The Power of Grieving Parents

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross famously identified the five stages of grieving as denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. But things have changed. In our media-driven age, there is now a clearly identifiable sixth stage: going on TV.

No tragedy is real, it seems, until you've gone public with your grief. And this new twist on "bargaining" -- not between you and God but between your agent and TV producers -- is all too easy to mock. But sometimes this new openness can serve a purpose. There is a big difference, after all, between spilling your guts for Stone Phillips on "Dateline" and using your grief to help ensure that whatever tragedy befell your family doesn't happen to others.

A great example is that of Julie and Virgil Horner, whose 3-year-old daughter was crushed to death when a load of kitchen countertops fell from an upper shelf at a Home Depot superstore. The Horners have made it their personal crusade to let the public know about the danger of falling merchandise and to force companies to open their closely held records of accidents, injuries and deaths.

And while it may be easy to ridicule the idea of starting a crusade to protect America from falling countertops, the fact is grassroots movements like this one -- often led by grieving parents -- are frequently the only way to bring about real change and focus attention on underreported problems.

It turns out that nearly 10,000 people a year are injured -- many of them severely -- in these kinds of accidents. But the public doesn't hear about them because, until the Horners, no one was willing to make it their "crusade" and because as a condition of settling these kinds of claims, the stores almost always demand confidentiality agreements. That's one of the reasons it took so long for the Firestone tire blowout problem to come to light. If someone had had the courage to take this issue on as a personal crusade, who knows how many lives could have been saved.

When it comes to product liability, corporate America has a code of omerta Tony Soprano would envy. In the Firestone case, a group of lawyers kept quiet about the defect while close to 200 people died, in order not to jeopardize their clients' settlements.

Kathy Fackler is another parent who has turned private pain into public good. When her son was maimed on a ride at Disneyland, the California mom made it her mission to improve amusement park safety. Later this month, the state will enact a law requiring amusement parks to report injuries and establishing a state-run ride inspection system. Thanks to one crusading mom, Disneyland's Mickey Mouse approach to safety will be a thing of the past.

Again, we may laugh at the thought that we need to be protected from spinning tea cups or runaway kiddie rides -- that we need to ensure that the person operating the ride isn't really Goofy. But, as it turns out, we do.

Down in Jeb Bush country, for example, the Florida legislature has taken special steps to provide cover for the state's biggest tourist attractions -- exempting Disney World, Universal Studios, Sea World and other big-draw theme parks from state inspection programs. It will take Fackler's crusade going national to break up the ugly cabal of vested interests and venal legislators.

And while grieving in private may seem more dignified, it's these angry crusaders, refusing to withdraw from the world when tragedy strikes, who have profoundly changed our society.

We all owe a debt, for example, to Candy Lightner, who turned the death of her daughter into a national movement against drunken drivers by forming Mothers Against Drunk Driving. She challenged a prevailing culture that winked at drinking and driving. Because of her willingness to turn her personal anguish into a crusade, we have far stricter drunken driving laws, designated driver programs, "Friends Don't Let Friends Drive Drunk" ads, etc., etc.

The same is true of John Walsh, who used the pain, anger and frustration he felt when his son Adam was kidnapped and murdered to help pass the Missing Children Act of 1982 and the Missing Children Assistance Act of 1984, which resulted in the founding of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

Parents like Candy Lightner, John Walsh, Kathy Fackler, and now Julie and Virgil Horner are what I call latent leaders. They never planned on leading crusades but, after being touched by tragedy, found it within themselves to take action.

Every day we have fresh examples of the lack of leadership from our politicians. These people are shining examples of where the next wave of leaders could come from.


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