Ethan William Ellsworth of Phoenix may have been born with a malformation of veins in his brain, but his heart couldn’t have been more perfect. Ethan’s condition — arteriovenous malformation — was undetected until his brain suddenly hemorrhaged one night, sending the otherwise healthy and happy 7½-year-old boy to the hospital for diagnosis and emergency surgery.
The crisis triggered several days of intense family faith, prayer and soul searching. When the doctors reported that nothing could be done to repair the damage, his parents made the most difficult decision of their lives — to remove their young hero from life support.
On March 26, 2011, they said a sacred goodbye.
For some families, the date might have marked the end of something wonderful and the beginning of the long, dark days of navigating the grey fog of grief. But for the Ellsworth family, the date sparked the beginning of a new opportunity to spread Ethan’s spirit of service.
Ethan’s parents, Marcus and Kim Ellsworth, have long believed in the immeasurable value of serving others and have raised their children in a culture of kindness. But it’s not simply what they believe — it is who they are.
Even still, Ethan’s death deepened that understanding. They quickly learned that while their beautiful son might not have been healed in this life, through serving others the family could collectively experience tremendous healing of a different kind.
In March 2012 as the one-year anniversary approached, the Ellsworth family pondered ways to remember their son and sibling and mark the tender date in a meaningful way. A friend suggested they perform random acts of kindness in his honor and invite the community to participate.
They chose to call it "Errands for Ethan" and hoped a handful of people might join their effort. With less than week to go before the anniversary, they used social media and their network of friends to spread the word. The Ellsworth’s were confident a few would join the cause.
They couldn’t have been more wrong.
By March 26, a Facebook event created to mark the big day boasted more than just a few. Twenty thousand people RSVP’d and committed to performing thousands of random acts of kindness in Ethan’s memory. Some were so moved by the idea, they shared their service experiences on a website at errandsforethan.org designed for the special day.
In 2013, the family has their sights set even higher.
With just three weeks to go and buzz building for the second annual "Errands for Ethan" day, I asked Kim Ellsworth to share the greatest lesson her son left behind. I wondered, "Is it really just about random acts of kindness?"
“Yes, it is about helping others,” she said. “But it's also the sense of forgetting yourself for others. We know the more we serve and give, the less we worry about ourselves.”
Kim added that more than anything, Ethan would want each of us to know how much Father in heaven loves us. “Our Father knows us and wants us to be happy. If these little acts of kindness can help in any way, Ethan would want to share that.”
“But,” she continued, “these errands are not for him, they are for others to feel loved. Because everyone needs to know what love feels like.”
Truer and more beautiful words have never been spoken: “Everyone needs to know what love feels like.”
Perhaps most impressive about "Errands for Ethan" is the family’s humble belief that they’re not extraordinary or any more special than any other family that’s lost a child. Kim describes themselves as just ordinary people with an ordinary child who suddenly left this life.
What makes their ordinary experience extraordinary, she believes, is the outpouring of love and comfort. “We want others to feel loved as much as we did in those days, weeks and months right after losing our son.”
And what better way to make others feel loved than to serve them?
With March 26 and "Errands for Ethan" day approaching, the Ellsworth’s invite everyone to perform an act of kindness in his memory, or in the memory of your own loved ones. And when March 27 arrives, perhaps our random acts of service will gather into a tidal wave that doesn’t care what the calendar says.
Because everyone needs to know what love feels like.
Jason F. Wright is a New York Times best-selling author of 10 books, including "Christmas Jars," "The Wednesday Letters," and "The 96th Annual Apple Valley Barn Dance." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or jasonfwright.com.