About three weeks ago, physician Jessica Brandes, N.D. and her husband, J.R. Storment, the president of a nonprofit trade association, were having a seemingly normal day, watching their 8-year-old son, Wiley, jump on a trampoline with friends in the yard of their Portland, OR, home. J.R. recalled scolding Wiley for being too bossy with the other kids—causing the boy to cry and protest that “no one listens” to him—but that the two made up after a few hours. Later on, the parents said good night and snuggled with Wiley and his twin brother, Oliver, before tucking them into bed.
Wiley, whom J.R. described as “healthy and engaged” that evening, went into his parents’ room shortly after, telling his father he couldn’t sleep. The dad reacted by going into the kids’ room and shutting the windows to keep out the noise from a party going on nearby. They said good night and snuggled again once more. That was the last time J.R. got to speak to Wiley.
The next morning, the mother checked in on her boys in their bedroom and noticed that while Oliver was already awake playing on his iPad, Wiley was still lying down. But he wasn’t sleeping in, as Jessica initially assumed. From his color and temperature, the physician-mom estimated that he had passed away about eight hours before.
As working parents, Jessica and J.R. have a rule not to call each other during the day unless it’s an emergency. Because of that, they both always answer whenever the other calls. When J.R. answered his wife’s call that morning, he was sitting in a conference room with a dozen people. As he walked to the door for more privacy, Jessica quickly broke the news to him: Wiley was dead, and she had to contact 911 immediately.
She also had to tell Oliver what happened, in a place he would feel safe, before first responders arrived.
Since the death of their epileptic son, whom they believe died of a rare and highly debated phenomenon called Sudden Unexplained Death of Epilepsy, or SUDEP, the mom and dad have adopted a radically different approach to being working parents. Before he got the call from his wife, J.R. had been telling the people in his meeting he’d not taken more than a week off combined in eight years. In his LinkedIn post, he revealed that he had come up with an “endless stream” of things he regrets following his son’s passing, such as being too strict with Wiley the evening before, or not buying the tent the boys had pooled their money for to go camping while Wiley was still alive. (The family has since gotten the wilderness gear and have gone camping.) “I’ve learned to stop waiting to do the things the kids ask for,” he wrote. As of his post on Sept. 3, J.R. had yet to return to work.
And he and Jessica are both taking a break from calls, emails and texts. In her post, the mother explained the motivation behind this decision perfectly. “From now on, if you email or text me and my reply takes longer than expected, know that I am with the people I love sharing my time, creating my new identity, and I encourage you to do the same.”
Both Jessica and J.R. encouraged working parents to spend as much time with their children as possible, with J.R. writing that the “one silver lining from this tragedy” is improving the relationship he has with his son Oliver. “Hug your kids. Don’t work too late. A lot of the things you are likely spending your time on you’ll regret once you no longer have the time. I’m guessing you have 1:1 meetings on the books with a lot of people you work with. Do you have them regularly scheduled with your kids?” he wrote. “If there’s any lesson to take away from this, it’s to remind others (and myself) not to miss out on the things that matter.”