After losing his stepsister to complications from sickle cell disease, Jordin Sparks honors her memory
When singer and actress Jordin Sparks was 16, her life changed, and not in the usual teenage ways. At that age, she auditioned for American Idol‘s sixth season, which she would later win, becoming the youngest winner in the series’ history. It would be a stepping stone for Jordin, who would hit the Billboard charts, perform on Broadway, and star alongside legends like Whitney Houston on the big screen. Thinking back to that time in her life in a conversation with us, we put more into perspective the brevity of the loss of her half-sister, Bryanna Jackson-Frias. In 2019, Bryanna died of complications from sickle cell disease at the age of 16.
“She would just have had a ball and she would have hit a lot of people too,” the star told ESSENCE.
Bryanna’s death would prompt her to use her platform to spread awareness of the disease among diseased cells. She recently joined forces with the insurance company Aflac, which has been fighting childhood cancer and blood disorders like sickle cell disease for more than 26 years. They have reportedly contributed over $ 154 million to such causes over the years. They are also providing their beloved My Special Aflac Duck, free of charge, to as many children as possible to provide emotional support to those struggling with the disease.
By helping to build awareness, the Grammy-nominated singer hopes to honor Bryanna’s memory.
âShe wanted to have these conversations,â she says. âShe wanted to shed some light on sickle cell disease. And I think she would have been one of the nicest lawyers they could have had.
ESSENCE spoke with Sparks about her commitment to this cause, her memories of Bryanna, and how their relationship opened her eyes to the need to use her voice to help people with sickle cell disease.
ESSENCE: Tell me first who your stepsister Bryanna was and what you remember from the relationship you had.
Jordin Sparks: She was the sweetest, most vibrant and beautiful girl. She loved music and fashion and wanted to be a model. And I haven’t had it in my life for very long. We were only half-sisters for a few years and unfortunately she went down with sickle cell disease. But she was such a warrior in her fight, not only for herself but for those who also coped with the disease, or for family members who felt helpless or isolated, as sometimes that is a thing. hard to say. And it was hard but it was also very inspiring, because sometimes she was in the hospital three weeks a month. She would never know how long her shifts would last, but she always had a smile on her face. This isâ¦ among other things, one of the most vibrant things I can remember about her. She always had a smile and a kind word for everyone. We definitely miss her.
It really helped start the fire because I realized, when our families got mixed up, that I really had never had a conversation about sickle cell disease. I didn’t really know, in depth, what it was or what it was about. And when I got to know Bry, his father and my stepfather, it was truly amazing to learn that over 100,000 Americans are affected by it every year. It mainly affects the African-American community. It is a blood disorder that causes blockages in the blood flow, preventing oxygen from getting to all the places it needs in the body. It’s a disease thatâ¦ you can’t tell someone they’ve got it just by looking at them. And even within that, it presents its own set of challenges. So there is a lot of discussion to be had around this disease, to understand it, how to help those who suffer from it, how to support those who are confronted with it. So I’m really grateful to be sitting here and having this conversation with you, and also for partnering with Aflac who really care about this cause. They not only spoke, but they walked for almost 26 years. And so it was amazing to be able to sit here. It really honors his heritage.
You mentioned him briefly, but what were his experiences with sickle cell disease in terms of being hospitalized, because it’s a big fight for a lot of people with this disease. They are often in the hospital and they are often in pain and you ask yourself, âWhat kind of pain are they going through? In what kind of situations did she find herself, physically, that she was detailing to you?
You know, when we had conversations, I tried not to really go into detail because that was his life. She took care of that all the time, and so every time we spoke we were talking about different things like makeup and fashion and things like that. But what I remember from his experiences is thatâ¦ it’s individual for each person. So a person with sickle cell disease will not have a flare or seizure the same way someone else does. Some people, the weather can cause a flare. In some people, stress can cause a flare-up. In others, it can be both. And there are many other ways. I remember talking to someone, in fact it was not my sister, but this young woman that I saw a few years ago and who was suffering from the disease herself, said that her seizures looked like broken glass in his veins. I just remember thinking, I don’t think I ever visualized this or visualized how it would feel. When she said that it hit me so much that I justâ¦ have that kind of pain and it could lastâ¦ you don’t know how long. Flare-ups can last anywhere from a few minutes to three weeks, so you never know with this disease. But I think that’s why these conversations are so important because we need more people who understand it and more people who are able to talk and have these conversations with me. Someone might come in and say, “I’m in so much pain,” but because you can’t see them, they might not know how to best treat them or where to send them to deal with their pain. So there are just a lot of different things that we need to be able to talk about. But yeah, it’s been amazing to be able to sit here and have this platform to talk about it because what do I do if I don’t? What good is it if I am not?
Can you tell me about the partnership [with Aflac] promote sickle cell disease and the My Special Aflac Duck?
It’s amazing because I was sent one so I could know exactly what the duck looked like. And I didn’t know what to expect and you know I got my DJ son, and he just turned on when he saw this thing.
There is a little sensor right on the front and they actually come with these little smileys. So, there is one that is green to make you nauseous. There is a red one for anger. And you think of those kids who have been hospitalized and go through so much in these treatments, and sometimes they can’t express how they’re feeling for a number of different reasons. They are uncomfortable, they are afraid. They don’t feel like talking or they can’t, they might not be able to speak at the moment. So they put the little one [face] on and the duck, in its own way, will gossip, but that will match the emotion they’re putting here. It’s a new channel, another way for them to be able to communicate what they are feeling. It is truly heartwarming and when I saw the joy on my son’s faceâ¦ I can only imagine what it will bring to the children who will receive them. So this partnership has really meant a lot to me because of all the ways I can help kids, make them feel better, make their experience easier, make them smile, that’s where I want to be. So it’s really the perfect partnership in my mind because it’s a real connection. I have a sincere heart for this cause and Aflac too
Finally, I wanted to ask you, your sister, she passed away in 2018 and she was very young. She was 16 years old. And it’s very important to think about what his future could have been. So how do you live your life, moving forward in a way that celebrates it?
Well, being able to share how sweet she was and what a strong young woman she was. I mean, she was 16 and I rememberâ¦ 16 was when it all happened to me with American Idol, so knowing that it was almost as old as herâ¦ it’s been almost 15 years since I won. There is so much that has happened to me, and I really wish she could be here to experience all the things that life has to offer. So I try to honor his memory in this way, as well as the family. And it’s kind of crazy that she passed away in 2018 and that’s when the ducks appeared. So you just hooked this up for me. It’s like a little nod to God: “Yeah, you’re on the right track.” I am therefore on the right track.
Visit Aflac to learn more about their campaign against childhood cancer and blood disorders.