Faced with unimaginable tragedy, one local family turns their loss into a source of hope by creating the Jenny’s Light Foundation
“Jenny was always the brightest light in the room,” Says Randy Gibbs of one of his younger twin sisters. “She was really bubbly and sweet,” he says before pausing, the pain in his voice almost as evident as the pride. “And she was a great sister.”
Jenny, he says, was creative, intelligent and, it seems, everyone’s cheerleader. When she and her twin sister, Becky Lavelle, were on the swim team together at Wayzata High School, she’d root for both of them to win. When Becky received a scholarship to Louisiana State University, Jenny also enrolled and became the swim team manager so she could bolster the confidence of each of her fellow Tigers.
She supported Becky in her path of becoming a professional tri-athlete by attending her events and holding up perfectly crafted “Go Becky!” signs. She would bake cakes when it was someone’s birthday and send thoughtful notes to those in her life who she thought needed it.
After she married her college sweetheart, Chip Bankston, she supported his decision to attend medical school and encouraged him to pursue he love of orthopedics in a Birmingham, Ala., residency program. She landed a coveted job at Southern Living magazine where she was a model employee and doting team leader.
When she found out she was pregnant, she was “ecstatic,” says Randy.
Her pregnancy, however, was not without its troubles. She had nausea throughout all three trimesters and developed Bells Palsy, and affliction that temporarily paralyzed half of her face.
It all seemed worth it when on November 1, 2007, she gave birth to Graham, a beautiful, healthy baby boy.
Jenny seemed to be handling new motherhood quite well and was only experiencing what the family thought were the usual complaints. “We thought she was tired and crying a bit, but that was to be expected,” says Becky. “We thought that everything she was feeling was entirely normal.”
The family went about their own lives, checking in frequently to learn of the newest little member of their brood; Jenny would always happily oblige with photos and e-mails.
“I talked to her on the phone around December 17th,” says Randy. “We were discussing Christmas lists and everything was perfectly normal as far as I could tell.”
But under the surface, things were about as far from normal as they could get.
On December 19th, Jenny chatted with her mother on the phone while she stood at the stove and made dinner with seven-week-old Graham nearby. She told her mother about errands she’d run that day and talked about their upcoming Christmas visit to the in-laws in Louisiana.
About and hour and a half later, Jenny gathered up baby Graham in her arms, walked out to the backyard of their suburban Alabama home and pulled out the 9-millimeter pistol she had purchased just hours before at a local sporting goods store (where helpful clerks loaded the gun because she told them she didn’t know how). With the smell of dinner in the air, she fatally shot Graham and then turned the gun on herself.
Neighbors heard shots ring out and contacted Chip, who came home to a throng of policemen in his house and an unimaginable tragedy in the backyard.
“It was a nightmare,” says Randy. “At first we didn’t know what happened. We thought someone else had done it. When we found out what really happened we couldn’t believe it; I mean how could you ever imagine such a thing? It just wasn’t Jenny.”
Looking for Answers
This complete departure from Jenny’s usual behavior prompted Randy, his parents Bob and Sandy, Becky, Chip and others to begin researching what could’ve prompted the unthinkable, the wholly uncharacteristic.
They stumbled upon a term that would ultimately help them understand or at least begin to understand, what had happened to Jenny: perinatal mood disorders. Further research revealed to the family the concepts of postpartum depression and postpartum psychosis, the latter of which had apparently triggered Jenny’s shocking actions.
When they started looking into Jenny’s life, they began to find clues, little glimpses of her state of mind that were carefully hidden from view. There were the disjointed, incoherent notes she had written to each of them moments before she died. “We recognized her handwriting, but it wasn’t in her language at all,” says Randy “You could tell she was in a really bad spot.”
They combed through her computer history and found several searches on postpartum depression, Pottery Barn, Baby Gap, and suffocation, all within a short period of time–clear evidence of her scattered thought patterns. They found out she had mentioned feelings of depression to obstetrician at her six-week postpartum visit and was given an anti-depressant, but no one else knew the extent of her despair or the depths of her downward spiral.
She was, for all intents and purposes suffering in silence.
The group decided that the silence needed to stop. They needed to reach out to other pregnant women and new moms who may fell alone, ashamed or afraid of their thoughts. They launched Jenny’s Light, a foundation that provides the most up-to-date perinatal mood disorder information and is helping to enact legislation to ensure maternal mental health screenings are conducted on all women after childbirth. The organization also offers grand money for educational purposes and hosts a resource website complete with a suicide prevention hotline and survivor stories.
Jenny’s Light has recently aligned with Go Home Gorgeous, a local postpartum wellness company that focuses on giving new moms spa treatments while they are in the hospital and sleep relief at home. This partnership is developing an awareness and fundraising campaign in which a portion of Go Home Gorgeous’s sales will be donated to Jenny’s Light.
Founder and CEO of Go Home Gorgeous, Rachel Swardson, understands the importance for new mothers to “nurture themselves as they nurture their babies.” Her marketing materials tout the value of postpartum wellness, includes tips on how to recognize postpartum depression and devote an entire section to perinatal mood disorders and Jenny’s Light.
“The more we can shed light on this topic, the better,” says Randy, who has also brought his heartfelt message to medical conferences, physicians, social workers, legislators, baby expos and anyone else who will listen. “Because Jenny, Graham, and all of the other moms and babies who are suffering, deserve it. And, because this topic has been in the dark for much too long.”