Parents coping with loss of teenage daughter
Post Independent staff
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
Heather Jay was focused on her future. She had a plan.
Graduate from Mesa State College, then to chiropractor school in Davenport, Iowa. Then, the next chapter.
Her parents were already proud. She was a special teenage girl. Friendly, outgoing, caring, a 500-watt smile with enthusiastic eyes.
Heather Jay’s future was as bright as her smile.
Heather graduated from Grand Valley High School in May 2006. On May 16, she received her degree from Mesa State. Her parents and about 20 friends were there. Her boyfriend was there.
The announcement hung in the air “Heather Melissa Jay.”
So much pride.
The only thing missing from this special occasion was Heather.
“It was overwhelming and very exciting,” Heather’s mom, Nancy Jay, says. “There were so many people at the graduation. There was just one missing.”
On Nov. 13, 2008, Heather Jay was killed in a one-car accident about six miles from the Jays’ Parachute home.
Craig and Nancy Jay still struggle with the painful emotions.
Some days are tougher than others. Heather was their only child.
Mother’s Day and Father’s Day were not easy. Heather’s birthday on Aug. 14 will be rough.
The graduation was difficult.
“At first we didn’t know if we wanted to do it. You have so many mixed feelings about it,” Craig says. “But she earned it, she worked very hard for it.
“She had so much potential and have it suddenly disappear, is so hard.”
Nancy could see the unlimited potential in her daughter.
“She worked really hard and had her goals set,” Nancy says, then she hesitates for a moment. “She was ready to go.”
Craig’s voice cracks when some of Heather’s memories return.
“She was always going to be successful. I wasn’t sure at what but I knew she was going to be successful,” Craig says.
That isn’t just a father’s pride coming out. Heather was indeed on her way.
She was set to graduate in three years from Mesa State and was right on course. That’s why the kinesiology department petitioned for her to receive her posthumous degree from the Grand Junction college.
It’s been a tough stretch for Mesa State. Heather is one five students who have died over the past three years.
Heather was excited about becoming a chiropractor, her mom says.
“She loved puzzles and one of the greatest puzzles is the human body. She just wanted to help people,” she says.
There will be a plaque in the hallway of the kinesiology department with Heather’s name and a photograph of her smiling face.
The graduation was bittersweet for the Jays, and of course so is talking about their daughter.
“Talking about her upsets me,” Craig says, honestly. “But it also feels good. We are so proud of her drive and dedication.”
Both Craig, 44, and Nancy 43, were thrilled that Heather graduated from college. They both got their two-year degrees from Colorado Mountain College. Having Heather earn a degree from a four-year institution fills them with pride.
Getting the horrible news of his daughter being killed was the worse day of Craig’s life and the most difficult thing he’s ever confronted.
Then came telling Nancy the terrible news.
“It was the second hardest thing in my life. The look on her face, I’ll never forget,” Craig says, his voice wavering again.
After the graduation, the Jays got away on a much-deserved vacation to Hawaii. But even that offered some torment.
“There’s mixed feelings. There’s amazing guilt,” Craig says. “She would have loved Hawaii. She was such a bright spot in our lives.”
Nancy says Heather did so many things to make them proud. Maybe the most profound thing was that she touched so many people in her short life and made a difference in their lives.
“She was so empathetic, she loved people, she was very social and I think that’s what we miss the most,” Nancy says.
Then Nancy’s voice starts to break. Her strength finally gives in to the painful memories of a daughter taken too soon.
“What hurts so much is that I know she would be upset that she’s causing so much pain,” she says as the tears escape. “She really touched so many lives in so many ways.”
Losing a daughter brings meaning to cliches. They’re just taking things one day at a time, and their message to other parents is never take anything for granted. Life is precious and can be so fragile and fleeting.
“Don’t assume that there will be a tomorrow,” Craig says.
Nancy says Heather touched people’s lives from ages 6-85. Heather volunteered at the Battlement Mesa Activity Center, where she was a lifeguard at the pool.
After her death, the community showed their support for the Jays and Heather’s memory as more than 400 people came to the funeral. There’s a gigantic box packed with heart-wrenching cards in the Jay home. The night after Heather’s death, more than 125 people gathered outside the Jays’ home for a candlelight vigil. It was 11 degrees, but they ignored that to show much they cared.
“So many people came up to us and talked to us about how special Heather was,” Nancy says.
“We’re learning a lot about ourselves and the community. The community has been amazing,” says Craig, who is the director of facilities for the Garfield County Re-2 School District.
It means so much to hear how their child touched other people’s lives. It gives great solace to Craig and Nancy.
Nancy’s co-workers at Wells Fargo Bank in Rifle offer her so much support.
“I get a hug every day.”
Nancy laughs when she talks about how Heather was already planning to take care of Mom and Dad when they got old.
“She already had our nursing home picked out for us.”
Nancy’s laugh shows how quickly contrasting emotions can come and go when talking about Heather.
They plan to put Heather’s diploma, cap and gown in a framed shadow box.
The Jays are also looking to keep Heather’s memory alive by starting a scholarship program at Mesa State.
The outpouring of community support has already pushed the scholarship total to $10,000 and it continues to grow. The Heather Jay Memorial Fund is set up at Wells Fargo.
“We’re so excited to help other students get their degree,” Nancy says.
The pain and torment of losing their daughter still haunts them, and they know it will for a while. But they embrace the good memories, and it pushes the pain down a little. Helping other students is another gem they hold on to. The scholarship fund will be a legacy that Heather leaves behind.
But mostly, it’s her smile and the way she lived that will leave the most lasting impression.
Craig and Nancy might have been the proudest parents at the Mesa State graduation. One thing is for certain – no other parents were as sad.
It’s unimaginable to lose a child, but the Jays are adjusting to their new life.
Heather is gone but she won’t ever be forgotten.
There’s pride, sadness and a tremendous void in their lives. But they know life goes on, and life without Heather is something that they will never completely get over.
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