Their eyes light up with love when Scott and Reyne Roeder talk about their son, Jackson. But behind the glow is the heartbreaking truth that he is gone, and much too soon.
Jackson’s parents remember him as a fun-loving little boy. Like many kids, he enjoyed playing with Legos, K’nex and anything “Star Wars.”
“In elementary school, he was introduced to painting,” Scott recalled. “In middle school, he began working with home-builder software on our home computer. He was a musician, playing the saxophone and electric guitar. And Jackson loved adventure. He was a marathon runner, Tough Mudder, slack liner, motorcyclist and MS TRAM participant (a cycling fundraiser to end multiple sclerosis).”
Jackson was a gifted artist, eventually returning to painting classes during high school.
“He qualified for three categories at the state [competition] but gave up two of his categories so others could participate. That was the way he was,” the Roeders recalled.
After high school, Jackson pursued his passion at North Dakota State University in Fargo working toward a master’s degree in architecture.
“He was a top student. He did an internship at Hagemeister Mack Architects in St. Cloud and his architecture renderings were used for the construction of a number of prominent buildings in St. Cloud, including the YMCA,” Scott said.
From vibrant oil paintings to shadowy pencil drawings to detailed architectural plans, his art is a reflection of the myriad talents he held. But inside that bright mind also lurked the darkness of mental anguish.
In kindergarten, he missed getting diagnosed for attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, Scott said. “He was considered borderline ADHD. We wish he would have been rechecked a year later. In sixth grade, he started writing dark thoughts in his papers, and we were notified by the school.”
At that time, Jackson underwent extensive testing and was diagnosed with ADHD, anxiety and depression. According to the Roeders, he also experienced bullying. He then began medication and counseling. Later in college, he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
“We worked with Jackson throughout his lifetime with educators, counselors and psychologists to get him the care he needed,” Scott said.
But, like many stories the Roeders have heard, there were gaps in his treatment. In 2017, at the age of 25, Jackson died by suicide at his Fargo apartment.
The news was devastating for the Roeders, who were traveling home from a business trip in New Zealand when they got the call from their daughter, Cassie.
“There were just no words to say,” Scott said. “We made a few calls to the police, the funeral home and started calling family. Then we got on another plane and cried all the way home. It was completely gut-wrenching.”
Their family surrounded them in the first hours of their return. Later that weekend, they went to their church, St. Paul Parish in St. Cloud, and met with Father LeRoy Scheierl and the liturgist, Laurie Kremer.
“They just sat with us, grieved with us,” Scott recalled.
The following days were a blur: planning a Mass, picking out a plot at the cemetery and trekking to Fargo to pick out a suit to lay their son to rest. There was a wake, a funeral and a burial.
“Then everybody left,” Reyne remembered.
The couple decided to attend Mass the Saturday after Jackson’s funeral.
“We were in our usual seat and I looked to the right and saw two women, who I knew had both experienced loss, one lost her husband and one lost her daughter. Every time I had seen them prior to Jackson passing away, I just knew they were heartbroken. Now I know when people look at us, they see our broken hearts,” Scott said.
After Jackson died in February, Scott and Reyne were invited to a Lenten Bible study with people from their parish community. It was a very difficult, but critical, step for them.
“All you want to do is sit home and hide,” Reyne said. “Everywhere you go, you cry. You walk down the aisle in the grocery store and see your child’s favorite foods and know you aren’t going to buy them for him anymore. It’s just too painful.
“When we went to the study group, we talked about the readings during Lent as a small group. I remember it was about suffering. And in our group there were two families who had really suffered. I felt we could really talk in an environment where people cared. It seemed like everybody else just wanted us to be OK. In the study group, you realize that when it comes to loss, what do you have left but the hope of eternal life? That’s the only thing that kept me going,” she said.
It wasn’t easy, though, and they both wrestled with tough questions.
“Really, Lord. How could you take my child? Why did it have to be him? Why didn’t God heal Jackson? I had to stay focused on the big picture, eternal life,” Reyne said.
