It’s not meant for parents to have to bury their children. Unfortunately, the unimaginable occurs through accidents, illnesses or other tragedies. As a television reporter, I’ve spoken with heartbroken mothers and father who had the courage to share stories about their loved ones who died. In some cases, these grieving parents have turned their pain into purpose.
Man on a Mission
Andy Parker described himself as a “pissed off dad” when we first met. It had been less than a week since his daughter Alison Parker, 24 was killed. Alison, a television reporter in Roanoke,Virginia and her cameraman Adam Ward, 27, were shot and killed on live television.
“My heart and soul have been ripped out,” said Parker. “You don’t want to have anger consume your life but I’m on a mission.”
After his daughter’s shooting death, Parker became an advocate for gun control. He recently worked with politicians, and groups like Moms Demand Action, for the #WhateverItTakes rally in Washington D.C.. Together, they urged congress to enact “commonsense” gun measures such as extending federal background checks to private gun sales.
While some say gun control may not have prevented Alison Parker’s death, her grieving father says he wants to channel his raw pain into action because it’s what his daughter would want.
“I lost my daughter, I won’t lose this fight,” Parker said.
Healing by Helping Others
Dan and Gil Harrington have spent the past six years waiting for answers to their daughter’s death. On October 17,2009, Virginia Tech student Morgan Harrington went missing at a concert and was later found dead. The Harringtons turned their worst nightmare into a platform to help others. They started “Help Save the Next Girl” (HSTNG), a national non-profit organization formed in honor of Morgan Dana Harrington. HSTNG works with law enforcement agencies, schools and other groups to promote personal safety.
The organization has grown to include high school and middle school chapters throughout Virginia as well as collegiate chapters in Maryland, Michigan and other parts of the country.
Recently, a grand jury indicted Jesse Matthew Jr. in connection to Morgan’s death. While it took nearly 6 years, Gil Harrington said the charges bring some closure.
“We are pleased that there will be consequences” she said. “When there is an act as heinous as abducting and murdering someone there should be consequences.”
Matthew’s trial in Morgan’s case is set to begin in October 2016. Gil Harrington realizes the court case will likely be a long, slow and emotional process. In the meantime, she continues to raise awareness about predatory dangers through Help Save the Next Girl – it’s a way to serve others, keep Morgan’s memory alive and help her family heal.
It was a few days after Mother’s Day 2009, when I pulled up to Shawna Machlinski ‘s home in Federalsburg, MD. She was standing outside surrounded by people crying and hugging. They had recently learned her son, Private First Class Michael Yates, was one of five soldiers killed in Iraq after another American soldier opened fire at a Baghdad clinic. Word travels fast around small towns like Federalsburg. News of Michael’s death hit close to home for Lisa Ruiz. In 2007, her son, Manuel Ruiz, a U.S. Navy paramedic died in a helicopter crash while on tour in Iraq. Both men were from Federalsburg. The death of their son’s brought the two women, previous strangers, together to build a memorial to honor fallen soldiers.
“They’ll have a place to come to and reflect,” said Ruiz. “And be thankful for what they have and a place where they can share what they lost.”
Words can barely describe the pain parents must feel after losing a child, especially to a senseless tragedy. I continue to admire the courageous actions of people like Andy Parker, Gil and Dan Harrington, Shawna Machlinski and Lisa Ruiz, parents who have turned a negative situation into a positive. While people respond to the death of a loved one differently, the actions of parents like these amaze us with their resilience and serve as an inspiration to others.
Learn More about Help Save the Next Girl
Turning pain into purpose (Inspiring true story)
Transitioning through a loss