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Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024
The Observer

Saint Mary's father inspires message of hope

As the capstone event of Support a Belle, Love a Belle (SABLAB) week at Saint Mary's, Tom Seeberg, the father of Elizabeth “Lizzy” Seeberg, addressed the College community in a lecture titled “Believe – Giving Witness to Hope,” in Carroll Auditorium on Thursday evening.

Seeberg was a first-year Saint Mary's student when she committed suicide following an ongoing battle with anxiety and depression. Her death came 10 days after allegations of an Aug. 31, 2010 sexual assault involving former Notre Dame linebacker Prince Shembo. Students said the College community remembers Seeberg as an outgoing, smiling, caring student who loved Saint Mary’s and her fellow Belles.

Senior and co-chair of the student government association’s (SGA) social concerns committee Kaitlyn Tarullo said SABLAB started in 2011 partly as response to Seeberg's suicide.

“Her story is extremely important, and we felt like it was an appropriate time to invite Mr. Seeberg back to reflect on his journey a few years later,” Tarullo said. “Hope is an attitude that can start with a daily struggle but then eventually, over time, transforms into a lifestyle.”

Tom Seeberg began his talk by reflecting on the Saint Mary’s campus, which he said remains a positive place for him and his family.

“It is always awesome to come to this campus, and you might think it wouldn’t be ... [but] in the days that, if you will, followed Lizzy’s death, so many wonderful things happened for us,” Seeberg said. “I am honored that you think I can deliver some message of hope to you all ... [for] this is such a great and spiritual place for us.”

Though he has no professional credentials in speaking on mental health, sexual assault or spirituality, Seeberg said he does have the credentials of being a dad.

“I’m Tom Seeberg, but I really love being known as Lizzy’s dad. It’s one of the proudest things anyone could call me,” he said. “And I can assure you that what I tell you about my journey here is not manufactured; the foundation of it came in the immediate days following Lizzy’s death, and the power of those days has never left me.”

He said hope, for the Seeberg family, coincides perfectly with the mission of the Holy Cross order, the meaning of Spes Unica and the realization of the difference between little hope and what he called “capital-H Hope.” Before discussing how he found hope, though, Seeberg painted a picture of his loving daughter and Belle, Lizzy.

“She was very, very outgoing – you would have to meet her several times before you understood she suffered from an anxiety disorder,” he said. “We became soulmates [and] closer through her struggle. We participated in some therapy together; we became real good buds.

"She told us everything. There was never any holding back. Through her bouts of depression, she was always very good at raising the white flag and saying she needed a time-out."

He and his wife, Mary, first began dealing with signs of Lizzy’s anxiety and depression issues when she was in the eighth grade, Seeberg said.

“She was going to be dealing with anxiety and depression for the rest of her life,” he said. “Difficult situations for everybody were always going to be more difficult for her ... but the thing about Lizzy was, she wanted to get up every day and punch life in the face. She wasn’t going to be denied having a normal life, and [going to] college was an important part of that.”

However, after a difficult first semester at the University of Dayton, the Seeberg family decided there must be another alternative for Lizzy to better support her mental health, he said. The alternative was Saint Mary’s, where Lizzy wanted to enroll as a first-year and have a fresh start in college.

“She felt she knew more about herself, and she felt very confident [at Saint Mary’s],” he said. “Some of her doctors are on record saying she was as strong and determined as they’d ever seen her. She was very committed to us in saying ‘I’m going to use all my tools and all my resources,’ meaning diet and exercise, the counselors here, her friends [and] us.”

However, in the final days of her life, Lizzy Seeberg faced challenges that were beyond her capacity, her father said.

“[On September 9th], she went to a sexual assault awareness event, and for whatever reason, I think it hit her, and it all began to unravel and close in,” he said.

Following his daughter's death, Tom Seeberg said there came moments of grace that began to build “capital-H Hope.”

