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SF SPECIAL: Dealing with grief after tragedy

Swine veterinarians Gordon Spronk and Tom Wetzell talk about the accident that changed their lives.

Grief is all around us this spring as the coronavirus pandemic continues. My father died April 7 and I was not able to be with him or my mother during his illness because of travel restrictions. Talking to others who understand grief is important during these sad times.

Two people who have life experience with grief are Minnesota swine veterinarians Tom Wetzell (far right) and Gordon Spronk (center).

Three years ago, on May 2, 2017, Wetzell was driving a rented SUV in the Czech Republic, heading to a swine veterinary conference. In the SUV with him were his wife, Pam; Spronk and his wife, Deb; Bob Morrison (pictured above at left), a professor of veterinary medicine at the University of Minnesota; and Morrison’s wife, Jeanie.

The SUV failed to yield the right of way and was hit by a truck. Bob Morrison, Deb Spronk, and Pam Wetzell were killed. Jeanie Morrison was severely injured. Tom Wetzell and Gordon Spronk had minor injuries.

At the time, Wetzell worked for the animal health company Boehringer Ingelheim Vetmedica. He is now working as a swine industry consultant in Cleveland, Minnesota. Spronk is chair of the board of directors for Pipestone Holdings, Pipestone, Minnesota. I spoke with them about grief.

BF: Thank you for talking about this personal, painful, but extremely important topic.

TW: I am a grieving expert by experience only. I’ve done plenty of trying to understand it through my life circumstances.

GS: That accident was a terrible tragedy and people continue to grieve. Grief is poorly understood, poorly taught, and underestimated in its impact in today’s culture. Most people don’t want to talk about it. You do your readers well by speaking openly about this topic and in a personal way.

Grief is primarily about loss. In agriculture we may experience loss daily: loss of a season, fall harvest, spring planting, time, friends, relationships, land, and money. But we may not take the time or opportunity to become students of grief. Bob [Morrison] would like us to learn about grief, because he taught lifelong learning in all areas of life.

BF: How do you get through the grieving process?

Wetzell-wife

TW: Find somebody you can share with, be open with, and transparent with. That is so important. You have to have somebody that you can open your heart to, which is challenging. Find people you can trust, who will be confidential, willing to listen, and not have sympathy so much as empathy. There is a huge difference between those two words.

GS: I started by keeping a journal. I find writing to be the most helpful. I just write what’s on my mind. It’s good to review your state of mind as the seasons of grief change. You have to separate the intellectual from the emotional from the spiritual. Your feelings may not be the correct response when it is your soul that has been bruised. Coming to the realization that my soul is ancient and needs healing provided a pathway for me.

BF: Did you follow the five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance?

TW: The five stages don’t happen in order. The anger may come before denial. And there are more than those five stages. Some feelings come back and forth. One of the first grieving mechanisms I had was shock, total disbelief that this could possibly be happening.

Anger has been part of my grieving at times. There’s nothing wrong with being angry; it’s how you deal with your anger. My anger is directed to God. Yet, I am able to still speak with Him and know that He understands, that He is willing to listen. Having the ability to express your anger, disappointment, and sorrow is so important.

GS: The shock to me was that the five stages leave you hanging and offer no response to the truth of eternity. While in agreement that the five stages could be the correct emotional response to a loss, the stages are silent on what is also truth: I will someday also die. What stage is that?

BF: When did you get to the acceptance stage?

TW: Healing is a steady, slow process. I have been through this twice. I lost my first wife when I was 44 to ovarian cancer. Our kids were all in high school. Previous experiences with grief and sorrow don’t necessarily make it any easier to go through it again, but it certainly makes it easier to understand. We can still find joy and meaning to our life, a future, in spite of our grief.

BF: Were there feelings of guilt, Tom, because you were the driver?

TW: That is a big part of it for me, yes. Forgiveness is a big deal. I have felt that forgiveness. Gordon has every reason to hold anger, and from day one there has been none of that with him, just total forgiveness and walking alongside of me. Part of grieving is looking back and asking yourself, what could I have done differently? I’m trying to live without regret.

