Craig Bjerke didn't seem depressed — not to most people anyway.
He ran the social services department at a local hospital. He talked other people through their depression. He got them on the right medications.
"He was a great jokester," Craig's wife Barb Bjerke said. "He had people laughing all the time."
But as the days grew short and cold in Bemidji, she said, her husband changed. His mood darkened with the fall weather, and 13 years ago he took his life.
"The night that Craig died," she recalled, "I said to my friend who came to stay with me, 'I will have joy in my life again.'"
That wasn't easy, Bjerke said, especially over Christmas. For her, and others grieving the loss of loved ones to suicide, the holidays can be a difficult time of the year. The first one was especially painful. She and Craig used to visit his extended family in the Twin Cities.
"I just couldn't face it," she said.
Bjerke spent the last decade learning everything she could about suicide. Now she helps run a small support group for people in Beltrami County who have lost family members to suicide. They met in Bemidji earlier this week, to prepare for another holiday season without their loved ones.
County suicide prevention coordinator Stephanie Downey oversees the group. She said there's a misconception that suicide rates rise during the holidays. Dozens of newscasts over the 2009-10 holiday seasons made that claim, but the Centers for Disease Control say it's a myth.
Suicide rates are at their highest in the fall and spring, but Downey said the holidays are the hardest on those left behind.
"The holidays are a time when people gather together with family," Downey said, "If you're missing a loved one, that's going to be a difficult time."
On her first Christmas without Craig, Bjerke didn't travel to visit her in-laws. She stayed home. She saw a few close friends, and she looked for ways to rebuild her happiness.
At the time, Barb worked as a labor and delivery nurse at the local hospital. She was a certified bereavement counselor for parents who lose a child, and she tried to follow the advice she'd given those people.
She put on emotional music and cried. She journaled and resisted the urge to isolate. She got outside more and exercised.
And this time of year, she said, it helps to remember the best parts of a loved one's life. That's what she asked her support group to do at their last meeting. She was with Craig for 34 years, and said she has plenty of good memories to choose from.
"I remember a lot of laughter," she said. "If ever we had an argument, I could never win, because he would get me laughing. I'd lose my point because I'd be laughing so hard."
Thirteen years ago, Bjerke said she'd find a way to have joy again and she said she has. This year, when the days grew short and cold, she waded through a layer of new snow and cut a Christmas tree.
"It was the first time in my life," she said. "A friend got a permit, and I went out in the woods. And it's decorated and lit up as we speak."