Jonathan Stansbury: How St. Xavier High School helped heal the heart of a grieving Mormon boy

'I was kind of lost'

CINCINNATI -- Shortly after Jonathan Stansbury’s last day of sixth grade, he traveled to Nepal with his dad and older brother for what was supposed to be the hike of a lifetime.

Then something awful happened.

The boys and their dad were on a trail when they heard a rumbling sound. A boulder tumbled out of nowhere and struck Jonathan’s brother, Timothy. The impact threw Timothy about 30 feet; he died instantly.

Jonathan Stansbury, left, with his brother in Nepal before the rock slide that killed Timothy.

“That was obviously an extremely hard experience for my whole family,” said Jonathan, who is now 18. “I was kind of lost.”

In an instant, Jonathan became the only boy in his family and the only big brother his two little sisters had. Middle school was especially difficult for him. He acted out, he said, and his mom told him she sometimes wondered if he spent more time in the halls or the principal’s office than he did in class.

Jonathan figured he needed a change. He left public schools to attend St. Xavier High School in Finneytown, where he has been the only Mormon at the all-boys Jesuit school for the past four years.

But this isn’t a story about religion. It’s about relationships.

“St. X provided me with 1,600 other brothers,” Jonathan said. “Nothing would ever replace my brother. But my friends are the closest thing that could help.”

Exterior photo of St. Xavier High School. (Ramsay Fulbright | WCPO)

As he prepared to graduate May 31, Jonathan and some of the people closest to him talked with WCPO about how St. X has helped him heal -- and how he has tried to give back to the school in return.

“Time and time again I am amazed at these boys,” Becky Stansbury said of her son and his friends at St. X. “They influence each other to be better. And what parent doesn’t want that for their child?”

‘I’m going to love this place’

Jonathan didn’t know right away that he wanted to attend St. Xavier. He started out thinking he wanted to go to La Salle High School because a friend’s dad coached cross country there.

Becky Stansbury said she didn’t how that would work. She and her husband, Trevor, let Jonathan take the entrance exam and shadow for a day at La Salle. But the Green Township school is 45 minutes away from their Loveland home with no bus as an option. With two younger children in the mix, Becky Stansbury wasn’t sure how she could get Jonathan to and from La Salle every day.

So Jonathan’s parents told him he needed to shadow at another school. They said it was impossible to compare La Salle to the public schools in Loveland and said he needed to spend a day at another private school, too.

The family’s neighbors across the street were big fans of St. X and had recommended it as a school for Timothy to consider. But Timothy died the summer after his eighth-grade year.

The Stansburys in a photo taken before Timothy's death. They are, from left, Timothy, Hannah, Trevor, Rachel, Becky and Jonathan.

Becky Stansbury said she remembers how nervous Jonathan was the morning she drove him to shadow for a day at St. X.

“He was saying, ‘I should be at school. I shouldn’t be doing this,’” she said. “But I went to pick him up at the end of the day, and he said, ‘I’m going there.’”

She was taken aback by his certainty.

“He said, ‘Mom, I just really felt the spirit, and I really felt that this is where I should be,’” she said. “He got on the phone with his dad, and he couldn’t stop talking. The 25 or 30 minute drive, he talked to him the whole way.”

Jonathan was happy at the school from the start, his mom said.

Jonathan Stansbury, far right, with St. X cross country teammates after a state race.

“I’ll never forget his very first day,” she said. “He sent me a text that said something like, ‘It’s 2 o’clock in the afternoon, and I’m having a milkshake from the Bomber Deli. I’m going to love this place.’”

And that was before Jonathan even became part of the grief support group that has helped him cope with Timothy’s death.

Feeling less alone

Jonathan didn’t talk much about Timothy when he first arrived at St. X. By that time, it had more than two years since the accident in Nepal. And the tragic death of a family member didn’t feel like something to tell new friends right away.

