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Journeys through grief

By Faith Anderson

Grief is like wearing a backpack: The burden can be unbearable, or it can be light, but it’s always there. This simple analogy has been used to describe the unpredictable nature of grief. But certainly, grief is never simple.

Al Halvorson of Alexandria began carrying a heavy burden in September of 2022 when his 29-year-old son, Ryan, was killed in a car accident.

Al and Ann Halvorson with their son, Ryan (middle), who lost his life in a car accident last fall. The family has been working through their grief in various ways, including conversations with friends and help from a support group. Contributed photo

“It was really hard,” Al said recently. “I was in shock…it just didn’t seem real.” In the dark days following the tragedy, he was bothered by thoughts of what he could have done differently as Ryan’s dad. Ryan had struggled with mental illness, which perhaps added a layer of guilt to Al’s grief.

Just two years earlier, Al and his wife, Ann, along with Ryan, moved from Brookings, South Dakota, to Alexandria to be closer to their other son Tyler, Ryan’s brother. Tyler and his wife, Ashley, have three young boys and live in Evansville.

Shortly after the Halvorsons moved, Al’s father, Curtis Halvorson of Sioux Falls, died at the age of 88. “My dad lived a good, long life, and had suffered a stroke. It was hard losing him, but I knew it was his time.”

The tragic and sudden loss of Ryan was different. “They say that when you lose a parent, you lose the past. When you lose a spouse, you lose the present. But when you lose a child, you lose the future,” stated Al.

Al believes that people need to seek help while finding their own path forward. There is no grief guidebook in existence that works for everyone; no one-size-fits-all program that explains how to successfully get through grief and loss. Everyone is unique, and each timeline varies. People need to grieve in a way that suits them personally, and sometimes it takes a while to find the way.

Al’s employer, Aagaard, an Alexandria engineering company, helped by allowing him time to heal. “They were very understanding,” Al noted. “They held a PTO drive for me.” That meant that other employees could gift some of their own Paid Time Off to him.

Soon after the accident, Al sought help from a good friend back in Brookings who had lost his wife two years prior. “A person draws some strength from talking to others who have been through loss,” said Al.

Eventually, the Halvorsons met with counselors and later joined a support group with GriefShare, an international organization with local chapters. That program consisted of weekly sessions, workbooks, videos and other online resources. Stories shared by others are an important reassurance that things will get better. “I found the session on heaven helpful,” explained Al. “It gave me some peace.”

Churches and funeral homes can also be good resources when searching to find support during times of grief. Some offer bereavement classes or sessions, and others have people on staff who are trained to work with grieving individuals one-on-one. “It’s important to reach out to get help,” Al advised, “even if it’s hard.”

At some point, the grieving person needs to get back into a routine again, but that’s not always easy. Al explained it like this: “It was like ripping the Band-Aid off when I decided to get back to some sort of normal life.”

He advises getting out, going to events, and pushing one’s self. “If you don’t move on, you can’t heal,” he said.

Sometimes grieving individuals find themselves avoiding others. A normal routine and interactions with others can seem so risky, especially when the waves of grief come so unexpectedly. Al’s advice is: “Answer that phone call, accept invitations, connect with others.”

Today, Al Halvorson continues down his personal path toward acknowledgement and acceptance. Some days the burden is heavy. Other days it’s lighter. But even on those toughest days, when the pain is overwhelming, he understands that things will get better. He holds on to that hope.

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