Many longtime UPR listeners may remember Utah Public Radio reporter Rhesa Ledbetter. Rhesa has a PhD in biochemistry from Utah State University, is a science professor at Idaho State University, and is an award-winning storyteller.
Last year, Rhesa's life changed when she suffered the loss of a loved one. Her long-time partner and Idaho State University microbiologist Tim Magnuson died suddenly of a heart attack in October 2019 while backpacking in Yellowstone National Park.
In this episode of Project Resilience, UPR's Dani Hayes talks with Rhesa about the journey she and Tim's close friend Mike took as a way of dealing with the trauma of losing Tim.
When I first found out that Tim had passed away, your first thought is, “Oh, my gosh, I wasn’t there.” You know, like, all you wanted to be able to do was be there by his side and help him, but as we got more of the pieces to the puzzle and what happened, I truly believe that Tim protected both Mike and I from more trauma, and there’s so many lines of evidence, in fact every single line of evidence suggests, that Tim died very, very, very suddenly and he didn’t suffer at all.
And I do think that if Mike and I had been there-- Tim was about six-and-a-half miles into the backcountry-- we would’ve had to get out, possibly in the dark. And it also snowed three to four inches that night. And so as you consider all of the circumstances, in so many ways, I feel blessed because I think Tim gave us a tremendous gift of not having to endure that and possibly put our own lives at risk.
I’ve been writing a journal every day since Tim passed away. And I’ll read you part of the journal.
“I woke up around 3 A.M. this morning. Saturday, the day before we went on the hike, I started feeling a lot of anxiety, and that continued in the morning. And tears were flowing down my face. The anticipation, the fear knowing I was heading to the place you died, part of me was worried about being able to make the hike. It wasn’t the mileage, but simply my strength. I’ve hardly eaten over the last week. I’m trying, but I wasn’t sure it would be enough to get me in the seven miles and back out. And so there was a lot of fear and trepidation, but there was no way that I was not going to make that journey.”
I can’t even explain it, but something inside that gives you the strength to do these things that you don’t know whether or not you’re physically capable of.
Mike and I headed out mid-morning. We knew we were going to have to go, roughly six-and-a-half, seven miles in. And so, we started hiking along. We chatted a little bit along the way. I know that I was experiencing a lot of anxiety and I was actually really anxious to get the site.
Mike and I had not put in the coordinates to where Tim passed away, we were just hiking along. And so, I knew we were getting relatively close, and it was the craziest thing-- all of a sudden, I had this feeling come over me. Usually before you say something you kind of know what you’re going to say, but words just spilled out of my mouth and I said, almost in a whisper, I said, “This is it, Mike.”
And I walked forward a little bit, and as I walked forward I saw a stream, with a log crossing. And I knew that Tim had died close to a log crossing, about fifty yards away. And I said, “Well Mike, like here’s the log crossing.” I said, “It has to be nearby here.”
And so Mike told me, he said, “Well, I’ll put in the coordinates.”
So he started putting the coordinates into the GPS. And sure enough, right where I said “This is it, Mike” was one of the exact coordinates.
Not on this hike, but when I first went to pick up Tim’s backpack from the ranger station, the first thing I pulled out of his pack when looking for his keys, was a book. And it was a book of Indian proverbs. And so when Mike and I went out on this hike, we took this book of Indian proverbs with us, in memory of Tim.
As I sat out at the site that he died, I opened it up just to a random page. And the first quote that I saw was: “Life is not separate from death, it only looks that way.”
Near the end of our discussion, Rhesa mentioned that one way that has helped her process her grief is to talk about Tim. She loved to hear stories about him and loved to tell stories about him. And discovered that this outlet helped soften the pain as she traversed her path of healing.
To further explore grief, I spoke with Zaneta Gileno, a social worker and therapist in Utah.
“Some of the coping skills that are really helpful for people that are grieving, are really making time to recharge. Recognizing where you are in your grief journey, I think, is really key," she said.
"In our current climate, with the pandemic as well as this social justice revolution, there’s a twenty-four hour news cycle, and for people that have already experienced trauma, and most especially traumatic grief, it can be especially triggering. People can start to feel like their loss just happened yesterday. So I think it’s key to remember that.
"Take those times to turn the news off. Remember when you hear stories that you have that pure connection to-- where you see a person that maybe looks like your loved one, same circumstance-- that really can take you right back to day one.
"I say that peer support is key. Knowing that you can connect with other people, who have shared some similar loss, or know what it is to have their world flipped upside down in this way, can make all the difference. You really don’t have to start at page one in that relationship, you can start on page fifty. And there’s so much comfort in that.”