Godwinks: A Chance Meeting

Author: Sandy Isom

Editor's Note: The TAPS Wall of Heroes is a fixture at every National Military Survivor Seminar. The wall — a display of tiles, each featuring the photo of a fallen hero whose loved one is in attendance — is prominently displayed in the center of activity at the seminar. Throughout each day of the event, attendees, staff, volunteers, and guests pass by the wall — sometimes turning their heads for grateful glances, other times scanning for the familiar face who brought them there. It is a place to share stories of life and loss, leave notes, and — sometimes — make connections with perfect strangers walking parallel paths of grief.

It started as a blur two years ago when I lost my son, Ryan. We were still grieving the recent loss of his wife and had no idea how we would raise our young grandson, Kayden. I'm still unsure how it happened, but somehow we were connected to TAPS early on in our journey. I had no idea it would become the place that would help us begin to move forward with a sense of purpose.


Ryan with his wife and Kayden

Ryan and Kayden


This past May we attended our second TAPS event and very first national seminar. Still curious about where I might fit in, I was kindly directed to a large room where I thought a particular grief session was being held. There were very few people in this room, but I was immediately drawn to one young man sitting alone at a table, so I joined him. His name was Joe, and he and I talked about Rome, where he was from, and all the beautiful sights there. He noticed my photo button of Ryan which sparked a much deeper conversation about mental health and loss. We shared stories of our loved ones and even laughed and cried together there in that conference room. It was evident that we were meant to be connected. He lost his father, and I lost my son. Our losses were different, but each of us simply understood the other. More than an hour had passed when we realized that we were likely in the wrong room for the scheduled grief session, but we knew we were right where we were meant to be. As we parted, I gave him my photo button to keep, and he gave me a bracelet he was wearing that had been blessed by the pope. Through more tears, we hugged tightly, remembering our people together.


Sandy and her husband with Kayden


The next day couldn't come fast enough, as my grandson, Kayden, simply couldn't wait to get to Good Grief Camp! I dropped him off and began heading toward the resource area. I saw my new friend, Joe, running toward me with excitement as he said, "Sandy, I want to show you something; follow me!"

He led me to the TAPS Wall of Heroes and there they were, together, side-by-side — the photo tiles of his dad and my Ryan. We stood there in complete awe with tears of gratitude in our eyes. How did this chance meeting of two complete strangers suddenly turn into a much deeper connection? Joe explained to me that he hadn’t spoken about his dad in years, but that this experience had changed everything for him. 

It was all because of the Godwink. I have no doubt in my mind this chance encounter was orchestrated by our people in heaven. We both came to this seminar feeling broken and unsure. We left with hope. 

Years ago, on a trip to Italy, I threw pennies into a fountain in Rome. Today, Joe passes by that fountain carrying Ryan’s photo button and the stories of our fallen heroes. Their legacies live on through Joe, through me, and through us all. I hope to visit him there one day. 

I miss Ryan every day of my life. I miss his smile; that mischievous look he gave me from time to time. His death left a giant hole in my heart that is now being filled with new memories in his honor. TAPS has been a game-changer for my family and because of my Godwinks, life is starting to look a little clearer.

Sandy Isom is the surviving mother of Sergeant Ryan Christopher Isom, U.S. Marine Corps Veteran.

Photos courtesy of Sandy Isom.