October 27, 2018, started just like any other Saturday at our home. We had errands to run, carpools to drive and other things on our to-do list. Our son, Jack, knew we wanted to go over a few things with him, so he came into our room early that morning and snuggled between my wife, Patty, and me. Little did we know that this would be the last conversation we would ever have with our boy.
Shortly after our time with him that morning, Jack went down to our basement and took his life in a storage room.
Jack was one of the growing number of teens in America battling mental illness. Suicide is reaching epidemic levels in our society. Today, suicide is the second leading cause of death among individuals between the ages of 10 and 34. I am not here to give advice, but to share our story so that it may validate some of the feelings others in our position may have or may open conversations with those you are worried about.
For us, it started his freshman year in high school when he had his first attempt; we ended up checking him into a psychiatric hospital. There were two more attempts and hospitalizations before it culminated that October morning. We often walked on eggshells living with our own fear, anxiety and exhaustion, mostly because despite our best efforts, we often felt ill-equipped and unsure if what we were doing was right.
My wife and I faced different challenges. Patty was on the front lines. She made sure all his appointments were scheduled and that he got there. She sent Jack’s teachers introductory emails about his mental illnesses and kept an open dialogue with them to report changes in Jack’s behavior.
Patty would be the one who called school, letting them know Jack needed a mental health day. Even though she works from home, Patty would cancel her plans to spend the day with him, sometimes just sitting next to him so he wouldn’t feel alone. Patty was the one that handled him and whatever struggle he was facing when he got home from school. She would do all this while being a loving mother and trying to make sure our other children, Kate, 21, and Ben, 16, never felt neglected or less important than Jack.
I tended to compartmentalize the issue to help me focus (as much as I could) on my landscaping business during the day. At the office, my dad or brother would listen and be supportive. We all knew it was serious – after all, he had tried to kill himself three times. It didn’t make any sense to us, but I could tell my family and friends had trouble reconciling the Jack they knew with the one I would describe.
“I think Jack took his life because he thought everyone would be better off without him. He could not see the value he brought to this world and all the lives he touched in both small and big ways. He couldn’t have been more wrong.”Joe Kujawa, Jack’s father
Outside the house, Jack was a popular and friendly guy that exuded confidence. He was a fun, caring, thoughtful kid that loved doing whatever he could to brighten someone’s day. It wasn’t unusual for him to show up at school in his Leprechaun suit or some other costume, or drop off a surprise milkshake at a friend’s house. Jack loved his beard and his flowy locks, lighting fireworks with friends and talking with girls.
He earned his varsity letter wrestling as a freshman, and also played football until the depression caused such exhaustion that he could no longer do it. Just before he died, a friend discovered that he would go to his car during free periods to nap so he could make it through the rest of his classes.
At home, Jack balked at his homework, often wouldn’t brush his teeth or shower, and rarely helped with dishes or chores. He slept in, played way too much Fortnite and regularly would not come home on weekends. He scoffed at our attempts to create consequences to his actions and it was almost impossible to find something that mattered to him. If we shut his phone down, he would respond, “whatever.” If we took the car keys, we’d get a “who cares.” If we tried to ground him, he would just leave.
We tried everything: individual and family counseling, dialectical behavioral therapy, psychiatric medications, hospital stays and more. We read and we prayed. We didn’t give up and we did see some improvement. Yet with all this help and support, he still did not see his worth in this world. Jack developed better coping mechanisms, but over time he also developed a greater ability to hide his true feelings – something that others with depression say is common. It isn’t unusual for people with depression to become too embarrassed or ashamed of what they are feeling to openly talk about their issues.
Depression is hideous – it is a grueling disease that carries a stigma so intense that many would rather endure their own pain than seek help. It’s not sadness, it’s self-loathing with an overwhelming sense of loneliness and lack of self-worth. It takes whatever good is in your life and in your mind turns it into a negative. Survival is the most basic of human instincts, yet this disease makes you contemplate killing yourself; it is not logical and it doesn’t respond rationally. It often left us at a loss for what to do and filled us with self-doubt.
Mourning the future.
Exhausted and worried, we were lucky this challenge drew us closer as a married couple. I know it is not always that way. We also grew stronger in our faith and thankfully so did Jack.
When he wasn’t in a depressive state struggling with his own demons, Jack found strength in his faith and helping others. He served on the Teen God Squad at our church, where he also taught Christian Formation and Confirmation. At his high school, he was a Eucharistic Minister and a member of Kairos, a special retreat for upperclassmen. Jack also trained with the National Alliance for Mental Illness so he could share his story with other teens. Helping others definitely helped him, but it wasn’t lasting.
After he died, we found his personal diary. His own words described the internal battle. After returning from a month-long Outward Bound trip, he was happy and determined to face the challenges head on.
The next week, he wrote that his life was a blur – why go on? He gave a girl sage guidance on how to help a friend whom she worried about. The next day he wrote in his diary (with pride), that he had thought of killing himself twice that week – and nobody knew. This awful, ugly disease was getting stronger, strangling the boy who delivered milkshakes and smiles to his friends.
Two months before he died, Jack wrote that he figured out how to kill himself at home. Yet the week he died, he gushed about how happy he was. We felt he was continuing to get better, but maybe he had just resolved himself to doing it and was relieved. I’ve since learned that this behavior is not uncommon.
After countless tears, sleepless nights and professional help, the thing I realized is that I’m not sure Jack was capable of being saved. Just like in sports or business, sometimes you can do everything right and still not win.
Jack had everything going for him. He came from a stable, loving home and family, he got the best treatment we could find, he was smart, athletic, popular and caring and had so many friends (more than 2,000 people attended his wake); yet in his darkness, he could see no good in himself. He couldn’t tell the truth to those who cared for him about what was really going on inside his mind and heart.
I think Jack took his life because he thought everyone would be better off without him. He could not see the value he brought to this world and all the lives he touched in both small and big ways. He couldn’t have been more wrong.
It is said “when you lose a child, you mourn the future.” Nothing could be truer. I miss him so much. On the surface, I may appear to have it all under control, but anything can set me off. I see his friends hanging out and I am sad because he is not with them. I went to a college basketball game and midway through it, I started crying as I looked around and realized he will never have the fun of college. He will never know the joy of real love, having a family of his own or all of the little things that make life beautiful and worth living.
Like Jack, what helps me now is helping others. Patty and I openly share his story, from naming his disease and how he died in his obituary to posting on social media, publicly speaking at events and conferences and giving interviews with local TV. Patty has even shared her struggle on the Giving Voice to Depression podcast and has a few more scheduled. We keep the conversation going and in the open. We find his legacy in the notes and words of friends and strangers telling us how they are having conversations they never would have had before Jack died.
Jack coined a phrase: “My aim is to change the world, one heart at a time.” We are honoring our son and his goal by telling his story as well as ours to help bring awareness and remove the stigma associated with mental illness. Just like having a child with cancer or other debilitating disease, there should be no shame in having a child with mental illness.
We have established an endowment in Jack’s name to help bring awareness and support for teens who are hiding in darkness. We want everyone to know that our son was the popular boy who had the confidence to dress up as Spider-Man, a monkey or a leprechaun just to make someone smile, and yet despite all his efforts, he was the same boy who found no worth in the life he was living.
We all need to recognize this pain in others and support them so they can get the help they need and deserve.