A lasting goodbye

  • Article by: SUZANNE ZIEGLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 30, 2010 - 4:04 PM

On Memorial Day, friends and family members remember loved ones who have died. But some people share their memories throughout the year in a very public way.

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Stanton Berg, 82, brings fresh flowers to the grave of his wife (June) at Lakewood Cemetery every Wednesday.

Photo: Jim Gehrz, Star Tribune

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Twice a year, on the day his son was born and on the day he died, Ed Murphy shares his grief of losing Benjamin.

"You were perfect and all was right with the world. I knew that every day you were here was a blessing. Though many seasons have passed since the light went out, those days sustain me still. Happy Birthday, Ben. All my love, Dah."

Ben was 7 when he died in his dad's arms of a childhood cancer called neuroblastoma, putting Murphy in what he called "the club that no one wants to belong to" as the parent of a child who has died.

Benjamin Lenz Murphy was born on Dec. 31, 1989, and died on April 23, 1997, the two days that Murphy has since marked with different memoriams. They are all different but have one thing in common: a photo of a smiling Ben taken at the North Shore, looking up at something in the sky, most likely seagulls, his dad says.

On Memorial Day and throughout the year, the "In Memoriam" section of newspapers remains a popular place for loved ones to share their stories of friends or relatives who have died. Most are short and acknowledge special dates or occasions. Some are poems and others simply say, "We miss you."

The grief process is a personal journey that differs for everyone, said Tom Ellis, executive director of the Center for Grief, Loss and Transition in St. Paul. Taking out a memoriam helps survivors share their experience and offers them a way to express their loss. The last thing they should do, he said, is remain isolated with their grief.

"There's a relief in being expressive in a public forum," he said. "It opens it up to the bigger world and larger population."

• • •

Stanton Berg, 81, of Fridley, visits his wife's grave site at Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis every Wednesday to bring fresh roses, clean off her marker and say a prayer.

It's only part of what he has done to remember his wife, June, who died on Oct. 23, 2008, following a nearly 11-year struggle with Alzheimer's disease. She was 80.

Berg takes out four to five memoriams a year, sometimes filled with memories written by her children and grandchildren.

"Visiting Grandma June was like going to Disney Land. We always had so much fun together. Laughing and being silly. She would connect the garden hose from the laundry room and fill the wading pool so we would have nice warm water to play in. We would bake cookies, play games, shop, and go to the movies and even Valley Fair. She did everything to make us happy."

Berg said June was "the light of his life" and made their time together an adventure. "I just feel so indebted to her -- so I am just trying to promote her memory and at the same time promote awareness for Alzheimer's, as well, to hopefully stimulate research and funding, and proper care practices," he said.

Berg has also created a website dedicated to June (www.junebergalzheimers.com), which he updates on a regular basis. It tells the stories of her life, of family members and of numerous visits to Europe, where she learned to navigate large cities. But it also tells of her decline and how she was unable to find her own room at an assisted-living facility, even though her name and picture were next to the door.

"For me, I guess it's kind of therapy," he said of his labor of love. "I don't know if I'll ever get through grieving."

• • •

Ed Murphy met Mark Cohn because each had a son being treated for cancer at Children's Hospital in Minneapolis at the same time. Like Ed Murphy, Cohn's family writes memoriams each year for Tyler, who would be 21 now.

Cohn said he wants people to know that it's OK to talk about his son, who died on April 5, 1997.

"In some small way we hope that the memoriam gives people license to recollect, to talk about Tyler, to just say his name ... or leave us a voice mail that says, 'Hey, saw Tyler's picture today and was thinking about him and remembering the time that such and such happened.'

"For us, there is no greater joy than to talk about our children -- both our now-grown children and Tyler."

Tyler was a normal 4-year-old and living with his parents and two older siblings in Deephaven when the Cohns' world was turned upside down .

"We went from having a kid with a bottle of pink stuff (antibiotic) in the fridge, which wasn't unusual, to being told that our 4-year-old son had a one in two chance to survive," said Cohn, who now lives in Shorewood.

After the leukemia was diagnosed, Tyler endured 27 months of chemotherapy and radiation. But at his final checkup, they learned that it had returned. More grueling chemo and radiation followed, then a bone-marrow transplant. Again, the cancer returned.

"He was 8 and he died after a nearly four-year struggle," Cohn said.

Now, Tyler's mom, dad and siblings takes turns writing the memoriam.

"There is nothing we can do or say. That may do justice to this day. We are so thankful for our memories. We love and miss you. Today and every day. Love, Jesse, Ashley, Dad and Mom."

• • •

Jack Benver, 83, has long retired after 40 years in law enforcement in the Twin Cities. Now, he devotes his time and energy to remembering his wife, Pat, who died of progressive supranuclear palsy on Dec, 18, 2003.

"My wife stayed home, took care of those six kids, sewed clothes for them, took care of them, taught them manners -- and she taught me some manners, too," he laughed. "And all while I worked nights in the squad car."

Benver, who lives in Maple Grove, places memoriams to Pat with a photo of the two of them on holidays and special occasions.

"If I had a flower for each time I thought of my wife, I could walk in my garden forever. Happy Mother's Day. Love, Jack."

He also visits her grave at Glen Haven in Crystal every day.

"The thing of it is, people say that there's no such thing as a perfect marriage," he said. "But I had one. I never walked in or out of the house without a kiss and a hug."

• • •

Many of Ben Murphy's memoriams are interspersed with references to the hiking and the North Shore, a favorite vacation spot for Ben and his parents. It's where his mom and dad, now divorced but still good friends, scattered his ashes.

Murphy, of Minneapolis, said that walking through the woods as the family did with Ben is full of reminders. "We used to hike a lot and I always called him Scout because he always sort of blazed the trail and I always followed him," he said. "So now when I'm walking, it's like he's leading me somewhere."

The memoriams, he said, will continue for as long as he lives.

"He's still so much a part of my life and his mother's life that I just don't want him to be forgotten."

Suzanne Ziegler • 612-673-1707

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