I needed hope. Four years after my son’s suicide, the monster of despair seemed to be winning. As I watched the number of deaths rise each year I was discouraged at the constant losses. Matt and Jennifer Westwood, founders of the Chelsea Ryann Festival of Hope, took the time to engage individuals and ask how they were. Displayed throughout the festival was a God who cares, a community involved, and a family who remains faithful through the hardest of experiences.
Both parents admit, “We didn’t believe mental health was a problem until it became our problem.” Since Chelsea’s death, the Westwood’s immersed themselves in the world of depression and suicide, while also holding tightly to the truth of who they are in Jesus Christ.
Compassion and understanding were evident in the couple’s eyes as they hugged me and mourned my loss as well as their own. Suicide touches every age, gender, and demographic. The Westwoods feel they are responsible for showing their community faith in action.
Through prayer, openness, and vulnerability, Matt and Jennifer designed Chelsea Ryann’s Festival of Hope with their community in mind. Inspired by the American Foundation’s Suicide Prevention Community Walks, Chelsea’s family began working with their community to support individuals and families struggling with depression.
The memories they do possess, the Westwoods treasure. Chelsea loved hiking at Red River Gorge and once successfully carried her injured friend down the mountain without help. She was up for a challenge and became an innovative problem solver. Matt smiled as he described her as a wiz at Trig.
But, as she entered junior high, the outgoing, vibrant Chelsea they knew was slowly crowded out by dark thoughts, self-hatred, and deteriorating mental health. The school, community, and church rallied around Chelsea to support and encourage her. In a moment of despair, Chelsea ended her story in 2009.
Thinking back on the day of Chelsea’s suicide, Matt said, “The enemy was certainly prowling around that day. The enemy wanted people to think that it was their fault that Chelsea took her life.” He looked at Jennifer, “I think we both knew we are going to stand strong for the people who have now flooded our living room with tears and regret, and guilt.” The Westwoods felt protective of their immediate family and the house full of friends experiencing the shock.
“We chose the path we did because that is what we believe,” they both stated firmly. “We realized we had to stay strong. Jesus calls us to emulate Him as much as we can” because others were watching.
Suicide destroys many marriages, but instead, faith, family, and adversity have strengthened Matt and Jennifer’s relationship.
Such commitment did not go unnoticed by the community. Others asked how their marriage remained secure. “Why wouldn’t it?” was Matt’s response. “We need each other.” The simplicity of their belief and strength of their convictions emerged from years of practicing a united front.
“Never losing hope. That is what got us through. There were highs and lows, but knowing God was always going to be there for us. He’s got our back, even through the difficult times. I never gave up hope.” Jennifer stated.
The Westwood’s teach others through their talks on suicide to lean into the lives around them and ask how they are doing. Jennifer emphasized, “How are they really doing?”
They take back the date of Chelsea’s death in March by preparing care baskets for neighbors and friends and visiting to encourage others.
“Because we have made ourselves vulnerable and open, we have a lot of people who approach us, not just for teen suicide, but for a lot of things.”
A prominent man in the community shared with Matt and Jennifer that he struggled with depression. This man serves as a powerful illustration, according to Matt, of how important it is to deepen our relationships within our circle of influence. “All these people around him knew him, but very few knew he was battling depression. Because on the outside, everyone was like, I want to be that guy. But no one took the time because everyone assumed he was okay.”
The community reached into Matt and Jennifer’s lives as well. Supporting them at work with understanding, time to grieve, and a listening ear.
Jennifer marveled at the support and God-given blessings received. Surrounded by so many amazing people “helps us not to lose our hope,” she affirms.
Many who loved Chelsea support her memory at the Festival of Hope. Chelsea’s grandparents, siblings, extended family, church, and community open their hearts wide to offer hope, even as they experience sorrow and grief alongside Matt and Jennifer. Matt and Jennifer remain steadfast and determined to continue their story to completion.
It is encouraging to know their loss is not the last chapter. Chelsea’s story is part of a bigger story. As I completed the loop, I felt valued, my individual story nurtured, and ministered to by the strangers I now call friends. Meeting Matt and Jennifer Westwood encouraged and reminded me that I never fight the spirit of despair alone.
Karisa Moore writes and speaks on the unspeakable as a result of her oldest son’s suicide. She equips families, schools, pastors, lay leaders, and community leaders with personal insight into despair and hope found in Jesus Christ. She loves long hikes, photography, and great stories. Karisa is a Chapter President of Word Weavers International, author of Broken Butterflies: Emerging Through Grief, A Suicide Survivor’s Poetic Journal, and blogger at turningthepageonsuicide.org
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