Former chief hopes story will keep saving lives

Pat Kenny made a list of promises to his wife, Eileen, before she died in 2016.

The final one was to write a book about their son Sean's struggles with mental illness and death by suicide in 2006. The former Hinsdale fire chief had been traveling the country for years sharing with other first responders his experience about losing his son.

"You can't tell enough people, and emotionally it's not good for you," Kenny remembers his wife telling him. "Write the book and tell the story so it can help people."

The next day, Eileen went into a coma, and she passed away a few days later. Kenny didn't really believe he would fulfill the promise.

"How mad could she be at me if ended up on the other side and I didn't write the book?" he said.

But he kept hearing from people - including recently retired assistant Hinsdale fire chief Tim McElroy - who encouraged him to write. Eventually, more than two years later, he connected with a consultant who helped him convert his talk into a 40-chapter narrative. "Taking the Cape Off: How to Lead through Mental Illness, Unimaginable Grief and Loss," was published in November and will be released on Audible this fall.

"Now it's just kind of got a life of its own," he told me Tuesday when we caught up at the same Starbucks where I interviewed him more than five years ago for an article on suicide. "Stories people have sent me have touched me."

He cited one from a father who admitted to calling his late son-in-law a coward, even in front of his widowed daughter.

"I'm so sorry," he told Kenny. "I just didn't get it. That won't happen again."

Kenny said he knew immediately what the book's title should be. When we talked back in 2016, seven months before he lost Eileen, he shared the following quote with me about allowing himself space to grieve following his son's death.

"You have to take the cape off," he said. "We wear the cape all the time. I've got to save people. My job is to come to you on your worst day. I can't have a bad day. You continue to wear the cape until the cape chokes you and you can no longer perform."

He said he experienced the same feeling of extreme helplessness watching his son struggle with mental illness as he did watching his wife battle cancer.

"They both were terminal illnesses, but people looked at one as, 'Look at this courageous battle this mom is putting on,' " he said.

They saw his son's condition as a character deficiency. His goal is to work to eliminate that stigma.

"You don't choose it," he said of mental illness. "It chooses you and you work really hard to manage it. It doesn't make you any less of a person. Many times it makes you more of a person because you have to battle it to make a good life."

Kenny has fulfilled the other promises he made to Eileen as well. He continued to work as Western Springs' fire chief until his retirement earlier this year. He traveled to Ireland as they had planned to do and he didn't sell his house.

He also found space in his heart to love again. He said he doesn't think of it as moving on.

"I don't have to leave them behind," he said of his wife and son. "I can still live a life and enjoy life and bring them with me to be part of it. That was an awakening that allowed me to move forward."

While he is being mindful about self-care and the number of speaking engagements he accepts, Kenny said he will continue to spread the message that we should view mental illness the same way we view physical illness.

"We haven't gotten to where we need to be yet," he said.

- Pamela Lannom is editor of The Hinsdalean.

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Pamela Lannom is editor of The Hinsdalean