As I reflect on the events that led to my son’s death, I ask these questions every day: “Son, what did you want me to know? What message did you want to convey that was so difficult that at your deepest moments of pain, you could not tell me, and I could not hear?”
I will never forget the weekend of Nov. 5, 2021. I was out of town for work. On Saturday morning, Nov. 6, I woke up hearing a strong voice saying, “Go home!” I said to myself, “OK, I will leave on Sunday instead of Monday. I can just change my flight.”
The Lord’s voice repeated the command: “Go home!” I began the process of changing my flight and managed to return Saturday evening. Throughout that day, I was sick to my stomach and could not understand why. I prayed and asked the Lord for clarity, yet I could not discern what was happening. I knew something was wrong.
When I arrived, my eldest daughter picked me up with all the girls. I said to myself, “Well, everything appears to be fine” and felt relieved. Everyone was exhausted, and I asked the girls where John was. They told me he was at the game with friends. John was now 18, so I didn’t worry and went to bed.
On Sunday mornings, my normal routine is to attend church. However, on Nov. 7, I heard the Lord say, “Spend time with your children.” I woke everyone up and said, “Let’s go to breakfast.” My eldest was home from college, so I thought it would be fun to have a meal with all six of my children.
‘The day felt very different’
At the restaurant, there was the usual fussing among the kids. John was very quiet. He wore a hoodie and seemed extra tired, which I assumed was because he had a long night. He ordered his usual French toast. We shared a love for some good French toast with a side of bacon.
John was an amazing big brother to his five sisters. They loved him dearly. He was their protector and confidante, and he showed his love to each one in his own special way.
After breakfast, the day felt very different. As usual, we had to take my daughter back to school, which was about an hour away. John, affectionately known as “John Boy,” did not want to come with us, saying he was tired.
As we pulled away from the house, halfway down the road, John’s dad said we had to turn around; he was not feeling well. When we returned to the house, I told John Boy he would have to come with me to take Jada. He was so angry at that moment. Later, I realized I had interrupted his initial plan to terminate his life while we were gone.
Looking back, I could see he was struggling. I knew of his depression, and I had planned appointments for him that week to meet with a counselor.
Little did I know this drive would be his last time seeing his big sister. While we were headed back home, I had a vision of someone dying, and it brought such a fear upon me that I began to pray. It was a very strange moment, and I was uncertain who it was.
We returned home at about 2:30 p.m. I was exhausted from my trip and decided to rest in bed the rest of the day watching movies. My normal routine on a Sunday afternoon was to tell the big kids to clean their rooms, wash their clothes and prepare for Monday. All seemed normal, and at about 8 p.m., John Boy picked up Wendy’s for the family. With no fuss, just like always, he willingly got us some food.
Isolation, poor communication, disconnection
When he returned at about 9 p.m., he came into the bedroom to wish me goodnight. This was the final time I would ever hear his voice, and the words run through me over and over. He said, “Goodnight, mommy, I love you,” reached down to my bed and hugged me tight. I’ll never forget this moment because I now know he wanted me to know the loved me and this was not about me.
As I reflect on the last four years of his life, I see signs. I can see that as a mother with six children, trying to divide my time, that I missed how very sad John was. I did not move fast enough to get him help. I was convinced that his mood swings were just adolescence. I know now that COVID was a destroyer to many children socially, emotionally and educationally. John W. Anthony was a senior in high school, and he was very frustrated by the thought of an uncertain future he felt he was not ready for.
John was my only son, and I allowed him to spend his time in the gaming world. If I am completely honest, I did not monitor that world. I did not see the harm, although I fussed all the time about the lack of sleep he was getting. John was a kind soul and not very outspoken. I remember in the last few months of his life, I spoke to him about being better at communicating. Little did I know that his cutting communication was a part of his depression and disconnecting from me and his family.
If I could share anything I’ve learned with other parents, it would be three things to fight against happening to your children:
- Poor communication
As our family fell asleep on Nov. 7, 2021, no one knew that in the other room, John was sending texts to all his friends, the people he cared about, to say goodbye. He watched the Netflix series, “13 Reasons Why,” something I feel gives kids courage to commit suicide.
At 11 p.m., John Wesley Christian Anthony took his own life in his room in his bed. My younger daughter entered my room and said, “Mommy, did you hear that sound?” I replied that maybe a picture fell off the wall and went back to bed. At 1 a.m. on Nov. 8, police were banging on our door saying, “I think you should check on your son.”
A mother’s cry
I ran to his room to find my baby boy laying there still. All I could see was his lifeless body lying there. It hurt me so much to know that I could not rescue him. I wanted one last goodbye, another moment to let him know how much I believed in him and how I thought he was the coolest person I knew. But I couldn’t wake him, and the pain I felt inside still lingers, causing me to realize I missed so many moments — moments I feel I should have known what to do to help him.
This is the first time I’ve shared my story publicly. I want to tell parents not to be so busy that they ignore, overlook or disregard the pain their children may be experiencing. John at 14 struggled with depression. My solution was to keep him busy, thinking he would overcome his challenges. He was a basketball player; he loved the game on the court and off, yet he suffered from insecurities about being short and on a team with tall boys. He wanted to build muscle and look like “ballers” who trained in college. He worked on this, but I don’t think things moved fast enough for him. He had a job working after school that kept him exhausted, but the restlessness inside made him suffer from a silent killer — depression. I often tried to get into his heart and head, but he wouldn’t open up. I felt that he was just being a boy.
Don’t allow your children to shut down on you. It’s not normal for children to completely stop communicating. If they do, seek a support group, counselor, minister or other help. Although they may not be able to communicate their pain, when you see signs of them shutting down, don’t allow them to consume themselves with games and phones, creating a world you are not a part of. It is not OK.
Pay attention when you see them disconnecting from friends and family. Notice when they no longer want to spend time with you or their friends. Create interventions and seek professional help that will give your child the tools needed to dig out of the rut in which they find themselves.
As a mom of a son who committed suicide, I now can see the warning signs that I could not see while he was here. We cannot ignore pain; It is an indicator that something is wrong and must be addressed. I probably will carry the guilt I feel throughout my life, but in this moment, I want you to know your story doesn’t have to end the same way. You can get your child evaluated and peer into his or her world. Become part of that world even when they try to reject you.
John Wesley Christian Anthony is in the arms of Jesus resting because his fight with the world became too difficult. My hope is that his story will save many lives.
Deborah C. Anthony is a branding strategist, coach, author, speaker and CEO of Anthony Strategies Group. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.