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Sitting with the silence

Bethel University freshman balances the grief of losing her father with new beginnings.
Bella Haveman
Samantha Wurm shows a tattoo she got in April in remembrance of her father who passed away Jan. 13. The scene depicts one of Wurm’s favorite memories with her father, Tony as they overlook Lake Superior’s North Shore in Grand Marais, MN in Sept. 2012.

Editor’s note: This story contains the topic of suicide.

Samantha Wurm sat in her childhood bedroom and sobbed. Her Bible had been left on the bookshelf collecting dust for six months, but that night she opened it. It was 1 a.m. and Wurm was desperate for peace as she flipped to a random page. She cried out to God through her tears as her Bible lay flat, opened at the halfway mark. The book of Psalms. Help me. I need you.

Wurm’s mom Heidi heard her crying through the door and entered.

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How do I know he’s in heaven, Mom? How do I know?

Less than 12 hours before, Wurm received life-changing news. After months of struggling with anxiety and depression following a car accident, Wurm’s dad Tony had taken his own life in her childhood home.

At first she didn’t feel anything. Then she felt sadness, then disturbance, then anxiety. I live in a small town. Everyone’s gonna know what happened. How is this gonna affect me?

Nine months after opening that Bible, Wurm transferred from community college to Bethel University, went from an undecided course of study to having a journalism major and repaired her relationship with God. But she continues to grapple with the reality of losing a parent.

Wurm grew up in Annandale, a town with one stoplight, located about an hour northwest of the Twin Cities.

There were a lot of times we just sat in silence and fished and that just kind of showed our relationship. We didn’t have to be talking or doing [anything]… we could just sit by the lake and have the best time.

— Samantha Wurm

With her mom Wurm enjoyed shopping at Justice, Barnes & Noble and Kohl’s. With her dad Wurm enjoyed playing volleyball, throwing a football around and fishing. When she was little, Wurm would attend his Maple Lake Lakers baseball games, and after he quit the team he kept her up-to-date on the latest Twins stats. Sometimes they would drive down to the cities to catch a game in Tony’s blue Chevy Silverado, 80s rock blaring through the speakers.

“I’m an only child… so naturally what comes with that is being close with your parents,” Wurm said.

Fishing was the centerpiece of the Wurm family’s annual trip up north.

“There were a lot of times we just sat in silence and fished and that just kind of showed our relationship,” Wurm said. “We didn’t have to be talking or doing [anything]… we could just sit by the lake and have the best time.”

Those vacations were Tony’s few days to put down technology, stop thinking about his job as an underground electrical utility worker and catch walleye with his wife and daughter.

Samantha Wurm and her dad Tony Wurm fish at dusk during an annual vacation up north in Ely, Minnesota during the summer of 2018. (Submitted Photo)

“He was just your typical small town guy, blue-collar worker,” Heidi said. “He just wanted to provide for his family.”

On top of the yearly trip, Wurm and her parents spent their Sundays together. Heidi and Tony hoped to pass a strong faith down to their daughter. However, as a teenager, Wurm began to question the religion she grew up with. She often didn’t attend church with her parents at Heartland Evangelical Free Church, and if she did, it was “with a chip on her shoulder.”

But Wurm’s faith changed drastically after her father’s accident, and they never went fishing together again.

On July 20, 2022, just two months after Wurm graduated from Annandale High School, her father was driving to a job site when he approached a stoplight, dozed off behind the wheel and rear-ended a semi in front of him.

The collision sent long wooden poles that extended from the back of the semi crashing through Tony’s truck’s windshield and driver’s seat, reaching past the back seats of his pickup.

Wurm was finishing up a closing shift at In Hot Water, a local coffee shop, when she received a call from her mom. She learned her dad had a car accident and was in the hospital, but she was unaware of the accident’s severity. Then she found out he was airlifted to Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis.

On their drive to the HCMC, Wurm’s mom received a call from a surgeon updating them that Tony’s left arm had to be amputated.

“And then that’s when it really hit me like,Oh my gosh… his life is gonna change now,’” Wurm said.

Doctors amputated Tony’s arm, and he also suffered a traumatic brain injury, memory loss, visual impairments and facial and lung punctures. For two days, Wurm’s dad was unconscious and intubated. She and her mom worried whether he would wake up unresponsive. And if he was responsive, how would Tony react to missing a limb?

“When you sit in an ICU you have nothing but your thoughts, you know, and you just sit there and you think and you reflect and you worry,” Heidi said.