“As we were walking the dog [that Sunday], we were talking and saying, ‘Let’s be real about this, something has hit us here that’s the worst possible thing that can happen, and it became this prayer – a simple prayer of 'God, show us the way. We need this to be our finest hour. We need these next several days to be our finest hour,'” he said.

For the Seebergs, the funeral and burial process were dark, but also beautiful, as the “Lizzy spirit” pulled the entire family together, he said.

“Over that next week, we saw our faith; we saw hope and love carry us,” Seeberg said. “I was the only one able to make it to the memorial here, [and though] I’ve never been a touchy-feely faith guy, I’ve never been an evangelizer or anything like that ... when Caroline Bacchus’ [Lizzy’s former roommate] mom embraced me, it was just incredible. And when we were about ready to walk into the chapel, and there were some 400 folks in there, it was incredibly moving.

“And when Carol Mooney handed me Lizzy’s class ring ... and said, ‘Once a Belle, always a Belle,’ I just about collapsed. I have to say, it was about the first time in my life I’ve been touched like that.”

For Tom Seeberg, this build-up of spiritual moments led him to what he called “getting it.”

“The reason why we are here on earth, we can know it intellectually, but I didn’t really get it until then,” he said. “It’s this ability to go beyond ourselves, to cry tears of happiness or tears of grief ... it’s to experience love that is transforming.

“That’s the big capital-H Hope, and all other hope rests upon that. Light does conquer darkness; life will conquer death, and we will see Lizzy again. And therefore, get about acting as a witness to that belief, and that means doing something. ... For us, it meant moving forward, not moving on. Wear the scar – it’ll fade, but wear it for all it means. And do something positive with it.

“That’s the spirit in which we’ve been living,” he said. “The reality of Lizzy never leaves me ... so hope is where we live. Our prayer in desperation was answered.”

In the conclusion of the talk, Seeberg discussed the issues of mental illness and sexual assault on college campuses, wishing for Lizzy to be a symbol of hope in such challenges.

With respect to mental illness, Seeberg said he is grateful for an increased awareness of mental health and a decreased stigma compared to 10 years ago.

“There’s hope in your efforts in Support a Belle, Love a Belle and Irish State of Mind initiatives. There’s hope in just talking about it,” he said. “There’s hope when people get a little edgy about it. ... There’s hope in asking for help. You have to believe that help is available for you if you need it, and there’s hope in the help that’s available.”

In regard to sexual assault, Seeberg said from his family’s experience and their approach in prayer, he wishes for an increased awareness of sexual assault support.

“We just pray that we serve Lizzy’s memory well with our message and her wishes – which were to help the next woman,” he said. “... Being a gentleman works. And I think in a place where there’s world-class education and academics ... world-class facilities and even world-class athletic programs, that we should know and demand for a world-class response to sexual assault.”

Seeberg said he believes there is a lot of promise in developing attitudes to the issue of sexual assault, and we are starting to see more of a culture of commitment, but student activism needs to be behind it for it to be fully successful.

“You’re not going to change the world by complying with federal regulations, you’re going to change it when students demand better of their institutions,” he said. “I’d like to believe that Lizzy’s name adds to that hope.”

Senior Chloe Deranek, co-chair of SGA’s social concerns committee, said Seeberg’s talk perfectly underscored SABLAB’s message of hope for the community in raising awareness of both mental health and sexual assault.

“Mr. Seeberg’s message showed students how valuable hope is to have and hold onto and more than that, how to find hope when you are lost without it,” Deranek said. “I think his talk underlined the power of the Saint Mary’s sisterhood and how it extended beyond his daughter to his family as well.”

Tarullo said she hopes Lizzy’s story continues to inspire a conversation about mental health issues, for Lizzy is a symbol on campus for continued awareness and support.

“Lizzy was, is and will forever be a Belle,” Tarullo said. “You may not know the story behind everyone on campus, but you should know that everyone has a story to tell.

“It is my personal hope that people listen to Lizzy's and Tom's stories and reflect on their own. Do I model hope in my thoughts, words and actions? Do I seek to bring hope to others in need?”