Minnesota Now with Cathy Wurzer

'Tears and heaviness:' Dealing with grief during the holidays

Andrew Hatlestad
Andrew Hatlestad was killed in a car accident at just 20 years old.
Courtesy of Carolyn Lange

The holidays aren’t a happy time of year for everyone. Carolyn Lange knows immeasurable grief all too well. This is her second Christmas without her son, Andrew.

Andrew was killed in a car accident at just 20 years old. We first talked with Carolyn last March about the nursing scholarship she began in her son’s honor through the Willmar Community Foundation.

To donate to the Andrew Hatlestad Legacy Fund, you can:

  1. Give by Credit Card: Click this link to make a gift through Community Giving/Willmar Area Community Foundation. 

  2. Mail a gift to: Willmar Area Community Foundation, 1601 Hwy 12 East, Suite 9, Willmar MN 56201. Please make checks out to WACF and note Andrew Hatlestad Legacy Fund in the memo.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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Audio transcript

CATHY WURZER: I think that amidst all the hubbub of the holidays, we need to acknowledge that this is not a happy time of year for everyone. The grief that many of us live with feels amplified during the holidays because the traditions that a lost loved one liked or their favorite holiday music or food underscores their absence. We're going to honor those feelings for the next few minutes.

Our next guest is Carolyn Lange. She knows immeasurable grief all too well. This is her second Christmas without her son Andrew. Andrew was killed in a car crash at just 20 years old. We first talked with Carolyn last March about the nursing scholarship she began in her son's honor through the Willmar Community Foundation.

CAROLYN LANGE: We have to have something positive come from this. There just has to be. This does help address some of our despair. And we have to try to bring something, so that others can carry out Andrew's spirit.

CATHY WURZER: Carolyn, thank you for taking the time to talk with us again. Welcome back.

CAROLYN LANGE: Thank you for having me, Cathy.

CATHY WURZER: How is your heart today?

CAROLYN LANGE: Oh, like every day, it is heavy with tears, with the daily reality of waking up every day that Andrew isn't here. It's a process that my brain has to go through every morning. Not that I sleep very much, but there is that awakening every morning that Andrew is gone. And there is grief, and tears, and heaviness every day.

CATHY WURZER: Folks talk about the stages of grief, but I'm wondering it's not the same for everyone. Have you found that to be true?

CAROLYN LANGE: Oh, absolutely. I think this idea that you move from one level and get better, and better, and better till everything is normal, again, I think that's just a myth. I'm 16 months into this grief journey. And yes, things are different than they were during that first shock of the first hours, but the grief is, I think, just as heavy.

And some days there, you can feel somewhat stable. And the next hour, you can be on your knees in tears. And that's how it is for me and it is different for other people. And I think that's what's important to remember is to grieve in the way that feels right for you and not what you think other people expect you to do.

A lot of people think, oh, you should be better by now or you shouldn't be crying this much anymore. You should be back to normal. And that's just not how it works. And I think it's important to go in the direction that you feel is right.

CATHY WURZER: I remember talking to you last March and you said that getting out in nature helps, connecting with nature. Even sometimes you would go take a walk and just yell out into the woods.

CAROLYN LANGE: Absolutely. And that happens still every day, although I haven't been out yesterday or today with this cold temperature. But I probably will.

I walk a lot and talk to Andrew. I cry, wail. And I'm fortunate I live on a farm. I can walk out my door, I can see trees, and grass, and birds flying overhead, and water.

CATHY WURZER: And a lot of the people that I've worked with-- I've done it myself-- talked to the departed one, write letters. Is that something you've tried?

CAROLYN LANGE: Yes. And I wish I would have started writing letters to Andrew sooner, but I do it now every morning. I had people early on saying, oh, should be journaling. I know journaling is such a heavy word with so much-- feels like it has so much responsibility and everything you have to write has to be profound.

CATHY WURZER: And as a reporter, a former reporter, that's something you probably didn't want to get yourself into, I'm assuming.

CAROLYN LANGE: Exactly. It was like a deadline. I had to perform. So I didn't do that.

But now I write letters to Andrew, write it on the computer, and I date it. And I tell him what's going on, what we're doing. It helps me work out some of my thoughts, my grief, my questions, my anger, my emotions, my dreams.

I have a lot of dreams at night. And by writing my letters to him, it helps me work out through what some of those dreams might mean for me. It helps me feel connected.

CATHY WURZER: Oh, my gosh the holidays must be really hard. As I mentioned in the intro there, those who are gone may have had a favorite dish, or a song, or they love the holiday lights, or something like that and it just kind of underscores their absence. Did Andrew have anything special he loved during the holidays?

CAROLYN LANGE: Being with his brothers. Waking up in the house with him, that was so many antics that they did together. They were older than he was and they would get him up early in the morning. And when he was just a little guy waking up at 4:00 in the morning and they'd be downstairs eating the goodies from the Christmas stockings and watching some Christmas movie. And it was just being together.

CATHY WURZER: How did you mark that first Christmas last year and how do you plan to mark it this year without Andrew?

CAROLYN LANGE: Nothing will ever be the same. And Christmas, any holiday will never be the same. Last year, it was really hard to want to do anything, whether to even put up a Christmas tree or even acknowledge the holiday.

We did put up a tree, a simple Christmas tree, but all I wanted on it for decorations besides the lights was silver tinsel that I draped over the tree. And the tinsel represented tears to me because that's what I felt like. The whole holiday was just a holiday of tears and that is what will be on our tree this year also. The lights are on it now and the tinsel is going to be going on today-- more tears.