BF: After the accident, were you helped by community?

TW: So much so that I will get emotional talking about it. I can’t imagine what that grief process would be like without having a community that surrounds you. When that accident occurred, my coworkers were reaching out to me, concerned about me, grieving with me. That was huge. My church family has been an amazing source of comfort. There is a different level of understanding that a community of faith believers has about grieving. We grieve with a hope that is certain. That is something we understand as a community of believers that has seen me through a lot of my darker days.

GS: I grieve with hope. Yes, I lost my spouse, but Deb is in the reality of eternity. If you believe in that eternity and the pathway to that eternity, then I will join her someday. In the faith-based system that I believe in, we are also called to grieve. “Blessed are those that mourn, for they will be comforted.” I have come to understand that grief is as normal to our lives as life and death.

During this pandemic, our local church in Pipestone is online, as are many others, so we can have a virtual church service and still have community. The community we are called to be in is to encourage each other. You still need to do that. And rural agricultural communities have a long history of this behavior.

BF: What are some things you should or shouldn’t do or say to someone grieving?

TW: Don’t point out that somebody else has it worse. Don’t say that all things work out for the good of God or this is all a part of His plan. The best thing is to just be there for them. You don’t have to say anything. Just being there and showing that you care is so important. A good way to interact with people is ask them how they are feeling today. If they open up, let them continue talking. Just telling them you care is a huge thing.

BF: What is the lasting effect of grief?

TW: There is the prolonged effect. A lot of people reach out right away after something has happened. After the first week or two it starts slowing down. Part of grieving is that you realize your world has stopped and the rest of the world has gone back to a mile a minute. You feel totally left out of that.

Continue to reach out over long periods of time to people who you know went through difficult times. I have people who send me a note or call me on the anniversary of the accident. They are making a point of reaching out during that time, because they know it is going to be a significant day for me. That is a big deal. Be very intentional. The people who have helped me the most through the grieving over my lifetime are the people who are very intentional about it. They truly are making it a priority to reach out to me and come alongside me in grief.

All the life events that happen after you have lost someone can be challenging. You keep thinking, ‘Oh, I wish they would be here for this.’

GS: Grief may result in solitude, but I came to realize this as a gift. Spiritual growth also calls for solitude, whether you like it or not. With the sudden death of Deb, I chose to respond to this solitude to allow for spiritual development. This began very simply while attempting to understand what had just happened. A spiritual mentor made the offhand comment, “Gordon, your body has been injured (from the accident) and will heal in a matter of weeks. But your soul has been deeply bruised (from the loss of Deb, Bob, and Pam). Be sure to heal your soul as well as your body.” That began my journey of restoring my soul.

One lesson I encountered immediately was the truth that this is the most difficult journey: the journey within. I learned that I was a poor student in regard to my soul. I acknowledged this difficulty, and chose to learn from others who have also been down this path, both from ancient books and contemporary mentors who have traveled this path. So you see, even in grief and death, the lesson Bob taught me (lifelong learning) was applied. Thank you, Bob.

BF: How does the grieving process affect your work?

TW: The potential is there that it can destroy your work because you go through this period of time where you are not functioning at the normal level. That happened with me both times. Fortunately, both businesses I was working with gave me whatever time I needed to feel comfortable going out and working with producers and veterinarians again.

It takes you a period of time to get to the point where you can function the same. That is a big part of grief. Your focus becomes really hard for any length of time. You have these short spans where you can focus and then all of a sudden you are gone again. Employers need to allow some grace for that immediate grieving period to heal before the expectation is that you will return to some kind of normal work-life.

BF: How have you managed loneliness?

spronk-deb

GS: First recognize that there is a difference between solitude (quiet) and loneliness. Solitude may actually be helpful, as it brings focus. Daily, it is easy to get busy with work, and rely on a great extended family circle. We all traveled and vacationed together before the pandemic. Now every Friday night we have a Zoom call with 25 people on the call. I have great family support, but let’s not sugarcoat this – going home tonight by myself to an empty house – that is not fun.

