Speaking up after a son's suicide
Jordan Hiemstra heard voices.
On good days, he heard the voices of his parents, teachers and mentors saying, “We love you no matter what. God loves you. You have so many gifts. We love how you are already using those gifts in service to others to God’s glory. We are cheering for you. We love you.”
On not-so-good days, he heard other voices.
They said, “You have tried and failed. You’re not going to amount to much. There is no hope for you. If you were gone, no one would miss you. You don’t deserve this life. No one cares. Not really.”
Just before midnight on September 23, 2016, in mental anguish and dark pain, Jordan climbed into the rafters of a factory warehouse. Shortly before, he had texted a few friends to say goodbye, which is how his parents Chris and Christy discovered what he was planning. They didn't know how, but they quickly found out where: among the rented factory warehouses three kilometres from their family farm. In the past, they’d played glow-in-the-dark Capture the Flag in those same dark warehouses. It was like a family playground for basketball, biking, golf carts and roller blading.
That night Chris frantically searched 23 acres of buildings by cell-phone light on a bicycle, calling out to Jordan constantly.
He would have heard his dad’s voice.
But the other voices must have been louder. And so Jordan listened when an evil spirit in the factory warehouse used a very old line: “Throw yourself down.”
Jordan Hiemstra took his own life from the deep pain of anxiety and depression. He was 17 years old.
“When Jordan made that difficult choice,” his parents say, “we fully believe that God and his angels swooped in that very instant and scooped him up off the concrete and claimed Jordan for eternity.”
After discovering his body, Chris and Christy knew they wanted to make something good come out of this tragedy. They knew they wanted to speak out about the danger of depression and to challenge the stigma around mental illness.
“If we kept it all hush-hush, then we’ve lost our son and nothing good comes of it and Satan wins. We’ve tried to make the best of a bad situation and bring glory to God. There’s an opportunity for grace and . . . awareness, talk and more openness.”
Photographs taken by Jordan including a self-portrait.
The Hiemstras own Clovermead Farms, a heritage honey farm in Aylmer, Ontario. Chris’s grandfather kept beehives in the Netherlands and shared this passion with his six sons, including Henry, Chris’s father. Henry and Ann began Clovermead in 1975. Chris and Christy purchased the business in 2000, when Jordan was one year old; he was part of the fourth generation of Hiemstras with a passion for the business.
“We spent more time with our children than most people do because we have a farm,” Chris says. “We worked with Jordan on the farm, we travelled a lot together.
“We’ve had a full life. He was a joy. Seventeen years of delight. We are very thankful that we could build those bonds.”
Still, they know from things he shared and letters found after his death that Jordan was suffering. Family history is relevant here too. Other Hiemstras have died by suicide, and there’s a pattern of anxiety on his mother’s side.
“Buck up. Suck it up. ‘It came by itself; it will leave by itself.’ That was just the way things were handled back then,” Chris says. Immigrants didn’t believe in admitting failures: “Put polish on your shoes and dress up for church, and if there’s a problem work through it privately, as a family.
“Now we’re realizing there’s more to it. You can’t just tell someone ‘It’s gonna be OK,’ because that’s not how they feel. Other people who have been depressed tell us that they feel they’re doing the world a favour by leaving it early.”
(From left to right): another piece of Jordan's artwork; the Hiemstra family celebrates 40 years of Clovermead; Jordan with a 'beeard' with his grandfather.
Breaking the silence
Jordan could be the life of the room, a pleasure to be around. Other people would comment on how polite he was, how he would look adults in the eyes while speaking.
“But there were two sides to him,” Chris says. “You had this fully functioning, bright child, but inside he was hearing voices say that he wasn’t worth the opportunities he’d been given.” The voices also told him the feelings would be back if he stopped taking his medication, that it would never end.
Jordan had only been diagnosed with depression four weeks earlier – late August of 2016. He had been seeing a counsellor and talking with his mentor and parents, but he didn’t want anyone else to know. Out of respect for his privacy, Chris and Christy didn’t tell his siblings, teachers, youth leaders or pastors. “That would be one of the regrets we have,” Chris says. “All or one of those people might have been able to counsel him to safety.
“The most important thing is that the stigma around mental illness needs to go away, so that people can talk about how they’re feeling much easier, so that a church community or any community can be more open.” Others can help carry your burdens and support you.
“Mental illness is a chemical imbalance no different than diabetes. Here we have a child who has basically everything going for him, every resource possible. So depression can affect anyone. It doesn’t matter. Don’t be embarrassed. Never suffer in silence. There’s a place for medicine – at least explore it. No one hesitates to get medicine for other things, so why wouldn’t you?
“There’s no easy fix. There’s collateral damage, even for the people around them. But I would rather have my son around with collateral damage.”
At Jordan’s funeral, the Hiemstra family thanked those who have been agents of God’s love to them in a time of grief with visits, messages, flowers, cards and meals. Chris’ advice is to treat the bereaved as normal people: “Just say I’m thinking about you, I care about you; nothing else has to be any different. When mourners want to talk they’ll talk.”
Satan’s voice was loudest that night in the warehouse but God has spoken powerfully through the Hiemstras ever since. In Jordan’s eulogy, Chris said that our Heavenly Father calls out to each one of us by name with as much urgency as he had in the factory, searching for Jordan.
No matter what, God loves you.
You have so many gifts.
We are here for you.
We love you.
“Someday,” Chris finished, “we will all make the trip from the ‘Land of the Dying’ into the ‘Land of the Living,’ and then we will rejoice with Jordan and our ancestors in the arms of our Saviour’s love.”
What advice would you give parents of teens?
“Jordan encrypted his computer; so we didn’t have his password to access his digital photos and memories. When your child is growing you have to give them some space. They have to become their own person. I wish we [had done it differently]. I’m not saying you should go in and snoop, but have their passwords for phone, laptop. There’s room for privacy but make sure you have access to their files and accounts as parents. We were able to gain access, but it was frustrating and took time.”