Samantha, Tony and Heidi Wurm give a “thumbs up” after Tony regained consciousness at the HCMC ICU July 25, 2022. “He survived this accident that no one thought he should have survived,” Wurm said. (Submitted Photo)

For three weeks, Wurm and her mom traveled to HCMC. Due to his memory loss and vision problems, Tony was left confused. Wurm and her mother tried to explain everything calmly, reassuring Tony that rest was his highest priority. Wurm had to intentionally make eye contact with her dad, even though his face looked so different. It was still her best friend behind the swelling and bloodshot eyes.

In Hot Water held a fundraiser to pay Tony’s hospital bills. Friends reached out through Facebook and text messages. Meal train lasagnas filled the freezer, so many that Wurm thought there could still be some pans in the freezer 10 months later. The Wurms were also “covered in prayer.” Doctors agreed with Wurm and Heidi that Tony’s survival was a miracle.

After three weeks in the hospital, Tony was cleared to go home. Wurm said her dad was initially hopeful, ready to begin physical and occupational therapy and excited to start the process for a prosthetic arm.

But because of his injuries, Tony lost his driver’s license and was told he wouldn’t be able to work his job again with only one arm.

“That caused him to have such severe anxiety about providing for his family and working,” Heidi said. “[Which] caused him to constantly, constantly think about ‘If I can’t drive, I can’t work, if I can’t work, I can’t pay this,’ and it caused him to stay up all night.”

Before the accident, Heidi said Tony was a man content with life who read his Bible every morning. After the accident, his Bible collected dust just like his daughter’s had, and his eyes carried a heavy look from the burden of sleepless nights.

“He looked like he aged 40 years,” Wurm said. “You could just see him starting to progress into a depression.”

I would say to anybody [who] has a loved one with mental illness: The caretakers need just as much help as the patient.

— Heidi Wurm

During the fall months after her father’s accident, Wurm lived at home, taking online classes through St. Cloud Technical and Community College and continuing to make lattes at In Hot Water, contrary to her initial plan to attend Winona State University with her best friend Noelle Scheer.

Even though life had changed, Wurm and her mom would encourage Tony to go to church, ask him to play a game of Yahtzee or see if he wanted to watch a favorite movie. Anything action, Clint Eastwood or baseball. Still, these efforts felt like they weren’t enough.

“I would say to anybody [who] has a loved one with mental illness: The caretakers need just as much help as the patient,” Heidi said. “If I’m gonna be totally honest, it was exhausting. He was nonstop following us around like a puppy, constantly talking about worry, constantly negative.”

At that point, Heidi tried to have her husband admitted to an in-patient psychiatric facility, but nobody was taking new patients due to the volume of current patients. Their only option for 24-hour care would be to send him back to the emergency room, which they feared would only worsen his sense of helplessness.

Minnesota ranks the lowest of all 50 states in terms of psychiatric beds per capita (3.5 beds per 100,000 people), according to Minnesota Physician Publishing. And since the 1950s, in-patient psychiatric bed capacity has shrunk by more than 90% nationwide through the deinstitutionalization movement. Three times the number of people with severe mental illnesses sit in jail, prison or on the streets than in treatment facilities in the state.

“There is a shortage of psychiatric hospital beds to the point where many psychiatric patients spend extended periods of time in the emergency room or [in] regular medical units,” Associate Professor of Psychology and licensed clinical psychologist Angela Sabates said. “As the medical staff in both ERs and regular medical units do not have the requisite training to help psychiatric patients, these patients often do not get the care they need.”

Sabates said the lack of mental health counselors and adequate in-patient care further perpetuates the “negative cycle” inherent in the mental health crisis in the U.S. The lack of beds also reflects the progress yet to be made in the U.S. (and most of the world) with respect to seeing mental health issues as “equally important as medical health issues.”

“The stigma in U.S. culture regarding mental health disorders unfortunately also exists in the medical system at large,” Sabates said.

Wurm was finishing up a shift at In Hot Water Friday, Jan. 13 when her boss, who was not working at the time, rushed through the front doors. She informed Wurm that Heidi was on her way to the coffee shop with a police officer.

When Heidi entered the coffee shop she was unable to look Wurm in the eyes. The police officer broke the news that Wurm’s father was dead.

“You see in movies and TV shows that people break down bawling or instantly just collapse on the ground, but it was not like that at all,” Wurm said. “It’s a really insane feeling that I can’t put into words.”

After the initial shock wave, Wurm sat in the backroom of In Hot Water trying to process the news.

I’m never going to see my dad again.

I have to plan a funeral.

Am I in a dream?

“When someone is that far into depression, you can’t help but wonder [and] think about the worst outcome,” Wurm said. “I don’t want to say I saw it coming, but you know, I always thought, What if this is what happens? So I feel like in a way, I kind of prepared myself.”

