To anyone who has experienced the loss of a child, or anyone who knows someone who has gone through the horror, there is no greater pain.
To summon strength and make that pain into the driving force for your cause is a thing of greatness, and that is what Gretchen Harrington has been able to do.
And that is why she is St. Michael Patch’s 2012 Person of the Year.
Harrington lost her son, Dustin, in 2011. It would be revealed he took his own life.
While fighting through grief, Gretchen took up her cause.
“I wondered, ‘How can I prevent this from ever happening in my community again?’” said Harrington, who talked with Patch in May. “As I saw the impact of Dustin’s death on everyone around me, I thought maybe there was something out there for me to do.”
At first, she thought of speaking on a stage. She actually dreamed one night of being in the St. Michael-Albertville High School Performing Arts Center, speaking to the same teens that grieved with her when Dustin died in September 2011.
“I realized that, emotionally, I’m not ready to do that. I’d still like to, some day,” Gretchen said.
Instead, she has teamed with Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE) and Emotions in Motions. Together, the group held their first 5K Run/Walk on May 19 in memory of Dustin and 2009 student Beau Gruenwald, who also took his own life.
“What made Dustin’s death such a shock—one of the things—was that eight months prior to his death he had helped a friend who was in the same situation. Who thought it was the end,” Gretchen said. “So many teens have thoughts like this. What can we do to raise awareness? That’s kind of what my passion is now. And this was an effective way, we thought, to bring a lot of people together in the community.”
In winter 2011, mere weeks after Dustin’s death, Gretchen held her first SAVE event with Ashley Darkenwald at InFit in Albertville. The night featured health tips, some workouts and a lot of awareness materials for mothers and fathers.
“She’s very strong,” Darkenwald said. “I can’t even imagine what she goes through each day.”
Community support played a huge role in Gretchen’s coping with Dustin’s death. She said the May 19 event will be a chance to bring together the people who supported both the Harrington and Gruenwald families.
“I know I’ve felt support from people all over,” Gretchen said. “Here in our community, and into the Twin Cities and even beyond.”
Still, the days are hard. And there is a long road ahead for her, she admits, as there is for anyone dealing with a suicide.
“It’s the biggest tragedy of my life,” she said through tears. “And you hear people say that ‘God has a reason. God must have needed him more than we did.’ I guess I don’t know if that’s true. But I’m going to be passionate now about giving back, and creating awareness. There are so many signs we just might not see.”
And, an event like the walk might help heal a community still reeling from a tough 2011-2012.
“We’ve had so much loss. Dustin and Luke ] were close. So many people knew Beau and knew Dustin. And I know it might happen again, but we want to do everything we can to make sure it never does. We buried Dustin on his birthday. That’s something that just crushes me. He would have been 17.”
Read about Patch's 2011 Person of the Year: Luke Letellier
Another aspect that Gretchen will discuss, and that SAVE supports, is being a donor. Dustin’s eyes were donated to save the sight of a patient in a Twin Cities hospital. He was recognized April 14, with Gretchen accepting the honor, for that gift.
She said her goal is make this run, which she called a “great diversion” from the emotions she has, and annual event in the boys’ honor.
“It’s unfortunate to think that this is one of the leading causes of death for kids in that age group, especially for young men. We need to tell teens that it does get better. These years are hard for everyone. And maybe a fun event like this changes some of that way of thinking,” she said.