Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Briana, more than a statistic April 28, 2021

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo used for illustration only.

SHE DIED ON FRIDAY due to complications from COVID-19. And she was 30. Only 30.

I didn’t know Briana, who graduated from Faribault High School in 2009. But that matters not. Here’s a young life lost to a deadly virus, Briana’s name now on the ever-lengthening list of 7,091 (as of Tuesday) Minnesotans who have died from COVID or complications thereof.

Briana’s obituary, published April 27, 2021 in The Faribault Daily News.

My heart hurts for Briana’s family and friends. Her obituary and the comments therein, describe a vibrant and artsy young woman who enjoyed photography, crafts, sewing and music. She was also tagged as a passionate activist.

Briana’s friend Corrina writes: Briana was the most fieriest, artistic, and admirable person I knew. She inspired me to protest and we walked together through the streets fighting for justice. She made the world a better place.

She made the world a better place. I think we would all like to be remembered in that way.

It’s so important to remember that behind every COVID-19 death statistic is a person. An individual who loved and was loved. Who perhaps, like Briana, marched with fiery passion. Or quietly helped others via kindness, generosity and compassion. Or still had their whole life ahead of them. Like the first grader from Park Side Elementary School in Marshall who died on Sunday due to complications from COVID-19. A child with no underlying health conditions. My heart breaks. My cousin’s daughter teaches at Park Side. Marshall sits in Lyon County, in the southwestern corner of the state, in a region with one of Minnesota’s highest COVID infection rates.

As I watch and read media coverage of the COVID situation in India, my heart also breaks at the overwhelming number of new cases—some 350,000 in a single day—and the resulting deaths. It’s difficult to see film of people suffering, of bodies wrapped in blankets and lying in the streets, of oxygen masks clamped onto faces and hear the pleas for oxygen, medicine, PPE. Pleas, too, for vaccines.

An article published in the April 27 edition of The Faribault Daily News highlights how the virus continues to spread in my region of Minnesota. I see more and more people in public without face masks or half-masking. Tuesday stats from the Minnesota Department of Health list 12 new deaths, including one from my county of Rice. That individual was between the ages of 55-59. That makes 104 COVID-19 deaths now in my county

I feel thankful that the US and other countries are offering help to the people of India in this overwhelming health crisis. Yet, I can’t help but think how people in the US are turning down vaccines, not wearing face masks, living like there’s no pandemic…

Monday evening I watched “The Virus That Shook the World,” a two-part FRONTLINE public television documentary featuring people from around the world in the first year of COVID-19. A doctor. Filmmakers. Dancers. It was heart-wrenching to listen, to watch. But necessary to document. Important to view. I felt my grief building as the film progressed. And then, when a daughter in Iceland shared the story of her mother’s death from COVID, all the grief and pain I’ve felt during the past year-plus erupted. I couldn’t stop crying as I observed this family’s loss and pain. I felt like I was crying the grief of the world. Crying for Briana and her family. Crying for the family of that first grader and the entire community of Marshall. Crying for those in my circle who have lost loved ones (seven thus far) to COVID.

In all this grief and suffering and pain and death, I hold onto hope. Hope that we can overcome. Hope that we can heal. Hope that we can set aside politics and misinformation and me-attitudes to do what is right. To care about others and to act like we care. To understand the importance of health and science in defeating this virus. To cry tears of joy rather than tears of unending grief.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Erica Staab’s latest book focuses on loss December 15, 2020

AS WE NEAR CHRISTMAS, perhaps you aren’t feeling all that merry. These past 10 months of dealing with COVID-19 proved challenging, resulting in feelings of depression, anxiety, isolation and uncertainty. Even anger.

In many ways, we’re all grieving. We’ve lost our sense of normalcy, of life as we once lived it. Some of us have lost jobs. We’re separated from family and friends. And, for too many, that separation came via death from COVID-19 and the inability to mourn in traditional ways.

The year 2020 redefined the meaning of the words “loss” and “grief” in the context of a global pandemic. Yet, the core meanings remain, as universal, yet as individual as each person experiencing them.

WRITING ROOTED IN PERSONAL LOSS

My friend Erica Staab, director of HOPE Center in Faribault, addresses loss in her latest book, The First Christmas—Finding Your Way After Loss. In this slim 32-page volume, Erica writes from the heart, as a sister who experienced the tragic death of her brother, Mitchell, in 2007. The 27-year-old died of injuries sustained in a fall after stopping to assist a motorist involved in a single-vehicle accident. Any death can be difficult, but especially when the loved one is so young, the death unexpected.

It comes as no surprise to me that Erica takes her personal loss and her life’s work of helping survivors of domestic abuse and sexual assault (and their families) to craft this insightful and encouraging book. She is one of those individuals who gives selflessly and with a heart full of compassion. Her words ring with authenticity rooted in experience.

GRIEF: “A WILD MESS OF THINGS”

She calls grief “a wild mess of things that can’t be anticipated.” That seems such a spot-on assessment as we all grieve in different and unexpected ways. Erica advises us to be gentle with ourselves, to allow grief in, to listen to what our hearts need.

