Today, I will take a step away from what I often, lightheartedly, refer to as my "crazy" life with a large family. Today, I would like to focus on something far more serious. Something that prompts me to look at this hectic and chaotic life of mine as a blessing, because we never know what lies ahead for us.
Yesterday, we were all shocked by the devastating news of the death of the beloved Robin Williams. We were even more alarmed to learn that his death was a result of suicide brought on by deep depression.
When the news reported that Robin Williams' cause of death was asphyxiation, I clenched inside. And when reports were released today that he hanged himself, my fear was confirmed. And I couldn't help but reflect on another story of depression and suicide.
Almost 3 1/2 years ago, I interviewed a woman who's life was flipped upside down due to depression and suicide. I think of her, her heartache and her family often. It is important for us to learn from these tragic situations. If we don't, then that is the equivalent of saying that the deaths of their loved ones meant nothing.
Today is an appropriate time to remind others of the loss and pain that is brought on by depression and suicide. Depression is a serious illness. We must educate ourselves. Through the sharing of stories. Through the sharing of information. Through the sharing of resources.
We must do any and everything we can to help.
As we see from Robin Williams' death, as well as the story I am about to share with you, anyone can fall to depression. Depression affects young and old, rich and poor, famous and homeless. It knows no racial boundaries. It cares not what religion you are.
It is real. And it has led to the loss of countless lives.
The lady I mentioned above...I'd like to share her story with you now.
A Mother without a SongOriginally written by me, Donloyn LeDuff Gadson, and published in the April/May 2011 edition of Native Magazine (no longer in publication)
Songs help tell stories; their eloquent lyrics and sweet melodies often add tender touches to already meaningful occasions. “A Song for Mama,” for example, by Boyz II Men, is an extraordinary ballad typically reserved for the day when most mothers come face-to-face with the realization that their children won’t stay with them forever. That day is Mother’s Day.
It was Jaylan Willis’ senior year of high school. His mother, Kasandra “Denise” Alexander, was struggling with separation anxiety – she knew she eventually would have to let go. She never suspected what awaited her at the end of this sad song.
“Jaylan loved music,” said Denise. “It helped him express his feelings.”
She proudly took full credit for planting this passion deep within him as she lovingly reflected on the countless nights she spent driving around town playing music and singing to him until he fell asleep.
It is with honor and respect that Native tells their story through song.
Thanks for My Child ~ Cheryl Pepsii Riley
On July 12, 1993, while awaiting the arrival of her first child, a young Denise anxiously walked the hallways of a Flint, Mich., hospital, loudly singing Tina Turner’s “What’s Love Got to Do With It.” Although she was only 17, Denise wanted Jaylan.
“I could not wait because I felt I was going to have the perfect child,” she recalled. “I couldn't have been more blessed.”
In an instant, her life had changed forever, and she would soon learn exactly what love really did have to do with it.
Two years later, Denise gave birth to her second son. In 2002, the unique love that she had come to know would be the driving force behind her decision to move her children to a better place. They spent five years in Texas, during which time Denise brought a third son into this world. In 2007, they decided to move nearer to family. Charleston, SC would ultimately become their new home.
In 2010, 17-year-old Jaylan, who loved to dance, was doing what most high school seniors do. He was planning for his future, working at his favorite retail store, hanging with friends and playing sports. This lively young man grew to be, in Denise’s words, “a good kid with a big heart, always smiling, always happy.” With a laugh, she reflected on Nov. 25, 2010. Jaylan, who had selflessly put off his own plans, spent the evening with his family, teaching them all the latest dances. It was Thanksgiving, and Denise was truly thankful.
Tears of a Clown ~ Smokey Robinson
The jovial guise that Jaylan outwardly portrayed was a vast contradiction to the terror that loomed within. He had great difficulty communicating his emotions and, sadly, had grown accustomed to burying his troubles.
“It hurts to be sad; it hurts to be upset. Jay would find a little reason to be happy and run with it,” Denise explained. Unfortunately, this faulty defense mechanism would leave him scarred beyond repair.
Like many teens, Jaylan had to bear the burden of having an uninvolved father. As a result, there was distance between him and his father’s other children; he longed for a deeper connection with them. He shared this same sentiment regarding other family members. The illness and passing of Denise’s father, a grandfather he had recently come to know, rattled Jaylan.
“The interaction, direction and guidance from a man – it just did something to him,” said Denise.
Jaylan hungered for stronger family ties, and he was also preparing for a family of his own. His girlfriend was pregnant, and, although Jaylan had every intention of being there for his own child, the responsibility of impending fatherhood did little to ease his pain.
When Denise moved to the Charleston area, she did her best to choose a neighborhood that would provide her children with the opportunity to attend good schools. Her research led her to Fort Dorchester High School, but it wasn't long before she regretted her choice. According to Denise, Jaylan was forced to cope in an environment of gangs, drug-dealing kids, promiscuity, vicious girls and harassment.
“He could barely go to school without being attacked or confronted or belittled,” Denise remembered.
In an effort to survive in a place he didn't want to be, Jaylan tried to fit in with those who were making life so difficult for him. He had problems, and he needed solutions, but he also suffered from attention deficit disorder, making learning a difficult task at best. ADD can be controlled with proper medication, but Jaylan insisted he could effectively manage his condition without prescription drugs. Denise disagreed.
