Norton Healthcare social worker guiding people through the grief of losing family members to suicide

Suicide crippled Shelita Jackson’s and Kamilla Taylor’s families and lives. But they sought help, learned to channel their grief and now hope to aid others.

If the age-old saying “what a difference a day makes” holds true, then imagine how much difference years can make.

As Shelita Jackson and Kamilla Taylor walk through the front doors of the Institute for Health Equity, a Part of Norton Healthcare, they’re the personification of the positive change time can bring.

“We have to find a way to heal, because the healing sets you free,” Shelita said. “It helps you to move on through life regardless of your circumstances.”

Both women are here to see Jonathon W. White, LCSW, a social worker who — through years of therapy and mental health counseling — has helped them cope with the most traumatic events of their lives, allowing them both to see light at the end of very dark tunnels.

‘My mind was blown, and I was hurt’

On Sept. 28, 2021, Shelita’s son LaQuantae Jackson took his own life.

LaQuantae had just turned 22 years old, was a student at Kentucky State University and expecting his first child, a girl.

At first, Shelita was in disbelief.

“My mind was blown, and I was hurt,” Shelita said. “I was crushed. I asked myself how? I asked myself, ‘Why would he do this?’”

As disbelief became acceptance, Shelita began to blame herself. She often questioned what happened, questioned her own skills as a mother, wondering how she missed her son’s warning signs.

“How come I didn’t know he was going through something,” Shelita said. “Did I miss the signs? Did he say something that I didn’t pay attention to? I went over it over and over and over again. As a mother, you expect to know what’s going on with your children. But at some point, as they begin to get older, they don’t open up to us as much.”

The grief of burying her own child became too much for her. It affected everything about her life. But roughly 60 days after LaQuantae’s death, Shelita got the help she needed. Her primary care physician referred her to Jonathon.

She first walked into his office in December 2021.

‘He had so much pressure’

On Jan. 5, 2023, Gary Taylor, Kamilla’s brother, took his own life.

Gary was 42. He was a husband, a father of three sons and the caretaker and provider for his family.

Kamilla was at work when she received the news in a phone call from Gary’s middle son.

“I think life being life, the world, society … he tried to be what society told him he needed to be,” Kamilla said. “And he was always there [for his family].”

Her brother’s death hit Kamilla hard and sent a ripple of grief throughout her family. Her nephews felt pressure to become the man their father was, while Gary’s wife felt the pressure of raising three teenage boys on her own. In the year since Gary’s death, according to Kamilla, her family has put up an emotional wall of protection. Gary’s death even affected his friend circle, a close-knit group of guys who stayed in touch daily, took trips together and shared their lives with one another.

Nobody was ready for Gary to go that soon.

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“He had so much pressure from trying to be so much to so many people, that the other things that were going in his life” got pushed to the side, Kamilla said.

Kamilla had been working with Jonathon since 2021, after a workplace incident created symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. When her brother died, she knew she needed even more help, and further leaned into those therapy sessions.

“It doesn’t make you weak,” she said. “It doesn’t make you vulnerable. It allows you to work on a path of healing, or if not even healing, coping. It allows you to stay alive.”

‘It became an issue for me, especially for my community’

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 49,000 Americans died by suicide in 2022. In 2021, an estimated 12.3 million adults seriously thought about suicide, 3.5 million made a plan and 1.7 million attempted suicide. For men, the trends are even more worrisome. In 2022, more than 39,000 men died by suicide, almost four times the number of women.

In the Black community, the issue of suicide has shown troubling trends. A CDC study from February 2023 shows while age-adjusted rates for suicide have declined among white people, the suicide rate among Black individuals increased by about 19%. Looking more closely at the data, suicide rates among Black people ages 10 to 24 increased by 36% during the study’s time frame. Among Black people ages 25 to 44, suicide rates increased by 22.9%.

“As I am treating patients, I started seeing this large number, or drove, of African American men with suicidal ideation,” Jonathon said. “I’m hearing from mothers whose sons have died of suicide, from sisters who lost her brother, a wife who lost her husband,” Jonathon said. “And so, it became an issue for me, especially for my community. All of it is personal, professional and spiritual for me.”

But suicide affects those left behind as well.

According to the National Institutes of Health, losing a loved one to suicide can bring feelings of prolonged loss, sadness and loneliness, magnified by feelings of guilt, confusion, rejection, shame, anger and the effects of stigma and trauma. Survivors of suicide loss are at higher risk of developing major depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and their own suicidal behaviors, as well as a prolonged form of grief.

“When people feel brave enough to open up and share their truths, I take that as an honor to protect it and help nurture it until they’re at a place of strength themselves to be able to share it,” Jonathon said.

‘I don’t want another mother to go through what I go through’

Jonathon has worked with both Shelita and Kamilla since 2021 to manage their grief and PTSD. He actively works with them on their self-care plans, using grounding and relaxation techniques, mindfulness training, post-traumatic growth tools, and trauma assessment tools. The years of therapy have helped them get a better grasp of how to cope with what they’ve experienced.

“Be vulnerable,” Kamilla said. “Be afraid to not communicate, because you don’t know when the moment’s going to come that’s going to be the breaking point.”

In Shelita’s case, it helped her finish school and obtain her nursing degree, something she feels will help honor LaQuantae’s memory. She has helped care for his now 1-year-old daughter, and she hopes to one day start a foundation for men who struggle with the same life stressors as her son.

“I don’t want another mother to go through what I go through every day,” she said. “It’s hard. You don’t get over it. It doesn’t get easier. You have to learn how to cope and move forward. And that’s the hard part — grief has no time limit. And a lot of people like to rush you, but this is a process that can’t be rushed. Parents don’t expect to bury their children. We expect our children to bury us, but that’s not the reality anymore. There are a lot of people burying their babies, and that is heartbreaking.”

Kamilla is channeling her grief in similar ways. She hopes to participate in more awareness walks and events around the city, sharing her brother’s story with other families. She also plans to work with her church group to make conversations about mental health more of a priority.

“I miss him, and I love him more today than when he left me,” Kamilla said. “I love him more today. People think [suicide] is a shameful thing. But I’m not ashamed of him. I’m proud of him. I need to help get that word out, so people will know that even at my worst, people still love me and are proud of me.”

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