Five years after the death of his son, Jason, Gerald Baldner knows one thing for sure.
“You never really get over something like that, but you get through it,” Baldner said.
The former entrepreneur, social worker, educator and author will share what he’s learned about grief and coming out the other side in a workbook entitled “Moving On” to be released this week.
“I believe that moving on is not a natural thing to do,” Baldner said. “I believe that is a result of a choice or a decision. I believe you need to decide, to choose, ‘I’m not going to stay here.’”
While it sounds simple, the 73-year-old La Crescent, Minn., man knows how hard it is to be able to make that decision.
Baldner’s grief began when Jason, the youngest of his four children, was involved in a Florida speedboat crash along with two friends on May 8, 2010. All three were injured, and Jason went into a coma.
He spent 10 days in a Florida hospital before being transferred to La Crosse. Seventy-one days later, he died on July 28, 2010, at the age of 35.
“Those were excruciating days, because at first we kept hoping and praying he’d come out of his coma, but he never did,” Baldner said.
After his death, Baldner and his wife, Betty, were devastated to lose their youngest child and only son.
“We went into a deep, dark place, a funk, unable to function normally,” Baldner said.
Baldner, who had owned 10 area businesses, sold his primary company, Kitchen Solvers, unable to face the office where he worked side-by-side with Jason for years.
“It was hard on our marriage,” Baldner said.
Eighty percent of married couples who lose a child will go on to divorce. The raw emotions caused by grief lead to countless stupid arguments, and the Baldners were no exception. Luckily they were able to make up each time, but they also determined that they needed help. They started attending a support group, but felt it didn’t meet their needs.
“We wanted to go someplace where people talked about what they did to get beyond this painful feeling,” Baldner said.
They went to see a counselor, who recommended they find something to focus on that would give them a positive distraction to focus on. After talking things through with a friend, Richard Kyte, Baldner was inspired to write a book—his second—on servant leadership principles.
“That was the first night I couldn’t sleep because I was excited, after many, many months I couldn’t go to sleep because I was depressed,” Baldner said.
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Baldner’s book, “Successful Servant Leadership” was published by Viterbo University in 2012. Meanwhile, his wife resumed her music, releasing a CD called “Serenity” through Gundersen Health System.
Along with their faith in God, “that was the beginning of our journey out of grief,” Baldner said.
It took years to be able to talk about Jason without tears coming to his eyes, but Baldner was able to come through it. Throughout his journey, he learned a lot about dealing with grief, both as someone dealing with it and as a bystander to someone else’s grief.
“We discovered that people really don’t like to talk about it. We also believe it’s not because don’t like to talk about it, but because they don’t know what to say,” Baldner said.
For years, people avoided talking about Jason, not realizing that was the opposite of what Baldner and his wife wanted.
“We loved it. We liked to talk about him. When you lose someone, it doesn’t mean they’re gone from your memory. They’re a very important part of your memory,” Baldner said.
Baldner, who keeps a photo collage of Jason on the wall, said avoiding the topic was more painful because it felt like people were burying those memories.
While reflecting on his experiences, Baldner decided to try and use them to help others avoid similar missteps. Meanwhile, he wants to be there for people going through the same things he was.
“It was very helpful for someone to talk to someone who has been there in that dark, murky place,” Baldner said.
He said it wasn’t an experience he’d campaign for, but he believes Jason would want him to use it to make a positive impact on the world. With that in mind, he reached out to Susan Schuyler, a communications professor at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, who served as an editor as he wrote the book.
“He’s had all of the struggles that come with losing a child and he’s turned it into something good, using all the skills he’s had from his previous experiences,” Schuyler said.
Baldner includes personal stories, interactive exercises and hard-won wisdom in the workbook, which draws on his knowledge, both as a father and as a business leader and social worker.
“What makes that book come to life is Gerald,” Schuyler said. “He had the voice, he had the vision, he had the expertise.”
Schuyler is confident others will benefit from his passion and his experience. While grief is an individualized process, the workbook is flexible enough to help those in any step of the process.
“There could even be workshops to help those in any stage of grief to find out where they are and have some tools to step forward,” Schuyler said.
To ask Baldner to speak on grief and purchase a copy of his book, email him at email@example.com.