By Vicky Gunderson, Onalaska WI
Mother, Vicky Gunderson shares her story of how it feels to spend Mother’s Day without her son and discusses the importance of family engagement and parental involvement for youth in the criminal system.
This should be one of the most joyful times of the year for me, however it is a difficult time on and around Mother’s Day. My name is Vicky Gunderson, and I am a mother who has spent the last seven Mother’s Days without one of my children, my son, Kirk.
Kirk's arrival on the 9th of June, 1988 at 5:03 p.m. was one of the greatest miracles. From the day I found out I was pregnant until the moment we saw his beautiful face, the sense of joy is hard to describe in words. There are no words that can begin to explain the unconditional love you feel at that moment when your baby is laid into your arms. He enriched our family’s life in a way that only you who have raised a child can understand. I would never have imagined that with all the love in my heart and what we felt were the best parenting skills my husband and I knew, that we would find ourselves visiting our son in the county jail, where he was incarcerated nine days after his 17th birthday. And even then, we could not have imagined that just a few months later, we would be notified through family members that our son had taken his life by hanging. Only hours before hearing that he was doing well through the Christmas holiday, and that he was excited that a "deal" was going to take place versus a trial, we were told he was dead.
My lack of words to describe unconditional love; also pertains to the lack of words to describe the unbearable pain. The suicide note that he left was written in wet toilet paper rolled into letters and numbers, "I'm sorry, 143 Fam", meaning I am sorry, I love you family.
What I remember is a boy who loved to laugh. A boy whom we had watched play with a passion; hockey, baseball, and football. Even after a series of concussions, and short-term memory loss, a family decision was to end contact sports, leaving his love of hockey. He continued to assist in coaching younger players on the baseball field, and being a referee for the hockey association. What I am unable to share is the timeframe whereby Kirk was introduced to prescription drugs and alcohol as a way of managing his depression; a pain that we will never understand completely. A pain as a Mom I could not take away with a hug, or talking with him. I will remember forever the evening he injured his Dad and his younger brother while under the influence of drugs. Then evening he snapped, leaving me in the intensive care unit, and Kirk in the county jail, at the age of 17.
While my husband and other son have recovered physically, none of us will ever recover emotionally from the aftermath of that incident. Despite his age, size and psychological state, Kirk was automatically incarcerated as an adult with adult inmates. While there, we did everything we could for him, but the jail made it almost impossible for us to support him in the way that a 17-year-old in such a dangerous situation needs his family. My son did everything he could to assuage me of the torture he knew I would put myself through after his death. Kirk had started writing a journal while incarcerated. He wrote about times in his life when we talked about accountability, that he would never take his life because of the many people it would affect. As a Mom, you begin the questions, "If I had... If I would have known... If I could have been there”… and so many many “IF” questions that will never have an answer.
However, as a Mom there is a deeper sense within ourselves , with regard to our children, and I do know what the system could have done differently, and should be doing differently after the death of my son. My son never should have been incarcerated with adults, and he never should have been left alone in isolation, especially when he requested to not be left alone. There should be a means to bring a family together to work on rehabilitation and accountability, without the delays, and without the lengthy periods of time that Kirk was incarcerated. Kirk never asked for much while incarcerated, his primary ask was he wanted a hug from his family. That was not too much to ask.
As his Mom, I pray that I will not live one day without Kirk’s joyous smile and sparkling blue eyes in my heart, hoping that the vision I hold so dear does not disappear with time. I also hope that we can change our system so that no mother has to suffer the pain that I feel on a daily basis.
Every mom deserves the chance to see their child grow up and blossom into an adult. This is why, on this Mother’s Day, I am asking stakeholders and systems to understand the importance of family engagement and parent involvement in adolescent development and rehabilitation. I know my son would be alive today if these practices had been in place when my son was arrested, and I would be celebrating this Mother’s Day with that hug that he and I valued so much.