Bravery and perseverance are the bread and butter of sports features.
We herald players for playing through pain, overcoming impossible odds and making personal sacrifices for their team. We lionize Willis Reed for limping through the tunnel at Madison Square Garden and Michael Jordan for scoring 38 points with the flu and Bobby Baun for making the winning goal with a broken leg.
Not every portrait of courage under pressure takes place in an arena, however. Some take place in a hospital emergency room with two grieving parents deciding to tell the truth, deciding to go public with their personal nightmare in an attempt to spare others their pain.
It has been a little more than seven years since Islanders assistant coach Luke Richardson’s 14-year-old daughter, Daron, took her own life by hanging, but the pain remains forever acute. Richardson and his wife, Stephanie, don’t know why their daughter committed suicide on Nov. 13, 2010, and they have come to accept that they never will.
“People say time fixes it, but I can feel it like it was yesterday,” Stephanie said. “The pain, I don’t think that goes away.”
Said Luke: “She is really missed every day.”
While their loss remains a constant, attitudes about youth and mental health are beginning to change thanks in part to a movement started by the family and some of Daron’s close friends shortly after her death. DIFD, originally known as Do It For Daron, has raised thousands of dollars for youth health initiatives — first in Canada and now in the United States. It has also inspired young people to talk openly about mental health and ask for help when needed.
The Islanders will hold their first Mental Health Night in partnership with DIFD Friday when they host the Pittsburgh Penguins at Barclays Center. The night is about raising both funds and awareness for mental health. DIFD will be directing donations and a portion of the proceeds from tickets purchased to the game to the local community through Northwell Health System’s Mental Health Program at Cohen Children’s Hospital.
“What they’ve done is beyond brave because what they’re doing is putting their heart and soul out there every day and speaking about something incredibly painful,” said Islanders head coach Doug Weight, who has been close to the family since he and Richardson played together on the Edmonton Oilers in the 1990s. “They’re really strong people and they’ve taken the initiative to try to help people and learn from what Daron was going through.”
Stephanie and Luke Richardson grew up in Ottawa, Ontario, and began dating when they were in high school. Richardson played 21 seasons in the NHL with six different teams and then took a job as an assistant with the Ottawa Senators. By all accounts until Nov. 10, 2010, the Richardsons were leading a fairytale life centered on hockey and their two daughters, Morgan, then 16, and Daron. The two were strong students, elite hockey players and had a large circle of friends.
“In a split second, our life went from being wonderful to being very dark and very scary,” Stephanie said. “It was like A to Z with nothing in between.”
In the emergency room that night, the Richardsons made the decision to donate their daughter’s organs and tell their story. The press had heard their daughter was in the hospital and was asking for a statement. Someone at the hospital suggested calling it an accident, but that didn’t feel right. The Richardsons asked to see a psychiatrist.
“I’m in shock and living a nightmare, but I know this is no accident,” Stephanie said. “I asked the doctor if telling the truth would hurt our daughter or any of her friends and he said no. We would be giving people an opportunity to speak of this and get the help they need.
“One of the biggest obstacles when someone dies by suicide is people aren’t forthcoming with it and talk about it the way we talk about cancer and heart disease. We are perpetuating the lack of conversation, lack of awareness and education. The doctor encouraged us to talk. He said we wouldn’t harm anyone. He was bang on and it blew the barn doors off the whole thing.”
The family decided to have a public service at Canadian Tire Centre in Ottawa. More than 5,600 people attended, including more than 100 current and former NHL players. Weight was one of them. Weight, in the final year of his playing career with the Islanders, remembers that the line was three hours long to get into the funeral home to see the family.
“The hockey community really pulled together,” Luke said. “We’ve gotten a lot of support. A lot of players have done PSAs for us. John Tavares did one way back. It helps to get the message out there that it’s ok to reach out for help.”
The Richardsons continue to be buoyed by the number of people who have reached out to thank them for talking about a topic that has long been stigmatized. A friend of theirs in Ottawa told them how his family still referred to his brother’s suicide as “the hunting accident.” A friend of Daron’s, who was suffering from anorexia, reached out to her parents and got the help she needed. And there has been letter upon letter from strangers thanking them for being brave enough to speak out.
Said Luke: “People talk to kids about drinking and driving and sex. Mental health is something we also need to talk about. To be honest, we didn’t know to ask. These are hard conversations to have. But I think that’s changing. It’s OK to reach out for help and talk about your feelings.”
OK, and incredibly brave.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline