With thousands of crucial yet everyday people comprising the Utah Valley community, the Daily Herald would like to further highlight and share the real stories and impact of those who have recently departed. “A Bit More of the Story” reflects those efforts and remembers those lives.
When Lara Stice went on her first date with JD Stice at the age of 18, she said he simply felt like home.
“It is so hard to describe, but just feeling like, when he was around, I was safe and my spirit felt at home,” she said. “And we didn’t have to say anything.”
Their first meeting, however, didn’t have quite the same instant connection.
Lara Stice first learned about JD while he was serving as a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Anaheim, California, as her older brother’s mission companion. Her brother had written home and teased her, saying he had met her future husband, which Stice said annoyed her. On the other end, JD had stolen a picture of her from her brother as a joke and kept it the entire time he served with Stice’s brother.
Then, a week before Stice’s brother and JD were set to come home, Lara Stice and her sister visited Disneyland and took them out to lunch. Stice said JD didn’t say a word the entire time.
“So my side of the story was ... this guy doesn’t talk at all. He won’t look at me, and I just thought ... he’s either shy or just completely uninterested,” she said. “But the story that (JD) told me and his family later was, he was super intimidated and couldn’t look at me ... he wrote a letter home to his family and said, ‘I couldn’t even look at her. She’s so beautiful. I couldn’t think of one word to say.’”
They dated for around nine months before marrying in January 2004, celebrating their 15th wedding anniversary earlier this year. Lara said JD actually ended up proposing twice, because the first time she was worried they were moving too fast.
“He could have taken a big hit to his pride for that,” Stice said. “(But) he stuck around.”
While dating, JD had confided to her that he struggled with anxiety and depression as a kid. Stice said he always made it seem like something in the past, but after they married, she learned it was still very much a part of him and something he continued to struggle with.
“I think it was hard for him to admit that it was still really taking over him a lot,” Stice said. “It was hard for him ... to feel like he wasn’t as strong as he wanted to be.”
JD struggled with severe depression, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder up until March 20 of this year, when he died by suicide.
Stice said it took her completely by surprise.
“It was shocking then and shocking now,” she said.
Despite the shock, Stice said what she has felt most in the weeks following his death is greater love and empathy for him.
“Every minute of every day, he had fears and OCD. He was just buried under it,” she said. “In this experience of mourning him, I have had moments where I feel the weight of the world, the things that he tried to describe to me, that he felt all the time ... I feel like now I can feel true empathy (for) him.”
Although JD struggled with his mental illness for all 15 years of their marriage, Stice said they shared a lot of laughter. One of her favorite traditions that JD started was “dinner dancing.”
“Early on in our marriage, when I would make something that (JD) loved, he would jump up and start dancing,” Stice said. “And as our kids joined the family, they would do the same thing.”
Stice said their family would gather around the table, say a prayer over their meal, and begin eating — and if it was a hit, the entire family would hop out of their chairs and begin to dance.
“Sometimes if it was good enough, (JD) hopped up on the actual table. And the kids would do it too,” Stice said.
She said she would worry about things spilling and making a mess — but the tradition was so “darling,” that she really didn’t mind, and that it’s one of the things she misses most about her husband.
“I love that he did it. I love that he did it for years and years and years, and I love that my kids picked it up,” she said. “And I love that they still do it now that he’s gone, because it reminds me of him.”
Dancing wasn’t just reserved for the dinner table, however. Stice said whenever the mood in the house became “dull,” JD would put on music by his favorite band, Galantis, and jump on the countertop or onto the table and begin to dance, getting the whole family involved.
“Now we listen to those same songs all the time just to remember him, and we don’t cry,” she said. “It gets the kids in a good mood and we listen to it whenever we’re getting sad because it just lifts us.”
They had five children together, with the youngest only recently turned 1 year old. Stice said she and JD wanted to have kids right away after getting married, but after three and a half years of trying, with doctors telling them it might not just happen — they were ready to file an application to adopt instead.
Right before they filed their papers, Stice said her whole family held a special fast (a spiritual practice where people pray and sacrifice food and drink for a period of time) for her and JD to have children, but she and JD decided to file the papers anyway.
On a Thursday morning Stice remembers clearly, she was getting ready to submit their application when JD asked her to just take one more pregnancy test. Reluctantly, she agreed — and after three years of negative pregnancy tests, it finally showed positive. She said she called JD, who couldn’t believe it and demanded she go to a doctor to get another exam, which confirmed the pregnancy.
“And then after that, we had babies just boom, boom, boom, boom,” she said.
The first time JD held each of their five children in his arms, Stice said, were some of the only times she ever saw him cry.
“He didn’t show weakness often,” Stice said. “But when he held them, it was so beautiful. And he would just weep ... he was just the proudest dad ever.”
JD’s pride in his children spilled over into dates with his wife, where Stice said they would talk about their kids over dinner and then immediately after, go shopping for them.
“Even though none of the kids in our family have ever needed more clothes or shoes ... it gave him such pleasure to surprise them when we got home from our dates,” she said. “It was so cute. Frustrating when we didn’t have lots of money, but if that’s his love language, and he gets joy from it, then, you know, go for it.”
Another quirk Stice learned about after marrying JD was his laundry preferences.
“He would see how I folded laundry and he would refold it. And at one point, he’s like, ‘you gotta stop doing my laundry,’” Stice said.
At first she said she was offended, but then she realized it wasn’t a big deal — and she was even grateful to him for doing it.
JD’s desire for perfection touched other aspects of their life as well. Stice said they wanted to move to a bigger home for several years — but no home was ever good enough.
“Every time we would go house hunting, it wasn’t good enough ... he’d say, no, I want this for you ... and I’d be like, no, it’s fine,” Stice said. “I went through probably 40 houses and I was content with most of them because I love fixer-upper stuff ... but ... he didn’t want me to have to lift a finger.”
Stice said she used to think of his desire for perfection as strange, but now she sees it was a sign of love, and of JD wanting to take care of her and their family. Eventually they ended up designing their own home in Lehi, moving into it just days after JD’s death.
“When we moved in our stuff, I started hanging his clothes in our closet,” Stice said. “Because he’s still here to me. I feel him and I, I know he’s here with us ... I had to hang clothes so I could still see a reminder that he was there ... he’s still very much a part of this home.”
Stice said JD’s death came as a shock to many people and she’s had people ask her for an explanation. She said the only answer is the mental illness that plagued JD his entire life, a mental illness that she’s not even sure she knew the full extent of, because of how bent JD was on protecting her and protecting their family.
“People don’t accept (that answer) because they don’t see what I’ve seen. They don’t know how bad it was,” she said. “People need to recognize how big and bad those burdens can be for mental illness.”
Since his death, she’s also had several people tell her they thought of JD as their best friend — even though he had often told her he felt like he had no or few friends. Stice has chosen to post honestly about JD’s death and the aftermath she and her family are experiencing, and since then she has had people “from all walks of life” reach out to her, saying they understand what JD went through, or even saying that they changed their minds about suicide after seeing how difficult things have been for Stice and her children.
Stice said she often feels as if JD is guiding her to know what to write and to share, so that it can help others struggling with suicidal thoughts.
“I feel like he wants me to just get this out and make this (mental illness and suicidal thoughts) more normal to talk about,” Stice said. “Whatever it takes to help another family. I don’t want to see another family go through this and I know (he) doesn’t want to either.”