Moniqueka Rucker experienced every parent’s worst nightmare: the death of a child. Learning how to navigate life without her firstborn son was devastating, but Rucker was determined not to let bitterness take root. Her desire to make beauty from ashes has led to multiple outreach opportunities where she shares her son’s story as a cautionary tale.
Moniqueka Rucker spoke through tears. “It’s completely heartbreaking to lose a child,” she said. “Really, it is devastating.” Such a loss during the holiday season adds a painful poignancy, one that repeats annually as the whole world adorns itself in festivity that contradicts your truth.
Rucker has loved Christmas since she was a child. She made sure her kids were immersed in holiday magic every December, continuing even as they grew up and moved on to their own homes and careers. For Christmas 2020, Rucker claims she felt an urge in her spirit to do a family photo session. Those images of everyone together, wearing matching holiday pajamas and laughing, are some of her most cherished possessions.
“I had no idea it would be the last Christmas we were all together, but God knew,” she said.
On Christmas Eve 2021, Rucker heard that her 30-year-old son, Benny Hood, had not returned home after going out to pay some bills. It was not like him to not respond to calls or texts. It would be one agonizing Christmas and two full days before she found out what happened to him. At the time, Hood was living with his girlfriend in what Rucker describes as an extremely toxic union.
“She would engage in criminal activity while Benny was working two jobs. She was involved in fights and was physically abusive, but there was nothing we could do to pull him away from that situation,” Rucker said, her voice filled with lament. In one instance, when the couple had gotten into a particularly violent argument, Rucker begged her son to leave. “I warned him that something bad would happen to him. I told him, ‘I’m your mother, not your friend. I can’t tell you what you want to hear, but when God shows you how people are, you can’t slap Him in the face and still do whatever you want.’”
“I realized that sometimes, in our pain, we have to learn how to say thank you because the pain isn’t permanent.”Moniqueka Rucker
Hood had a young daughter from a previous relationship who lived with her mother out of state. He missed her terribly and showered that fatherly love on his girlfriend’s daughter, whom he treated as his own. After paying his bills that Christmas Eve, Hood went to Walmart to get toys for the little girl.
Rucker will never know what drove Hood to shoplift that night, whether it was a lack of money after paying his bills or pressure from his girlfriend. “He got confronted by the cops. I’m assuming he was afraid to go to jail, but he pulled out a gun,” Rucker said. “It was so beyond his character to do that, but the police shot him, and he died.” Learning the details of her son’s death added a new layer of pain and confusion to Rucker’s grief. “Benny was raised in a culture of law enforcement. I’ve worked in law enforcement and for a prosecution office since he was 5 years old. My husband is a police officer, so when we heard it, we were like, ‘What? Are you sure?’”
Rucker admits she was in a very dark place during the following days and months.
“I remember pacing the floor at the funeral home, just sitting there staring at the casket,” she said. “My husband couldn’t say anything. When I saw Benny’s face, he looked at rest. I knew he’d entered that place of rest. He was no longer hurting in any way.”
Rucker’s faith was her anchor as she learned to live without her firstborn son. Unable to eat, she lost 30 pounds and had to take anxiety medication, but over time, healing began. “I began to tell the Lord that I accept His will,” she said. “I realized that God had lost His son first, that Mary had lost her son, too. He said, ‘I will give you beauty for your ashes. I make everything beautiful in its time.’” She relied on that encouraging thought as some people blamed her for her son’s death. “There was so much rejection and blame.”
Although it is normal for parents to feel guilt and question how they could have parented differently, it stings when others point fingers of accusation.
“For a while, I let those accusations penetrate me,” said Rucker, who has a master’s degree in Christian counseling, “but I learned that I did what I could do as a mother. My husband did all he could do. Everyone who loved Benny did all they could do.” Gratitude was also a major part of Rucker finding a place of peace. “I told God, ‘Thank you for 30 years with my son.’ I thanked Him that I loved Benny with every fiber of my being and accepted him for who he was. I realized that sometimes, in our pain, we have to learn how to say thank you because the pain isn’t permanent. I asked the Lord to help me spread hope and encouragement.”
Rucker has seen that prayer answered through various speaking engagements where she shares her story. One of her first events was with ChickTime, a nonprofit in Conyers that serves teenagers aging out of the foster care system. Rucker reminded them that what happens to us is not who we must become. She also goes to elementary schools to talk to kids about listening to their parents. “I tell them that whether they like it or not,” Rucker said, “choices have consequences.” She has also met many other parents who have lost children. Her message to them is to appreciate the time they did have with their children as a gift and trust that God can bring something beautiful out of their loss.
Rucker was diagnosed with breast cancer in May. She has received a great deal of support through long days of chemotherapy and radiation.
“God has a plan for us, and I’ve had so many people loving on me,” she said. “I’m usually the giver and have been receiving so much; it’s overwhelming.” Rucker believes God spoke to her spirit during the ordeal: “‘Moniqueka, now I can trust you with trouble.’” She finds comfort in those words. “I’ll always miss my son,” she said. “I may never have closure, but I am thankful that God can trust me with trouble.”