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Understanding Desperation: Parents of Special Needs Children Who Do the Unthinkable

By Karen B. Mariscal

On Sunday, December 6, the New York Times Magazine published a heartbreaking article, here, about Frank Stack of Elmhurst, Illinois, the father of two severely disabled adult children, and the husband of a dying wife. Over Labor Day weekend in 2014, Frank shot all three in the head and then killed himself.  It is clear from everyone who knew him that Frank thought he was acting out of love.  His children had very low intelligence and needed constant care, and he was getting to the point where he could no longer look after them.  Frank was 82 and had a bad back.  He had spent 50 years caring for his disabled children.  Although they recently had been living in group homes, Frank remained very much involved. 


We parents of severely disabled children do not want to think about a time when we can no FEMALE-DEPRESSION_2792194b.jpglonger care for our kids.  Some of us may even fantasize about doing what Frank did, if it came to that.  Even if we don’t have those exact thoughts, on some level we understand. A lawyer representing another defendant in a similar situation said that he received an outpouring of support for his client:  “Each person who called had a story of their own.  They understand the loneliness.  They understand the desperation.”  This does not make it right, or make it into anything other than murder.  Someone with a disability has as much of a right to life as the rest of us.  But it does show the pain that can be involved in parenting and loving someone so helpless.

We in Massachusetts are lucky to be in a state with good services. But we can’t rely on them alone. The best that we can do is to build a structure to take our place when we are gone to make sure our disabled children receive the support they need through a combination of careful estate planning, special needs trusts, and support from government agencies. 

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