And if I can just tell a story last year when we finally took out the Christmas tree for the year, and I carried it out to the woods where I always take our Christmas trees, and the tinsel was still hanging on the tree. And as I laid it down, I said this little prayer, little blessing over the tree, so I know maybe that some bird will come and take those tears, those tinsel tears, and make a nest. It was midsummer day this past year. I was walking out to the garden. And in the middle of our yard, a good football field away from where I placed that tree, I saw in the grass, there was a tiny little nest turned upside down not under a tree, not anywhere near.

There had been no big storm. I don't know how this got there, tiny little nest about the size of a wren nest. I picked it up, turned it over, and there were two little strands of tinsel woven in that nest.

And, of course, I cradled it in my hands and brought it into the house where we have all sorts of pictures of Andrew and all the little feathers that I found on walks that I felt were little messages from Andrew. Little pieces of nature that I found that I've put there and that nest is there. And it still is there now with these little silver strands.

CATHY WURZER: Wow. That is a message. Oh, my goodness, Carolyn.

CAROLYN LANGE: There's been so many messages from nature. And I know some people-- I've had people close to me say, oh, you believe in that stuff? Yes, I do. I really believe that messages can come to us if we're open to it, if we're looking for them. I think they're there.

CATHY WURZER: How important is it to you to hear Andrew's name said? Have you noticed that some folks just can't do it? They have a hard time saying his name because they don't want to hurt you.

CAROLYN LANGE: Absolutely. I think everyone who grieves wants to know that their loved one is not forgotten.

CATHY WURZER: Is that why it's also important for you to keep Andrew's spirit alive through the scholarship? You launched the scholarship in Andrew's name and there was such a wonderful reaction to that. Has there been students to get the scholarship yet? Have you picked students at this point?

CAROLYN LANGE: Earlier this year, we awarded three scholarships to nursing students attending Bridgewater College. Each of these students received a $1,000 scholarship. And we are reviewing another batch of scholarships this week and we'll be making decisions. And this will be students for their spring semester.

We did receive thank-yous from the three students that received the first scholarships. And oh, my gosh, it's was so powerful to us. There's a young student who had so many similarities to Andrew, was raised on a farm, and involved with forage. She said my passion is helping people.

Another student who is a little bit older said that he was currently taking care both of his parents and that that has added a strain on both of him physically and financially. And he said the scholarship that he received in Andrew's name could not have come at a more opportune time. He said, I chose nursing because I have been in the forefront of caregiving and he wants to be a community nurse.

And then this one from a young woman. She said it was August 20th of 2021 and she had just finished one of her pre-nursing classes for the day. And she said it was surreal. She was living her dream of being a nurse and then she received the email that a fellow nursing student from Bridgewater had died. And of course, that was Andrew who had died the day before.

And she wrote I don't know why, but a terrible sadness invaded my body. I guess it was shocking for me because I reflected myself in that young man. At the end of the day, we were pursuing the same goal. She was, I remember I cried deeply. I did not know Andrew personally, but I know I'm going to remember him forever.

And then she wrote, a year later, I received another email and I saw his name again. This time the email was about a scholarship stating that I was being selected to receive it. And now that she wants to be the nurse like Andrew would have been.

CATHY WURZER: That is beautiful that he continues to then-- his legacy lives on in these students that are going forward into something he really wanted to do to be a nurse. Was Andrew close to graduation when he died?

CAROLYN LANGE: He would have graduated this year.

CATHY WURZER: Oh, OK.

CAROLYN LANGE: But he would have received his RN pin this spring. And his class invited us, my husband and I, to the pinning ceremony at Bridgewater when his technical training would have been done. That was one of the more difficult days that we have gone through.

The class was so generous. They held Andrew's photo. They invited us up and they gave us his pin. The students were there with their parents and family with balloons and flowers and celebrating and Phil and I were sitting at the table by ourselves in tears. I saw the promise there for those students.

CATHY WURZER: I'm wondering if you have advice for someone listening who maybe is going through something similar to your situation and what you would tell that person. Maybe they're just starting this journey. What have you learned so far?

CAROLYN LANGE: My advice is to cry, wail, send your cries out to God, to the universe. That they are being heard and absorbed. But those of us who are still grieving-- I think whether you call it the Holy Spirit, whether you call it the energies of the universe, I think that the cries of pain go out and the compassion comes back. And I just want people to know they're not alone. They're not alone.

CATHY WURZER: Yes, and there's compassion being sent to you and a lot of love from so many people that have been listening to you and your story. And they're holding you and your family close I know, especially during this time of the year because it is so difficult. Carolyn, thank you so much for taking the time. I know it's extremely difficult. It's got to be just exhausting in a sense to go through everything again and talk about Andrew, but it's important.

CAROLYN LANGE: Thank you for allowing me an opportunity to talk about my son, and to talk about grief, and to let people know that they are not alone.

CATHY WURZER: That was Carolyn Lange. She's a former journalist living near Willmar, Minnesota. Her son Andrew died in a car crash a year and a half ago.

To donate to the Andrew Hatlestad Legacy Fund, you can give online through the Willmar Area Community Foundation website. We have link at nprnews.org. You can mail a gift to the Willmar Area Community Foundation too, if you'd like, 1601 Highway 12 East Suite 9 Willmar 56201. You can make the check out to WACF and note Andrew Hatlestad Legacy Fund in the memo. Now I asked Carolyn for a song she would like to play in honor of her son and she said this song, quote, "represents Andrew's spirit of kindness".

[MUSIC - JOHN LENNON, "HAPPY XMAS"]

JOHN LENNON: (SINGING) So this is Christmas and what have you done? Another year over, a new one just begun. And so this is Christmas. I hope you had fun. The near and the dear ones.

CREW: Support comes from Mall of America. You can take a break this season at Mall of America featuring holiday music in the Rotunda Festival of Trees and the Candy Cane Institute. More at mallofamerica.com/holiday.

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