Photo by Dimitri Castro
For the first six months, especially, she often had to remind herself he 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,” says Jen. But Brad Bolejack would not be coming home or calling. Jen now had to figure out how to add widow and single mom to her repertoire — two titles 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 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, says Jen, that’s how they met. It was 2003, when she was a youth leader and needed a speaker for an upcoming event. A friend suggested Brad, who had already started gaining 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,” remembers Jen. They became fast friends and married in 2005.
Jen’s childhood church, Chapel West in Indianapolis, became their home base, but they soon traveled all over the Midwest, preaching and performing musical programs together. She served as principal of Indianapolis’ Capitol City School until they relocated to Florida in 2017 where Brad took on the role of associate pastor for the Celebration Church. They had just added a boy to the family, too — little Jakob, but a perfect storm was brewing.
A Change for the Worse
Brad had been 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, all formed a seemingly impenetrable wall. A wall 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 childhood condition which 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 music, though, which started to tip off Brad, himself, that something was horribly wrong.
Since they had married 13 years before, music had been a large part of both of their ministries. “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 Brad’s voicemail. She became frantic, trying to reach people who were nearby and could check on him. 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 final 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,” confesses Jen.
Jen learned later it’s often advised one should 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 ‘til afterwards. Now I know.”
Birth of a Ministry
What Jen knows now could help you and/or your loved one. That’s her sincerest 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 stop 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 ten months after Brad’s death, the BRAD Foundation had its kickoff event, bringing together counselors, artists, law enforcement, 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 in a 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, etc.). 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 next stop, where a pastor friend says there is a great need. Jen says she has received calls to bring it to their native Indiana, too.
Despite appearances and accomplishments, there are real consequences to the intense loss and pain of losing Brad. While Jen still teaches music lessons, she hasn’t been able to return to her full-time 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 afterwards, and she told her dad everything. “To this day,” says Jen, “[Leena] will text his phone and tell him things that are happening in her life.”
Lani, age six, “talks about her daddy a lot,” says Jen. “Lately, she has been saying that she wants to die so she can 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 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,” says Jen, “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.
Follow The BRAD Foundation on Facebook to find out more about their plans and upcoming events/benefits.
If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), text “home” to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or go to suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
Cheri Daniels Lewis, freelance writer in the Quad Cities area of Illinois