Judy Fuller Harper on The Death of a Child

Interview with Judy Harper

I wept when I first read about Jason, and the pain intensified after making contact with his extraordinary mother, Judy Fuller Harper. I would like to share with you now an excerpt from our correspondence.

Tammie: Can you tell me about Jason. What was he like?

Judy: Jason was almost 10 pounds at birth, a big happy baby. When he was three months old, we discovered he had serious asthma. His health was frail for years, but Jason was a typical little boy, bright, kind and very inquisitive. He had big, blue, piercing eyes, he always drew people to him. He could look at you as if he understood everything and accepted everyone. He had a wonderful contagious laugh. He loved people and had a warm accepting way about him. Jason was a joyful child even when he was sick, he often continued to play and laugh. He learned to read at age three and was fascinated by science fiction. He loved robots and those transformer toys, and he had hundreds of them. He was almost 5' 9" when he died, and he was going to be a big man. He had just surpassed his older brother who is only 5' 7" at 18, and he got a real kick out of that. He always hugged me hard as though he might not get to again; that part still rips my heart out when I realize that he had hugged me so hard the last time I saw him.

Tammie: Can you share with me what happened the day Jason died?

Judy: February 12, 1987, a Thursday. Jason died around 7:00 p.m. that day. Jason was at his father's house (we were divorced). His Dad and his stepmother had gone to have her hair done. Jason was left alone at home until they returned around 7:30 p.m. My ex-husband found him. All of the details of the actual incident are what I've been told or what the coroner's investigation indicated happened.

Jason was found sitting in a recliner just inside the door of the house, in the living room. He had a gunshot wound to his right temple. The weapon was found in his lap, butt up. No fingerprints were distinguishable on the weapon. Jason did have powder burns on one of his hands. The police found that several of the weapons in the house had been fired recently and/or handled by Jason.

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At the coroner's inquest, Jason's death was ruled an "accident", self-inflicted. The conjecture was that he was playing with the gun and the cat jumped in his lap and it must have caused the weapon to be discharged. The weapon in question was a 38-special, with chrome plating and scrolling. All the guns in the house (there were many types, handguns, rifles, a shotgun, etc.) were loaded. I have asked my ex-husband and his wife several times if I could have the gun to destroy it, but they could not do that. My ex-husband gave no explanation, he just said, "they could not do that."

How I found out--I got a call from my son Eddie around 10:30 p.m. that night. My ex-husband had called him at work around 8:00 p.m. telling him that his brother was dead, and Eddie went immediately to his Dad's home. It took hours for the police and the GBI to investigate.

When Eddie called, he sounded funny and asked to speak to my boyfriend first, which seemed odd. He apparently told him that Jason had died. Then I was handed the phone. All he said was, "Mom, Jason is dead." That's all I remember. I think I screamed out-of-control for some time. They told me later that I went into shock. I must have because the next several days are a blank or a blur, almost dreamlike. I remember the funeral, February 15th, but not much more. I even had to ask where he was buried, because I was so out of it. My doctor put me on a sedative, which I remained on for almost a year.

It took six weeks for the coroner to tell me my son did not commit suicide. I never imagined that he had, but the circumstances of his death were so confusing: the gun upside down in his lap, the lights were off in the house, the television was on, and they found no evidence that he was upset or depressed about anything, no note. So my son died because a gun owner didn't realize that a 13-year-old boy (left alone) would play with guns even though he was told not to.

Tammie: What happened to your world when Jason physically was no longer a part of it?

Judy: My world shattered into ten million pieces. When I reached the point where I realized Jason was dead, it was like someone blasted me into fragments. It still does sometimes. You never get over a child's death, especially a senseless and preventable death, you learn to cope.

In some ways, I was a zombie for two years, functioning, going to work, eating, but no one was home. Every time I would see a child that reminded me of Jason, I would fall apart. Why my child, why not some one else's? I felt anger, frustration, and chaos had taken over my life. I called my other child twice-a-day for over a year. I had to know where he was, when he would be back. If I could not reach him, I would panic.

I got some psychiatric help and joined a group called Compassionate Friends, it helped to be with people who really understood what it was like. To see that they went on with their lives, even though I could not see how, at the time, that I would ever be able to do this. I still go out behind my house here in Athens and scream sometimes, just to relieve the ache in my heart, especially on his birthday. Holidays and special events have never been the same. You see Jason never got his first kiss, he never had a date or a girlfriend. It's all the little things that he never got to do that haunt me.

