Jamil Henderson walked into his mother’s room just after midnight. “I want to hold you,” he said, nudging her awake. “I love you so much.”
Paulette felt her son’s tears fall on her forehead. “What’s the matter, baby?” Her oldest of seven children was about to graduate high school, but he would always be her baby.
“I wrote a letter. I want you to read it.” Jamil pressed paper into her hand and left the room, closing the door.
Jamil always wrote letters. When he wrecked his mother’s car, he wrote a letter. When he got in trouble at school, he wrote a letter.
Wiping the sleep from her eyes, Paulette read the title of this letter: “Hatred Wronged Me.” Though concerned, Paulette didn’t believe the letter was cause for immediate alarm. Her son was athletic, handsome and well-liked at school.
She had barely begun to read Jamil’s letter when she heard a loud bang. Downstairs Jamil lay dying from a self-inflicted gunshot wound — a tragedy that changed Paulette’s family forever.
Sorting out feelings with others
Jamil’s suicide emotionally tore up his parents, siblings and friends. They were overwhelmed by confusion and guilt — feelings that often accompany such heartbreak. When a teen commits suicide, friends and family may feel beat down with condemnation and shame, wondering, Why couldn’t I have prevented this? Why didn’t I see the warning signs? They need friends who can help them through these feelings.
Sadly, Paulette’s surviving children noticed that their friends seemed to withdraw. They didn’t know what to say or how to act. “People have trouble discussing suicide,” Paulette says. “This could leave you and your family feeling isolated or abandoned if the support you expected to receive just isn’t there.”
It’s important that parents encourage their children to extend grace to those who pull away, and then let them know it’s OK to reach out to people who will listen without judgment. As a parent, wait to be the shoulder your kids may need. Physical touch allows some kids to have a secure silence as they grieve, while others find comfort in timely words of affirmation.
Paulette began a weekly get together with Jamil’s six siblings. The meeting grew to include schoolmates, neighbors and cousins. “We called it Friday Night Live,” she says. Writing exercises that explored how they were feeling were sometimes included. She continues, “Art projects, musical instruments and board games were also a mainstay on Friday nights. We did something different every week. I guess you’d call it play therapy. I didn’t know that at the time. I just did whatever the Holy Spirit led me to do.”
By doing this, Paulette’s small group became a support system for Jamil’s siblings and friends, providing a safe place for them to ask hard questions about his suicide. At the same time, it let them know it was OK for them to have fun, even as they still hurt.
Grieve your own way
Paulette now manages the medical staff at a large children’s hospital and works with many grieving families. Her experience with Jamil’s suicide has broadened her understanding of grief.
She tells parents that young people need to process grief free from the influence of another’s expectations. Parents can help teens withhold judgment and extend grace to those who grieve differently. Showing them that there are five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance) will help them better understand where they are in the process and help them recognize that others may be moving through the stages at a different pace.
“Do what’s right for you, not necessarily someone else,” Paulette encourages other families.
Find hope in God
Paulette and her Friday Night Live family and friends began to memorize Bible verses that focused on hope. “Jamil died once, but we were dying daily,” Paulette says. “We were hurting and didn’t have answers.”
The group’s members grew to understand that there were no answers for why Jamil had taken his life. Instead, they each had to live in the tension of not knowing. “It’s not about why, but about what — what God does for me and what I can do for others,” Paulette says. “When I see people hurting, I can let them know about the healing love of God.”
That is the place that each of the group’s members had to come to, though reaching that place took time. They couldn’t just stop hurting, but each person slowly found a way to continue living.
Discover your purpose
“Life is not over when someone you love dies,” Paulette says, though often it feels that way. “Now when someone is hurting I ask, ‘Why do you think God has you here?’ ” This focus helps that individual find his or her own path and move forward in his or her grief.
As Paulette’s children took steps toward living their own lives, she taught them, “Your life and what you do has purpose. You can impact others and give them hope.”
Taking next steps
Paulette learned to trust the Bible verse she embraced on many Friday nights: “I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you with my loving eye on you” (Psalm 32:8, NIV).
Because of how God has helped her through this experience, Paulette says she is now more equipped to help others. She boldly shares her story when she can. “God has been my strength and my sustaining grace,” she says. And she hopes others in her same situation will look to God to sustain them, provide comfort, and — ultimately — bring healing into their lives.
DO YOU OR SOMEONE YOU KNOW NEED HELP? If you’ve been impacted by a loved one’s suicide and you feel it would be helpful to discuss the situation with one of Focus on the Family’s licensed counselors (at no cost to you), please call 855-771-HELP (4357) weekdays between 6:00 a.m. and 8:00 p.m. (MT). One of our staff members will get your contact information and a counselor will call you back just as soon as possible. If you or someone you know is actively suicidal, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 800-273-8255.