December 22, 2001, is the day Diane Krieser’s life changed forever.
Diane’s 22-year-old daughter, Corina, was traveling home for Christmas from college in Kansas to their Seward home when the weather abruptly changed.
“It was one of those freak Nebraska weather days where it went from sunshine and 60-degree weather to an ice-glazed road,” Diane said.
Corina attempted to pass a car and lost control on the ice, sending her over the median and careening into the path of an oncoming semi. Her only daughter’s funeral took place on Christmas Eve.
“That’s when our life changed,” Diane said.
Shortly after the funeral, Diane talked to her priest about starting a support group.
“We know that losing a child no matter what age is the worst loss there ever was,” Diane said. “Don’t ask me if I can tell you why, but Seward seems to have had a lot of child loss.”
Her neighbors, Deb and Steve Schaefer, had lost a 17-year daughter, and they wanted to also help organize a support group. The priest encouraged the group and even offered a meeting space in the church.
Diane and her husband, Clark, worked with the Schaefers to launch Heartfelt Connections. Diane became the leader of a group that she never wanted to be part of. But, she felt a strong desire to keep her daughter’s name alive and to help others who were suffering.
That was in March 2002, just three months after Corina’s death.
“When I look back on it now, I don’t know how we turned around and did that so soon, because I was pretty much living in a fog,” Diane said.
Sixteen years later, the Heartfelt Connections support group still meets in Seward (now at the Civic Center) on the second Thursday of each month, and they formed an official non-profit organization (Heartfelt Inc.) and raised funds to create a beautiful children’s memorial that was constructed at Seward’s Concordia College.
The group has continued to raise funds for the memorial and plans several fund-raising events throughout the year. One upcoming event is the Heartfelt Wicked Women’s 5K Wine Run on Oct. 28 at the Junto Winery in Seward.
Life After Losing A Child
Diane said her life is now measured in moments before Corina died and after Corina died.
“Probably one of the most important things is I don’t want Corina forgotten,” Diane said. “Pretty much everything I do now, I do in her memory.”
The support group is one way she keeps Corina’s memory alive.
To get the Heartfelt Connections started, they sent invitations to people in their area who had lost a child.
“People need to know that we still have a connection with our child,” Diane said. “Death may end a life, but it doesn’t end a relationship. We draw strength from each other to know that we can survive this. You do have to make a conscious acknowledgment that you are going to get better, or you are going to stay bitter. Your perfect world is not that way anymore. Does it ever go away? No. Can you smile and laugh again? Yes. We can’t dwell in our grief forever.”
Diane said the group offers personal and private support.
“What’s said here, stays here,” she said. “It really is a comfort for parents to be able to talk out loud and be able to share how they are feeling. A lot of times, you feel like you are going crazy. The clock should have stopped when we got the news about Corina. The hardest thing to realize is that nothing stops for everyone else. It’s just how you deal with it and how you go on.”
Diane also sends out a bi-monthly newsletter to Heartfelt support group participants and shares duties as a facilitator. She has served as president of the group in the past and recently handed over the duties to a new president, Sharon Dickinson.
Helping A Friend Through Loss
Diane said experiencing this tragedy revealed her true friends.
“The people who have the strength to say Corina’s name out loud, that was very helpful,” Diane said. “People are scared of you when you lose a child. They don’t know what to say and what to do.”
Some helpful things friends did were just having the courage to call or stop over, placing items at the cemetery for Corina or sending cards in the mail.
When Diane went back to work after Corina’s death, she said just people acknowledging her presence was important.
“You don’t even have to say anything, you can just give me a hug and say you are sorry,” Diane said.
And, don’t worry about the tears.
“I was going to cry anyway,” Diane said. “Not saying something about it was harder to take than it was to say her name. Even if I would cry, it was nice that they were thinking of her.”
Diane said she is blessed to also have a son, who had an 18-month-old child at the time of Corina’s accident. He now has three more children.
“We talk about Corina,” Diane said of her family and grandchildren. “They have a connection with their aunt even though she is not physically with us.”
As the support group continued to meet, the idea of a children’s memorial emerged. Similar memorials have been built in other towns, and the Seward parents thought it would be nice to have a place in their town where children could be remembered.
The group formed a non-profit organization to begin raising money for the memorial. They now organize four fund-raisers each year in addition to selling bricks to families to remember their children.
An empty corner northwest of Concordia College was selected as the memorial site, and it was dedicated on May 31, 2015.
It features a life-sized wall with 8×8 glass tiles that depict a scene of children running through a meadow chased by butterflies. The area also includes benches, flowers, a butterfly garden and a sculpture by a Concordia College artist. Walls of memorial bricks contain the names of more than 250 children who have died from seven states and one foreign country. Families can purchase an 8” x 8” brick for $200 or a 4” x 8” brick for $100. The only criteria is that one of the parents must have been living at the time the child died. At a memorial service each year, the names of the children who have been added that year are read.
“This is a nice place for people to go,” Diane said. “Some people don’t like to go to a cemetery, but they would like to have a place for them to go and remember the child.”
She said the memorial provides a sense of peace to anyone who visits.
“It’s not just for the families who have lost children,” Diane said. “It’s for everyone. I’ve heard of people who have troubles in their life, and they go up and visit. It’s like they wrap their arms around you there. There are roses and all sorts of different flowers, and trees were planted. It’s just a great place for meditation and comfort.”
Diane said she wants to be sure that every parent who has lost a child knows that they don’t have to go through it alone. She encourages anyone who would like more information about the Heartfelt Children’s Memorial or support group or the upcoming 5K Wine Run or other fund-raisers to visit the website at www.heartfeltseward.org.