Tammie: Will you share your message with me, as well as the process that led up to your delivering your message?

Judy: My Message: Gun ownership is a responsibility! If you own a gun, secure it. Use a trigger lock, a pad lock, or a gun box. Never leave a weapon accessible to children, the next person to die because of your unsecured gun could be your own child!

My message came out of frustration. First I joined Handgun Control, Inc. as Sarah Brady offered me a way to help. Then, there was the shooting at Perimeter Park in Atlanta. I was called on to speak before the legislature along with the survivors. In October of 1991, I began my crusade to educate the public. I did a Public Service Announcement via Handgun Control for North Carolina. This is when I began to accept Jason's death, but only after I found something that made me feel I could "do" something about it.

One question that rings in my mind that I have been asked over-and-over, what would I do to prevent such a thing? "Anything. I'd give my life it that would help get gun owners to acknowledge the problem, not to mention accept their responsibility," is my response. I made speeches, written newsletters, and joined Georgian's Against Gun Violence. I still make speeches to civic groups, schools, etc. and I still put my two cents in when I hear the NRA raging about their rights, and shout that, "Guns don't kill people...People kill people!" If that is a truth, then gun owners are responsible even in the eyes of the NRA!

In 1995, I found Tom Golden on the Internet and he published a page honoring my darling Jason. This has helped me to cope and offers me contact with world to warn/educate people about guns and the responsibility.

Tammie: How has Jason's death impacted how you think about and experience your life?

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Judy: I've become much more vocal. Less of a victim and more of an advocate of victims. You see, Jason has no voice, I have to be that for him. I NEED to tell people his story to give me a sense that his life has had some impact on this world.

It seemed so strange for the world to continue just as it had before he died, as it still does. I almost want to say, "his life was more important than his death, but that is not the case." Jason's 13 years, 7 months 15 days of life did little to impact the world outside of his family. His death impacted his brother, his father, his aunts, uncles, friends at school, their parents, and me.

Since his death, as part of my therapy, I began to sculpt. I dedicate all my finished work to his memory and attach a little card explaining and asking people to be aware and take responsibility for their gun ownership. I sign my art work with "JGF" Jason's initials, and mine before I remarried in 1992. I create dragons and such things. Jason adored dragons. It's not much, but as I see it, the art will exist on long after I'm gone and a part of him will remain to remind people. Each life I touch gives meaning to his life, at least to me it does.

They say "what does not destroy you makes you stronger." This was a horrible way to learn that truth.

Editor Note: I was so profoundly touched by Jason's death, Judy's pain, and the enormous strength of this amazing woman, that I was in a daze after our contact. I couldn't think, I could only feel. I felt the agony of what it must be like for a mother to lose her child to such a senseless death, and eventually I felt the awe of coming into contact with a spirit that could be shattered, but not destroyed.

A Bio on Judy Tanner (Fuller) Harper

"I was born December 26, 1945 in Atlanta, Georgia. I was born into a six-generation Atlanta family with four siblings, two brothers, and two sisters; I was the middle child. Attended Oglethorpe University and accomplished a BS in Art. Married in 1964 to Mr. Fuller and had two sons, Eddie born in 1968 and Jason born in 1973. In 1981, I divorced Mr. Fuller.

In 1986, my son Eddie won a scholarship to Georgia Institute of Technology. In 198,7 my son Jason died. I joined Handgun Control, Inc. in 1987, as well as Georgian's Against Gun Violence, and other public service groups. In 1991 I made a Public Service Announcement for North Carolina telling my story about Jason and giving a message to families about the dangers of handguns. In 1992, I continued my crusade against gun violence and cosponsored a bill in the Georgia Legislature, which was ultimately defeated. I remarried in 1992 and moved to Athens, Georgia. In 1993, I appeared on "Sonja Live," a CNN program and debated with the NRA. I remain an active advocate for the education of gun owners and still present my story, concerns and advice at local civic groups.

As an artist, and for therapy, I began to create sculptures in 1988 and dedicate all my work to the memory of my son Jason whose light shown so brightly and briefly. It is my way of having his memory live on.

Judy Harper, Administrative Secretary
Hazardous Materials Treatment Facility
Public Safety Division
Will Hunter Road
Athens, GA 30602-5681
(706) 369-5706

You can e-mail Judy at:

next:Interviews: Tom Daly: On the Shadow

APA Reference
Staff, H. (2008, December 10). Judy Fuller Harper on The Death of a Child, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, May 30 from

Last Updated: July 18, 2014

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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