My wife and I were blessed with nearly 40 years of marriage, so I miss the peccadillos of life. Deb is not here to wash my clothes, so in my first attempt I placed all my clothes in the dryer instead of the washer. My daughters take great delight in reminding me frequently to place the dirty clothes in the correct appliance. Now my target is gone: I woke up every morning and went to work for Deb. I dressed nicely and took care of myself for Deb. I worked hard and wanted to get home every day for Deb. When Deb is gone, what’s my new target?

Women may actually handle the death of a spouse better than men do. That’s just my observation. Men have a habit of being so helpless. Most men may be socially inept enough that they get lonely. Deb and I would always laugh about it. She said I wouldn’t last two days by myself. She concluded that she would be just fine taking care of grandchildren.

BF: Let’s talk about your recent memorial project in India.

Pipestone worked with the American Association of Swine Veterinarians Foundation to build a school in India in 2019 to honor Bob, Pam, and Deb. You both visited the school in February. That must have been heartwarming.

GS: Part of that grieving process for us was doing something to honor Bob professionally. We lost a key voice in the swine veterinary industry and a friend. Bob would be proud that we are educating young children in his basic lesson of lifelong learning.

TW: The respect that Gordon and I had for Bob as a mentor, besides being a good friend, was unsurpassed. There was nobody in the industry I respected more than him. We all traveled together to pork meetings around the world. The fellowship was pretty unique.

BF: Are there blessings with grief?

TW: When I reach out to others, care for others, and serve others during my time of grief, the burden from my heart is lifted. When we start focusing on other people instead of ourselves, that is a big deal. Grief can make us into a more of what God intended us to be. We are comforted in our times of trial by God so that we can be a comfort to others who face the same challenge.

BF: Is there grief in this pandemic?

TW: The intense pressure, anxiety, and fear we are faced with right now is certainly a cause for grief. Anxiety and fear can lead to grief. Fear is a real enemy we have to face. We have to find a way to walk through that. I’ve sensed it with people. They are going into a shell because of the anxiety and fear they are faced with right now.

GS: Is it grief or fear that people are feeling during this pandemic? There is a difference. I sense more fear. Farmers know how to remain calm. It could be a blizzard, a disease, or a fire. Life moves on. Animal care doesn’t stop because somebody declared a national emergency. That life cycle needs to go on.

With the pandemic, you may be grieving the loss of life as normal. If you have no hope, you are going to grieve differently. I think that is why you are seeing some of the anxiety in today’s culture, especially if you rely on social media. It is a very important lesson to learn the difference between hope based on reality and hope based on desire.

TW: The lack of social interaction is very difficult. Humans are meant to be in a community, to touch each other, hug each other, kiss each other, to interact. Social distancing causes a certain level of grieving because of that inability to be able to do that.

People try to block grief out. It’s common to try to avoid it. You can’t. When you can’t have interactions with other people, it’s going to be tougher. That is going to be very challenging for anybody who is faced with situations in their life, such as funerals, where they need people around them. During this time, social media has been a blessing. We’ve been able to use Zoom, Google Hangouts, and Facebook Live to communicate with each other.

BF: Any closing comments?

GS: First of all, condolences on the loss of your father. You are now in your own season of grief. May you find wisdom and knowledge in this season. Additionally, thank you for taking the time to write about this important topic in this pandemic season we all share.

While we will get through this, we may wish to encourage everyone to pay attention to the lessons we need to learn while in this season. Grief does have lessons. You may wish to become a lifelong student. Learn to learn about the truth and knowledge available to us.

In a season of grief, the trivial falls away like the leaves from a tree, leaving only the important and eternal: your soul. In closing, I hope and pray for you and all your readers that they ruthlessly pursue the most important thing there is in life: The reality of eternity and the restoration of your soul.

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