From tragedy to healing purpose: Whisper Tennis’ journey of resilience

Jessica Manfre Avatar

Whisper Tennis’ journey into resilience began amidst the challenges of her childhood, shaped by the complexities of family dynamics and the harsh realities of continual loss.

Raised by a single mother alongside her two older brothers, Whisper’s early years were greatly impacted by her father and her grandfather, both Navy veterans.

“My parents’ love story began in New Jersey,” she reflected. “My mom was swept off her feet by my dad, who dedicated his life to serving his country.”

Her father transitioned into civilian life following his military service and embarked on a new chapter, fraught with challenges. Struggling with the weight of his experiences, he turned to alcohol as a means of coping—a decision that would have far-reaching consequences for Whisper and her family.

It made him violent.

Whisper was five when her grandfather fell and broke his neck, becoming paralyzed. Her mother took the opportunity to leave the tumultuous marriage and relocated them from Colorado back to New Jersey. Not long after they left, her father took his life. Editor’s note: If you or someone you love is struggling with suicidal ideations or thoughts of suicide, dial 988 for immediate assistance.

“I grew up taking care of my grandfather who was paralyzed below the neck. My brothers had their own struggles and my mom did the best she could on her own,” Whisper explained. “During my early teens, my grandfather died and I started getting really involved in church. I started counseling at summer camps and mentoring others; it really felt like it filled a void in my life.”

Whisper and her father.

During a mission trip to Peru, her life was radically changed.

“They were literally living in shacks where there were no doors, dirt floors and the kids were playing soccer with flat balls. We did this performance to teach them the story of Jesus but then we just invested in the kids,” Whisper shared. “Despite how bad I thought my life was, these people were struggling so much, and yet, they were so kind and appreciative. Coming back with that perspective, I knew I wanted to give back more -I wanted to do more – so I started helping my friends who were struggling.”

After high school, Whisper was living in San Diego when she met Adam in church. 

“Adam had just gotten a divorce and was in a dark place. He was trying to process what his life looked like. We became really good friends and a support system for each other,” Whisper shared. “We talked on the phone every single day and went to church together and really just started investing in one another. We got engaged and then he deployed to Afghanistan.”

Adam was a Marine. When he returned home after nine months in combat, they were married and began their life together. “He struggled pretty badly transitioning out of the military. While he was in, Adam struggled with alcoholism but had gotten completely sober when he left,” Whisper said. “He felt like he was good at being a Marine but everything else was chaotic. Adam was always the person there for everyone else but never asked for help himself.”

Adam, Whisper, and their baby

The couple had been trying to get pregnant for years and were finally expecting a baby boy. Despite remaining sober for so long, Adam was prescribed pain medication following a service-connected shoulder surgery. Everything changed. 

“It did something to his brain and in that depression, behaviors started taking place that weren’t healthy for our marriage. I called him out on it and he pulled a gun on me when I was pregnant,” she shared. 

Adam told her if she ever left him he’d kill her and himself. The SWAT team came and he was put on a 5150 hold (an emergency, often involuntary mental health hospitalization). After his discharge, Adam came home with what Whisper referred to as a “bucket” of medication prescribed by the VA. Their son, Levi, was born and Whisper continued to try to rebuild their life into normalcy. 

“All these medications were making him do weird things. Once he put milk in the crockpot and knives all over the counter. It was all making me feel real uneasy, especially when I’d leave for work because when I came home it was like he was in a trance,” Whisper explained. “We just had a kid and it was everything that I prayed for. It was right in front of me and yet it was so far away. I didn’t even feel safe in my own home.”

Whisper was a behavioral aide working for an interfaith agency serving homeless veterans and attending National University to earn her degree as a counselor. When her uneasiness drifted into fear, she asked her mother to come visit one weekend. Whisper was on her way home from Bible study the day after her mother left when she received an odd message from her husband. 

He told her he loved her but felt like he couldn’t do anything right. Her mother encouraged her to call the police and when she arrived home, they wouldn’t let her into the house. 

Adam died by suicide on January 28, 2020. 

In the midst of planning his funeral, she was coordinating her clinical internships and found deep gratitude for the team at National University. 

“They saw me as a human at a time I really needed to be seen as a human and not like a sob story and also gave me a scholarship to ease the financial burden,” she shared. “There were times they’d push me to slow down. Even though it felt like a punishment, I’m so grateful for them wrapping their arms around me.”

Whisper began her clinical work with high-risk youth at the high school level, using her experiences to handle hard topics like suicide ideation. Then she moved into private practice, serving a lot of military families. 

“Because I’ve had such a loss and experienced terrible things in my life, I could sit with things like that and I can help guide them. Your pain doesn’t have to outweigh your hope. If we can just move that scale to realize a bad moment doesn’t define a bad life,” Whisper explained. 

Supporting families during really dark situations has become her career path and passion as a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. Whisper continues to attend her local church and recently connected with someone when she wasn’t even looking. 

“I met an incredible man who has heard all the chaos and has wrapped us up in love and he lets me tell my story but also loves me through it,” Whisper shared. “It’s just a beautiful gift in that, there’s pain and there’s heartache and there are terrible, awful moments, but there are so many beautiful blessings.”

In 2023, National University released a documentary, Echos of Resilience. The story of Whisper’s life has now won numerous awards. Her message to people struggling with mental health symptoms or even PTSD like Adam did was simple.