WASHINGTON – Rep. Susan Wild grabbed from the stack of unopened condolence cards in her office.
The pile has gotten smaller over the months, as she reads through them when she needs words of love or encouragement. They help on the dark days or in the moments where she can't help but think of her partner of 17 years, Kerry Acker. They also help to serve as a reminder of why she is fighting to make sure no one else's family has to go through what hers has.
It was only four months ago that everything changed.
Wild had just been sworn into Congress and she and Acker had been planning their futures, both short and long-term. They chatted on the phone that Friday in May, talking about the barbecue they planned to have that Memorial Day weekend. The couple was also in the midst of looking for a home together.
Everything seemed fine. The next morning, while she was in Pennsylvania and he in New York, she saw a middle-of-the-night text message from Acker. A loving message, one that didn't serve as a warning as he often woke up in the middle of the night due to the chronic pain he suffered after a surgery that left him with nerve damage, which he'd lived with for about a dozen years.
Only hours later an officer called to report the devastating news: Acker, 63, had taken his own life.
But through her shock and overwhelming grief, Wild says she found a new purpose. On Friday, she announced she was teaming up with experts and former NFL player Fred Stokes – who says he nearly took his own life – on a series of bills and initiatives addressing mental health and suicide prevention.
"The only way I will ever be able to make sense out of this is by doing something productive in this space that I never wanted or chose to be in," Wild said. "I am a big believer in you follow the path that life takes you on and this is where life has taken me."
One bill would encourage colleges to establish suicide-prevention plans, as suicide is the second-leading cause of death for young adults. A second bill aims to provide increased mental health care for those impacted by suicide, so if a loved one dies due to suicide their family can get adequate mental health care.
At first, Wild kept the details of Acker's death private. Both her family and his were in a state of shock and denial about the details of his death. On the surface, Acker appeared to have it all: a loving family, friends, financial stability. He suffered, though, from chronic pain due to nerve damage.
Over time, the pain took its toll. The athletic sports fanatic could no longer play golf or take his daily runs.
Wild knew he was depressed but he would often seem to snap out of it. She says she found evidence of such episodes going through his belongings. He had his ups and downs and drafted a goodbye letter several months ago.
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His planning appeared to stop around the time in 2018 when Wild won her special election to represent what's now Pennsylvania's 7th Congressional District, an area along the eastern portion of the state and north of Philadelphia. A political junkie, Acker was energized and excited about coming to Washington and loved seeing Wild’s success, especially as she came to Washington several months ahead of other freshmen due to winning a special election to replace Republican Rep. Charlie Dent, who had retired.
But his depression still lingered.
"I feel as though he practically drew me a road map and I missed all the directions, missed all the turns," Wild said of Acker. "The guilt will always be there. Do I think that I could have done something? I don't know. I will never know."
A month after Acker’s death, Wild decided it was time to tell her story in Congress. She delivered a powerful and emotional speech on the House floor about his death, revealing it was a suicide. She choked up as she talked about Acker, who she'd met in law school and reunited with in 2002. She focused on the statistics, aiming to show this can happen to anyone’s family, including a member of Congress.
She also stressed that if anyone was listening to her words and contemplating taking their own life, that they were loved and there was another way. She repeated the national suicide hotline’s phone number: 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
Stokes, the former NFL player, was among the many who saw the speech and felt inspired. It was just a few years ago that Stokes nearly took his own life. He reached out to Wild to see if they could address this issue together.
"I feel that I'm here because of purpose," Stokes said Friday as he stood beside Wild announcing the new legislation. He told Wild: "You've saved thousands of lives already just by stepping up."
After Wild's emotional speech in June, dozens and dozens of cards poured in from friends and strangers. Wild said her office looked more like a florist shop with all the flowers delivered there.
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Wild, an attorney who represents a blue-collar and working-class district, campaigned to help labor unions and strive for better worker rights. She'd tell voters on the trail that she wanted to defend the environment, make college affordable and help everyone have health care. Suicide prevention wasn't a cornerstone of her platform. Wild admits she knew little on the subject. "I never thought I was going to be talking about this in a million years," she said.
But in the four months since Acker's death, Wild has become an expert. She's learned the terminology, the tactics in talking to those who might be struggling with depression, and the statistics: Suicide is one of the top 10 leading causes of death in the nation.
Many have said Wild is strong for being able to not only pick up the pieces after a tragedy but also sharing it with the world. Wild remains tough. She only started tearing up once when talking about the various times she missed Acker over the months.
"I just want to keep elevating the conversation," Wild said. "People say, 'Isn't it hard?' and the truth? I mean, I compartmentalize it, so I’m not always talking about my personal situation. I’m talking about it almost as though it's another problem that we need to solve."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Susan Wild, PA congresswoman, finds mission after partner's suicide