Jennifer Denis opens up to Cosmocreole about losing her brother Jimmy who was murdered when he was in Seychelles for his own wedding. She talks about what helped her spiritually, mentally and emotionally through her grief and how she regained strength when faced with a cancer diagnosis.
By Rhonda Chapman
Everyone who knows Jennifer Denis describes her as “a very generous woman with a bubbly personality just like fine champagne” and “like the sun”…because she attracts life and happiness. The 42-year-old preschool teacher has been living in Montreal since 1988 and her passion is teaching children with special needs—whom she describes as “children with amazing abilities”.
But four years ago, this bubbly woman lost her brother Jimmy Denis just weeks after his wedding in Seychelles. Jennifer’s story here will be an inspiration to many women who are grieving a loss or facing life-changing events that make them feel like there’s no hope and that the world is falling apart. She shows there are some things we can do to find that inner strength that often helps make life bearable moving forward so we can find happiness.
In her own words, “faith can heal broken hearts”.
The Family that Travels Together and Stays Together
In November 1988, Jennifer’s parents, Paul and Kathleen Denis, flew her and her two brothers Patrick (who currently lives in Seychelles) and Jimmy halfway across the world. Overnight, Canada became Jennifer’s new home, although the Seychelles would remain close to her heart.
When she turned 17, Jennifer met the most kindhearted Seychellois man named James Michel—not that James Michel, a different one who is a video game developer. From the moment they met James, her brothers loved him and knew he would become her rock through it all. In January 2004, amidst the tsunami that hit the Seychelles, Jennifer married her best friend and soulmate. Years later, she was blessed with two boys, Joel and Jimmy.
An Irreplaceable Bond
Along with her parents and brothers, Jennifer and her small family would often travel back to their island—falling back in love with it each time. The Seychelles was always their main destination and it became a place where they would share love, marriage, birthdays and faith. But like the calm before the wreckage of a destructive wave, the Seychelles would also become a place of mourning and sadness after the murder of her brother Jimmy Denis on May 18, 2016. Jimmy was only 35.
“From a very young age, I had been more than a sister to my two brothers,” Jennifer says. “I would go as far as to say that I was like their mother. Jimmy and I shared an irreplaceable bond. Throughout every event of my life, Jimmy was there.
“When I gave birth to my first son, he was the first visitor to walk in. When I gave birth to my second, Jimmy was already with me. I gave my second son his name: Jimmy.”
In 2016, the whole family flew to the Seychelles for Jimmy’s wedding: “This day was the most perfect day,” Jennifer says. “I recall all its events so vividly. Moments before he walked down the aisle, we spent a short moment together. I approached him as a mother would and fixed his tie for him: ‘You look like a superstar!’ and he replied, ‘Be wi! Be wi!’”
During the reception, Jimmy surprised her with a sister-brother dance to the song You Raise Me Up by Josh Groban. “You could not describe our relationship any better,” Jennifer says.
“As we danced, I told him my thoughts and cried. He looked at me and said, ‘Aret gele! Ou maskara pou koule!’ Even in the most serious moment, Jimmy was a joker and would always find a way to make me laugh and to stop my tears. Nothing in this world could have made that vacation more memorable. Little did I know that it would be our last holiday together, and the last time that I would see my brother smile back at me.”
When returning to Canada after their holiday, Jennifer and her family staggered their departure dates from the Seychelles. Jimmy and their parents would be the last ones to return home.
“Before I boarded my flight, Jimmy hugged me tightly. He then said to my boys, ‘Behave. Listen to your mother. And be strong, always.’ With tears in my eyes, I replied, ‘See you in two weeks.’”
Casually as ever, Jimmy replied to Jennifer with a “Yup, yup,” like he always did.
Two weeks later, their parents arrived without him. He had decided to stay two extra weeks in Seychelles.
“I will never forget what happened next,” Jennifer says. “They had arrived home that Sunday, and then three days later the news made its way to us: Jimmy had been brutally murdered on Beau Vallon Beach. I will always remember the moment when my husband unexpectedly picked me up from work and told me, ‘You need to be strong now. Your brother has passed.’ He went quiet for a moment before saying, ‘Everyone is waiting for you to tell your mother.’
