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The Clarion

The Student News Site of Bethel University

The Clarion

The Student News Site of Bethel University

The Clarion

Growth through grief

Lydia Gessner uses her loss to help others process grief.
Ben Lee
Gessner takes a photo with her mother following the event with the interactive packet used during the workshop in the Olson Gallery.

12-year-old Lydia Gessner knew something wasn’t right. Her father couldn’t stop shivering and nothing, not even the many blankets wrapped around him, could keep him warm. The panicking family called an ambulance and went to the local emergency room. For hours, Gessner nervously waited for the diagnosis in the hospital waiting room. Later that night, she heard it might be cancer. 

A few days later, it was confirmed. For two years, Gessner prayed and pleaded to God that her father would recover, but those prayers seemed unheard when her uncle told her, “He’s gone.”

For Gessner, now a senior English major at Bethel University, the loss of her father wasn’t the first or last loss she experienced.

I’m really passionate about bringing grief to light … We don’t talk about it enough, and I think that when we share our stories, there’s a lot of power in that.

— Lydia Gessner, senior


“I’ve lost at least one person every year of college, and I’ve had a lot of losses before then,” Gessner said. “I lost my grandma freshman year of college, sophomore year my uncle … a mentor from middle school … and then a family friend who was a grandma to me.” 

But through her grief, Gessner saw the opportunity to help others through her own experience. 

“I’m really passionate about bringing grief to light,” Gessner said. “We don’t talk about it enough, and I think that when we share our stories, there’s a lot of power in that.”

So when the time came to create a project for the honors program, Gessner wanted to focus on grief and helping others process theirs. Working alongside professor Angela Shannon Preston, Gessner planned an interactive workshop, Discovering God in the Midst of Grief.

“She has a passion for writing about God and her personal experiences with grief,” Shannon Preston said. “I believe that it’s a part of her life calling — to find a way to comfort and connect others during times of suffering and loss.”

After months of planning, Gessner held her workshop Thursday at 11:15 a.m. in the Olson Gallery, sharing her experiences with grief to an audience of about 30 members. Gessner explained the important roles of faith and relationships in managing grief and invited the audience to reflect on and contemplate these themes.

Attendees of Gessner’s workshop explore the immersive art exhibit in the Olson Gallery.

“That was the idea behind this workshop: What if I could fearlessly tell my story and say there’s hope on the other side of that?” Gessner said.

Unexpectedly, the location of the workshop mirrored the themes of grief and loss.

“God has worked in incredible ways,” Gessner said. “This was a total coincidence and I don’t believe in coincidences.”

The artwork, Olga Lah’s “The Widening Hold,” hangs in the Olson Gallery as a walk-through exhibit using steel mesh to create a type of flowing matter and cloud-like shapes suspended from the ceiling, enveloping the viewer.  

Gessner described Lah’s artwork as “what grief feels like. This is what it looks like.”

“When Lydia decided on the Olson Gallery, we didn’t know about Olga Lah’s exhibit. Lah’s artwork deals with similar themes,” Shannon Preston said. 

Gessner plans to continue serving others even after graduation, working for the nonprofit Cedar Valley Angels, an organization located in Waterloo, Iowa, focused on helping the youth foster care community. 

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    Abby DebbieApr 22, 2024 at 7:08 pm

    this is such a wonderfully written story of hope in times of loss. thank you for inspiring us with this student’s transformative journey!