HIGHLANDS RANCH, Colo. -- It was a tragedy for a Colorado family and the community as a whole. One year ago this month, a Highlands Ranch mom killed her two young sons and then herself in the family minivan.
The horrific set of circumstances left behind husband and father, Ryan Laber. It's impossible to imagine what he is going through but says he's beginning to stitch his life back together.
Ryan and Jen Laber's first year of marriage was not what they were expecting. It was 2005 in Minnesota and Jen fell into her first episode of depression.
She regained all the weight she lost for the wedding. She lost three jobs, and she tried to kill herself.
"Over the course of the next five years, she had four different attempts. Each with a hospitalization thereafter," Ryan said.
Jen was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. It took dozens of different drug and therapy combinations, but they were finally able to get it under control. And after a year-and-a-half of stability, Ryan and Jen felt it was safe to talk about having kids.
Ryan asked her a tough question.
"Whether she could hurt children if she ever got back into a depressive state. She said ‘no.’ She could never hurt the kids," he said.
But they made a mistake during that conversation.
"The mistake we made was that we had forgotten that when she got into a depressed mode, she lost that rationality, and as a result, we didn't see that one coming," Ryan said.
They decided to have children, and in short order, Jen gave birth to Ethan and two years later to Adam.
“Ethan was our lover. Adam was our fighter. He loved to cuddle incessantly, particularly with Jen," Ryan said. "She was at peace being a mom. It was her most favorite thing in life."
Ryan accepted a great job in Denver, and the Laber family left Minneapolis for a beautiful cul-de-sac life in Highlands Ranch.
"You could literally walk to Ethan's elementary school. Tons of playsets and everything to play around with. It was perfect," he described.
It was perfect. And it had now been more than six years without even a hint of Jen's depression. But that would change.
November 29, 2016, was just a regular Tuesday when Ryan came home from work.
"The house was dark. I usually get home at 5 to 5:30 every night, my family there. She wasn't home. It wasn't unusual. Maybe she had an appointment. So I hung out at the house," Ryan recalled about that day.
There was a routine to weeknights: Dad home by 5:30 p.m., family dinner, Ethan and Adam in bed by 7:30 p.m. But this night, the boys' bedtime came and went, and they still weren't home, and Jen still wasn't answering her phone.
So, around 8 p.m. Ryan called the police. They said they'd keep an eye out. But the only possible explanation was that Ryan must have done something to make Jen mad, and she was headed back to Minnesota with the boys. In fact, that week they had talked about moving back home.
"There was no sign that she intended to hurt herself or the boys at all," he said.
The next morning, after a restless night, a friend called asking if he had seen the news.
"I booted up a local news site on the laptop and saw a helicopter shot over the top of the minivan, and that there were three bodies inside, according to the story. It was very clear it was the minivan," Ryan said.
Ryan called the police again. This time, they wouldn't say anything on the phone except they were sending officers to his house.
"It's at that point I decided I should pray. I went up to Ethan's room, and I clinched his bed and pressed his pillow to my face to pick up his scent. And then I saw three cars pull up with four police officers that got out. That was the 100 percent moment. I knew then," he recalled.
The day before, while Ryan was at work, Jen bought a Glock 9mm handgun and picked up Ethan early from kindergarten. She drove the two boys in the minivan to the loading dock area of a closed Sports Authority store in Lone Tree. She drugged them - both had opioids and Benadryl in their systems - and then, still strapped into their car seats, she shot 5-year-old Ethan and 3-year-old Adam in their necks and shot herself in the head.
Jen left a four-page letter in the minivan. In it, she explained that she felt ugly, unhealthy and needed to leave this world for a better one - for heaven.
"Then she talked about having no cognition of self-harm by taking the boys with her. That she thought it was OK for them all to go and that she would raise them there," Ryan said about Jen’s rationale detailed in her letter. "She actually said in the letter that they deserved a mother who was healthy 24/7, and that's the only place she could get that. So that she needed to go there and so did they."
Her depression had obviously returned, but this time she kept it secret, blindsiding everyone. Searches on her phone revealed the depression had only come back in October but consumed her in that final month and a half.
"She had a web history searching for homes back in Minnesota and how to commit suicide. Anywhere from how to buy a gun, what do you need, the methods she eventually used," he said.
None of us would dare imagine what the days and weeks following was like for Ryan -- seeing his little boys' bodies at the funeral home.
"You can feel Ethan's bony limbs. You can feel Adam's sturdy shoulders. And it brought back all sorts of memories, but it doesn't answer where they are," he said.
It wasn't until Father's Day - a cruel holiday this year - that his faith allowed him to settle on an answer he could live with.
“It struck me. I'm still a father. I'm just a father of angels,” Ryan said, with tears in his eyes.
This month, it'll be a year since Ryan's family was stolen from him. He still lives in the house and is slowly packing away their things.
"Little by little, as I'm able, I'm tackling room by room," he said. “I haven't been able to touch Ethan's room. Ethan's room had all the books we read at night, all the toys. So that's remained untouched."
The house is a connection to them.
"I can't let go of it yet," he said. "I've been told that at some point in time the house will no longer be filled with memories but filled with ghosts. I haven't gotten there yet."
The days are still hard, some harder than others. But through therapy and faith, Ryan is starting to stitch a life back together. He even occasionally allows himself to think about having a family again.
"Yeah, I have hope to have a wife and kids someday," he said.
As improbable as it seems, Ryan doesn't blame Jen. She was sick. Depression is a sickness, and that sickness is to blame.
"To the person who is suffering, I want them to know that there are a plethora of people out there who want to listen," he said. "It could be the police, a friend, a family member, a neighbor. It just takes one person to help you."
Jen was just one person away from still being here with Ethan, Adam and Ryan in their perfect cul-de-sac home.
If you or someone you know needs help, call the suicide crisis hotline at 1-844-493-TALK (8255) or text TALK to 38255. More resources can be found on the Colorado Crisis Services website.
Denver7 talked to mental health experts on dealing with depression and ways to get help. Watch the Facebook Live video below: