can find that faith because I don’t know how you live in this world, especially with everything going on now, without faith and without the love of God; a guy that’s always there for you, even in the toughest times or the good times.”
July 26, 2019
On July 26, 2019, Trevor, Evan and Owen Higgins were playing in the driveway of their home. It was a typical summer activity for them. Evan was playing with his favorite toy: A giant, inflatable water slide.
Like every day in the summer, they finished playing in the driveway and Evan ran to the swing set in the backyard, where he had just taught himself how to swing — a point of major excitement for him. Trevor cleaned the driveway up in anticipation of Jeri Ann returning home shortly after, picked up Owen and went around to the back of the house.
“When I went around to the swing set, he wasn’t there like he normally was,” Trevor said. “The last place I thought to look was the pool because I thought we had done a really good job of teaching him, he was in swim lessons and,” he paused for words, “we always made it a point to tell him he couldn’t go near the pool without mommy and daddy. He actually one time stopped Owen from crawling up to the second level of our deck. We thought that we had taught him well enough.”
They had precautions in place, including a baby gate on the stairs and a sliding door that was double locked.
“When he wasn’t on the swing set, you just get that gut feeling that something really bad happened,” Trevor said. “I went to the pool and that’s where I found him. He was right next to the ladder. It couldn’t have been more than 30 seconds to a minute. I had just picked up a couple things and I picked up Owen and I walked back there. I thought it couldn’t have been that long because I was out there with him; we could get him back.
“We didn’t know at the time that drowning in kids can take less than 30 seconds. We didn’t know it’s the No. 1 accidental death in children under five and it’s normally during non-swim times. Kids usually sneak out or get away from their parents, so I jumped in, I got him, started CPR and you probably know the rest from there.”
Evan was taken to the hospital before dying on July 28, 2019. The family partnered with Gift of Hope — one of the rubber bracelets that Trevor wears around his wrist to match the flag hanging on the pole in his front yard — to donate Evan’s tissues and organs.
There was a ceremony outside HSHS St. Johns that was attended by family, friends, members of the Pana and Springfield Sacred Heart-Griffin football teams and staff. The flag that now hangs in the Higgins’ family yard flew outside the hospital for three days.
“When we found out for sure that he was not coming back, we just thought it was the right thing to do if we could save another child; if we could save a set of parents that are going through what we’re going through,” Trevor said. “With our belief, Evan was with Jesus as soon as he hit the pool.
“When we were approached by Gift of Hope, we knew it was what we needed to do. Our pastor in Moweaqua said that Evan got to be more like Jesus than any of us ever could because he changed physical lives; and through his story, he can save spiritual lives. He can save people from eternity. Even though it took longer in the hospital and seeing him on that bed, as hard as that was, we knew that he was going to save people, that he was going to be our hero, so we never questioned it. We knew that was the right thing to do — as hard as it was for us.”
The importance of water safety
Trevor and Jerri Ann have since added a fence between the swing set and their pool. But they won’t open the pool this year, and Trevor is unsure if they’ll ever open it again. The fence is another layer of protection.
They’re in water safety groups on Facebook, and the message spreads beyond pools; it includes ponds, beaches, bath tubs.
“We just caution parents that, even if you think you have enough, if there’s another layer you can add, you need to do it,” Trevor said. “You’d rather be too safe than suffer through this and live through this.
“If you’re a parent, you realize there are always times a kid just slips away,” Trevor said. “Even if you look up and they’re gone and in the other room. In that amount of time, that’s the amount of time it takes a kid to take to drown.
“If there’s any type of parties or big group gatherings, pick one person to always be watching the water. One misconception I always thought was, I was out here and I didn’t hear anything. … They say it’s a silent killer. They say if they take one breath at the right time, their body goes into shock and their heart stops. You’ve got to make sure that somebody is always watching the water, just in case.”
Getting back on the sidelines
When the Higgins family returned home from the hospital, Trevor couldn’t imagine coaching the Pana football team that season. Just more than a month separated Evan’s accident from the season-opener against Staunton.
“When your life gets torn apart, the last thing you want to do is work. … I was broken,” Trevor said.
He called defensive coordinator Ryan Lipe to share that he wasn’t ready to coach football yet. Lipe, though, absorbed all head coaching duties for the season and told Trevor to come to the practices he felt he could attend and to the games.
Trevor left some practices early and couldn’t show up to some. Part of the reason he hesitated to coach was because he wasn’t sure he could be all the way in the game mentally. He didn’t want to do a disservice to his players by being halfway there. As things moved forward, though, and with the help of his assistant coaches, Trevor coached all 12 games for Pana last season.
“My assistant coaches did an amazing job of really stepping up,” Trevor said. “But as I went along — we had an amazing group of kids last year, and I talk about just the seniors a lot because it’s their last year, but from seniors down to freshmen, we had a great group of kids — being out there was almost like a therapy for me.
