Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Comfort in grief March 26, 2018

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 11:26 AM
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Not the soup I made, but used here for illustration purposes only. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.


I CHOPPED AND COOKED my way through grief. Onions and celery. Potatoes and carrots. I gripped the knife, chunking vegetables onto a cutting board. Then I dumped the mix into a pot of boiling chicken broth. I grabbed a second kettle, poured milk into a measuring cup, stirred a white sauce thick and bubbly, added cheddar cheese and chicken before combining contents of the two pots. Comfort in a kettle of simmering soup.

Next, I pulled molasses from the cupboard. Shortening, too, and flour and brown sugar and baking soda and salt and an array of spices. I combined and mixed and baked my way through grief. Comfort on a cookie sheet lined with old-fashioned gingersnaps scented of cinnamon and a grandmother’s kitchen.

And then, when the soup had cooled some, the cookies, too, I packaged both for delivery. Comfort for friends. But for me, too. There is something about the act of preparing and bringing food to a grieving family that offers solace in the midst of unfathomable pain. For the giver and the recipient.

On my way with Randy to deliver this tangible comfort, I felt angst rising. I prayed for the right words to say to our friends. “I’m sorry.” Two simple words—three if you consider the contraction—sufficed. And hugs.

And as we talked in the farmhouse living room, I noticed the landscape through the wide windows—how the grey sky met the grey earth, mimicking the grey of grief.

But I noticed, too, the cross hanging on an adjacent wall, the word JESUS bold and beautiful. Comfort. For me. For those parents who, like me, find peace in our faith.

We laughed over photos. And remembered. And grief vanished for a moment or three before we hugged again, the bagged gingersnaps lying on the dining room table next to an ice cream bucket brimming with the comfort of soup.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


January grief January 11, 2018

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 10:52 AM
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I TRAILED MY HUSBAND as he wheeled his dad through double doors and across door mats, guiding him between a duo line of young men waiting outside the care center.

Just moments earlier the group carried their grandmother’s casket, grey as the January skies that matched the mood of this Wednesday afternoon in central Minnesota.

Randy veered his dad’s wheelchair to the left, behind the coffin, behind the hearse that would carry my father-in-law’s wife two hours west to her burial plot in Montevideo. There she would be laid to rest in the cold soil beside her first husband.

Earlier we gathered inside the care center chapel to remember Jan and to seek comfort in words of Scripture, song, prayer and memories. I learned of my step mother-in-law’s fondness for Tator Tot Hotdish and doughnuts as my own memories surfaced of a woman who always looked lovely with nails painted, hair done, and clothes and jewelry just so. Twenty-two years ago I photographed her marriage to Tom, Randy standing beside him then just as he was now.

Now, with her family preparing for the 100-mile funeral processional westward, my wheelchair bound father-in-law had his final moments with his second wife. It took one heave of Tom’s shoulders for Randy to place his hand upon his dad’s shoulder in a loving and tender act of comfort. I did likewise as the funeral director slid the grey casket, brightened by a lovely spray of red flowers, inside the hearse, then shut the doors.

In that act of finality, grief for my father-in-law surged through me. To see him lose a second wife 24 years after losing his beloved Betty hurt my heart.

Yet, we are people of faith, confident that Jan, like Betty, is now in heaven, and no longer suffering. That comforted us as we headed back inside the care center to sip coffee and to eat ham sandwiches (made with homemade buns), chips and bars (baked by the hands of those who loved Jan). Absent, though, were my step mother-in-law’s favorite doughnuts and Tator Tot Hotdish.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Another Christmas with Mom December 20, 2017

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 5:00 AM
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I pose with my mom for a photo during our extended family Christmas gathering several days ago at her care facility.


MORE AND MORE I am cognizant of the passage of time, of aging, of the realization that I am now in the demographic of senior citizen. I need only look at my ever graying hair and my multiplying age spots and feel the aches and pains of arthritis. I am growing old, which is a good thing if you consider the alternative.

But with my own aging comes more frequent grief. More and more I am writing sympathy cards and attending funeral home visitations and comforting friends at the loss of parents.

While my dad died in 2003, my mom is still living. I find myself more and more making sure I photograph her during our visits. She lives 2 ½ hours away. Often I ask my husband to photograph my 85-year-old Mom and me together, too. We almost lost her last winter to pneumonia, one of many critical health challenges Mom has faced during her lifetime.

