Family, friends grapple with loss of Jojo

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Jordana “Jojo” Greenberg was a sophomore at Walt Whitman High School, where she was active in the Animal Society and played on the junior varsity volleyball team.(Photo courtesy of Elyssa Seltzer)

The four girls were soaking wet, late for dinner and having the best time.

It started by accident. They were supposed to meet a few others at The Diner in Adams Morgan, but got off on the wrong Metro stop. It was pouring rain.


But Jordana “Jojo” Greenberg could turn anything into an adventure.

“We were like, ‘Well, let’s call an Uber,’” says Quinn Okon, a friend of Jojo’s, who was there on that wet evening with Jojo’s sister, Carina, and Carina’s friend Natachi. “And Jojo was like, ‘No, let’s walk in the rain.’”

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So they walked. It took them nearly an hour to make it to the restaurant and they were completely drenched. But Quinn also remembers how happy they were. It’s one of her favorite memories of Jojo. She just did stuff like that, Quinn says.

It’s been seven months since Jojo took her own life at the age of 16. And in their grief, Jojo’s family and friends look to that bubbly, bright and confident 16 year old struggling to stay afloat in her depression for answers. From her bad days, they see the cause of her death, and a purpose. From her good days, a way forward.


A sophomore at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Jojo disappeared on the evening of Nov. 27, 2017. She was found hours later at the foot of the Capital Crescent Trail bridge over Massachusetts Avenue.

She had jumped.

“The world doesn’t seem right without Jojo in it,” says Sonya Spielberg, Jojo’s mother. She’s sitting outside Praline Bakery & Bistro in Bethesda in the bright summer heat. The seven month anniversary of her daughter’s death had passed just two days before.

In a few hours, Spielberg will fly to Colorado for one last memorial in one of Jojo’s favorite places — where the family spent many summers and Jojo attended her beloved summer camp.

Spielberg doesn’t call Washington home anymore. Austin is home — where her support system is — and she flies out to D.C. for work.

Spielberg was here with Carina, her older daughter. Together they went to see “Hamilton” at the Kennedy Center. As she watched the musical, Spielberg remembered the first time she took her girls to a Broadway show — “Wicked” — when Carina was 10 and Jojo was 7.

“And I thought, ‘This is a mistake. Jojo’s way too young,’” Spielberg says. “But she sat there with her jaw wide open, staring at the stage the entire time.”

Jojo would have loved seeing “Hamilton,” she thinks. The family used to sing along to the soundtrack all the time. There’s this song in the second act, a reprise of “Stay Alive.” It never really hit Spielberg before. But there at the Kennedy Center as Hamilton sings to his dying son, Spielberg sobs. She sobs through the whole second act.

This is grief, she says. Your emotions are just so close to the surface. Anything can trigger them.

For Jojo’s father, Jonathan Greenberg, it can take as little as looking at the sky. A particularly blue sky. Or even a sort-of-blue sky. Or he’ll hear “Chicken Fried” by Zac Brown Band on the car radio. It was Jojo’s favorite song. They sang it at the top of their lungs every time it was on.

He doesn’t sing along anymore.

Greenberg can barely look at photographs of his daughter. It’s just too painful, he says. Even hearing coworkers talk about kids and grandkids is difficult.

“She was this force of life, of light and love and empathy that I’ll never experience again,” says Greenberg, who now lives in the Detroit area. He and Spielberg split five years ago, in Austin, and Spielberg moved with their two daughters to Bethesda in 2015.

“I’ll never have a connection again like I had with her.”

Jojo’s bad days

Greenberg last saw his younger daughter for Thanksgiving, the weekend before her death. They spent five days in Colorado, and she had seemed “ebullient,” he says.

But her bubbly personality could hide darker thoughts. She struggled with depression and, her parents believe, undiagnosed bipolar or other manic disorder. She was the first of their friends, Quinn says, to start drinking. She started acting out.

Her family did what they could. They sent her to a therapeutic boarding school in North Carolina. She had regular doctors and was on medication. When she got back from the boarding school, her friends tried to protect her, Quinn says, from activities — mainly drinking — they thought would do her harm. She wasn’t drinking anymore, but they didn’t want to tempt fate.

It wasn’t enough.

“She and I were very close and we talked about a lot of things,” Greenberg says. “But I think she shielded me — I think shielded everyone — from her most inner thoughts.”

Jojo would talk about her depression sometimes, says Elyssa Seltzer, an incoming Whitman senior and friend of Jojo’s who wrote about her for the school paper last month. But only in a matter-of-fact way. She would downplay it, Elyssa says, but her friends could tell it was worse than she let on.

