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Despite losing both her children, Zel Hester carries on… so that their light will always shine

Losing a child is probably one of the most difficult things a parent can experience. Losing two children is almost unimaginable. Just ask Jonesborough resident Zel Hester.
Hester lost her oldest son, Tommy, in 1993. His death came just 10 years after her younger son, Carter, was killed in a car accident.
“It was September 1983. Carter had just turned 16 in July and was driving to school,” Hester recalled. “Another 16-year-old was coming in the other direction. They hydroplaned and hit each other. Carter died within 24 hours.”
Hester was working as a secretary at a church in Georgia at the time and said she remembers getting the phone call that her youngest child had been in an accident.
“They told me I needed to come to the hospital. In my mind, he had a broken leg or hip or something. It literally never crossed my mind that he was going to die,” she said. “I never thought it until the doctors told me he was dead.”
When doctors told her nothing more could be done to save Carter, Hester said she “just stood there and screamed.”
“He had the keenest sense of humor and he could always find something funny in what was going on,” Hester recalled of her younger son. “Needless to say, when he died, the laughter went out of our home. Our family never recovered.”
Hester, her husband, and their other son, Tommy, created a new kind of normal following Carter’s death. They found a support group that helped with the healing. And although Hester admits she never stopped grieving, she carried on.
But in 1993, death returned to Hester’s doorstep, this time claiming the life of her only remaining child.
“Tommy was my best friend,” Hester said. “He was super intelligent and just a real loving man.”
Tommy was also HIV-positive. Diagnosed nine years earlier, Tommy managed to live a fairly normal life for several years before full-fledged AIDS caused his body to shut down in 1993. Tommy was just 29 years old when he died.
“I was there with Tommy when he took his last breath,” Hester said, fighting back tears. “I’m very thankful that I was able to be with both of my children when they came into the world — and when they went out.”
Hester credits her strong faith and sheer determination with getting her through her darkest days.
“I was bound and determined that my two sons’ deaths were not going to be stumbling blocks in my life,” she said. “They were going to be stepping stones. I was going to make their lives count for something.”
On Sunday, Hester, who works as a chaplain at the Johnson City Medical Center, honored both of her sons by lighting a candle in their memory at a service held at Jonesborough Presbyterian Church.
More than two dozen people attended the service, which was hosted by the Compassionate Friends of Tennessee Valley, a support group for people who have lost children.
Hester started the local chapter of Compassionate Friends after moving to Jonesborough about 9 years ago.
“The average person does not understand what it is like to lose a child. The only other person who can truly understand is a person who has been there,” Hester said. “This is a safe place where they can come and share their story.”
While Hester said the group can help parents in a lot of ways, she said nothing will ever make the grieving stop.
“So many parents come thinking we have the magic pill to take all this pain and horror away,” Hester said. “That’s not how it works. What it does do, is show parents that this horrendous pain and darkness — this pit you are living in — will not stay there. You will get out of it.”
The Compassionate Friends group meets on the third Tuesday of every month at 6 p.m. at Jonesborough Presbyterian Church. For more information, contact Hester at 913-1214 or visit www.compassionatefriends.org.