About halfway through his freshman year, though, Jonathan wrote an essay for his scriptures class that mentioned Timothy’s death in passing. Following school policy, his teacher sent the essay to Rosemary Schuermann, a St. X guidance counselor who called Jonathan to her office.

When Jonathan realized she wanted to talk about Timothy, he bristled.

Brothers on a Journey logo. (Ramsay Fulbright | WCPO)

His parents had tried to get him to go to therapy after his brother’s death, he said, and he didn’t want to talk with anybody about it.

Schuermann told him St. X had a monthly support group for students who had lost someone close to them. Jonathan definitely didn’t like the idea of talking in a group.

But her final request changed his mind. She said: Will you please come? Not for yourself, but to help others? And there’s free pizza.

“I went to the group once,” he said. “And I kept going because of the good food.”

Jonathan said he didn’t talk much at the group during his freshman year. But during his sophomore year, the school administration changed it to a student-led organization called Brothers on a Journey and asked Jonathan to help lead it.

That’s when the group really started to make a difference because he moved from focusing only on his own loss to focusing on the loss of others.

Jonathan Stansbury at a computer at St. X. (Ramsay Fulbright | WCPO)

“It makes you go from feeling alone, like you’re the only person in the hallways that has such a big hole in your heart, to there’s a bunch of other guys sitting in the room with you who have that same hole. And it kind of helps fill the hole a little bit,” Jonathan said. “It’s probably the number one thing that has happened to me at St. X.”

Jonathan said it’s not exactly that Brothers on a Journey has healed him, but it has helped a lot.

 “We describe it as a roller coaster,” he said of the emotions that he and his friends in the group experience. “But I definitely feel like the roller coaster is a lot less bumpy.”

‘A man of tremendous faith’

“I feel like I can carry on,” he said. “And look forward to seeing my brother again.”

Brothers on a Journey has that kind of impact on a lot of the students that take part in it, said Dave Eby, the campus minister at St. Xavier.

“It’s the group that no one wants to belong to,” Eby said. “But it’s the group that, once they join, they don’t want to leave because they do build a bond with one another.”

Dave Eby, left, with Jonathan Stansbury.

Anthony Caracci isn’t part of Brothers on a Journey, but he and Jonathan are best friends. When Jonathan invited some of his closest friends to hear his story at meeting of Brothers on a Journey during his sophomore year, Anthony was among them.

“It was pretty emotional,” said Anthony, who has an older brother about the same age that Timothy would be now, and a younger brother, too. “After he told us that story, I remember telling my brothers, ‘I love you guys.’ Sometimes I might not be the nicest to my brothers or not supportive. But the thought of them not being there is really sad.”

Jonathan has grown as a leader at St. X in many ways, Eby said.

Jonathan Stansbury running cross country for St. X.

“He was a skinny, young kid who sometimes went the wrong way in cross country and becomes this guy who other, younger students will call and will ask advice about. Not just about his journey through this experience. But studying, his prayer experiences. He’s a man of tremendous faith,” Eby said. “And he really helped some kids who were struggling in cross country, as well. He’s a very good student.”

Becky Stansbury said she believes her son -- and his adherence to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints -- have been a positive influence on his friends and his school. The family’s faith doesn’t allow them to smoke or drink alcohol, for example, and Jonathan has been able to demonstrate that he doesn’t need any of that to have fun.

“He likes to have a good time, and everybody knows it,” she said. “But it does not require alcohol.”

Above all, Becky Stansbury said, she is grateful for St. X and what Jonathan’s friends there have meant to him for these past four years.

“These boys have helped to heal his heart,” she said. “He won’t have his brother in this life ever. But he has had an experience with these boys that I hope continues as they all go in these different directions.”

As Jonathan prepares to leave for college at Brigham Young University this fall, he said that is what he hopes for, too.

Jonathan Stansbury, far right, with friends at St. Xavier. Anthony Caracci is right next to Jonathan.

Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. To read more stories by Lucy, go to www.wcpo.com/may. To reach her, email lucy.may@wcpo.com. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.

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