Tulips, photos and words of friendship and condolence were on display Wednesday in a memorial students at Wood River Middle School composed for classmate Nolan Kreczkowski, who died earlier this week.
Express photo by Roland Lane
In the old days, the grieving wore black and the casserole brigades were summoned for at church on Sunday. The act of mourning had rules—how to react was specific, largely solemn and definitely out of the public eye.
In a span of a few hours, at two ends of Blaine County on Sunday, despite the best efforts of rescuers, two lives were lost almost simultaneously. And the sounds of hearts across the rural town of Bellevue, population 2,281, could be heard collectively breaking, again.
From the grocery store to the diner, in school hallways and across cellphone texts and the Internet, the little town that just a week earlier was boasting over hometown girl and Olympic gold-medal winner Kaitlyn Farrington was struggling with the loss of a boy of 12, whose life already was notable for his cherubic face and matching deeds, and a man of 64, who after a couple of tough years leading his family through financial strain and health-stealing stresses was finally back to being the gruffy teddy bear his wife and only son adored.
It’s a lot for one small town to handle, especially one that best represents the working class and farming culture of the valley. The drought has caused crops to fail, the construction jobs dried up and a lot of people left. But Bellevue is realistic. Not fatalistic, or pessimistic, just close to the soil, closer to the things that live and die on a regular basis.
Far beyond the potential of the two lost souls, there is the toll on the immediate family. On top of their loss, and possibly precarious economic lives, there will be medical and rescue costs, obituaries and funerals, loss of income, health issues, and, already, some guilt at surviving.
Then think of 10 people directly affected by the deaths, and think of 10 more for each of them. And then remember that they each are likely grieving someone or something else already.
That’s a lot of black—it means a huge chunk of a community is operating from some state of grief a good deal of the time. But how do they do it?
As George Martin and Nolan Kreczkowski became forever linked with their love of snowmobiles and their home, those in mourning went back to their daily lives, not because they wanted to, but because that is what people do.
The deaths resonated strongly for Poppy Millington Englehardt as she helped her son George with the loss of his buddy Nolan.
Englehardt grew up in Picabo in a ranching life in which accidents while hunting, farming, cliff diving or in car crashes, like the one that killed her brother in 1989, still were taken somewhat in stride. She felt stifled later living in Los Angeles, where she found people fearful and inhibited, going way overboard to prevent bad things from happening, ever. This was a girl who enjoyed playing chicken with the swinging neck of her family’s goose-neck trailer as it initiated turns and she rode in the bed.
“I can name over a dozen young people not even counting adults who have died in freak accidents in my lifetime,” she said. “Their deaths were shocking and painful and caused a lot of questioning about why, but I don’t really remember hearing, ‘Wow, we should never do that again.’ The environment and history here combines cowboy/ranching life and extreme outdoors, so we have the extreme dangers coupled with the close-knit community. And lots of kids leaving way before it is OK for them to leave.”
The phones at Hospice and Palliative Care of the Wood River Valley in Ketchum never stop ringing, but they have been busier of late. The organization is a valuable resource for all facets of the grieving process.
“You have no idea how many people out there are grieving at any given moment,” said hospice worker Criss Fallowfield. “It’s important to try and give each other a break.”
Dealing with grief, no matter who has it, or how fast they want rid of it, is a process, just like growing a garden, or growing up. And it’s trickier when it’s an out-of-the-normal death, meaning not by natural causes of time or disease.
Life, and how you cope with its horrors, are ingrained. And even newcomers can and should go on, and allow in some color, says licensed therapist Melissa Boley.
“We have lost a lot of citizens lately, and way too many kids, and it may be leaving people feeling conflicted and frightened,” she said. “These things have happened and they are awful, but we still love our home. And we will enjoy it again. But that’s where we have to find our resilience zone.”
Resilience doesn’t mean no suffering, and it means having joy. To ride it successfully, it means striving for the balance and going with the demands that grieving makes, when it makes it.
There will be lots of people tumbling in the waves of emotion, and some will want to reject the things they once enjoyed because it now is tainted with blood of friends and family. But that inhibits resilience.
“You get through a wave, and you let the tears come, and you get back at it and you feel a little bit better each time, but you have to honor it to rely on it.”
Death has a way of bringing revelation and unity to a community that might not otherwise have interacted—it can contribute to better overall health of the surviving community.
“There’s a Buddhist image that fits here,” she said. “Beneath a photograph of a forest, the text notes that among the live ones some have died. Some trees just last longer than others. It basically says, all this stuff happens, and we have no control over it.
“Do you ever get over the loss of a child? I don’t think so. It’s a piece of your soul that is taken away. But I think, over time, you can come to a less heightened sense of it.”
Englehardt said the community will embrace the families for as long as they are needed.
“We live in a truly thrilling place and the passions that make it so meaningful also result in devastating losses. And because we all follow each other’s lives day to day, we all feel the loss because we are all one big family.”