After They’re Gone – Dealing with the Loss of a Loved One to Suicide

“I tried, but I should have been on social media to know her true feelings. I wish I knew what her real pain about life was. Her pain was so severe she did not want to be here anymore. She stated to me, ‘I am not strong like you.’ I want to believe I could have saved her.”

Those are the heart wrenching words from a mother left to deal with the tragic and unexpected loss of her beautiful and talented teenage daughter, to a rarely talked about epidemic that has impacted so many young people in our community – the serious silence of suicide and depression.

Ashley Jadine Duncan tragically took her own life on January 30, 2012. She was a victim of teenage suicide and depression. At the time of her death, Ashley was only 17, and was a senior at Bellaire High School in Houston, Texas.

Ashley was an award-winning and talented artist. Her family was not economically at-risk. She attended what many perceive to be one of the top and most affluent high schools in the Greater Houston area. She never missed a day of elementary or middle school. She had nearly 4,000 followers on Twitter and hundreds more on Facebook and Tumblr. She never fit the profile of someone who others thought would contemplate taking their own life; however, the warning signs were there. Through an active social media presence (Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, etc.), Ashley kept many of her challenges and emotions hidden from those closest to her, including her parents. Like many teens and young adults, social media became the vehicle through which she often communicated and expressed herself, and it was the place that she chose to communicate her plans to take her life. The week and final weekend before Ashley committed suicide, her social media was filled with messages foretelling her tragic end.

Ashley’s final Tweet was of the gun she used to take her own life. It was her father’s gun.

Sadly, many of her “friends” and “followers” on social media hit the “like” button on her posts, but no one took the time to reach out and help her or report her cryptic messages.

All the signs were there. The severity of Ashley’s sadness and depression was kept hidden from loved ones, especially because they were not connected with her on social media.

Her mother, Cheryl L. Duncan, tried to help her. Whether through hospitalization, counseling, medication and even through the system, her mother tried to prevent Ashley from hurting herself but the laws allowed her to slip through the cracks. She had previously attempted to commit suicide twice with pills. At the age of 16, when her mother tried to get someone to legally intervene, Ashley was allowed to go home as long as she said she wasn’t going to hurt herself.

Cheryl states that she had no idea that Ashley was using social media as a platform to express her thoughts of depression and suicide. She did notice, however, that Ashley had begun showing greater signs of mental illness when her brother, Anthony Duncan, graduated from high school and went away to Atlanta to attend Morehouse College.

“The summer before he (Anthony) left for college, I took Ashley to get counseling and she was hospitalized,” Cheryl recalls. “She was sleeping a lot in dark rooms. She was angry and had mood swings. We felt like she was just going through growing pains and that it would pass. She seemed to be doing alright, but she didn’t want to go to school or participate in volleyball anymore in her junior year of high school. She stated all the time ‘I don’t care’ and I tried to be there for her with counseling, support, love and being her protector. I was not on social media where she shared her thoughts about getting a gun and life without pain, but no one informed us of her Tweets before she carried out the act. She deleted her brother from Facebook and did not talk to him after they had a horrible argument Christmas 2011. She texted me before she died that she ‘took dad’s gun; I am tired and can’t do this anymore; I love you and i am sorry; bye.’ “When I drove up to the house from work, I wanted to go see her and where it happened but they would not let me. It was heartbreaking. Not a day goes by when I don’t think about her.”

This is not the first family tragedy regarding suicide that Cheryl has had to deal with in her life.

Back in 1995, her sister, who suffered from depression, committed suicide. She never talked about the incident until 2012, after Ashley committed suicide. Looking back on it, Cheryl states that her passion to help her daughter and save her from hurting herself, came from the fact that she had lost her sister to the same epidemic.

“I didn’t want the same thing that happened to my sister to happen to Ashley,” Cheryl continued. “I prayed for her and talked to friends of mine who had children with depression. I want to believe I could have saved her if she and I would have had more real talks and texted less. I held onto the hope that her temporary pain would go away and that she would not have chosen the permanent solution of death to deal with what she was going through.”

The impact of Ashley’s decision to take her life was not only a stunning blow to her mother; it sent emotional shockwaves to her other family members and close friends as well.

The day he heard about Ashley’s death still lingers in the mind of her brother, Anthony.

“I can remember that day vividly,” Anthony recollects. “I was hurt, confused and in disbelief. Since her passing and up to this point, I’ve honestly never truly grieved. There’s not a day that goes by or a minute on the clock that I don’t think of Ashley. Growing up, we did everything together as siblings – road trips, church, soccer, watching movies, listening to music, and being protective. When I went away to college, the dynamics of our relationship changed. I was maturing as a young man, trying to navigate my way in life, so with that sense of independence I can see how she may have felt neglected. I know that she was hurt and sad that I was going away for college and in some ways she may have felt alone. I felt like she resented me because of that. I wanted her to understand that although I wasn’t there physically she could always count on me. Looking back on it, I feel like I could have engaged more with Ashley to hopefully understand what she was going through, consider her feelings, and let her know that I loved her.”

