Vanessa Fernandes and her son Armande Patel are about to talk for the first time about what their family went through in 2015. They sit at a conference room table, tucked away on the first floor of a shopping mall where Fernandes is an executive at a major retail store. Her son is in college, studying finance.
A note to readers: this story mentions suicide. If you are in a crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
That year, Fernandes' husband Shane Jackson gave her some life-changing news. His daughter — her stepdaughter — had died by suicide.
"I lost my stepdaughter in 2015, in the fall of 2015, on what would have been her first day of high school," Fernandes says.
The family was living in Austin at the time. Patel had just started his junior year of high school. He remembers getting the news and being picked up from school.
"It was just a very, very shocking time because nothing like that had really ever happened," Patel says. "We'd had deaths in the family, obviously, but something like suicide was very new to us."
The family was stunned. Then, in the midst of their grieving, Fernandes' husband Shane also died by suicide just a few weeks after losing his daughter.
Fernandes decided she and her son would move to Dallas to be closer to their friends and family. The two spent hours in therapy and tried to adjust to their new home.
"My focus became all about, 'How do I get my son to Dallas, or to a community where he could get more support than just me?'" she says. "I had a lot of balls up in the air, and I had to figure out how to... keep the home running, and the work life running, and my kid safe."
Fernandes also threw herself deeper into advocacy work. She's on the national board of NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness. In her professional life, she tries to promote mental health and wellness among her employees.
After her husband's passing, Fernandes recalls going through his phone and seeing that he had been reaching out to loved ones. While most people replied, the conversation was often surface level. She started a website called "Three Words," encouraging others to check in with their loved ones in more meaningful ways, with phrases like "I miss you," "you got this" and "you do matter."
Meanwhile, her son was just trying to get through high school. Patel says his friends rallied around him after he lost his family members.
"After school, every day, we would go to Jason's Deli, get a snack, and then obviously the free ice cream, and then we would go out to Starbucks and do homework altogether," Patel says. "Otherwise I would have just been sitting at home wondering what to do with myself, and them taking me out, getting me out at least for that little bit really helped me kind of get my mind straight and focus back on school, friends, trying to live a normal-ish teenage life."
Suicide is a growing public health issue nationwide. According to data out this month from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the suicide rate climbed 33 percent between 1999 and 2017. There were more than 47,000 suicides in 2017, according to the CDC.
And for loved ones, the process of grieving those losses isn't always linear.
"You know, about a year and a half after we moved to Dallas, I started to notice a pattern in Armande's sleeping habits, eating habits," Fernandes says. "He was a little irritable around the house, and so I started to notice all these signs that I had learned about with NAMI, because I knew the signs to look for, so I'd encourage people to look and know the signs of depression, of mental health."
Fernandes and Patel have always shared an unspoken bond of support. But they learned some new things about each other after sharing their accounts of how they coped with what happened in 2015. Fernandes says she never considered what it was like for her son to process his grief alongside school, band and being a teenager. And Patel didn't know just how much his mom worked to provide him stability.
"I wish I knew how hard it was, and I love you mom," Patel says.
"I love you too son," Fernandes says. "I'm so proud of how you've been through this. You have done it gracefully. I appreciate everything you've done to take care of yourself and me through all of this."