MP David Sweet says daughter's death taught him about 'wounded healers'

On the surface, Lara Sweet was the opposite of her dad: purple haired, tattooed, feisty, rebellious. But MP David Sweet says he's carrying on a message from her death.

Lara Sweet died in August, and more and more, the Conservative MP is talking about it

"Lara would want us to reach out and make sure people knew if you need help, get help," says David Sweet at his Upper James Street constituency office. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

On David Sweet's desktop computer is a photo of his daughter, Lara, on Parliament Hill.

Lara would want us to reach out and make sure people knew if you need help, get help.- David Sweet

She'd gone to work with him that day. Sweet is a Conservative MP for Flamborough-Glanbrook, and he introduced her to then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper. "I remember you," Harper told her.

"You don't remember me, Mr. Prime Minister," she said. "You never met me."

"I'm certain I did," Harper replied.

Lara held her ground. "No," she said. "You didn't."

Remembering this makes David Sweet, sitting in his Upper James Street constituency office, laugh all over again. Lara took her own life on Aug. 11 at age 23, and these memories, and the photos that go with them, are all he has left.

"So many are feeling lost because she had such a positive, significant influence," says Sweet. That's why "as tough as it is, we thought we'd make it public." (David Sweet/Lara Sweet's Facebook)

Life with Lara was a roller coaster, he says. She had mental health issues — the best diagnosis was extreme ADHD — and addictions that included using crack cocaine. Lara left home at age 15, and was living in a room in Oshawa when she died.

But there are good memories too. Like how she was terrified of water as a baby, and by age 10, wouldn't get out of the pool. Or the time she gave a fellow street-involved youth her last $20 because he hadn't eaten in three days.

"We want to help remove the stigma of mental health," Sweet said of why he's telling the story. "I think there's still some there."

"Lara would want us to reach out and make sure people knew if you need help, get help."

The story of David and Lara Sweet — the devoutly religious former CEO of the Promise Keepers and his tattooed, violet-haired daughter with a sharp tongue and artistic flair — dates back to 1994, when Sweet's family adopted her.

Lara Sweet and her dad David posed for a selfie on Aug. 7, four days before she died. (Lara Sweet's Facebook)

Lara was the daughter of David's younger brother Paul, who struggled with not only mental health issues, but society's lack of knowledge around how to treat them. Back then, Sweet said, people thought mental illness signified a family problem. The only diagnosis Paul ever received was "hyperactivity."

Shortly after Lara was born, Sweet said, Paul called him from jail and asked him to adopt Lara. Sweet hesitated.

"Do you know how many kids I have already?" he said. (The answer was four.) 

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  • COAST: a project of St. Joseph's Healthcare Hamilton: 905-972-8338.
  • Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868. kidshelpphone.ca
  • Mental Health Helpline: 1-866-531-2600

Sweet asked his wife, Almut, who is a controller at the faith-based think tank Cardus. "Paul wants us to adopt his baby," he said at the dinner table.

"Oh my goodness," Almut replied. "That would be so exciting. I'm certain God wants us to do that."

Lara, David and Almut Sweet pose at a 2008 Canada Day parade. (David Sweet)

They adopted Lara from Toronto's Catholic Children's Aid Society. She was born addicted to drugs, Sweet said, and screamed when someone tried to bathe her.

It happened the same way all progress did with Lara — little by little. Almut would dip Lara's foot in the water. Lara would scream. Almut would hug her. Then she'd submerge a leg, then another leg, until eventually, she was having a bath.

Over the years, Lara made an impact. She was a leader in training, for example, for a pair of church programs, and a cadet at the 779 Black Knight Squardron. But there were stormy times too.

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Lara was diagnosed with extreme ADHD, Sweet said, and prescribed Ritalin. At age 14, she stopped taking it, fearing it meant she was crazy.

On the hard days, Sweet said, Lara was "loud, verbal and violent."

"My son used to say when Lara was having a good day, everyone was having a good day," he said. And when Lara was having a bad day, the opposite was true.

When Lara moved out, Sweet said, they kept in regular touch with her. They offered resources and support, he said, but she wanted to do it on her own.

This year, Sweet said, the clouds seemed to part for her. She was clean for several months, working, and saving for an apartment.

They talked plans for the future, he said. Lara seemed happier and more optimistic. "We had some really amazing conversations we hadn't had for years."

Those good times culminated in a jubilant family karaoke night on Aug. 7. Sweet took Lara to the cemetery that day to visit the grave of Paul, who died of lymphoma in 2015. In the evening, they went to the Brassie pub in Ancaster.

They sang "YMCA," said Sweet's son Chris, and the 4 Non Blondes song "What's Up." "I can't listen to that song without hearing Lara singing it now."

Four days later, Lara died.

Sweet believes she relapsed. That's what people who knew her told him. They're still awaiting a toxicology report.

On the day Lara died, Sweet said, he and Almut were about to fly from Thunder Bay to Toronto. Lara's neighbour in Oshawa, meanwhile, made a Facebook post urging the Sweets to call her, and included a number. Someone screen capped it and sent it to Chris.

Lara pets a horse at a local horse farm in 2008. (David Sweet)

Sweet found out just as they boarded the plane, and waited until the end of the two-hour flight to tell Almut. There was no point telling her in the air.

Lara's funeral, Sweet said, drew hundreds of youth sharing stories that astounded him. Some said Lara saved their lives. One was the recipient of Lara's $20. She was, he realized, "a wounded healer."

One by one, they placed purple flowers on her casket. By the end, he said, "you could hardly see Lara."

Mental health has always, to some degree, been part of Sweet's work. When he chaired the veterans affairs committee, he said, he learned of "the stigma of operational stress injuries, and the difficulty service men and women had coming forward."

Lara Sweet sits outside the parliament buildings on the day she met then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper. (David Sweet)

But nothing hits home like this.

He's learned two major lessons, he said. One is that everyone has something to offer others — even if, like Lara, that person is struggling themselves.

The other is that mental health and addiction impacts every family. Even if your parents love you. And even if your dad is an MP.

Telling these stories, he said, "gives people permission to seek help.

"It gives people permission not just for themselves, but for people they love."

About the Author

Samantha Craggs

Reporter

Samantha Craggs is a CBC News reporter based in Hamilton, Ont. She has a particular interest in politics and social justice stories, and tweets live from Hamilton city hall. Follow her on Twitter at @SamCraggsCBC, or email her at samantha.craggs@cbc.ca