For Debbie Sullivan, the pain of losing her son, Navy Lt. Chris Saunders, never goes away.
“It changes you. It’s like a piece of you is gone,” Sullivan told Global News in an interview at the Royal Canadian Legion branch in Moss Glen, near Saint John, N.B.
“We’re not supposed to outlive our children.”
Saunders died from smoke inhalation, from a fire on board a Navy submarine, in 2004. HMCS Chicoutimi was en route from Scotland to Halifax to begin service in the Canadian fleet. Two other crew members were badly injured.
Saunders had started a career as a combat systems engineer. The 32-year-old was married with two small children.
To keep her son’s memory alive in the hearts of Canadians, Sullivan has been named the legion’s National Silver Cross Mother. Her appointment is for a one-year period, effective Nov. 1.
“He’s my son and I don’t ever want him to be forgotten,” she said.
She’s attending Remembrance Day ceremonies in Ottawa, limited by the pandemic, but still going ahead.
“They did tell me it would be a lot smaller,” she said. “They did tell me there would be a lot of wreaths that were pre-laid, but that I would actually be laying a wreath — social distancing, of course, and they assured me they would keep me very safe.”
The Silver Cross, officially called the Memorial Cross, was created in 1919 for mothers and widows of slain Canadian military personnel to recognize their sacrifice.
The cross has been the subject of controversy. Recipients qualified only if the death happened during specific military operations, such as armed conflict. The fire aboard the submarine erupted while it was en route from Scotland to Canada, and was not covered.
After Saint John Liberal Member of Parliament Paul Zed lobbied on Sullivan’s behalf, the Department of National Defence and Veterans Affairs Canada broadened the eligibility in 2006 to include all service-related deaths.
Sullivan says the policy change is important.
“And it’s not just for me. It’s for any future moms who have lost their child to the military, to make sure, even if they weren’t in a theatre of war, that their sacrifice is recognized and remembered.”
She says reminders of loss are always close to the surface, often arriving at random.
“Certain songs come on, and stuff. Just different songs that remind me of him.”
Sullivan says she has learned to smile and have fun again, thanks to her husband, Stuart, and, a support group that includes other mothers who have lost a child.
She hopes to use her position to support other families and to participate in finding new ways to support military members.