Archive for Sunday, April 23, 2006

Senator’s book recounts son’s suicide

April 23, 2006

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— It's unusual for U.S. senators to publicly shed a tear over personal problems, but Gordon Smith did so in July 2004, when he spoke in the Senate about his 21-year-old son's suicide.

The Oregon Republican's testimony was remarkable for its emotional intensity and frankness, moving other senators to tears.

Smith recounts the tragedy in his new book, "Remembering Garrett," an often wrenching account of the life and death of Garrett Lee Smith, a popular kid with a big smile who quietly struggled with learning disabilities and clinical depression for most of his life.

On the day before his 22nd birthday, on Sept. 8, 2003, the Utah Valley State College student dimmed the lights in his apartment, put on soft music, then swallowed a large quantity of sleeping pills and whiskey. Before passing out, he knelt alone in his closet with a noose around his neck.

The suicide devastated Gordon and Sharon Smith, who adopted Garrett as a newborn. Gordon Smith especially was consumed with guilt because of the large amount of time he spent away from home pursuing his business interests and political career.

Smith hopes that his book will help other parents with similar experiences. Writing the book has been "cathartic" for him and has helped ease sorrow that for a time was so deep that he "envied the dead."

In his book, Smith vividly recalls the night police came to his Washington-area home to give him the news about Garrett.

"In an instant, it all seemed meaningless, even vain," Smith says of his political career and his success in the frozen food business, which has made him a multimillionaire. He writes that he "staggered up to Garrett's room, fell on his bed and spent a night in hell crying out to him ... and pleading with God for understanding, for forgiveness, for the strength to go on."

In an interview in the couple's home in the eastern Oregon town of Pendleton, Gordon and Sharon Smith said their Mormon faith and help from family and friends have helped them recover and have helped Smith make a full return to politics, where he's become an advocate for suicide prevention programs.

Smith has somewhat come to terms with his guilt and understands that his son did not kill himself because Smith often was away from home. "It's not that I'm emotionally unwell in any way, but I'll never get over this," Smith said, his voice cracking. "There's nothing like burying your child to acquaint you with grief."

In these politically fractious times, it's noteworthy that Smith won support from Democrats and Republicans alike in 2004 for his bill, called the Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Act, which increases federal funding to combat the problem of youth suicide.

There's also a show of bipartisanship in the book itself.

The introduction to "Remembering Garrett" was written jointly by Sens. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. The promotional blurbs on the book's back cover are written by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y.

The book, published by Carroll & Graf, retraces Garrett's life leading up to his suicide.

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