The other day, one of my dear friends, KC Baker, announced the birth of her son on Facebook with a poem:
Now I know why the lioness walks with pride ~
The fierce love it took to birth you.
The head & heart held high as I walk this Earth with you in my arms.
This is who I have become:
A Mother of a Son.
A Proud Protectress of Life.
And on that same day, Gus Deeds, son of Virginia State Senator Creigh Deeds, died from an apparent suicide after allegedly stabbing Senator Deeds at home early in the morning. The day before this tragedy, the senator sought an emergency custody order for Gus, who had a history of mental health challenges. An investigation is in process but the bottom line here is that a remarkable young man, in the throes of a medical emergency, was not able to access treatment for his life-threatening condition.
In working at the Flawless Foundation, I never aspired to write about this topic, but it has evolved organically and become a calling and passion for me. Whenever there is breaking news around shootings, violence and mental illness, I am overwhelmed with emails, texts and calls alerting me and asking my thoughts about these terrible events. This is the first time that I sit with a candle lit as I put pen to paper with tears streaming down my face. As I quietly reflect on why this loss in rural Virigina has me stricken with an extra dose of grief, I realize that the topic of high-profile fathers and their sons with serious mental health challenges has been weighing heavily on my heart in recent months.
As of late, the list has been long. There was the heartbreaking People magazine interview with Rick Warren about the loss of his son to suicide, followed by my meeting Gary Lieberstein, the Napa County District Attorney, who also lost his son to suicide this year, and listening to former U.S. Senator Gordon Smith at the Kennedy Forum sharing his experiences in policy work inspired by his son Garrett's challenges and death by suicide.
Each of these men have had extraordinary careers of noble public service, helping people on a massive scale. Yet no amount of power, money, education, treatment or prayers enabled them to save the lives of their own sons. Their sacred role as "Protectors of Life," in KC's poignant words, was robbed by illnesses that affect every single family in varying degrees.
After the Sandy Hook tragedy, I wrote that the "gold is in the grief" and I urged that we sit for a moment in the pain before we take action. Today, I can't do that because I am on my knees, where I must dig for the light and a glimmer of hope so I can continue my work in the world.
On this autumn day, a week before Thanksgiving, I take solace and feel gratitude for the gold that has been born from grief...
For Rick Warren's courage in sharing his story publicly and starting a mental health charity in his son Matthew's name.
For Gary Lieberstein, who just two months after the loss of his son Adam, spoke at the Napa Valley Vintners Auction and shared about his family's tragic experience. Gary's powerful words(below) inspired $3.7 million being raised in about 10 minutes for children's mental health and prevention:
"He died by his own hand (battling mental health problems). He tragically lost that war and we lost our angel"
"The earlier we can detect mental illness the better ... before they reach adulthood."
For Joe Parks, MD, making a stirring call to action to the audience of mental health advocates and leaders at the 29th Annual Rosalynn Carter Symposium on Mental Health Policy, "When it comes to children's mental health, we need to look at class size, our overcrowded schools, we need to look at ourselves."
For Pete Earley, who has become a fierce advocate after his son fell into the criminal justice system for his mental health challenges.
For Patrick Kennedy, who has left public office to devote his life's work to this cause, to creation of a new generation of hope for all of our children.
As HHS Secretary Sebelius prompted us in making the historic announcement of mental health parity regulations at the Carter Center, "We have to change hearts in order to treat minds. We need an 'all-hands-on-deck' approach."
Senator Deeds, all hearts are on deck with you. The vibrant photo of Gus playing his banjo on the campaign trail with you will be forever etched in our minds. We honor him and we honor you. We stand with you. Please allow our thoughts, prayers and tears to fertilize the ground of healing for you and your flawless family.