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Norman County families dealing with loss

Douglas Swenson holds his son, Douglas Jr., known to his classmates as "Ole," a fifth-grader at Norman County East. Special to The Forum1 / 5
For Rebecca Swenson, her late husband, Douglas', Bible and riding jacket have been steady companions since his mid-February death. The Bible is also where she keeps the notes she finds around her home written to her by Douglas. (Michael Vosburg/The Forum)2 / 5
Sidney Riepe, 49, of Twin Valley, died in a farm accident. Special to The Forum3 / 5
Dan Horn, 30, of Twin Valley, died in a car crash. Special to The Forum.4 / 5
Dale Sirjord, 45, of Gary, was killed in a farm accident. Special to The Forum.5 / 5

NORMAN COUNTY, Minn. - It's been an extra-harsh winter for families in Norman County, Minn.

Five men with children or relatives in the Norman County East School District have died since December.

In February, funerals for Douglas Swenson, 47, of Gary, Minn., and Sidney Riepe, 49, of Twin Valley, were held within days of each other.

Riepe died in a farm accident.

Swenson suffered from medical problems, but all of the factors relating to his death are not yet fully understood, said his wife, Rebecca, who is still waiting for an official death certificate.

She said at the time of her husband's death they were in the process of looking for life insurance.

"But we didn't get it done," she said.

Because a death certificate is not available, Swenson said applying for benefits must wait.

"It's kind of scary. I'm going to be borrowing from everywhere I can," she said.

Others who have died include:

Russell DeMarais, 59, of Twin Valley, who suffered from health problems and died at his home.

Dale Sirjord, 45, of Gary, was killed in a farm accident.

Dan Horn, 30, of Twin Valley, died in a car crash.

Swenson, Riepe and DeMarais all were fathers with fifth-graders who attend the same class at the elementary school in Twin Valley.

Sirjord's widow works in the School District office, and he has a niece who is a fifth-grader in the same classroom as the children who lost their fathers.

The fifth-grade class numbers about 25 students.

The oldest of Dan Horn's three children, Daniel, 7, is a first-grader at the Twin Valley school, where at least one fifth-grader lost a grandparent this winter.

In addition, a member of the School District staff lost a niece.

As bad as the winter has been, Norman County East has faced a season of grief before.

"We experienced this same phenomenon three years ago, during the summer months. We had eight staff-related family deaths," said Dave Norman, a school social worker whose job includes talking to children whose parents have died.

Sharing grief

To let hurting students know they're not alone, Norman said all students in class are given an opportunity to share a sad time they've experienced.

"Oftentimes, we'll have the students - if they want to - write about the loss of someone they loved, to help them with the grieving process," Norman said.

"It can get painful," he said, adding the exercise can help children experiencing a new loss and those who may not have fully dealt with grief from a past death.

Other efforts at helping families cope include a fundraiser that was held for the Horn family in early February.

Jennifer Horn said she's grateful for assistance received after her husband died.

"I'm not from here, so I think it's awesome people from the community would help me and my family," she said.

"When I am out and about," she added, "people stop and talk to me, just to let me know they're thinking about me."

'A really good dad'

Horn said her family is getting by "until I can get a job, or figure out what I'm going to do."

The children miss their father, she said.

"Daniel actually told me yesterday I wasn't doing good enough. I can't do boy stuff," said Horn, adding her husband was "a really, really good dad."

Rebecca Swenson said her husband's death is only now beginning to sink in for her youngest son, Douglas, a fifth-grader who goes by the name "Ole."

"He's really been having a hard time," she said. She and Ole, along with an older son, Dustin Momerak, a 10th-grader, plan to make a scrapbook.

"We're going to write down as many memories as we can," she said.

Families suffering grief may get help from an unexpected quarter.

The Minnesota Funeral Directors Association sponsors a camp where children who have lost parents can spend a weekend talking to other kids struggling with a similar loss.

Tim Anderson, owner of Anderson Funeral Home in Twin Valley, said it usually takes six to 12 months before kids are ready to take part in the camp.

Anderson plans to invite children from area families to attend the camp - all expenses paid - at the appropriate time.

"Right now it's too soon," he said.