“If you are unfocused, but everything in your body and mind knows you need to be focused, it’s like fighting a battle against yourself that’s very hard to win,” she said. “So it’s no wonder you get depressed.”
To make matters worse, Jaylan had a habit of bottling up his emotions. When he could no longer hide behind his smile, he would have what Denise described as an “explosion of tears and emotions.” He was even having nightmares and making spur-of-the-moment, irrational decisions. This young man, with a painted on smile, was crying inside.
Gone Too Soon ~ Michael Jackson
On Dec. 9, 2010, Denise spoke with Jaylan over the phone. He sounded upset, and she asked him what was wrong. His response was that everything was fine. Normally, Denise would continue to press until he provided an answer, but this time was different. During a therapy session the day before, Jaylan had asked his mother to give him some space and the chance to be “Juss Jayy,” a nickname he proudly carried that reflected his desire to figure things out on his own. It was out of respect for this request that Denise decided to wait and discuss things later – a decision she would regret.
Jaylan and his 15-year-old brother were home alone. They argued that day, as brothers often do. Jay went to his room, closed the door and sat in the closet, a place where he often went to think, rap or listen to music. It was his space. While there, he sent a text message to his girlfriend. He just couldn't take it any longer.
It was the silence that prompted Jaylan’s brother to check on him. He walked into the room and found Jaylan in the closet – hanging by a belt. A day that had begun like any other ended in horror, and Jaylan Michael Willis was gone forever.
Can’t Let Go ~ Mariah Carey
At the funeral, Denise noticed the soft smile on Jaylan’s face. As serene as it appeared, it was unlike the wide-mouthed smile she had come to know and love. This difference fed her denial, and she continued to postpone the acceptance of her new reality.
“I didn’t let go,” she explained. “I didn’t say my goodbyes at the funeral because I couldn’t. I simply had not accepted the fact that he was gone.”
This desire to hold on is not uncommon. According to Susan Koester of the Charleston chapter of The Compassionate Friends, an organization that provides support to parents grieving the loss of a child, “This is something you never get over. …ever.”
If I Could ~ Regina Belle
Life for Denise is filled with regret. She recalled sitting with Jaylan in the hospital room after attempts to revive him had failed. With agony, she cried, “I wanted to just sit him up and hug him. I just really wish I would have told everybody to get out. Because every day I’m just struggling to touch him or to be near him or to smell him.”
“If I could go back, when I talked to him a couple hours earlier, I would have made him tell me what was wrong; I wouldn’t have taken ‘Nothing. I’m OK’ for an answer,” she said.
How to Save a Life ~ The Fray
According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, suicide is the third leading cause of death among 15-to-24-year-olds. This harrowing fact lends the following question: How can mothers save their children from the tragic fate that claimed Jaylan?
Dr. Ericka Stricklin-Parker, a licensed clinical psychologist, said, “The best thing parents can do is have a strong relationship with their teen that involves open communication.”
Signs such as sadness and crying, inability to focus, feelings of hopelessness, anger and hostility, and sudden happiness after a period of depression warrant further investigation. However, not all kids display the same symptoms. This is when parents must rely on “good observational skills.”
According to Stricklin-Parker, “Depression isn't something that quickly goes away, so changes in mood, behavior and personality over a time period can distinguish it from the growing pains of adolescence.”
"Suicide knows no color boundaries. Black teens as well as the black community at large are affected by suicide," said Stricklin-Parker. However, many African-Americans view suicide as a white problem, possibly because information about depression and suicide in the white community is more readily available due to financial and social barriers that reduce access to resources in the black community. These barriers do not have to prevent any teen, regardless of race, from receiving necessary help.
“Probably the most easily accessible resource is the school,” Stricklin-Parker pointed out. “Turning to a guidance counselor or school psychologist can help save your child’s life.”
Missing You ~ Diana Ross
“As I look at the milestones in his life, I’ll be revisiting it all over again,” Denise said as she thought of spending special days without Jaylan. Koester added, “We have an anxiety on the anniversary date and on birthdays and we dread Christmas, but Mother’s Day is even harder. …someone’s missing.”
Sadly, while Mother’s Day gifts are being wrapped and brunches are being served, while children dance and sing sweet harmonies to the ladies in their lives, a mother will mourn. There will be one more mother without a song.
Thank you for allowing me to share this story with you. I pray that Robin Williams and Jaylan Willis' stories and the countless stories of others like them provide us with the opportunities to educate ourselves on depression and suicide.
We can help. We can save lives. We owe it to ourselves. We owe it to our loved ones.
We owe it to those we've lost.
I would like to offer my deepest sympathies and prayers for healing and comfort to the family of Robin Williams.
I would also like to remind Ms. Alexander and the family and friends of Jaylan that I continue to think of him and pray for them. I know that Robin Williams' death has been a harsh reminder of the sadness they live with each day.
If you or someone you know is struggling with depression or thoughts of suicide, then please get help. There are a few resources linked within this post. Click here for the National Suicide Prevention Line or here for Charleston's local 211 Hotline.