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Egan: Losing a child and finding a way to stay alive — a family recovers


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Imagine — and it is basically impossible to do — losing your child in a tobogganing accident.

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François Lessard doesn’t have to. In 2005, his only son, Simon, then 12, died after he crashed into a tree at the bottom of a well-used sledding hill in Parc Lemoyne in Gatineau.

A former journalist, he has spoken of the tragedy’s quiet footsteps, on an ordinary Saturday afternoon in February, when two friends went playing in the snow. Simon left the house at 1:30 p.m, was injured close to 2, died at 3.

“At 4:30, you’re back at home,” he told me in the aftermath, “like nothing happened.” But something did, of course — a family’s world was shattered.

Lessard, 57, heard about the 10-year-old girl who died Monday in a sledding accident at Mooney’s Bay. She, too, appears to have struck something (a sign post) at the bottom of the hill, on an ordinary winter afternoon, during Christmas holidays.

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“My first thought was to think of the parents,” he said this week, offering his condolences. “It’s very hard for parents to lose a child, especially in circumstances like that.”

The story of Simon Lessard, a Grade 7 student who liked sports and Harry Potter books, took several unexpected twists. A Gatineau resident named Reginald Lacroix, a father and grandfather but a stranger to the Lessard family, visited the toboggan hill to see just where these dangerous trees were located.

He couldn’t believe the city, which owned the hill, hadn’t taken them away. “This is crazy,” he told himself. So the night before Simon’s funeral, Lacroix, an accomplished outdoorsman then 56, drove to the park with a chainsaw.

Under cover of dark, he proceeded to cut two trees down, including the one the boy had struck. The next day, he told a reporter, anonymously, what he had done. (It caused a minor sensation in the media.) He was eventually charged with mischief, which didn’t bother him one bit.

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“What will happen to me is not important.” he told this newspaper. “It’s what is happening to the family of the kid who is dead. It really got to me.”

The story would take another strange twist. In July of that year, Lacroix was fishing with his son in La Vérendrye provincial park, north of Gatineau, using snorkels and harpoons. Something went terribly wrong and Lacroix was discovered floating face down in the water.

The family tried desperately to revive him, but couldn’t. The boy’s avenging angel was now gone.

After Simon’s death, it was natural for François and his wife France to wonder if they should have done anything differently that day.

“There’s always a blame period,” he said. But there comes a point when this has to end, he added.

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“If you keep asking yourself these questions all the time, I’m not sure this is the right thing to do because you can’t move on.

“And you need to move on.”

François is careful to say he is not a safety expert and, on the issue of helmets, he takes a sensible stance. If we require them for skiing, he said, it’s reasonable to think they would keep children safer on a toboggan hill. (Studies have found head injuries are the overwhelming cause of fatalities in sledding accidents.)

And he certainly welcomes the city of Ottawa re-examining its approach to the hill at Mooney’s Bay, where sledding is officially forbidden, but the ban is not effectively enforced.

Neither does he intend to criticize decisions made by other parents, on the use of helmets or other safety precautions. (The family sued the city of Gatineau for failing to protect users of the park, and the matter was settled with undisclosed terms in 2007.)

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After Simon’s death, Lessard said he and his wife realized they couldn’t drown in grief, because they had a daughter, Nathalie, to think of, their own lives to lead.

They think of Simon every day, he said, and when they see his friends — now grown men approaching 30 — they wonder what he would have become.

“Our son would have told us to keep on going,” he said.

“And that’s what we’re doing. I’m lucky that my wife and I are still together after such a tragedy. I’m very lucky to have her, lucky to have my daughter. We’re very lucky.”

To contact Kelly Egan, please call 613-291-6265 or email kegan@postmedia.com

Twitter.com/kellyegancolumn

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