Reyne found some solace in reading about stories of others who went through similar experiences.
“You wonder ‘How did I get here?’ All the love, all the support we had and we still lost the battle. I wanted to know how other people survived. You realize how much you rely on your belief in God. You find out that you are not alone,” Reyne said.
After joining support groups, the couple watched how some people had fallen away from the Church, and even God, because of things that were said or weren’t said at the time of their loved ones’ deaths.
“We’ve heard people say that no one from the parish called them, no one reached out at all. And we’ve heard that things were handled poorly, too. We were blessed that Father LeRoy and Laurie were very caring, as well as other members of our parish community. But we want to speak out for those whose experiences were not like ours,” Scott said.
Father LeRoy said that in regard to the stigma of mental health and suicide, compassion is key on all levels.
“This includes compassion for those affected by mental health issues, compassion for family and friends and all those who are involved with a person affected with this struggle, and most of all compassion toward the person who makes that tragic decision to take their own life,” he said.
“When these things occur, it is a very sad moment indeed, a shock to everyone. It is also a difficult situation for priests who are often at a loss for comforting words for all those involved.”
Scott added that society, in general, is not very compassionate to people who have mental health conditions.
“Because of that, we didn’t talk to people about Jackson’s mental health. We didn’t really have a lot of support. As a society, we shame people. We have to be more accepting and talk more openly about it,” he said.
“Even the wording that we use when people say, ‘he committed suicide,’ puts it into a negative light. It sounds like he committed a crime. No, he died by suicide while dealing with mental health issues,” Reyne added.
To combat some of the stigma around mental health and suicide, the Roeders established the Jackson Roeder Memorial Fund through the CentraCare Foundation.
“After meeting Dr. John Schmitz, John shared with me the work they were doing with the zero-suicide model,” Scott said. “This model works to close gaps in mental health care. We knew this is where we wanted the fund to help because of gaps Jackson experienced throughout his life with his mental health care.”
Before he died, Jackson started a website showcasing his artwork and drawings. The Roeders have since developed the site, www.jacksonroeder.com, to be a place for resources as well as to raise awareness about mental health and suicide prevention. It also serves as a home for donations to the Jackson Roeder Memorial Fund.
Jackson’s fund, along with two local businesses’ support, funded a new position at CentraCare to bring a full-time suicide program prevention manager on board. The fund also has provided bereavement packages to suicide loss survivors, produced banners for schools with suicide help phone numbers and promotes resource phone numbers on electronic billboards in St. Cloud. It also funded books for a clergy conference in St. Cloud.
“Our church community and church leadership were extremely helpful after losing Jackson. They have walked with us on this journey and our faith remains strong,” Scott said.
Scott continues advocacy efforts by being on the Minnesota NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) legislative committee, as a member of the Minnesota State Suicide Prevention task force and co-chair of its intervention committee, an AFSP (American Foundation for Suicide Prevention) field advocate, and a member of Central Minnesota United Way’s mental health committee. Reyne is often by his side.
“After I became involved in some of these organizations, I began to come across a lot of information — information we never had. We want to make sure that other people who need the information can get it,” Scott said.
“Our hope is to prevent others from experiencing this type of loss. All of the advocacy opportunities allow us to learn from others about the work they have been doing for years. Being a suicide loss survivor, we have the experience with Jackson to make sure what we have learned is applied and assists in making change in the groups we work with,” he said.
Like his parents, Jackson was always ready and willing to help others. The Roeders hope that even through his death, he continues to help ensure others don’t have to suffer the same struggles.
“Grief is extremely difficult,” Scott said. “You do not get over it, you are changed forever. But you can move forward. Jackson is with us every day. People may think it might be best to hold back to talk to us about Jackson because it may make us sad or something. Well, we are already thinking about him. Jackson is on our minds every day and we like and find comfort in talking about him. We love him and, yes, we do dearly miss him. He will always be a part of us.”