But she shares the story that God told her he wasn’t ready yet for that stubborn old lady. I believe her. Mom doesn’t lie.

And so I am blessed with another opportunity to celebrate Christmas with Mom. I am thankful.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Grieving & some thoughts October 3, 2017

This is an edited image I took several years ago at Valley Grove Cemetery near Nerstrand. I love how the oak stands strong and towering next to the gravestones. It fits the mood of this piece.


SUNDAY EVENING I WENT to bed with grief clutching my heart after watching an interview with a Minnesota mom who lost her daughter to domestic violence. Vanessa Danielson was allegedly set on fire by her boyfriend, now charged with her murder.

Monday morning I awoke to news of the largest mass shooting in America’s history with nearly 60 dead and some 500 injured. Once again, grief clutched my heart. Later in the afternoon, I learned that a native Minnesotan was among those shot at the country music fest in Las Vegas. Philip Aurich, a 1999 graduate of Concordia Academy in Roseville, underwent surgery and remained in critical condition at the time of an Academy Facebook posting about his injury.

The feelings that race through my mind, then linger, are ones of anger, of frustration, of grief, of shock, of disbelief. Not again. How can human beings do this to one another, treat each other with such disregard for life?

I’m not asking you to answer that question. Rather, I am asking that you make a positive difference in the lives of others via compassion and care. Listen. Empathize. Offer comfort, hope and encouragement.

In your community, wherever you live—from urban to rural, from Vegas to Minnesota, from prairie to mountain—try to be there for others. We will never stop all of the madness that exists in the world. But we can strive individually to make our neighborhoods, our communities, better places by focusing less on ourselves and more on others. That goes for families, too.

We can choose to speak up when we must. We can choose to be that positive influence for a young person, that encourager for someone in need of encouragement, that light in the absence of light.

The choice is ours, if we are free to make those choices. And not everyone is free. Consider that during October, National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, as a Minnesota mom grieves the loss of her daughter.

Grief still edges my heart. For that mom and for all those who lost loved ones in Vegas.


UPDATE 6:15 PM Tuesday: A Minnesotan, Steve Berger, 44, of Shorewood, is among those killed in the Las Vegas shooting. He was a 1995 graduate of St. Olaf College in Northfield, just a 20-minute drive from my home.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Grieving with the people of Paris November 17, 2015

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Eiffel Tower


DURING MY WEEKLY SUNDAY evening phone call to my mother, who lives in southwestern Minnesota, we talked about the terrorist attacks in Paris. Mom shared how she could not stop watching media coverage of the tragedy.

And then she asked about my eldest, confused as to when my daughter and her husband had been in Paris. Six months ago, I assured her. Not recently, as she thought.

I, too, had been thinking about the May trip and how thankful I was that my loved ones were safely back home in Minnesota. But then I thought of the mom in California who will never welcome her daughter home. And I considered all the other families grieving the deaths of loved ones. How could I possibly relate or understand?

But I can. As human beings we can understand grief. I need only view the still photos of the tragedy in Paris and the aftermath to feel the grief. As I click through image after image after image, my grief rises and spills into tears. These photos tell a story and record history in a way that no words ever can. All too often the media is criticized for focusing on the negative. But it is their job to cover events, good and bad.

This sculptor of Alexander Faribault trading with a Dakota trading partner stands in Faribault's Heritage Park near the Straight River and site of Faribault's trading post. Faribault artist Ivan Whillock created this sculpture which sits atop a fountain known as the Bea Duncan Memorial Fountain.

This sculptor of Alexander Faribault trading with a Dakota trading partner stands in Faribault’s Heritage Park near the Straight River and site of Faribault’s trading post. Faribault artist Ivan Whillock created this sculpture which sits atop a fountain known as the Bea Duncan Memorial Fountain. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

I’ve never been to France. I have no personal connection to the country. But I live in a Minnesota community with a French name—Faribault—founded by the son of a French-Canadian fur trader. French names like LeMieux, Archambault, LaCanne, Chappius, De Grood, Decoux and La Roche are common here. Whether these families are still connected to folks in the Old Country, I don’t know.

