Portraits of Loss: Michelle Bauer

Portraits of Loss: Michelle Bauer
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This content originally appeared on Beyond Type 1. Republished with permission.

By Shayna Mace

Michelle Bauer is talking to me via video chat from her deck overlooking Lake Metonga in Crandon, where she and husband Jeff purchased a cabin in 2020. She glances at a hummingbird in a nearby feeder and smiles. “It’s my little heaven up here,” she says.

It’s a welcome retreat for someone who has experienced what she has.

Jesse

Image source: Beyond Type 1

On Feb. 3, 2010, Michelle’s 13-year-old son Jesse died unexpectedly due to complications related to type 1 diabetes. Michelle, who was BRAVA’s marketing director at the time, was at a meeting an hour away when she received the call. She had spoken to Jesse that morning, and although he said he didn’t feel well, he assured her his blood sugar levels were normal. (Monitoring blood sugar levels several times a day is critical for those with diabetes, because diabetics can experience serious health complications if blood sugar levels are too low or high.)

Her middle child Jesse — who was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at age 3 — was gone. He was her “chill kid, the one who was everybody’s friend.” He was goofy, an avid skater and snowboarder, and musically talented. Michelle’s face lights up as she proudly describes his wonderful qualities, more than 10 years later.

Jesse’s passing hit Michelle and her family like a ton of bricks. Although she and ex-husband Tom had joint custody of Jesse, his older sister Samantha, who was 16, and younger brother Joey, who was 9, they co-parented well. The strength of her and Tom’s relationship, even though they were divorced, was partially what buoyed Michelle during this difficult time.

“We decided we were going to be a united front. I think not everyone gets to say that through grief. I think a lot of marriages are destroyed when they lose a child, because one person grieves differently than the other; it’s very common. To find that unity was tough, but we found it … and we’re supportive of one another.”

After Jesse’s passing, even trivial moments were difficult for Michelle. A few weeks after his death, she ventured out for the first time to go grocery shopping, praying she wouldn’t see anyone she knew. While shopping, she walked past Crystal Light, and realized she didn’t need to buy the sugar-free powdered drink mix anymore, because no one in her home had type 1 diabetes besides Jesse. She burst into tears. Then she saw another shopper with a giggling two-year-old boy sitting in their cart. She looked around and thought: “How dare you not grieve for me? Don’t you know my son died? It was a horrible thought to look around and feel so much pain and be so alone.”

Having two other children also experiencing grief compounded the family’s sense of loss. “I didn’t have the capacity to probably be the best parent I could be [to my other kids] at the time, because I had my own grief. But, I did my best,” says Michelle.

Her daughter Samantha “was angry at the world. And I don’t blame her. [Jesse] was her best friend.”

Son Joey blamed himself. Michelle says he even had a dream the night before Jesse’s passing of him disappearing. She says Joey is quiet and doesn’t talk about the loss of Jesse. “Everybody grieves differently; it’s true. I talk about [Jesse] all of the time, so that’s my way of healing. But you know what? My kids have turned out amazing, considering what they went through those first couple of years.”

As the former executive director of [the Western Wisconsin Chapter of] JDRF (from 2006 to 2008), another difficulty Michelle faced was that she had to share with her friends, colleagues and community she’d built around diabetes awareness that her son passed away from the very disease that she had worked tirelessly to raise money for research and advocacy.

“When he passed away, not only would the people [in this community] wig out that it was going to happen to their kids, but I thought I was going to lose my community. Who’s going to want to talk to the mom whose kid died from the disease that they’re all still battling [with their kids]? I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life.”

Within weeks after Jesse died, Michelle started jotting down her thoughts about dealing with the death of her son with the intention of turning it into a book. As a diabetes advocate and someone who experienced such a crushing loss, maybe she could help others going through her same situation. As the years passed, she’d occasionally pull out her writings and add more thoughts and feelings. She shopped her book idea to a few small publishers, but nothing came of it. Ten years went by.

In February 2020, Michelle was chatting with a friend who owns a small publishing house, and she mentioned her book. He loved the idea and encouraged her to finish it. The book, titled “Jesse Was Here (More Lasagna Please),” was released in April 2020 and is a memoir of a mother dealing with her son’s death, and includes helpful takeaways for other parents who are going through the same experience.

In the years after Jesse’s death, Michelle also started a website called jesse-was-here.org for grieving parents and family members to share their experiences, as well as resources. She’s spoken on TV and podcasts, runs a private Facebook group and has talked to countless parents. Although it’s something she never wanted to experience, she has embraced the staggering weight of the death of her child and offers others a shoulder to cry on — because she’s been there too.

“You will see reminders of your loss everywhere. That is a harsh reality. During those first weeks without Jesse, I could barely get through Wednesdays, because Wednesdays were a stark reminder that my son had died a week ago, two weeks ago, three weeks ago. Now, Wednesday is just a Wednesday. The relief comes in small steps: one day, one week, one month at a time.”

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