Joan Kret holds a photo of her son Kevin – who was an avid snowboarder and skateboarder. Joan, youth minister in St. Leo the Great Parish, Lincroft, is an advocate for the “Helmets for Life” campaign and has spoken in schools across the state to promote helmet safety. Jeff Bruno photo
Joan Kret holds a photo of her son Kevin – who was an avid snowboarder and skateboarder. Joan, youth minister in St. Leo the Great Parish, Lincroft, is an advocate for the “Helmets for Life” campaign and has spoken in schools across the state to promote helmet safety. Jeff Bruno photo

Open any door to any home, and behind it, you’ll find a story. One filled with laughter and tears, family and loneliness, challenges and decisions, love and despair.

All of these can be found in the Kret family home – along with an unwavering faith and surrender to the Lord.

“You might expect this to be an agonizing story about quality of life and the demise of a happy family where tragedy has struck, but it’s not,” Michael Kret says in an online journal the family kept after their son’s accident – one that profoundly changed their lives. 

Instead, the past decade can be best summarized by the name of the family’s journal: “Kevin’s Journey of Hope.”

An Unexpected Journey

It was July 31, 2009, when Kevin Kret sustained a traumatic brain injury skateboarding outside the family’s Middletown home. Kret, home for the summer from Pennsylvania’s Villanova University, was 19 years old.

The prognosis was devastating, say Kevin’s parents, Michael and Joan Kret, members of St. Leo the Great Parish, Lincroft. The possibility of recovery was less than 2 percent, and the doctors were looking to the family for what course of direction they wanted to take.

At the time, on their online journal, Michael wrote: “It seemed strange to me that in our society we generally agree that is wrong and usually unlawful to take a life, but we are not required to sustain a life.’”

Today, looking back, Joan says, “There was never a decision to be made. We were going to do everything possible to save Kevin’s life. And we would do it all over again.

“Our faith, respect for life and the love of our son made the journey easier. Kevin would have done the same for us. We know that.”

Kevin never came out of his unconscious state. But that did not stop the Kret family, which includes children Dylan, 27, Megan, 25, and Jenny, 23, from having almost 11 more years of memories with Kevin – traveling with him in a wheelchair, posing for family photos and celebrating birthdays and holidays.

Kevin died on April 5 of this year – Palm Sunday.

Loss During COVID

Kevin going into the hospital at the height of the pandemic meant Joan and Michael could not go into the emergency room with their son when he was admitted. It was the first time Kevin had been truly alone in more than 10 years – without family, friends or the home nurses who had become like family by his side.

Kevin aspirated in the emergency room. Joan and Michael were then allowed in to say their goodbyes.

“Kevin was buried on Good Friday – how fitting for someone who carried his cross for so many years,” Michael said.

Losing someone during COVID-19 was an experience they did not expect. “Never did we imagine that Kevin’s funeral would be a small intimate affair with just immediate family,” Michael continued. “He touched so many people over the years, and we decided early on to share his life’s journey, so we just assumed, if the time came, we would need to share his death. God spared us that responsibility. There was no wake, no funeral Mass, and no repast gathering due to the pandemic.” 

He continued, “For the next several weeks during the lockdown, we transitioned from life with Kevin in person, to life with Kevin in spirit. We created a special room in our house with all of our favorite pictures, statues and memorabilia. Joan planted a memorial garden in the backyard. I placed 10 crosses on the wall in my office – one for each year that Kevin carried his cross here on earth. We mourned, we prayed, we laughed and cried, reliving some of our most special family memories. Like many aspects of Kevin’s journey, his death was truly an incredible experience and a gift we will always cherish.”

Every Day a Gift

In the months after Kevin’s accident, before he was released home into his family’s care, his parents came across one of his journals. In it, the teenager had written, “My Mom said in a text message [that] whenever I have a bad day to remember that tomorrow is another day and bound to be better.”

The Krets say that is how they tried to live day to day.

“Every day had its challenges, and every day was different. But every day was also a blessing – a gift from God. And we never forgot that,” Joan says. “After a couple of months, we knew this was our new normal and that Kevin would not ‘come back’ to be able to do what he used to do.  But he was still Kevin.  His whole spirit could be felt by us and by anybody who met him. Every morning, we were able to sit with him, pray with him. To just be with him was always the start of a good day.”  

Many of those days were detailed through the writing on “Kevin’s Journey of Hope.” At first, the online journal was a way to keep loved ones informed of Kevin’s progress. And as the word spread, so did the support.

