BRENTWOOD, N.H. — Their driveway is a riot of colorful chalk drawings. Their meals feature impassioned pleas for peanut butter and jelly. Their summer weekends were a blur of birthday parties, potty training, and trips to the beach.
It’s a tableau many New England families would recognize, but here, in the gray Colonial of Ken and Danielle Lambert, all the rituals and burdens of parenthood carry greater meaning.
Nearly eight years ago, the Lamberts lost their two young children when Danielle’s twin sister, Marci Thibault, suffered a psychotic break and carried them, on her hips, into Interstate 495 in Lowell. A sleepover with Aunt Marci turned to unimaginable tragedy, a devastating coda to Thibault’s struggles with mental illness.
The Lamberts worked to rebuild their lives after the deaths of their 5-year-old daughter, Kaleigh, and 4-year-old son, Shane. It was a difficult journey, one of grief, memory, counseling, and self-examination, as the couple tried to come to terms with how this had happened, and whether it could have been prevented.
As they mourned, they began asking themselves: Do we want to have more children? Should we try again?
“It wasn’t too long after — once everything settled in and the new reality was evident — that we started having those conversations,” said Ken Lambert, 41, a project manager for a construction company.
They wondered what it would mean to be older parents, to be chasing toddlers around as 40-year-olds. But being a mom and dad was such a big part of who they had been, so inseparable from their identities. They would never forget Kaleigh and Shane, but they felt a longing to bring children back into their home.
So in July 2011, they became parents again, giving birth to fraternal twin boys, Kolten and Sheadon.
“It’s nice to have a second chance,” Ken said.
The boys are master sand castle builders. They chase gulls. They jump ocean waves. They are best friends, their father says, together all the time. Every milestone, though, is bittersweet, each joyful moment a reminder of what was lost.
“It’s like we can’t just have the simple, 100 percent happiness about something,” Ken said. “There’s always another side.”
As they’ve settled in to parenting again, the Lamberts have tried to help other families avoid their suffering. An organization they founded to raise awareness of mental illness, Keep Sound Minds, has funded scholarships, sponsored benefit 5K runs, and produced DVDs to help law enforcement recognize warning signs.
This fall, Keep Sound Minds is promoting its latest project, a documentary on suicide awareness called “Samaritans: You Are Not Alone,” which will be shown Nov. 3 at Suffolk University’s C. Walsh Theatre.
The film is directed at people in the same position the Lamberts and their extended family were in eight years ago, when no one recognized the severity of Marci Thibault’s illness.
In September 2007, Thibault, 39, began acting manic after losing her job. A sister took her to Massachusetts General Hospital, where she claimed to have been “placed on this planet, sent by God, to spread peace and joy and love.” She was transferred to McLean Hospital, a psychiatric facility in Belmont, where she was diagnosed with mania and bipolar disorder. She remained for nearly a week.
Thibault’s discharge plan indicated that she was supposed to receive outpatient treatment, but, like many people who suffer from serious mental illness, she never followed up. She received no further psychiatric care, according to her family, and masked her symptoms well.
The Lamberts rue not knowing more about mental illness then, and they wish family members had shared concerns about Thibault more openly with one another.
“Those are things we struggle with to this day,” Ken said.
On the night of Jan. 11, 2008, Thibault drove to New Hampshire to pick up Kaleigh and Shane and take them to her home in Bellingham. On the way, she was nearly detained by Massachusetts State Police after she drove onto the grassy median of Interstate 495.
Police arrived as she was punching a driver who had stopped to help. Stomping her feet, she told police she was having a “debate between good and evil.” But she also said she had merely fallen asleep behind the wheel.
The troopers, concluding they lacked evidence to take Thibault for a psychiatric evaluation, issued her a ticket and sent her on her way, a fateful decision — and, the Lamberts say, a deeply irresponsible one. (State Police have defended their actions, saying the troopers made their best judgment call based on what they observed.)