For more than 45 minutes, Wurm and her mom sat in the back room grieving, making phone calls to Scheer, Aunt Jen and Tony’s other siblings. After police moved Tony’s body, they returned home to a house full of friends and family. Wurm’s friend Madigan had gummy worms, and Madigan’s boyfriend Nels brought McDonald’s. Godmother Nicole stopped by, and soon the living room was full of Tony’s siblings, all sharing photos and memories. Scheer came home that day too because she knew Wurm needed as much support as she could get.

I remember at this moment in my life I didn’t have a super strong relationship with God, but all I wanted to do [was] just pray over her.

— Noelle Scheer

Scheer is the type of friend Wurm is content doing nothing with. They would sit on the same couch for hours, not speaking, while on their phones. But they also tried to have the most school spirit by attending every sporting event at Annandale High School. That’s why Scheer drove straight from Winona State University after hearing the news.

“I was very uneasy walking into the house because I knew that Sam’s life had now completely changed,” Scheer said. “I just knew going in that I would definitely have to be a support system for her.”

Friends and family passed around photos of Tony, cried and prayed over Wurm and her mom as they grieved. As the hours passed, everyone but Scheer had left the Wurm’s house.

Noelle Scheer and Samantha Wurm wear “Ask me about Jesus” T-shirts at the Boiling Point concert in Annandale, Minnesota July 2. (Submitted Photo)

Scheer was sleeping on the couch when she heard Wurm crying from her room. She grabbed Wurm and wrapped her in a big hug.

“I remember at this moment in my life I didn’t have a super strong relationship with God, but all I wanted to do [was] just pray over her,” Scheer said.

Scheer sat with Wurm on her bed and prayed for her until her heavy sobs turned to quiet, steady breathing. Scheer continued to lay there, rubbing Wurm’s back because she knew Wurm needed the sleep.

The day of her dad’s funeral, Wurm was adamant that she would not look in the open casket. In the days since her dad’s death Wurm was still struggling with that same question: Is my dad in heaven? 

Heartland Evangelical Free Church’s senior pastor Denny Johnson provided guidance for Wurm as they prepared for the funeral.

“It’s a tragic sin,” Johnson said. “But it’s not the unforgivable sin.”

So when they entered the church before the funeral and Wurm said, “I’m going to go see Dad,” Heidi was taken aback. But this was a turning point for Wurm.

“I looked at him for the first time and I instantly just started crying,” Wurm said. “Not tears of sadness, but literal tears of joy because I knew, in that moment, he’s with Jesus now. He’s at peace.”

From then on Wurm decided she needed to turn back to Christ. She started attending church again, along with her church’s 30 Below fellowship group. And she decided to apply to Bethel.

“Sometimes God draws us near to him in terrible situations, which … is hard to comprehend,” Wurm said.

Little things affect Wurm more than she thought they would. Like when an 80s rock song plays or someone brings up the Minnesota Twins. The first football game Wurm attended at Bethel was tough.

“I wanted to update him on the score, but I can’t do that,” Wurm said.

Despite these moments of sadness, she says her transition to Bethel has been overall positive. Heidi came for Parents Weekend, and they explored. Wurm walked Heidi through her class schedule, showed off her room in Lissner and took her to Lakeside Center, her favorite spot on campus.

A way that Wurm and her mom have been able to move forward is through moving into a new home Sept. 25. Fall break was the first time Wurm went home to somewhere different. It may be only three blocks away, but Wurm’s childhood home held too many memories. Happy and sad. Like when Tony and Wurm would play grocery store and pull soup cans from the cupboards to sell. Or when Wurm graduated high school and they took pictures in the front lawn. Or when they brought Rocky, the family golden retriever, home from a farm in Taylors Falls. And when reminded of happy memories, Heidi was “sad that they’re just memories now.”

While Wurm adjusts to Bethel, Heidi adjusts to living alone. Cooking for one is hard, so she often finds herself preparing tomato soup and a grilled cheese sandwich. Rocky keeps her company.

“Sometimes I really miss her needing me,” Heidi said. “But it’s just great to watch her excitement.”

And Heidi says her phone is always buzzing. Mom, you gotta check this out! And Mom, worship was so great! Or Mom, listen to the song. Although off at college, Wurm is only a text away.

If you’re thinking about suicide, are worried about a friend or loved one or would like emotional support, the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline is available at all times across the United States. Call or text 988 to speak with a trained crisis counselor.

This story was originally published on The Clarion on October 10, 2023.