The Mother Who Turned Grief into Refuge
Deborah Saunders experienced a mother’s worst nightmare when her son was killed in a tragic car accident at age 17.
She recalls how the press bombarded her family, and mainstream media reported misleading articles. Everyone deserves a chance to tell their story. Here, Deborah explains in her own words how she coped with her son’s death and has healed her broken heart by looking after children.
The Barnardo’s Mother of the Year VIC 2019, has raised four children independently and fostered countless teenagers. She has devoted her life to providing young people with a home, a safe space and a chance for a better life. Deborah’s guiding light has saved those who have found themselves travelling down a dark and troubling path. Her home has been a place of protection and nurture.
Children, entrenched in a world of drug and alcohol abuse, in an endless cycle of poverty, full of uncertainties such as when or where they will get their next meal, yearn for the love and stability that Deborah provides. The number of children dependent on this support continues to rise.
The latest figures from the Australian Institute of Family Studies have shown that the number of children in care has risen in Australia by 18% from 2013 to 2017.
Winning Mother of the Year has in no way affected her humility. Throughout our small chat, Deborah oozed motherly compassion and a determination to help kids that need it.
What would you say is your biggest passion?
I think the rights of young people. Definitely. The rights of dignity and respect. Some of the young people I work with don’t have housing. They’re living in poverty and experiencing drug and alcohol abuse, childhood abuse. The worst part is it just keeps going. It doesn’t get addressed. There’s no healing, so that’s my job.
Has there been an experience that inspired your passion for helping foster children?
I think it was my childhood. I didn’t realize it at the time, of course, but it was a bit rough. I think also being a young person growing up in poverty, and then being able to reflect on actually how tough it is for these kids. I was one of the lucky ones because I had a family. Also, my kids would always bring friends home. We ended up with some staying, and these moments would help me reflect on how fortunate I was.
What advice would you give to women who feel inadequate as mothers?
Be kinder to yourself. It’s tough to seek help but don’t be too proud to do it. My mum used to tell me, take it one hour at a time, if you can’t manage a whole day, break it down.
Would you rather live in a treehouse or a cubby house?
What is your favourite book?
The Outsiders. It’s an old one, but it’s one of the first books I read.
This book may have shaped Deborah’s passion for the plight of the troubled youth.
The Outsiders is known as being an authentic depiction of teenage struggles since a 15-year-old actually wrote it. It is a story of children deprived of love in the pursuit of redemption. Aiding this pursuit is what provides Deborah with purpose every day.
Her daughter refers to her as the strongest woman in the country.
In 2009, her 17-year-old son Jack died instantly in a car accident.
When asked about Jack, Deborah wants people to know that he was more than just a statistic. He was the glue of the family. He lobbied for his right to wear a mohawk when he was told to get rid of it in year 8. Jack was intelligent but also social and fun. He read a lot, could not abide bullies and questioned everything from the time he was little.
“I know all mothers think their kids are special, but Jack had a presence, he was larger than life and had a charisma that attracted all sorts. He could talk to anyone. I miss our long talks the most.”
Jack came to Deborah one Sunday morning and told her of a dream he’d had. The angel Gabriel had come to collect Jack, telling him he needed to go and help him save young people. The two of them laughed it off.
Deborah remembers how perfect the weather was the day her son died. Jack entered a car to try and intercept a fight and help a distressed boy. This mistake cost him his life as both boys died instantly. Jack was found to have a low alcohol reading, yet the media went on a rampage reporting a story of “drunken hoons”. It made the agony of losing her boy unimaginable.
Denied the chance to see her son, Deborah felt she might have been able to save him.
“I still feel in my soul, that if they’d let me see Jack, I may have been able to bring him back. I think it’s a mother thing.”
Deborah still cries. She still feels overwhelmed by grief and misses Jack with every breath. She was not alive or awake for the first twelve months after losing Jack. Losing a child is the loneliest thing on earth.
“I can’t imagine what Jack would be doing for a living now, or even what he’d look like. It’s too painful. I tried writing to him, but it’s too hard, I talk to him all the time and especially at bedtime. Losing Jack has changed me.”
However, Deborah knew she had to put one foot in front of the other to keep a roof over her other children’s heads.
When faced with the devastating anguish of losing a child, Deborah has not allowed adversity to trump her soul.
Horrifyingly life-altering and debilitating grief has brought Debra to her knees and yet within this, she has forged healing and a sense of peace through helping other kids and being of service to those that need love and stability in their lives.
She has put the pieces of her heart back together and offered it to those in need.
We salute this beautiful woman and can only ever hope to look to her and her story of her family and her beautiful Jack for inspiration and courage.
We acknowledge the people of the Kulin Nation, on whose unceded sovereign land we work. We pay our respects to their Elders, past, present and emerging.