“My mother! My heart crumbled. I felt numb. I said a prayer to keep myself sane, ‘God, it’s not true. Please, tell me it’s not true.’ When I got home, I needed strength to tell my mother the worst news a mother’s heart could receive.”
Grieving a Son, Brother and Friend
Two disorienting days later—and with her world still spinning—Jennifer was on a plane with her parents, aunty Helen and a cousin on the most difficult trip back to Seychelles.
“Upon our arrival, feeling as lost as ever, every family member came to give us love and support at the airport,” Jennifer recalls. “My heart felt warm but heavy. Usually, we would be greeted with smiles, laughter and happiness when we would make our way back home to Seychelles. But this time I could see tears in those familiar eyes broken by their saddened hearts. Jimmy was everybody’s son, friend and brother. His death was a family’s murder.”
As days went by, Jennifer’s cousins, aunties and uncles were all doing their best to help her and the family.
“Jimmy was loved by many, and you could tell that they, too, were broken,” she says. “I’ll be forever grateful to them and my family friends and in-laws for being there through those desperate times.”
Her cousin Berquitta’s guest house, which was once a place of fun and love, became a refuge for all their tears. Family members would come in and out of the house, checking on Jennifer and her family and supporting them.
“Without them, we would have never made it through this tragedy,” she says. “Prayers were our first words in the morning and our last before sleeping. Every step we took, from planning the funeral to going to court, would begin and end with a prayer.
“I owed it to myself to keep my memory of Jimmy intact, which is why I chose to not look at his brutalised body, especially his face. Berquitta held my hand through every step. Her strong faith in God helped me regain my own faith and I believed her words when she told me that I would be OK.
“I will never forget when she said to me: ‘Being strong is your only choice, Jen. God will give you the strength.’ Through this experience, I became stronger than I never knew I could. God really did give me strength.”
Fighting a New Battle
Four short years passed since Jimmy left them. Little did Jennifer know that in 2020, when the world would be dealing with a pandemic, she would be dealing with her own battle. In January, and by pure and utter chance, she was diagnosed with thymus cancer.
“‘Me? Sick?’” I thought, ‘Never!’ I had no pain and always felt that I was at the top of health,” she says. “The same numbness that I felt years ago when I first heard Jimmy’s news suddenly returned.”
Being strong is your only choice, Jen, she could hear Berquitta telling her.
“Her words struck me, and I put my faith in God again. From my family in Seychelles to my in-laws in Canada, I could feel the prayer chain they started for my healing. Together, they would say, ‘Mon pe priy pou ou, mon piti.’ I became everyone’s daughter in their prayers, like Jimmy once became their son.
“I felt like my life was in fast-forward. In a matter of weeks, I started treatment and survived a life-changing operation. Today, I carry my battle scars with pride.”
God Is My Saviour
In addition to the support of her family and doctors, Jennifer put her faith in God.
“I can confirm that God listens. It doesn’t matter which religion you associate with, but I’m telling you now that faith will give you a positive mindset to believe in yourself. You’re strong and can achieve anything in life. God is my saviour.
“The times we’re living today, and with everything that’s going on in this world, our faith is what keeps us going through life. Behind every smile is someone going through their own battle. I’m grateful for the life I was blessed with and grateful for my family.
“The list is so long that I cannot name them all, but I want everyone to know that experiencing this life with them is invaluable and precious. Their love helped me through it all. We’re a strong family of cousins, aunties and uncles that no one can break.
“I have come to realise that us Seychellois people have a gift. No matter where we are in the world, we will be present for one another during times of tragedy, sorrow, and sickness. I have single-handedly experienced it with our small Montreal community.
“Today, I can laugh again when I return to my island. I have also found peace on the beach where Jimmy died, despite every sea breeze, jet ski or the roaring of a motorbike that reminds me of him. In my heart, I hold onto my memories that I have shared with him.
“If you believe in your faith, the fear will be voided, and you will find happiness like I did. Every day, I pray to God and say:
Keep me here a little longer.
I have more laughter, and love to bring in many people’s hearts.
You are strong until it’s your own option.
Clearly, God has listened.”
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