Parents say faith helps them cope with son's death

Maxson Bryan, Arnell and Jackson Petrzilka display the last photo they took of their son, Ben, before he was killed while away at Boy Scout camp. (Photo | Lisa Maxson)

Bryan and Arnell Petrzilka of Omaha always saw their son, Ben, as a gift from God. He was born five years after the couple experienced a miscarriage, and for several years he was their only child.


His brother, Jackson, was born when Ben was eight.


Because it was difficult to conceive Ben, the couple said they understood him to be God's child - one that they were to care for on earth.


The 13-year-old died June 11 when a tornado hit Little Sioux Scout Ranch in western Iowa. Three other Boy Scouts died in the tornado - Sam Thomsen, Josh Fennen and Aaron Eilerts - and more than 40 were injured.


"If we're just taking care of God's children until he wants them back, then after spending 13 years with Ben, I know why he wanted him back," Bryan said. "He was a special person, a good boy, so there's no doubt he's in heaven,"


"We're just glad God gave him to us," Arnell said. "We are just grateful that we had him for 13 years."


"It still feels like he's going to walk in the door," Bryan said.


From the strength of their Catholic faith and their trust in God, the Petrzilkas are learning to live without their son, who they said brought much joy and happiness to their family.


"I don't know how people could do this without God," Arnell told the Catholic Voice. "Without our faith, I'd feel like I was jumping off a 50-story building and nobody's catching me. With faith, I feel like there's this net. Every day I slip a little, but it just kind of bounces you back up and keeps you right where you're supposed to be."

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The Petrzilkas pray daily and rely on the support of the people around them, including their family and friends, Scout families, members of Mary Our Queen Parish and their pastor, Father Bob English.


Night of the storm


Arnell was working at Red Lobster the night of the storm and rushed home when she got word of the tornado at Little Sioux. She and Bryan drove to the camp that evening to check on Ben.


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"Through the whole thing I just kept saying I would know. I would know in my heart if Ben was gone," Arnell said. "I don't think we got scared until they got to the third list of names and Ben's name wasn't on it."


Eventually, Little Sioux authorities identified Ben's body and informed the Petrzilkas of his death.


A doctor told them Ben died instantly when he was hit in the head by a blunt object.


Bryan and Arnell said knowing Ben didn't suffer makes them feel a little better.


While they were at the camp, the couple met some of the boys who tried to resuscitate Ben. The boys were upset because they weren't able to bring him back, said Arnell, who spent time consoling the Scouts.


"I told them they didn't fail at bringing him back. He just wasn't coming back. He was already in heaven. His soul just soared as fast as it could," she said.


Remembering Ben


Ben, who had just finished the seventh grade, had a strong faith and was preparing for his confirmation, his parents said. From attending school at Mary Our Queen to being an altar server at the church to his involvement in Boy Scouts since the first grade, Ben's life revolved around God, they said. The family also often talked about faith at home.


"Our faith just came up in our conversations," Arnell said.


Since Ben's death, the couple said they've found signs of their son's strong faith, including prayers Ben, who was a member of Troop 448, wrote and four walking sticks on which he carved a cross. They also came across his journal - the journal he took with him to Little Sioux and in which he wrote about his time at the camp. In it they found a prayer for his safety and the safety of his family.


In addition to his love of the faith, Ben liked spending time with friends. He played football and baseball, and enjoyed hunting, fishing and camping. When friends would spend the night, they liked to sleep in a tent in the backyard, Bryan said.


Ben also loved playing Star Wars and Legos with his brother, he said.


Moving on


Bryan and Arnell know many people experience anger during the grieving process, but they say they don't have anything to be angry about.


"It was a tornado. Nobody took him from us. It's just something that happened," Arnell said. "How can we be angry about our child being in heaven?"


The couple said they are left with wonderful memories of their son.


Bryan said he treasures the last few hours he spent with Ben - when he drove Ben to Little Sioux and spent time with him at the camp. When he left, he gave Ben a hug and told him he was loved.


"There was nothing to look back on and say we wish we would've done this or we wish we would've done that," Arnell said. "Every day was special."


Printed with permission from the Catholic Voice, newspaper for the Archdiocese of Omaha.