Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

An obituary that needs to be shared January 18, 2023

This is a partial photo of Mark DeWitte’s obit published in The Gaylord Hub. I intentionally focused on the information in column two, middle paragraph. (Minnesota Prairie Roots edited photo January 2023)

HE LIVED THE BEST LIFE POSSIBLE.

That statement in the obituary of a 52-year-old Gaylord man may not seem extraordinary. He died on December 21, 2022, of cancer. But nowhere in Mark DeWitte’s obit does it state that he died after a courageous battle with cancer as is commonly seen in death notices. The only references are to a recent diagnosis and a move home to be with his family while in hospice.

Rather, the health diagnosis which led to that living the best life possible assessment is schizophrenia. Mark was diagnosed at the age of 16, which means he lived with this awful, debilitating brain disorder for 36 years.

DISPELLING THE MYTHS

That Mark’s loving family chose to publicly reveal his schizophrenia in print speaks to the depth of their love, their support and their courage. The misunderstandings attached to this disease all too often create fear and stigma, adding to the challenges of what is already an overwhelming health condition. Visions of violence, split personalities and other negative behaviors too often color schizophrenia with untruths. The National Alliance on Mental Illness defines schizophrenia as “a serious mental illness that interferes with a person’s ability to think clearly, manage emotions, make decisions and relate to others. It is a complex and long-term medical illness.” (I encourage you to read more details about schizophrenia on the NAMI website by clicking here.)

It should be noted that schizophrenia manifests differently in individuals and, although incurable, can often be managed with medication, therapy and more. Managed. Not cured. It’s not easy, but it’s possible to live the best life possible. Mark clearly did that within the confines of his symptoms. But he didn’t do it alone. He had a family who loved him, a community that cared and professionals who supported him. For the past eight years, Mark lived at Aveyron Homes.

Mark’s obituary offers glimpses of what brought him joy: Music. Going out with his brother Mike for beer twice a week. But, most of all, his family brought him joy.

RIPPLING INTO THE FAMILY

Schizophrenia, like any other long-term health issue, affects the entire family. The DeWitte family acknowledges that, not in any specific statement but rather in their willingness to write about their loved one’s life-long disease. Too often, we fail to recognize or even acknowledge the challenges of a serious mental illness and how it affects those dealing with and touched by it. Generally, there are no meals delivered during a mental health crisis. No “how are you doing?” questions or offers of help. Minimal, if any, compassion. Rather, the reaction is often one of silence, as if not speaking about “it” negates the need to show care or attempt to understand. There are exceptions, of course, and we as a society are slowly shifting towards understanding and acknowledgment and reducing stigmas about mental illness. Still, mental illness remains mostly hidden.

BREAKING THE SILENCE

Mark’s family is breaking the silence via their openness about his schizophrenia. It’s clear from a follow-up public thank you published in their weekly newspaper, The Gaylord Hub, that the community supported them. Linda DeWitte (Mark’s mom) and Michael DeWitte thanked the community for food, cards, flowers, memorials and even for snow removal. I can only assume the community also supported them when Mark was alive.

That Mark lived the best life possible while living with a horrible horrible disease comforts me. His family may not have stated that he died after a courageous battle with schizophrenia. But in my eyes he did.

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FYI: I encourage you to visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness website (click here) to learn more about mental health issues like schizophrenia, bipolar, depression, anxiety, post traumatic stress disorder and more. NAMI offers information, support and help, including online and in-person support groups. Check your state’s NAMI organization for specifics. NAMI is a valuable resource that can grow knowledge, compassion and understanding.

© Copyright 2023 Audrey Kletscher Helbling