HENRICO, VA (WWBT) - A Highland Springs woman, who lost three grandchildren in a fire, is speaking for the first time about her sorrow of spending the holidays without her babies.
"I was the gramma that was right there with them. They were like my best friends," said Linda Johnson.
Her three grandchildren died after a devastating apartment fire back in July. Her daughter's fiance was killed in that fire too - never able to meet his son, who is now two months old.
Johnson says she forced herself into the Christmas spirit by setting up an orange tree. She says that's because orange is a happy color that her grandchildren - which she now calls her angels - loved.
Loved ones say seven-year-old Jeremiah Gilliam was found covering his sisters, trying to shield them from a fire in their family's Highland Pointe apartment in July. All three - including 2-year-old Shyla and 1-year-old Sage - died two days later.
"There was a color on the wall where Jeremiah had marked the wall…I could smell them. I could hear them playing. Sometimes, I couldn't even go to my bedroom," said Johnson.
Johnson says she's now stronger than ever - even during this painful holiday season, when she'd normally have a packed tree.
"One of the ladies at work gave me one little boy angel and two little girl angels, because I don't really like Christmas," said Johnson.
Johnson says the memories of her grandchildren's visits overwhelmed her - so much so, that she left her own apartment and moved into a bright house filled with orange, all three babies' favorite color.
Johnson says the hardest part about moving on is knowing her daughter won't see these babies grow up, but this tragedy has grown her faith.
"Jeremiah, he used to say 'gramma, I'mma bring everybody to church.' And I sat as his funeral and I saw how packed the church was. And he brought everybody to church," said Johnson.
It's as if that was his purpose, she says. After all, one of Johnson's favorite scriptures is her eldest angel's namesake:
"I know the plans I have for you declares the Lord…Jeremiah 29:11," said Johnson.
Family says Jeremiah always wanted a brother. Then in October…another angel. Johnson says her fourth, Jedidiah, reminds her of her first three.
"When the pictures come up, I be like 'look how they look, so much alike. He'll look like Jeremiah, Sage, Shyla,'" said Johnson.
Because sometimes a few years - be it seven, two or one - is all it takes to leave a light that shines even in the darkest of days.
"I ask God all the time, why? And when I think about the season, it's about Jesus. It's his birthday. And God gave his only begotten son to die for us. So I couldn't be selfish that he chose my three. So no matter if you lose anybody, know that God has never left you," said Johnson.
Johnson says a family friend has stepped forward to create photos that will show the kids at pivotal events they won't be able to attend - like a prom or graduation.
In the meantime, she's still moving into her new house and soaking up all the time she can get with baby Jedidiah.
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