Father Gerald Johnson (Selvam Asirvatham), who was serving in St. Leo the Great Parish at the time, sent the link to someone he knew in India. The Krets received photos in response showing 30-40 schoolchildren who were praying for Kevin every day.

“People all over the world prayed for Kevin. And not just Catholics or Christians, but people from all different faiths,” Michael said. “Maybe that was Kevin’s legacy. He got people to pray.”  

Meanwhile, parishioners started showing up at the Kret home while the family was at the hospital – widening doors, creating a wheelchair-accessible shower, installing an elevator lift in the garage.

As time progressed, the online journal turned into what Joan and Michael call “more of a book.” Instead of status updates, the entire Kret family began to write to Kevin directly:

Hi Kevin – It’s Mom. Home, sweet, home! Now you can feel our presence around you all day and all night. We believe this is where your true healing will begin.

Hi Kev – It’s Dad. You know how Dad is always trying to figure things out – well the other day it hit me. You must be conscious because you communicate very clearly when we are observant.

Indeed, Kevin’s condition was one that others sometimes found difficult to understand.

“It physically looked like he was in a coma, so people assumed he couldn’t hear us,” said Megan, an occupational therapist at Children’s Specialized Hospital, New Brunswick. “But from all the extensive tests that were done, he was there and registering and responding in his own way.”

Michael compared Kevin’s diagnosis to that of someone in the latter stages of Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS). Kevin may have been “locked in,” but he could hear, though he couldn’t respond. “We made sure everybody spoke with him and knew that when Kevin was in the room, to include him in conversations,” Michael said.

Additional Blessings

Kevin, a graduate of Christian Brothers Academy, Lincroft, who attended grammar school in St. Leo the Great school, lived his Catholic faith – as does his family. 

“From day one, we prayed,” said Joan, youth minister in St. Leo the Great Parish. “The Rosary was our go-to prayer.  It was a beautiful thing to witness Kevin’s friends sitting on the floor all over the place [in the hospital], saying the Rosary. Even non-Catholics were saying the Rosary. As the years passed, we continued to say the Rosary as a community either at prayer services in St. Leo the Great or at his annual Walk the Walk with Kevin at CBA.”

His spirit of hope was felt by passers-by, too.

“I particularly remember a concert at Radio City Music Hall in New York City. He didn’t cough once, tolerated the commute to New York and looked so peaceful,” Michael said. “A young lady came down the aisle, gave Kev a big hug and hung out with him for several songs. A beautiful memory. I think she was drawn to his spirit.” 

Kevin’s life also inspired his siblings. “When Kevin went into an unconscious state – there were big shoes to be filled,” said Dylan, who followed a similar path to that of his brother. Dylan graduated Villanova University with a degree in electrical engineering.

Megan and Jenny studied occupational therapy – a decision, Jenny said, that was influenced by the heartwarming nurses who worked tirelessly with Kevin in their home every day. “It inspired us to want to help Kevin and other people like him,” she said.

“I feel like God made that path for me, and I just followed it,” added Megan, who explained that around the time Kevin died, she got a full-time position on the brain injury team at Children’s Specialized Hospital.

“I thought initially, this is going to be super difficult – my brother just passed away from a brain injury,” she said. “But actually, it was so comforting because I was around these families who were going through the same thing. I feel like that was God’s plan.”

Reliance on Faith

The Kret family is among the countless faithful across the Diocese of Trenton – and beyond – who continue to grieve the loss of a loved one, past and present – perhaps even more so during November, the Month of Remembrance.

But they are steadfast in admitting that it’s faith in God and hope that, as Kevin’s note said, help them “to remember that tomorrow is another day.”

“I thank God for my upbringing and the greatest gift of Catholic faith from my parents to help us through the ‘bad’ days,” Joan said. “Kevin was close to God before his accident, so that gave us great comfort. We knew he was in God’s embrace here on earth and now in heaven. We believe that Kevin is now in eternal bliss.”   

Added Michael, “One of the blessed who we encountered on the journey is Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati. He died in his early twenties, and like Kevin had wisdom far beyond his years. I think he best summarized what we learned on Kevin’s journey:

“It (life) is a difficult battle, but we must strive to win it and to rediscover our small road to Damascus in order to walk toward the destination to which we all must arrive.  What is clear is that faith is the only anchor of salvation and we must hold tightly to it; without it, what would our lives be?  Nothing, or rather, wasted, because in life there is always suffering, and suffering without faith is unbearable.  But suffering that is nourished by the flame of faith becomes something beautiful, because it tempers the soul to deal with suffering.”