06/17/2009 at 01:00 AM EDT
It was a bitter cold Sunday in Tennessee on Jan. 28, 2007 when Jeffrey Steele and wife Stephanie LeVasseur got a call from their 13-year-old son Alex, asking permission to ride ATVs with a friend. "He loved to max it out, and we knew that," Steele recalls. "He'd get mad because we always said no." The teen begged: They'd be careful; they'd be supervised. "Alex, you don't even have a jacket," his mother sighed, before finally relenting. "The one time I said yes..." she says now, shaking her head.
Just hours later the couple stood over Alex's body at Nashville's Vanderbilt Hospital, clipping a lock of his curls as they said goodbye. Alex, who had been wearing a helmet, had lost control and was thrown off his vehicle, fatally tearing his aorta in the fall. "The irony is that he had the biggest heart," says Steele.
Since his son's death, Steele—a singer and songwriter who's penned hits for Rascal Flatts like "What Hurts the Most," "My Wish" and "Here"—and his family have struggled to heal their own broken hearts while keeping alive the memory of their son.
At first "there was anger, the what-ifs. Why would God do this?" Steele says. "Then you try to get to a place where it's grace and forgiveness and love. It's a long process." One that he admits is far from over. At home in Franklin, Tenn., a collage of Alex's second-grade photos still hangs on the front door and his room remains preserved. "You're not trying to make a shrine, but it freezes in time," Steele says. "I'll have a day where I'm great, but then I'm shot with an arrow with some insignificant memory—the smirk on his face, the way he hugged me—that makes you cry. It's like I'm walking with an anchor dragging behind me for the rest of my life."
That burden has also lent a new gravity to his work. "People used to come up to me and say, 'That song, "What Hurts the Most," it heals me.' I never got that," says Steele, 47. "As a songwriter, I was like this professional observer. But suddenly my songs were my life. It put a whole new spin on it."
Alex's loss has given his parents new direction as well. They've started the Alex LeVasseur Fund (rememberalex.com), to provide scholarships to needy kids for tutoring and memberships to Rocketown, a Nashville skate park (and one of Alex's favorite hangouts). On June 28 the family will hold the third annual Alex Fest, a benefit bash for the fund, which last year brought out pal Miley Cyrus
"We figured, let's put this into something Alex loved and see if we can help other kids," Steele says. "We're trying to make the most of the absolute worst. Ultimately we hope Alex would say, 'That's pretty cool.' "