The Lamberts knew nothing of her police encounter when Thibault, seemingly her normal self, arrived at their house a little while later to collect her niece and nephew in their pajamas. “Be good for Auntie Marci,” they told their son and daughter, who were looking forward to spending time with their older cousins.
Not long after pulling away, Thibault drove her car into a ditch along the highway, stripped off her clothes and the children’s, and carried them into oncoming traffic.
Ken and Danielle, who is a nurse practitioner, sued McLean Hospital and three staff members in Suffolk Superior Court in 2010, contending that McLean had failed to ensure that Thibault got proper psychiatric care after her release, and that doctors should have known about and warned the family of the risks she posed. McLean fought the lawsuit, which a judge dismissed in 2013.
The Lamberts also believe McLean doctors misdiagnosed Thibault, who they think suffered from schizoaffective disorder, in which a person exhibits both schizophrenia symptoms, such as delusions, and mood disorder symptoms, such as depression or mania.
However, as the Lamberts’ story has been publicized, some have questioned their judgment,
“It cuts to you,” he said.
At the time, nothing about Thibault gave them pause, he says. Her stay at McLean did not, by itself, seem to disqualify her from caring for their children. She had her own life, her own children and husband, and seemed to be doing better. She had even made plans for the following summer.
“We were what I would call pretty overprotective with Kaleigh and Shane,” he said. “We entrusted them with their aunt, someone that clearly did love them.”
Only later did they realize how little they and the rest of the family understood what was going on inside Thibault’s head.
“Now I know,” Ken said. “That’s a tough way to live. But now I know. We want to teach people: OK, here you go, here’s the information. Talk about it.”
That was a motivation behind the documentary. The 43-minute film highlights the work of the Samaritans, a Boston-based suicide-prevention and support organization. It features interviews with Samaritans staff and volunteers and poignant stories of people who have lost loved ones to suicide or attempted suicide themselves. The takeaway: Don’t keep quiet if you suspect someone around you is struggling.
“The biggest message is that the average person is not aware and needs to be aware of the threat of suicide,” said Randy Barth, a friend of the Lamberts who wrote, directed, and produced the film. “We ignore it. We all would rather look the other way.”
Ken says they wanted to give viewers practical advice about identifying warning signs that presage suicide, such as a withdrawal from friends and statements like, “No one would miss me if I were gone.” (The Samaritans help line, which takes calls and texts, is 877-870-HOPE.)
Steve Mongeau, the Samaritans executive director, said Ken’s dedication has been apparent from the start.
“He was focused on getting the message out to people who need help,” Mongeau said. “That’s what drives him.”
“People have asked me, ‘Do you think it’s made any difference?’ ” Ken said. “I know we’ve made a difference.”
The Lamberts’ activism and willingness to tell their story made a difference for Karen Brett of Danvers, who had a mentally ill family member make threats against her children. Brett treated those threats more seriously and took precautions to protect her children.
“I hope they take some comfort from the fact that they’ve done amazing work,” said Brett, an accountant who volunteers as the treasurer of Keep Sound Minds.
At the Lambert home, the twins keep their parents busy. They wrestle, they complain about vegetables, they battle over toys. Ken and Danielle can’t help but be overcautious sometimes, he said.
Seeing children the ages that Kaleigh and Shane would have been, out playing baseball or kicking a soccer ball or just around the neighborhood, delivers a jolt.
“It’s hard to see it,” Ken said. “I always think, ‘I should have a 12- and 13-year-old right now,’ and how much my life would be different.”
Kolten and Sheadon have grown old enough to ask about the pictures of Kaleigh and Shane they see around the house. Kaleigh and Shane are up in the clouds, living with God, their parents say. Sometimes, Kolten and Sheadon walk by the photos to bid their brother and sister goodnight.
In time, the boys’ questions will only grow more probing.
“Those are going to be tough conversations,” Ken said.
Given all that’s happened, Ken and Danielle feel blessed they can have those conversations. That’s what families do: tackle life’s most trying moments together. And that’s what they are: a family, moving on, year by year, from the unthinkable.