For families dealing with loss, the holidays can present a challengeThis time of year can be very difficult for people who’ve lost loved ones, said Luke Klefstad, licensed professional counselor and regional director of the Village Family Service Center in Grand Forks. With sudden loss such as suicide, accident or any sudden death “emotions may be overwhelming and intense,” he said. In the aftermath, it’s natural to have feelings of shock, anger, depression and sadness.
By: Pamela Knudson, Grand Forks Herald
What Mark Oertwich misses the most about his son are simple things — long walks, sitting around talking, going out to lunch together.
“He was bubbly. He liked having a good time,” he said.
“All of a sudden you, take that out of your life …. it’s not much fun.”
Mark and his wife Janeen lost their only child to suicide one Friday afternoon in February 2007 — about 15 minutes after Mark had left for work.
“He said, ‘have a good day at work’ right before I left the house.”
There was no indication of what was to come.
By all accounts, Kyle “had had a great day in school,” he said. “It had been the best year he’d had in high school.”
Kyle Allen Oertwich was 18.
“The holidays are really, really tough,” his father said. “Everyone’s gathering for Thanksgiving and such, and the family’s gone.”
Only during the past two years have he and Janeen put up a Christmas tree.
“All the ornaments we had, he picked out…. We had to basically start over.”
‘Emotions may be overwhelming’
This time of year can be very difficult for people who’ve lost loved ones, said Luke Klefstad, licensed professional counselor and regional director of the Village Family Service Center in Grand Forks.
With sudden loss such as suicide, accident or any sudden death “emotions may be overwhelming and intense,” he said.
In the aftermath, it’s natural to have feelings of shock, anger, depression and sadness.
With suicide, feelings of guilt may also arise.
“You may be dealing with questions like ‘should I have done something?’ or ‘should I have said something?’” he said. “You may be reeling from questions of ‘what if…?’
“People will do all sorts of things to try to make sense of this… There may not be any answers to why it happened.”
Family and friends may think they should have seen it coming, he said, “but with suicide, you don’t see it coming.”
Kyle’s parents didn’t.
“You wonder every day if you could have done anything different,” Mark said. “You always ask, ‘what if?’”
Dealing with disabilities
From infancy, Kyle had developmental disabilities stemming from complications of a difficult birth. He received therapy services through the Easter Seals organization throughout his life.
He was carried everywhere until he started walking at age 3, Mark said.
“He was really intelligent, and smarter than people gave him credit for,” Mark said.
Because Kyle had special needs, Mark and Janeen had sought and received guardianship of their son as he approached his 18th birthday.
“Guardianship was in his best interests,” Mark said. But Kyle didn’t see it that way; he wanted the freedoms most young adults press for.
“My son just wanted to be normal.”
But Mark and his wife understood that life was not always easy for him.
“We knew that he was struggling with depression.”
Because of his disabilities, Kyle may not have fully understood what he was doing the day he took his own life, Mark said.
“He was impulsive. I don’t think he realized the consequences of his action or the finality of it.”
People who commit suicide don’t realize how many people they affect, he said.
Threshold of adulthood
Every day, Mark thinks of his son who was on the threshold of adulthood — graduating high school, looking forward to new adventures and more freedom.
“Kyle was the most loving kid you’d ever want to meet. He trusted everybody…
“He was always laughing,” Mark said. “He loved people. He loved all kinds of music. He loved to travel — he was always ready to go anywhere.”
His parents had tried to get him a driver’s license that year, and he had obtained a Social Security number.
“He was looking forward to getting out and having a little bit of independence, like most kids.”
When Kyle died, a friend of Mark’s traveled several hours to attend the services.
“After the funeral, he just came up and hugged me and cried,” Mark recalled. “That was the nicest thing he could have said to me.”
He credits his co-workers at UND, especially his supervisor Duane Czapiewski, then chief of police, for helping him through the darkest time.
“I would have never made it without the police department at UND,” he said. “They’re like a family, very supportive, always looking out for you.
“Duane cares above and beyond what you’re supposed to. You don’t find people like that anymore.”
At the funeral, six or eight UND police officers, in uniform, stood up with the pallbearers to accompany the casket, he said. The memory still touches him deeply.
Not everyone is as sensitive.
A few weeks after the funeral, when Mark returned to work, a co-worker commented on how “that was a good way to get a longer vacation,” he said.
But most people don’t intend to be cruel, they just want to make conversation.
“People don’t know how to talk about suicide. How do you bring it up?”
Mark’s interest in raising awareness about suicide — and helping those who are dealing with the emotional trauma he’s endured — has led him to participate in the Suicide Walk each fall in Grand Forks.
He also does volunteer work for the Red Cross.
“I try to make things better where I can. I think that’s a necessary thing to do,” he said. “Everybody should give something back.”
He recently hung an ornament — a framed, colored photo of his son — inscribed with Kyle’s name and dates of his life on the “Remember Me Tree” at Italian Moon restaurant in Grand Forks.
He also hung ornaments in remembrance of his sister and his wife’s cousin — his family lost them and his son within nine months.
“People lost from suicide shouldn’t be forgotten at the holidays,” he said.
The tree is meant to give people “another way to remember their lost loved one, share their memory with others and let them know they are not alone during the holiday season,” said Brenda Brummond of Grand Forks in an email to the Herald. She organized the memorial and coordinates the Suicide Walk in Grand Forks.
A Remember Me Tree also has been placed at RBJ’s restaurant in Crookston, she said.
‘Wanted to be a grandparent’
The hardest thing for Mark and Janeen is to see other people with their grandkids, he said.
“I wanted to be a grandparent. My wife loves babies — they’re so fun, they have so much energy. You never know what’s going to come out of their mouths.”
It’s critical that couples who have lost a child support, not blame, each other, he said.
Relationships can suffer as parents try to come to terms with their loss.
“My wife and I are still struggling, every day,” he said. “You have to be careful what you think about. Who’s the one to blame? The one who died.
“There’s not much you can change…”
Couples need to stay connected if their marriage is to survive.
“You have to hold your spouse whenever you can. You’re going to need that, especially if you have other kids.
“You really need to be supportive of each other — to care for each other and for others — in-laws and parents — otherwise, it’s going to break you up.”
Even though he and Janeen work opposite shifts, they try to make the best of their time together, especially birthdays and holidays, he said.
In the road he’s traveled since the devastating loss of his son, Mark holds on to advice from a counselor that helps him cope: “There’s a light at the end of the tunnel. Keep going.”
Call Knudson at (701) 780-1107; (800) 477-6572, ext. 1107; or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.