Written by Lauren Wells, CNN
Heather Howard wanted her story to be a message about the power of community, forgiveness and love. Her efforts even brought her back to life for one family in the process.
“I think after you’ve lost someone you never thought you would lose, you have to actually be kind of humble and compassionate and realize that there’s more than you thought there was,” Howard said.
CNN first met the first baseman of the London Maccabi Ladies League team after she gave away her winning tiara at a celebration party in 2014.
Five years on, she returned as the team’s center fielder to inform the Schonandes family their son, Daniel, had unexpectedly died earlier this month. In recognition of that and his memory, Howard also offered the grieving family a $10,000 donation to the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School she used to attend.
Heather Howard with her teammates. Credit: Courtesy Heather Howard
“I went home as a teenager and nobody was really talking about it,” Sharon Schonandes said about her son Daniel’s passing, only recently revealed to her. She said she first learned he had died through his father on Facebook, not from a grieving friend or family member.
The stories of silent mourning are widespread and heartbreaking. Daniel was a shy child and struggled with high school bullying. But there’s a pervasive feeling many adults know their children struggle with but don’t talk about it.
Sharon and Danielle Schonandes. Credit: Courtesy Heather Howard
“A lot of people are wanting to talk about it and it’s difficult,” he said. “As a grieving parent, you’re caught in a situation that maybe is too hard for you to go through the pain and you just keep it quiet until you get to the place where you can sort of grieve and then you start opening it up.”
Speaking with CNN, Howard is passionate about discussing such issues.
“We have to talk about it and we have to get it out there,” she said. “Most importantly, we have to listen to one another.”
Helping heal an injured heart
Giving back to a vulnerable group was also the motivation behind Howard’s own struggles in the weeks following the death of her 22-year-old son, Devon. She was desperate to save the family’s costs of a potential court case, and needing to stay well away from her tumultuous marriage.
“When you come out of a life-changing situation, you tend to lose focus of the basics and so I needed some structure and I needed to get back to school,” she said.
In November 2015, she attended a mediation session to discuss the couple’s relationship.
“I felt strong and I did have hope,” she said. But her hopes were dashed during the session when she said husband Michael paused while speaking to her, reportedly saying “No!” before turning away.
“I was heartbroken and there were a couple of moments that I needed to seek counseling,” Howard said. “What could have happened? I was absolutely gutted.”
Instead of despairing, Howard plunged into community volunteering, joining a support group for parents who had lost their kids, and especially the charities.
Heather Howard was the girlfriend of the late Devon Howard. Credit: Courtesy Heather Howard
Stopping for a change
Within six months, she’d relocated from Calgary, Canada, to London, when she and Michael returned home, and resigned from her job.
The following April, at the team’s opening celebrations, Howard found herself standing in front of another bereaved family in a similar situation.
“I just burst into tears and I couldn’t keep my eyes open for the presentation,” she recalled. “But that’s the point where you start realizing you need to do something.”
So she did. She attended a charity concert, the Samaritans in London, where she met their local headmaster, Carol Platt, who encouraged her to set up the suicide helpline.
But ultimately, Howard says her efforts fell short. Although she was diagnosed with depression and dealt with “somewhat of a breakdown,” the depression failed to completely kick in, and a five-week break with friends and family gave her time to sort her life out.
“That first year really, I was young and I wasn’t really prepared to go through it and I was going through it alone and that just made it harder,” she said.
After this year’s basketball season, Howard decided to stop volunteering, and, with Michael, she brought together a small group to recover from the loss of their loved one, until they wanted to become a single unit again.