But we are all connected—no matter where we live—by the commonality of humanity and by grief, the most basic of human emotions. Today, and in the days since the most recent attacks in Paris and elsewhere, we are a world grieving.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Grieving one gone too young July 31, 2014

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 6:00 AM
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Valley Grove cemetery - Copy


I’D NEVER MET THE PARENTS, only knew their son from company gatherings.

But on a recent Thursday evening, I waited in line at a funeral home to pay my respects to the 25-year-old, my husband’s former co-worker, who took his own life.

As Randy and I snail paced through the winding line of mourners, past countless photo displays, I observed. Never have I attended a visitation with such quietness. Barely a sound in this carpeted room where mostly young men stood, their eyes focused on images sliding across a screen. Their friend, once so vibrant and alive, now gone, his closed casket on the other side of the room.

It made me incredibly sad to witness this. This grief tucked inside these young men who should not be here but rather tooling around in their pick-ups on a perfect Minnesota summer evening. Never have I seen so many trucks parked, and young adults gathered, outside a funeral home.

It made me incredibly sad to witness this.

I watched as a twenty-something slipped his arm around his significant other when they paused at the casket. Her grief ran deep and I expect so did his.

Grief rose inside me, too, and threatened to spill into tears for a young man I barely knew. But he is around the age of my own children and, as a mother, I cannot imagine such a loss. This is not the natural order of life, to lose a child.

I wondered, as we edged toward the family, past the displays of caps and replica cars and framed certifications, what I would say. How do you comfort?

At times like this, words seem futile. I wanted, in some small way also, to console the 12-year-old brother who occasionally turned and sheltered himself into his towering father’s side. He appeared invisible to other mourners. But I noticed him and his pain.

When we reached the brother, I asked his name. And he spoke with such softness that the father had to repeat his name. And then I asked to hug the 12-year-old and he allowed me to do so. Twice. And I told him he was loved.

And then the story spilled out—how he had given his older brother his nickname because he could not, as a young child, pronounce his sibling’s name. And for a moment a smile flitted across the pre-teen’s face and the father and I laughed. And I told the 12-year-old that he will always have that special connection to his brother.

Sometimes grieving families need moments like this and only sparse words of sincere sympathy. I offered such words and hugs and held hands, too, and felt the clench of grief.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Buried in snow March 26, 2013

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 7:55 AM
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I WANTED TO VISIT his grave, touch the cold stone with my gloved hands, allow my eyes to linger on his name, to remember my dad, dead 10 years now on April 3.

A trip back to my hometown to visit my mom had thrown me into a temporary melancholy mood as I lounged on her loveseat, head crooked into a pillow, legs angled up as we talked about aging and death and funerals (too many recently).

When I mentioned that I’d often thought about the safety layers of generations separating me from death, my husband glanced at me like I was crazy. My 80-year-old mom understood, though.

The road past the Vesta Cemetery, which sits just outside of this southwestern Minnesota town of some 330.

The road past the Vesta Cemetery, left, which sits just outside of this southwestern Minnesota town of some 330. You can see a portion of Vesta’s grain complex to the right.

Later, she stayed back at her house while Randy and I drove out to the cemetery, to honor my dad whose gravesite I do not visit often enough because busyness and blizzards have kept me from the prairie in recent months.

We headed north out of town along Cemetery Road, tires crunching on gravel, toward the cemetery edged by evergreen trees. At my feet, the short black snowboots I’d borrowed from my mom bumped against my legs.

Some of the gravestones are barely peeking out of the snow.

Some of the gravestones are barely peeking out of the snow.

I wondered aloud whether the cemetery roads would be plowed of snow swept in by prairie winds. A few blocks later I spotted waves of snow washing over tombstones and roadways. I could not reach my dad’s grave without snowshoes or a snowmobile.

The closest I would get to my dad's grave was viewing the cemetery through t

The closest I would get to my dad’s grave was viewing the cemetery through the van windows.

We eased past the cemetery, drove down to the first farm place to the north, turned around in the driveway and crept past the cemetery again, back into town.

I carried my mom’s boots inside, snugged them into a corner of her kitchen, before reclaiming my place on her loveseat.

I told her about the tombstones buried in snow. Then we talked about dad’s funeral—the bitter cold of that April day, the cutting wind.

And I remembered, although I did not speak this, how I’d perched on a hard folding chair in that hilltop cemetery 10 years ago, leaned toward my mother shivering in cold and in grief, and wrapped my arm around her.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling