CASPER, Wyo. — Dee Hardy is still processing the sudden loss of her son nearly five years ago.
“There are no words in any language to describe how a parent feels when they lose a child,” she said, struggling to hold back tears. “I didn’t like the way I felt, I couldn’t make sense of all of it.”
Dustin Hardy was 34 years old when he entered the hospital with a severe bout of pneumonia. He died in the early hours the next morning from a pulmonary embolism, the likely result of a medical condition he’d lived with his whole life.
Along with his parents, Dustin left behind a wife, an 8-year-old daughter, a brother and many friends.
“It was devastating, not only for me but for my whole family,” Dee said.
Dee struggled with the emotional trauma. She can’t clearly remember the days leading up to Dustin’s death, and her day-to-day moments afterward are an agonizing fog. After a few weeks, she stumbled upon an unusual option after her daughter-in-law and granddaughter attended a grief camp by Central Wyoming Hospice & Transitions. They passed along the contact information for Hospice’s grief care coordinator, Todd von Gunten.
“I think I called three times before I could actually talk to him and make an appointment to go in,” she said.
Hospice is known for facilitating end-of-life care. More recently, they’ve started to focus more effort on helping family members coping with their loss, mainly because of increasing need from the community.
“We’ve always offered grief care for our community, regardless of whether somebody is a Hospice patient or not; it’s just a free service that we offer people” said Central Wyoming Hospice Director of Development Rachel McPherson.
“Over the past five years, we’ve seen a 321% growth in that care, so we looked and said, ‘There’s something going on here that needs to be addressed in this community.'”
Hospice was able to secure matched funding from the American Rescue Plan Act during the pandemic to move forward with grief care expansion. Now, Hospice has opened Wyoming’s first-ever grief care center, located in a temporary space at 111 S. Jefferson St. It is currently in the process of securing property for a permanent location, aiming to make that move in about two years, she said.
“We have grown to where we have over 80 employees, so we’re just bursting at the seams,” she said. Moving grief care to its own facility will not only help that particular mission but also open up more room for beds at their main facility.
The expansion of grief care aims to fill a mental health gap that has persisted for years.
“One in 13 children in Wyoming loses a sibling or a parent before they’re 18 years old,” Rachel said, “so we provide care when they’re these emotions where you feel alone and like nobody else can possibly understand what you’re going through, and you don’t know where to get help.”
“A lot of times, people need help and they need counseling, and they need it today, not four or six weeks out,” she continued. “We try to respond quickly and help people through support groups, mailings and one-on-one grief care sessions.”
While a dedicated facility for grief counseling is new, the mission provided by Hospice goes back to its inception more than 40 years ago.
“It’s always been a part of Hospice,” Rachel said. “We follow families for 13 months after somebody dies, getting them through those first birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, that sort of thing.”
“So it’s just evolved from being just something for hospice to something for the entire community.”
In addition, Hospice will launch a suicide loss support group in September, she said, a stark reminder of Wyoming’s persistently high per-capita suicide rates.
Dee’s grief felt insurmountable at first. “Losing a child is not the natural order of things,” she said.
Part of the process has been simply trying to make sense of the loss and accepting her own feelings.
“One of the best things I got out of [therapy] was that I wasn’t losing my mind, that what was happening to me was real,” she said. “It’s all supposed to happen.”
Dee said she has come to realize that grief isn’t a place to pass through, not a place to live. “You can carry your pain and your joy, and you can go about your day.”
“I remember thinking because he isn’t here that he would be totally forgotten,” she said. “He’s not forgotten, he’s right here, and every time I hear his name, every time somebody asks me about him, he lives on.”
Dustin also lives on in other ways. He wanted his organs harvested after he died, a painful decision the family made moments after he died and before his body was cremated.
Dee says the cremains are sill with the family, but soon — five years after his untimely death — they’ll move again one last time, somewhere in the Wyoming mountains where he loved to camp and hunt.
“I don’t want to say where it’s going to be,” Dee said, but the family is about ready. “He needs to be out where he loved and liked to be free. He needs to be free.”
Anyone with thoughts of suicide can call the Suicide and Crisis Hotline at 988.