November 30, 2019

Remembering with Love

Jen Bolejack is a go-getter who juggles the schedules of three kids (from toddler to teen), regularly serves during worship service (behind a keyboard and mic), and continues her music ministry by giving lessons. A life-changing event in November 2018, however, stopped her in her tracks.

For the first six months, especially, she often had to remind herself that her husband, Brad, wasn’t coming through the door. She clung to her phone, both so she wouldn’t miss his call and to capture every milestone of their newest little one. “I wanted nothing more than to tell Brad or record [Jake’s first steps] so that he could watch it later, almost as if he served in the military and was deployed for an indiscriminate amount of time,” Jen says. But Brad Bolejack would not be coming home or calling. Jen had to figure out how to add “widow” and “single mom” to her repertoire — two roles that weren’t in the plans.

Brad died by suicide on November 16, 2018. He was just 33 years old. Jen admits it came after years of his suffering from anxiety and depression. Still, it was an abrupt ending to a life filled with so much progress and promise.

Brad had been preaching since he was 16. In fact, Jen says, that was how they met. In 2003, as a youth leader for her church, she needed a speaker for an upcoming event. A friend suggested Brad, who had already started to gain a reputation as a moving orator. Jen learned he would be at a Bible study near her Indianapolis home, so she went to check him out and see if he could preach. “I’ll be honest; I was looking for a nerdy guy, maybe in suspenders or a bow tie. What I found was a really handsome guy surrounded by all of the girls who went to this Bible study. We found out that we attended the same college and ended up having similar classes,” Jen remembers. They became fast friends and married in 2005.

Jen’s childhood church, Chapel West in Indianapolis, Indiana, United States, became their home base, but they soon traveled all over the Midwest, preaching and performing musical programs together. She served as principal of Indianapolis’s Capitol City School until the family relocated to Florida in 2017, where Brad took on the role of associate pastor for the Celebration Adventist church. They had just added a boy to the family too — little Jakob. But a storm was brewing.

A Change for the Worse

Brad was bullied as a kid, Jen shares, but had never professionally processed those rough beginnings. That, coupled with a recent diagnosis and prescribed meds which drastically altered his mood, formed a seemingly impenetrable wall — a wall that Brad may have thought he couldn’t get over or couldn’t get through.  

Not long before November 2018, Brad had been diagnosed with Perthes disease, a rare condition that affects the hips. Jen tells how he had been an avid runner and was “always in the gym,” but the physical pain became debilitating. He put on a lot of weight. Jen admits he began spiraling into a deeper depression. It was the change in his attitude to music, though, that started to tip off to Brad himself that something was horribly wrong.

Since the couple had married 13 years earlier, music had been a large part of their ministry together. “We sang for countless weddings, churches, concerts, and camp meetings,” Jen recalls of their duets.

Brad was involved in a men’s praise team and had written several songs with his oldest daughter. It was normally therapeutic for him, but, Jen admits, “He wasn't finding joy in singing and performing anymore. It scared him,” she says.

Thankfully, Jen insists she’s never blamed herself for the outcome, but she does recognize that, out of ignorance, she said and did all the wrong things. “I used to tell him, ‘You just need to pray more! You have a wonderful family … an impactful ministry … practice what you preach!’”

She regularly encouraged counseling and prayer partners for Brad and, eventually, he sought out a fellow pastor and started seeing a therapist who put him on antidepressants.

“The first week he was doing ‘amazing’ and told me he was finally ‘feeling like himself.’ By the second week, he woke up one morning in tears.” Jen recalls he told her, “‘I feel so hopeless.’”

Two weeks later, and just hours after Jen and the kids boarded a plane, Jen received a call. She was driving back to her parents’ home in Indiana after coming from wedding dress shopping with her sister. The call was from Brad’s best friend, who was concerned about a text he’d just received from him. It read, “When Jen comes home, play this video for her. She’ll need to be surrounded by people, though, because it’ll be really hard. You’ve been such a great friend to me. Love you, man.” Jen immediately tried to call, but it went straight to voicemail. She became frantic, trying to reach people who were nearby and could check on Brad. Friends eventually found him in the house, unresponsive. CPR was started and continued until paramedics arrived, but it was too late. Brad was gone. 