Jojo, second from right, and Quinn, second from left, pose with their friends for
Whitman’s homecoming their freshman year. (Photo courtesy of Quinn Okon)

The death of a minor sends ripples of devastation through a community. And Jojo’s family didn’t try to hide how or why she died. They were open about her struggles with mental illness and her choice to end her own life rather than live with “the pain in her brain,” as Spielberg puts it.

Both her parents put some blame on society’s lingering stigma against mental illness. Jojo was getting help, she had a loving family, but she still didn’t tell anyone how bad it was, they say.

Spielberg and Greenberg both see their decision to be open about her death and mental illness as a way to lessen that stigma and maybe help another child, another family. Teen suicides are on the rise. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide has surpassed homicide in recent years as the second leading cause of death for teens aged 15-19, after accidental deaths.

Spielberg says a lot of Jojo’s friends have reached out to her. To send her something that reminds them of Jojo, or just to talk and share stories.

“A lot of people were just left in shock and disbelief and, in some cases, probably depression,” she says. “If this girl, who appeared to have everything — she was very popular, beautiful and gifted and doing well in school — if she could find life was hopeless, how are the rest of us going to survive the hardships of teenage years?”

Spielberg says she is just “real” with them about Jojo’s struggles and her ultimate choice. She’s not condoning it or glamorizing it, she says. Jojo could have experienced so much more joy in her life, impacted so many more people. But now she never will.

Losing your child is “soul-crushing,” Spielberg says. “It just changes you on a fundamental level to experience this kind of grief.

“But you can either decide to curl up and die — to go underground. In the first four months, I wanted to do that. Or you can decide that you need figure out how to make life meaningful and see the beauty and joy.”

Spielberg doesn’t know what the future holds, but she believes helping others — kids, schools, families — deal with stigma and mental illness will be part of it. It will give her a purpose, she says, and honor Jojo’s life.

Jojo’s good days

So, Jojo’s family and friends are left to pick up the pieces. Her life — on her good days, her best days — is now a touchstone for their own.

Jojo had a confidence that was infectious, Elyssa says. She met Jojo through a mutual friend and Elyssa invited them both over for a sleepover. They did blind makeovers — there was lipstick everywhere, Elyssa says — and it was so silly, but so fun. She liked Jojo right away.

“She just had such an upbeat spirit,” Elyssa says. “I saw a lot of myself in her. She was very extroverted, optimistic and uplifted. And I was like, ‘This girl and I are going to be friends.’”

Quinn met Jojo when the latter moved to Bethesda, joining Quinn’s Thomas W. Pyle Middle School class. It didn’t take long for them to become friends.

“Just a couple days after we met, she was already like friends with everyone I knew, basically,” Quinn says. “She would talk to literally anybody. Like she would just sit down and talk to them.”

In school, Jojo noticed a fellow student was struggling with writing college essays. Knowing her mother used to help tutor in college essay writing, Jojo begged her mother to help. It was a busy time, Spielberg says, but Jojo would not be deterred. Jojo brought her friend home and the three of them sat down to work on the essays together.

On the anniversary of her death every month, Jojo’s friends go the bridge where she died and leave flowers, says Quinn Okon. Here, some friends of Jojo’s commemorated her with street art, according to Spielberg. (Photo courtesy of Sonya Spielberg)

“It was beautiful,” Spielberg says. “She saw someone in need and brought them back. And that happened often.”

Quinn tries — consciously, consistently — to be kind to everyone, to accept them fully. It’s how Jojo was, she says. She and her friends, Jojo’s friends, check in on and look out for each other. On the 27th of every month, a group of them will go to the bridge where she died to place new flowers.

Everyone is trying to be the kind of friend Jojo was, Elyssa says.

“In many ways, I want to live like she lived,” Spielberg says. “I want to connect in a real, genuine and honest way with people. I want to leave this world a better place and that’s what she did. She had a beautiful, beautiful life and impacted a lot of people with only 16 years.”

Her parents see Jojo in their most joyful moments. She is a reminder to appreciate the beauty in the world.

“She would want me — she would want all of us — to be happy,” Greenberg says. “I know that sounds strange, but I feel her presence strongest when I’m joyful. And I feel somehow that’s the best tribute I can do.”

Jojo just felt everything so deeply, he says. And, in the end, “that was both her blessing and her curse. She experienced the world more vividly than most people — the beauty and the bad.”

If you need to talk, or if you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

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2 COMMENTS

  1. What a wonderful article. I’m very touched. It really made me reflect and think. The words stand alone, so noble, so human. Your daughter was clearly a beautiful person.

  2. Came across this article almost 18 months after this beautiful, passionate girl took her own life. My husband happened to be driving home from teaching an evening class that fateful November day, and passed the site on Massachusetts Avenue where the horrible tragedy took place. My heart goes out to her family, as from having met several parents of children who’ve died as youths, I know that the parents don’t totally come back from it ever. God bless, and may her parents find peace.

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