I found this statement particularly profound: When grief is invited in…it is then that it loses its power over you, it is then that grief offers itself to share its gifts. It is then that there is space made for joy.

I appreciate that Erica embraces and acknowledges grief in all its pain and darkness. Yet, she writes with the light of hope, of joy-filled moments returning, of strength gained. When I emailed Erica to tell her that her writing touched me and caused me to cry as I thought of losses in my life, she responded, “…that was my prayer…that people would feel heard, understood, and not alone in their grief journey or their choices.”

PERMISSION TO EXPERIENCE LOSS IN YOUR UNIQUE WAY

Her book applies to many losses, not just loss through death. Loss of a relationship. Loss of a job. Loss of financial security. Loss of health and/or safety. And therein lies its even broader appeal, especially in 2020, a year of much loss. Erica wants her readers to realize they are not alone, that no one should try to erase their pain, that they need to experience it fully and in their own way and time.

And if that means you don’t feel like putting up a Christmas tree this year or mailing holiday cards, then don’t. That was me last year. Writes Erica: You have permission to simply make it through.

Her book also offers specific ways to ease loss, culled from her experiences and those of others. That’s helpful, too.

If you’re dealing with any type of loss, I suggest you buy The First Christmas—Finding Your Way After Loss. Purchase copies, too, for family and friends. Every funeral home and church should have copies to give away. The $10 book may be purchased at The Upper East Side, 213 Central Avenue North, Faribault, or online by clicking here. You can also reach out to Erica directly. I am so appreciative of Erica, her writing, her encouragement and her unique way of addressing difficult topics.

© Copyright 2020 by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Heartbroken on May 14 May 14, 2020

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Aunt Sue and Uncle John

SHE IS STUNNINGLY BEAUTIFUL, the young woman in the long-sleeved simple white dress with eight decorative buttons and a corsage accenting the bodice. Her thick black hair is pulled back in a pony tail held in place by a white ribbon and a sprig of flowers. Next to her stands a tall, lean man dressed in suit and tie, a single carnation pinned to his lapel.

On May 14, 1968, this couple—my Aunt Sue and Uncle John—married. Today would have been their 52nd wedding anniversary. Except Sue died last week of pancreatic cancer. Although we all understood that Sue’s cancer, diagnosed some six months ago, was terminal, her death is still difficult to accept. Her husband of nearly 52 years is heartbroken.

That heartbreak has been compounded by COVID-19. For the week Sue was hospitalized prior to her May 8 death, John could not visit her. Until the end—the day prior and the day of. And now he and his grown children and their families are left to grieve alone. The usual ways in which we comfort and support one another have vanished. You know that if you’ve lost a loved one during this global pandemic.

I wish I could be there for my uncle and cousins, to hold them close and tell them how deeply sorry I am for the loss of their wife and mother, my aunt. Instead phone calls, texts, emails, cards and flowers must suffice…until we can gather at some time to honor Aunt Sue.

She was such an incredibly beautiful woman. And also outgoing and engaging. When John and Sue would drive from Minneapolis to rural southwestern Minnesota with their two kids for family gatherings, Sue was right in the thick of conversation and always eager to play board games. During those games, we threatened to use a timer because she often took too long taking her turn. At Christmas one year, I nearly convinced her that I sharpened a candy cane with a pencil sharpener. Laughter filled the farmhouse and Sue laughed right along.

Sue loved her kids and grandkids, cats and good Italian food and life. And she loved my uncle.

Today I will call Uncle John, to offer my support, but mostly to listen. Maybe he will tell me about the beautiful young woman with the thick dark bangs and her hair pulled back. The lovely bride in the above-the-knee simple white wedding dress and his wife of not-quite 52 years.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

When the holidays are anything but happy December 27, 2018

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An edited photo of a sign promoting kindness as part of The Virtues Trail Project in Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

THIS PAST YEAR SEVERAL FRIENDS lost loved ones—one to suicide, another to an aggressive cancer, the other to advanced age-related health issues. Friends are battling cancer. Other friends are facing a myriad of challenges.

Christmas is not always easy. It can be downright difficult when you’re missing a loved one or working through something that’s really really tough. I get that. And I hope in some small way that my friends feel my care for them. I’ve reached out with words of comfort, with hugs, with a recognition of their struggles. I don’t pretend that I can erase their grief or solve the issues that are affecting their lives. I simply want them to know that they are not alone, even if they feel alone.

More than ever, it’s important for each of us to step outside of ourselves and recognize that people are hurting. Within our circles of family and friends. It’s important to realize that loss—whether by death or through strained relationships or other factors—hurts. We can ease that hurt by caring. Caring enough to ask, “How are you?” Caring enough to validate an individual’s loss and say, “I’m sorry.” Or “I’m here for you.” It doesn’t take a lot of effort. But it takes that pause, that ability to recognize that saying something is better than remaining silent.

I understand. I’ve heard words of care and support when I needed them. But I’ve heard, too, the loudness of silence.

TELL ME: How do you support family and friends dealing with a loss and/or a difficulty, especially during the holiday season?

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling