SUSSEX CORNER, N.B. — Three weeks after her husband’s death in Brandon — and her son’s arrest for the slaying — Donna Craig believes her family could have been saved, if only her pleas for help had been heard.
"If Dana had been treated, my husband would still be alive and Dana would not be facing second-degree murder," she
said this week from her cozy family home in New Brunswick.
Donna’s husband Terry was killed April 10 at the Motel 6 on the Trans-Canada Highway; their mentally ill son Dana was arrested the same day.
Now, she is without two of the men she loves most. Her son she hopes to bring home one day. And she has faith she will see her husband of 37 years in the eternal life.
Dana, 26, suffers from bipolar disorder and remains charged with second-degree murder in his father’s death. He is currently undergoing a court-ordered psychiatric evaluation in a Winnipeg hospital.
The thought of her youngest child now alone, so far away from home without support, breaks Donna’s heart.
It was her and her husband’s mission, after all, to protect him and to get him home to New Brunswick when they knew he was in trouble.
But it was during that attempt the unimaginable happened.
"I would never have dreamed anything like this would ever have happened," she said.
Donna’s journey since that tragic night just three weeks ago can only be described as a remarkable show of forgiveness. A testament to the unconditional love of a mother.
"I don’t feel I’ve lost Dana. He is lost right now," she said, her voice calm.
"I still have to be there for him because he is my son and he needs help. I love him, and that cannot change."
Dana’s older siblings, Karen and Adam, are helping keep the tight-knit, private family strong.
"They still love their brother," Donna said. "It may be difficult at times but they are able to forgive him for what happened. We have to show grace and forgive him."
She buried her husband, a retired bank manager and avid outdoorsman, on April 18 after his cremated remains returned home from Manitoba. On the back of Terry’s funeral bulletin was a photo of Dana holding two large fish he had caught while on a fishing trip with his dad.
"Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends," reads the Bible verse written beneath Dana’s photo.
There is nothing Terry wouldn’t do for the people he loved, Donna said.
Terry, 63, had gone west to bring home his son, and he died on that trip back east.
Dana grew up in Sussex Corner and is a carpenter by trade. He had returned to Alberta to work on March 21. He had been back and forth from the western province in recent years on work stints — a common trend among many of his friends from the Sussex area.
In a sombre interview, Donna talked about what unfolded in the days leading up to her husband’s death and the way she feels her family was failed by a mental health system she thought would protect them.
After reading worrying posts by her son on social media, Terry and Donna Craig quickly recognized their son was in turmoil so many miles away. Their determination to get him back home was relentless.
"Dana and Terry texted all the time," Donna explained. "We were concerned about things he was texting and putting on Facebook. It didn’t sound like Dana."
It was on Friday night, April 5, when the troubling messages caused the Craigs to panic. And after speaking with Dana’s roommates who shared the same concern with his behaviour, Donna went onto her computer and found a help line in Edmonton to find out what support was available to her family. She knew Dana was having a psychotic episode — common in bipolar cases.
Donna said since Grade 11, when Dana was diagnosed following a psychotic breakdown, he had never had such an episode again.
Now, all these years later, she knew her son needed help.
She was in contact again with the help line the next day, then on Sunday after speaking with the roommate who said he drove around with Dana for two hours trying to convince him to get help, Donna pushed for swift action. Dana was agitated and had smashed his laptop on a coffee table.
"I called the help line again and said ‘go get him, he’s in a bad way,’ " she described. "I called back a couple hours later and an armed officer and someone with mental health had gone and checked on him. They asked him a few questions like if he was taking his medications and he said yes while his roommate shook his head no in the background for them to see.
"When I spoke with these people again I was told he didn’t fit the criteria for intervention. They determined no, he’s OK," she added. "Dana is a smart boy. He knew what they wanted to hear and that’s what he told them.
"If police pick up a drunk driver they are put in jail until they sober up. Dana should have been taken in and properly assessed that day."
Donna and Terry knew their son was far from fine. He had been sick a few mornings and blamed the medications he had been on for nine years to treat his illness. So he threw them away.
"When we spoke to him, in his manic state, he said ‘I’ve never been happier,’ " the mother said. "He had broken up with his girlfriend, he seemed to be fighting with everyone yet he claimed to be the happiest he had ever been. That concerned us."
Dana had purchased an old truck last winter when he worked in Alberta. Without his medications, as is common in bipolar patients, she said, Dana became obsessed with getting his truck licenced, insured and on the road. He had still not secured a job out there.
Terry persuaded Dana to drive back to New Brunswick with him if he flew out to meet him.
"Dana loves his father," Donna said. "Dana and he were two peas in a pod. They spent a lot of time hunting and fishing. They were so close."
Terry booked the first flight he could, leaving at 6 a.m. Tuesday morning, April 9. Dana met his father at the airport around noon, and they hit the road.
"Terry had told Dana to have the truck filled up with gas and there was not going to be any delay. He just wanted Dana home so they left the airport together in Edmonton and they turned east," Donna said.
They drove a while and rested early that first night because of the long day Terry spent travelling.
By the following morning, as Terry and Dana continued their trek home, Donna had visited Dana’s Sussex doctor, who gave her a prescription for the medications he needed. She logged it into the system at a local pharmacy and Terry was able to fill the prescription along the way.
Terry had Dana’s pills but he refused to take them, Donna said.
"In a manic state they feel great," Donna said. "He didn’t think he needed those pills."
Donna remained in contact with Terry Wednesday and he so badly wanted to get to New Brunswick so Dana could get the help he needed.
But that wasn’t to be.
Terry and Dana pulled over to sleep at the Motel 6 in Brandon. At around 8 p.m., after a disturbing phone conversation with Dana, Donna called a hotel staff member to check on her family.
"I called the lady because Dana had called me. He was crying and saying things that didn’t make a lot of sense," she said. "He said ‘I love you mom, I love you. Forgive us our trespasses’ — he repeated that. He said he understood what that means now.
"I didn’t know at the time but Terry was already gone."
Donna directed the hotel worker to enter the room when there was no answer at the door. Terry’s body was on the floor, possibly dead for hours, and Dana was reportedly in the shower.
"I was on the phone with this lady when she went in," she said.
Donna still doesn’t know what happened inside that hotel room.
"I choose not to speculate," she said. "It happened, it was tragic. Dana was certainly not in his right frame of mind — I realize Dana was mentally ill.
"Other than that I don’t want to know the details. That’s the type of thing that lingers in your mind."
Donna, who welcomed her newest grandchild alone two days after Terry’s death, said she is dealing with her grief.
"Different people have asked me how I am getting by, how I am coping," said Donna, who works at the X-ray department at the Sussex Corner hospital. "I tell people it’s not my strength. It’s the strength of Jesus. It’s His strength that keeps me going."
Donna hopes the court system has compassion for the circumstances surrounding her husband’s death.
She speaks regularly by phone to Dana and has never asked what happened the night his father died. She feels he is suffering so much already.
"He says he misses his dad," Donna said, choking up. "He wants to get his life back, he has to get his life back, but it’s easy for us to forgive other people but it’s harder to forgive yourself."
She plans to travel to see her son soon.
A "friend of a friend" recently visited Dana at the Winnipeg hospital where he is staying and took him some essentials like toiletries and clothing items. A small gesture like that means the world to the mother who is not there herself to offer that personal care.
Meanwhile, she is arranging for Dana’s belongings and truck to be brought back home.
Donna believes the tragedy never had to happen. She reached out to mental health in Edmonton, and in her view, her family was turned away during their biggest crisis.
"I think there is a real problem with the mental health system when they fail to hear what the family is saying. We knew something was wrong," she said. "They dismissed everything we had said."
She believes family members most familiar with the sufferer’s behaviours and character should be heard.
"I think we are promoting the rights of the individual with a mental illness over and above the rights of other people who know," she said. "You have to listen to the voice of family and friends.
"People would say Dana has rights, and of course he does, but my husband also had rights."
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