Anyone who has lost a loved one knows that the road through grief is expansive and untidy, confounding and riddled with rocks.
But there are different markers along the way, depending on what kind of loss you endure. If your loved one died suddenly, perhaps by a heart attack or car crash, your journey begins with a wallop of shock and disbelief.
If, by contrast, the diagnosis is cancer or Alzheimer’s disease, you’ll likely follow a long and hilly path of high hopes and dismal lows; your grief will be cruelly suspended.
And if the loved one lost is a child, there is no road map at all.
With Jacob Wetterling’s remains found last week, nearly 27 years after he was abducted near his home in St. Joseph, Minn., many are speaking of “closure.”
We must use the term gingerly, because a wound this large never fully closes.
But while the Wetterlings now are able to move forward, let’s not forget what is most remarkable about them. Despite enduring all of these kinds of grief — sudden and suspended and linked to a child — they always have moved forward with immeasurable grace.
First came the sudden horror.
On Oct. 22, 1989, their 11-year-old Jacob was kidnapped at gunpoint as he headed home from a convenience store with his brother, Trevor, 10, and best friend, Aaron Larson, 11.
Hours turned to days and days turned to years, and the Wetterlings were forced to adjust to another kind of grief. It’s what Pauline Boss, professor emeritus in the Department of Family Social Science at the University of Minnesota, calls “ambiguous loss.” Here, families and friends of the missing “are stuck in a painful limbo where relationships are brutally ruptured and, yet, grief is frozen.”
So the Wetterlings got on with the tasks of daily living, raised Trevor, bravely celebrated the milestones of other people’s children. They could have shut down, disintegrated.
Instead, Patty and Jerry Wetterling established a foundation in Jacob’s name. Patty Wetterling was key to passage of the Jacob Wetterling Sex Offender Registration Act in 1994.
High hopes returned four years later. In 1998, Patty Wetterling penned an open letter to Jacob’s abductor, leading to more than 50,000 leads from Minnesota to Europe and more than 4,000 suspects. The suspects were all cleared. Anguished lows surely returned, as did the wrenching pull of ambiguous grief.
Yet, when I interviewed Patty Wetterling in 2006, she exuded only warmth.
I was writing a lengthy feature story about why modern parents are so afraid of remote dangers affecting their children. I knew the facts.
Kids are far, far more likely to die from drownings, poisoning and suffocation.
The likelihood of being killed in a school shooting is about one in 2 million.
And, despite an insidious “stranger danger” industry springing up to prey on parents’ primal fears, only about 115 children are abducted by strangers in the United States annually. Nearly half are returned alive, usually within 24 hours.
As a journalist, I knew all of that. But as a new mother, I couldn’t shake an irrational fear that something horrible could happen to my child — because it did happen to “our Jacob.” I even dreamed of finding him.
I knew that there was no one who could soothe anxious readers better than Patty Wetterling. But I worried that it seemed cruel to ask this particular mother for her input. I called her anyway.
And Wetterling, who at the time was making a bid for the U.S. Senate, reassured me.
She reassured me.
Most kids, she said, “are not abducted by a stranger at gunpoint. And there’s no research to show that scared kids are safer. It’s really important that parents do not put fear of strangers in their children. If children don’t feel safe, they don’t develop properly.
“And parents who are so fearful don’t enjoy their kids anymore.”
Wetterling said we should, instead, teach our children how to make smart decisions and how to find a trusted adult to help them. She suggested setting up places to meet, and listening to “that little voice we all carry” that tells us when we might be moving into a situation that doesn’t feel right.
The Wetterlings rode the emotional roller coaster again in 2010, with a potential break in Jacob’s disappearance. Backhoes were unearthing chunks of grass and dirt from a farm property about a half-mile from the Wetterling home in rural St. Joseph.
Patty Wetterling drove past the scene one morning, understandably ambivalent. She and Jerry had lived in this excruciating holding pattern for 21 years.
“Do I hope they find something? I’m not sure,” she said at the time. “Do I hope they don’t find something? That’s not good, either.”
They found nothing.
It would be another five years before Danny James Heinrich was arrested in 2015 on charges of receiving and possessing child pornography.
And nearly another year after that before the Wetterlings’ ambiguous grief gave way, in an instant, to sickeningly familiar shock when Heinrich led law enforcement officials to Jacob’s remains.
Many of us who have had the honor of observing Patty Wetterling throughout these long, sad years feel that she believed Jacob would one day come home alive. So she kept the light on for him.
I can only imagine what kind of grieving the family must do now.
But not surprisingly, Patty Wetterling’s statement on the resource center’s Facebook page on Monday was unambiguously kind.
“Say a prayer. Light a candle. Be with friends. Play with your children. Giggle. Hold hands. Eat ice cream. Create joy. Help your neighbor. That is what will bring me comfort today.”
To lighten her load, finally, let’s do all those things.