Anthony states that he never witnessed any signs of mental illness and depression from Ashley while growing up, because she was always the type of person that was full of joy and who loved to make people laugh. He encourages everyone to always reach out to loved ones no matter what the situation or circumstance is, and highly recommends intervening and seeking therapy and counseling for loved ones who are coping with depression.

Leah Allen, who was considered a friend and ‘big sister’ to Ashley, never believed Ashley suffered from mental illness, but recalls times when she was more angry or emotional due to circumstances that were out of her control.

“Considering we were so young, we didn’t know the true definition of mental health,” says Leah. “I would just fault them as a bad day or rough time. The signs were hard to absorb because of the smile Ashley had on her face every day.”

Leah states that teens all go through their own day-to-day trials, which is why it was difficult to acknowledge that what Ashley was going through related to mental health issues. She believes that while it is easy for doubt to creep in about what could have been done differently, she does not believe she could have done anything more than she had. Leah encourages everyone to talk to someone who may be dealing with depression or mental illness and be there for them even when the person who may be suffering tries to push you away.

One of Ashley’s good friends and volleyball teammates from middle school and high school, Robyn Shannon, states that she saw signs of Ashley expressing sadness, but didn’t really see it as being a mental illness.

“I saw signs of Ashley just being sad, wanting to be alone and sometimes being a little angry towards people as well,” Robyn recalls. “When we found out it was depression that she was suffering from, we all were real sensitive towards it and tried to help her as best as we could. I understand now that it was something she was dealing with on the inside. Something that no one else could feel or understand. I was devastated. From seeing and talking to someone almost every day, to finding out they are gone, was real heartbreaking and so confusing. I have gotten better over the years, but I still have my moments of remembering her. Some days more than others.”

Robyn encourages parents to make sure they can have a relationship where their child feels like they can come to them and asks parents to please try and understand their kids and listen to them.

Laura Rousseve Allen served as a village mom to both Ashley and Anthony, and says that she never saw any signs of mental illness with Ashley.

“She (Ashley) would come over to my house all the time and I did not see signs of mental illness. I usually saw a happy young lady, with a smile which could light up any room,” Laura remembers. “My daughter (Leah) did share that Ashley had some issues she was going through. My daughter had gone through some issues too in high school, so I assumed that Ashley would get counseling or help and ‘get better’ or ‘move forward’ as my daughter was able to do. I felt a lot of deep regret as a parent and as an educator that I had not attempted to talk to Ashley one-on-one to see if there was anything I could have done to help her or to see if she wanted to talk to me about anything. On a personal note, my dad’s twin died by suicide when he was retired – Ronald Rousseve. He had a PhD in Psychology and no one ever wanted to talk about it or even mention the death. That really bothered me growing up. As an educator, anytime I speak to middle or high school students, I share Ashley’s story – hereby keeping Ashley close at heart and her spirit very much alive. By sharing her story, it helps me to heal.”

Laura states that she copes with the loss of Ashley by being of service with respect to suicide prevention and mental health and wellness, to groups, teens, schools, churches, etc. She encourages everyone to ask questions in order to take away the stigma of mental health, by having open communication with young people. Laura also challenges parents to keep up with their children’s social media accounts.

Speaking of healing and being of service, that is something that Cheryl has had to do in order to move forward and deal with the loss of her daughter.

After reading a book called “Loss of a Child,” Cheryl began participating with suicide survivor support groups and organizations that deal with the issue of suicide prevention. People informed her that she could help others by sharing Ashley’s story, so she started the Ashley Jadine Foundation to increase community awareness about teen suicide prevention and depression.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), which is the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization dedicated to building better lives for the millions of Americans affected by mental illness, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S., 3rd leading cause of death for people aged 10–14 and 2nd leading cause of death for people aged 15–24.

Through the Ashley Jadine Foundation, Cheryl hopes to stop the stigma, shame and silence regarding mental illness and suicide prevention, especially among African American people who do not want to discuss it. On Saturday, September 22, 2018 from 9 am-12 noon at MacGregor Park in Houston, the Ashley Jadine Foundation will be hosting their 4th Annual 5K Health Fair and Walk to continue telling Ashley’s story and spreading the message of dealing with mental illness and suicide prevention for all to hear.

As a reminder, please talk to those closest to you who you may suspect is dealing with mental illness and depression about their true feelings. Look at their social media, talk to their friends, talk to family members you trust, take them to a family physician for a behavioral assessment, visit with a pastor, show them love and hug them. More importantly, read up on mental illness and ask other family members about whether mental illness has been a taboo issue that has been a major part of your family. It could help someone close to you before it is too late.

For more information on the Ashley Jadine Foundation and the 4th Annual 5K Health Fair and Walk, please visit www.ashleyjadinefoundation.org.