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Sullivan family speaks about son’s death for first time

Sarah Mervosh | Thursday, October 27, 2011

In the year since the accident that took the life of junior videographer Declan Sullivan, the University fell under the scrutiny of national media, was investigated by the state of Indiana and paid more than $40,000 in fines.

But behind all of this was one family who spent the past year learning to cope with the loss of a son and brother in the best way they knew how: putting one foot in front of the other, one day at a time.

“Bringing a child into the world, it’s a profound change in your life. Losing a child like this, it’s equally profound,” Sullivan’s father, Barry, said. “It’s not something you get over, it’s not something you put behind you. You do get used to it.”

For the first time since the accident, the Sullivan family spoke to the media and said they do not blame the University for their son’s death.

“We saw people who were in pain like we were in pain, but their’s was compounded by this sense of responsibility,” he said. “Any inclination that we might have felt quickly dissipated. They shared our sorrow.”

Barry said his family has spent more time on Notre Dame’s campus in the year since Sullivan’s death than they had in any previous years.

“I do remember thinking right after Declan died, ‘Will this be a sad place for us? Can we ever come back here and feel happy again?’ And I’m glad that we did,” he said. “They talk about the Notre Dame family, and we definitely feel a part of that.”

Sullivan’s sister, Wyn, is a sophomore at Notre Dame and chose to stay at the University despite the loss of her brother.

She came back to campus the Tuesday following her brother’s death, one day after his funeral, and returned to classes that Wednesday..

“A lot of people asked why I didn’t leave campus, but I feel like it almost would have been worse not being here,” she said. “If I’m having trouble, people understand. There’s a lot of support.”

Wyn, who was a freshman at the time of the accident, said she cherishes the few months she shared with her brother at Notre Dame.

“It helps me to remember him, being here and being in this atmosphere,” she said. “He wouldn’t have wanted me to leave.”

For the Sullivan family, the most important result in the wake of Sullivan’s death was not pointing fingers, but rather making sure similar accidents do not happen again.

As part of Notre Dame’s agreement with the Indiana Occupational Safety and Health Administration (IOSHA), the University started a campaign to raise awareness about scissor lift safety.

Barry said his family was supportive of this venture and he contributed a video clip to the campaign to help raise awareness.

Wyn said enforcing improved safety standards is more important than any monetary fines the University paid.

“The University has so much money, it probably wasn’t a very big hit to them. But that’s not the important part to me,” she said. “As far as any monetary value, how can you put a value [on his life]?”

While Notre Dame conducted an internal investigation into Sullivan’s death, negotiated with IOSHA and eventually came to an agreement, the Sullivans adjusted to a life where the dinner table is always missing a setting and the family is forever one member short.

Wyn said when she thinks of her brother, she remembers goofy times they had — like when he tried on a female Santa costume or the year she and her younger brother, Mac, got Sullivan footsie pajamas for Christmas.

“It was funny watching him run around the house in those,” she said.

Wyn also said her family has grown closer and their outlook on life has changed in the year since Sullivan’s death.

“As cliché as it sounds, living every moment to the fullest and making the most of the time that we have here, we keep that in better perspective than before,” she said.

But on the one-year anniversary of Sullivan’s death, his parents and siblings will take a few moments to remember all that has occurred in the last year.

Wyn will stay on campus, while Barry, and his wife Alison, will attend Mass at Old St. Patrick’s Church in Chicago, where they were married and Declan was baptized.

“I think all of us are kind of taking a break away from our normal routine,” Barry said. “Just try to be together and put ourselves in a setting where we can reflect.”

Wyn said she hopes the Notre Dame community will remember her brother’s originality, and strive to emulate his freedom of expression.

“He didn’t care what anyone else thought, he was just going to be himself. Some people can never do that,” she said. “So I think being able to do that and kind of remind the student body about embracing their inner self and letting their personality actually come through is really important.”