“I took Evan everywhere with me, but the two places that he wasn’t with me were practice and games. Just to be with the coaches and be with the kids, what they did for me and my family, there are just no words that will do justice, but they helped us get through the darkest time of our lives.”
The practice field was therapeutic and got him out of a house that’s filled with Evan’s memories, photos and toys.
“It’s hard just to sit in there, you know? Especially just at the beginning,” Trevor said. “I think just getting away for a little bit, just getting back to something I love to do, which was coaching. When you come back home, you realize how good that was to get out, to try to get back to what little normal you can feel. I also don’t think people realize just how hard it was.”
From a mental standpoint, practices were easy. Trevor calls the offense and knows every detail of his own system. Teach the kids, and plunge forward. He’s been doing that for years.
The games, however, were different.
Coaches have to identify what opposing teams are doing and make the appropriate counters to put their players in the best position to succeed. But seconds before kickoff, after the teams had run onto the field — and in the case of Pana at home, through an elaborate celebration that included fireworks and that Gift of Hope flag — Higgins was struggling to make it through.
“When the fireworks go off and the National Anthem starts — and that was Evan’s favorite part. He loved singing the National Anthem — you’re trying to mentally prepare for a game and yet you’re sobbing during the National Anthem. It was really hard. There were some games I felt I didn’t call my best game because I couldn’t mentally be there 100 percent. Overall, they would define it as a successful season with that group of kids we had, but it was hard to get through.”
Every year, Trevor tells all of his players he loves them. Most years, and he understands that not all high school players feel the urge to return the sentiment, he doesn’t hear it back. He’s fine with that. This year, though, he heard it more than before.
The community that feverishly supports the team also banded around the Higgins family. They cried with them, cried for them and cheered every step of the way from the season-opening win, through the regular season and to the quarterfinals in Class 2A.
“I can tell you that the support from the community was another major factor in us moving along day to day and another major factor in getting me out of bed on days that I didn’t want to wake up, and I just wanted to lay there," Trevor said.
Everyday is a battle for the Higgins family. Trying to return to any sense of normalcy comes with the backdrop of guilt.
“You almost feel guilty for having fun or having a good day because, again, he’s not here,” Trevor said. “We’re trying to move on with our lives but also not forget his, and that’s really hard to do.”
The process of moving forward — not moving on — is full of delicate dances. Trevor has heard the saying, “Time heals all wounds.” That person, he said, didn’t lose a child.
“At the beginning it felt like a nightmare that you couldn’t wake up from,” Trevor said. “As you go on, it almost,” he sighed to catch his breath, “it almost feels like it was a dream that he was even here. It feels like years since I’ve seen him. Or held him. … You don’t want to forget all the memories, but as you go along you do start to forget little things.
“Talking with people that have been in this situation, most of them say it takes 2-4 years before you can actually get back on your feet. I understand that now, where I couldn’t understand it before.”
Trevor and Jeri Ann still have a son, Owen, to raise, and announced this week that they’re expecting a daughter in December. They want to give their children the life that Evan had in his four years.
Trevor described themselves as helicopter parents, always with their kids. Now, he feels himself hovering, fearful of everything. With time, he understands his children will need space. Add that to the list of battles.
They see Christian counselors every two weeks, trying to get through this as best they can — whatever that looks like for them.
“Obviously when it happened, the hospital stay and all that stuff was so hard, but as you go along, you start to realize this is your new reality,” Trevor said. “This is our new life. A lot of people say, ‘You and Jerri Ann are so strong and there’s no way we could ever do that.’ But we didn’t get the choice. It’s not a superpower that you get all of a sudden because it happened to you.
"But we tried to be strong, especially for Owen. He doesn’t deserve a sad childhood. He deserves everything that Evan got. I think that’s one of the factors of why it looks like we’re strong on the outside, because we’re trying to portray that to him, so he can live his life and be happy.”
They want to hear peoples’ memories of Evan. He won’t be forgotten in their family's memories and stories, even if they can be painful to hear.
“We’re never going to be healed or whole,” Trevor said. “We’re never going to be the same people. Some people have seen a difference in us. It’s not like we can go back. We’re going to have to live with that, and I think that's the worst part is that we will live with this until our last day here — as many years as that is. Every day we’re going to wake up and he’s not going to be here.”
Four years with their son weren't enough, but those four years were beautiful.
“Evan loved and lived life to the fullest. The best way we can honor him is to try our best to do the same,” Jeri Ann said. “We are blessed that God chose us to be Evan’s parents. As parents, we really are blessed knowing Evan is in heaven and when our time on this Earth is over, we will see him again.
"On the really tough days I like to imagine what that day will look like. The day I hear, 'Well done, good and faithful one.' Then I will hear from a sweet, little 4-year-old voice, 'Good job Mommy! You did it!' That’s the gift of hope and faith. That’s where my strength comes from.”
PHOTOS: Pana coach Trevor Higgins
Contact Joey Wagner at (217) 421-6970. Follow him on Twitter: @mrwagner25