Meanwhile, Jen and her family were trying to figure out how to get her on the next plane back to Florida. Then she received the call. “All I could do was scream, ‘No. No, NO, NO, NO, NO!’” Jen says her sister just held her as she sobbed.

Jen admits Thanksgiving was a blur. “Instead of preparing for several large family gatherings, we were preparing for two memorials [in Indianapolis and at Celebration].… Honestly, no one wanted to celebrate Christmas. It just felt like another day without Bradley,” Jen confesses.

Jen learned later it’s advisable for people to be carefully monitored when starting antidepressants. “They often go through feelings of euphoria, then extreme hopelessness,” the now-educated Jen explains.

“I did what I could. You don’t know so many things till afterward. Now I know.”

Birth of a Ministry

What Jen knows now could help you and your loved one. That’s her sincere wish, her daily prayer, and what pushes her through the intense pain.

“I needed to do something with this. I needed to do something with his ministry. I needed to make sure he’s not forgotten.”

Jen and six of the couples’ closest friends knew they wanted to leave a legacy in Brad’s name, founding the BRAD Foundation. BRAD stands for Being Real about Anxiety and Depression. They wanted to try and reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness and arm others with the resources and awareness Jen felt she and Brad were never given.

Jen admits, “The collaboration has been incredible.” Just 10 months after Brad’s death, the BRAD Foundation had its kickoff event, bringing together counselors, artists, law enforcement representatives, musicians, and some 300 attendees from the community eager to find relief for themselves or a loved one.

One of the main purposes of the foundation is for all involved in the mental health struggle to understand treatment doesn’t come one-size-fits-all. “The solution is different for everyone,” she says.

What’s next for the group of organizers? Jen says they’re plowing through the logistics of formally establishing the BRAD Foundation, including paperwork and retaining a lawyer. They’re also continuing to raise funds and awareness for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. And they’re already making arrangements to take the awareness program on the road. Georgia likely will be the first stop, where a pastor friend says there is a great need. Jen says she has received calls to bring it to her native Indiana too.

Despite appearances and Jen’s accomplishments, there are real consequences to the intense loss and pai
n of losing Brad. While she still teaches music lessons, Jen hasn’t been able to return full-time to her classroom since his death. She says becoming a single parent is one of the hardest things. “Not having someone to bounce ideas off of or consult when giving permission for something. Never mind trying to establish rules and consequences on my own.”

Leena, now 13, has gotten straight A’s this year and is captain of the basketball team, but her mom admits Brad was the teen’s best friend. They did Bible studies together, had regular dinner dates — with the compulsory ice cream afterward — and she told her dad everything. “To this day,” Jen says, “[Leena] will text his phone and tell him things that are happening in her life.”

Lani, age 6, “talks about her daddy a lot,” she says. “Lately, she has been saying that she wants … to be with him because she misses him so much." Jen says Lani will pick any yellow flower she sees to bring back home and place it on the box with his ashes. She knew yellow was her daddy’s favorite color.

Baby Jakob was just nine months old when Brad died. “We’re all scared he simply won’t remember his dad, but we have pictures of him all over the house,” Jen says, “and Jakob often points and says, ‘Ada dada.’”

Jen acknowledges that the support she received from her church family “has been amazing! My kids have got grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles times a million,” she says with a laugh. Members also regularly come by with meals, offer to clean the house, and have even provided monthly monetary gifts for the family since Brad’s death.

“It’s been a terrible thing, but also one of the most freeing things,” Jen declares assuredly. “When you experience such a loss, everything is out of your control. There’s nothing to hold on to but your faith …  God knew his struggle — He knew his heart.”

Jen says Brad’s favorite hymn was “It Is Well with My Soul.” She’s putting one foot in front of the other in hopes of making sure others have access to that fundamental peace which seemed just out of reach for her husband.

The original version of this story was posted by the Lake Union Herald.