When country singer and Army veteran Craig Morgan‘s teenage son died in a boating accident in 2016, he didn’t find solace in music. Instead, the “That’s What I Love About Sunday” crooner turned to his family, his faith and an unexpected hobby: whittling wood found on his farm outside Nashville into handcrafted items.
“When we lost Jerry, I didn’t go to the guitar,” Morgan, 53, tells PEOPLE exclusively in his family’s first sit-down interview since the tragedy. “I went to the shop. … For me, my therapy was to go cut wood.”
Now, Morgan, his wife Karen Greer, 50, and their surviving three children (Aly, 29, Kyle, 26, and Wyatt, 20) have turned his coping mechanism into a family business and passion project, selling his spoons, bowls and more homemade goods at The Gallery at Morgan Farms in downtown Dickson, Tennessee. Reality cameras have also captured Morgan’s life on tour and the family coming together to work at the store in Up TV’s new series, Morgan Family Strong.
“I think we, as a family, hope that the viewers get the essence of faith and that you can do it, you can pull yourself together and make something good, and do something good for the world,” Karen says.
Their 19-year-old son Jerry went missing in July 2016 after going tubing with his friends on a lake. A day later, police recovered his body. He was wearing his life jacket, and authorities said they did not know why, after hitting a wave, he never resurfaced.
“He drowned, out with his friends, having a wonderful time,” Morgan says of his son, whom he remembers as a “funny,” “superstar,” “stud athlete” — a “dang rockstar” and “beautiful soul.”
When they learned what had happened, Karen says, “we just had to find him.”
“We just had to find his body,” she explains through tears. “We had to deal with Alex, Kyle and Wyatt. That was it. Jerry was gone, and we knew that. I wanted him found. I didn’t want to get a call six months later.”
Throughout their grief, the parents remind each other, “You have to think eternal.”
“You know there’s so much more,” says Karen, a devout Catholic.
“We’ll see him again,” Morgan adds. “So, this ain’t the end.”
Jerry’s presence can be felt in their store, where they sell rubber bracelets created by his friends for a foundation in his name that benefits athletes from his high school with learning disabilities. (Set to play football at Marshall University that fall, he grappled with dyslexia.) There’s also a stained glass window of the archangel Michael — Jerry’s middle name and the patron saint of warriors, the sick and the suffering — dedicated to him on The Gallery’s second floor.
Jerry wore a Saint Michael medallion every day. But when he came home that summer after visiting Marshall, he told his mother he’d lost the necklace. The next day, he went to the lake.
“If you’re wearing a Saint Michael medal, you’re protected, and Jerry didn’t have his on,” Karen says. “It was one of the questions Kyle asked. He said, ‘Why didn’t Saint Michael save him?’ I said, ‘I just think God could have, he just chose not to.’”
But God, they believe, did bring him into their lives for a purpose. The couple fostered Jerry as an infant before adopting him; Morgan remembers being on the road and coming home to baby Jerry, knowing he was meant to join them forever.
“I knew he was mine,” Karen says. “From day one, I knew.”
“God gave him to us for a while, just like the rest of them, the other kids,” Morgan says.
Adds Karen: “We always pray that we would get to keep them until they were gone. But we could never have had him at all, and we got to have him for 19 years. He was more than we deserved.”
Surrounded by his siblings and doting parents, Jerry grew up in a happy home but, during his junior year of high school, struggled after learning he’d been abused at six months old — which is how he ended up in the foster system.
“He finally asked, point blank, if he was hurt, and we had to tell him … ” Karen says, breaking down.
“To think that someone brought you into this earth, gave birth to you, and then didn’t do right by you?” Morgan says. “I can’t understand it to this day.”
But Jerry overcame it all.
“He glowed. There’s not many people I’ve ever met in my life that had that. Jerry had it. He was one of those people, when he walked in the room, everyone stared, Morgan says, adding with a chuckle, “It wasn’t just because he was pretty. … He had this aura about him. He had this magnetism.”
Aly remembers her late brother as “inspirational” for prevailing over all the obstacles in his short life. They’re traits she intends to keep alive for her 2-year-old son, Cruz, who was just 3 months old when Jerry died.
“We look at pictures of our family almost every day,” she says. “He knows who he is, and I have every intention of telling him stories and showing him. I think it will help me, honestly. I think it will help me be able to share that with him.”
His brothers describe Jerry as the family’s glue.
“Man, he just held the family together,” Kyle says. “He was the one that every time there was an issue or argument or anything like that, you just grabbed him, and he’s goofy. He would just pop off and just kill the tension.”
“You don’t realize how much somebody holds everybody together until they’re not there.”
But he’s here still, in their hearts, in the store and in the show, which he had agreed to be a part of — alongside Aly’s husband Ryan, 30, and Kyle’s wife Chelsea, 26 — before his sudden death. Opening The Gallery and filming Morgan Family Strong has brought his brood closer together, Morgan says, and allowed them to heal others whose lives have been touched by tragedy.
As for his country career? Morgan recently played the Grand Ole Opry — his favorite part of being an artist — but says though his music career is “very important” and has allowed him to support his family, “it’s not who I am.”
“If I couldn’t sing or write songs, it wouldn’t be the end of my world. I have God. I have my family. Even without Jerry, I know that I’ll see him again. It’s not until the last few months that I’ve started writing again … It takes a while. This is hard. Even sitting here right now, this ain’t easy, sharing these emotions.”
“He was just a kid,” Karen says. “He was just getting started.”
Morgan Family Strong premieres March 1 at 9:30 p.m. ET on UP TV.