"She Just Let Me Talk": Local Woman Finds Peace After Tragic Loss

Kenyon Kemnitz
February 13, 2023 / 5 mins read

“She Just Let Me Talk”: Local Woman Finds Peace After Tragic Loss

by Kenyon Kemnitz


It’s been over three years now since Donna Mueller lost her son, Stephen, in an accidental drowning. Three weeks before that, her mom, Velma, passed away on Rainbow Hospice Care’s service at Heritage Homes in Watertown. It took over six weeks until searchers found and recovered Stephen’s body from the Rock River. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, so that timeline of events in Donna’s life remains a blur.

Rainbow bereavement counselor Laura Wessels had reached out to Donna after Velma’s passing, but Donna had declined any grief support. She had already come to terms with losing her mother and was with her at her bedside when she died.

So, when Donna got a call again not long after Stephen’s death, she was surprised to hear Laura on the other end of the phone.

Stephen had not been a Rainbow patient, but that didn’t stop Laura from reaching out to Donna in her time of need.

"I don’t even know how she knew about Stephen,” said Mueller. “I said, ‘Well he wasn’t with Rainbow,’ and she said, ‘it’s okay, it’s a loss.’ I took Laura up on her offer, but I didn’t think it was really going to help me, and I thought I’d probably scare her away.”

Losing a child is something no one can prepare for, and Donna was skeptical about how Laura could make her feel any better. Donna was still grappling with the fact that her son was gone.

“She just let me talk,” Mueller said. “She wasn’t trying to fix it. She listened. When I came up for a breath, Laura asked me very calculated, intelligent questions to draw out certain things that I had said and commented to where I realized she really heard me. I felt heard.”

Donna and her family had their lives altered suddenly and then their whole world changed immediately. Laura just tried to be there for Donna. Due to COVID, they couldn’t meet in person, but Laura was there to provide Donna with grief support by phone and through the mail. They had monthly conversations from April through October 2020.

“Donna needed to process everything around Stephen’s death, and I was a listener who shared her faith in God and prayed with her,” said Wessels. “She was grieving in intentional, healthy ways, including planning his funeral in July, which she called his last party. Her hope was, “I don’t want to forget that Stephen existed. I don’t want other people to forget Stephen existed.”

Donna didn’t realize it, but connecting with Laura was just what she needed at the time.

“I was the one struggling and drowning and she was rescuing me and throwing me that lifeline,” Mueller said.

Stephen’s shoes still sit near the entrance of the Mueller home. Even though he doesn’t need them anymore, they serve as a special placeholder for a son, brother, nephew, and friend who will never be forgotten.

“We have pictures and ‘shrines’ of Stephen all around us, but those shoes represent his belonging to our family,” Mueller said. “He belongs to us. So at least for now, his shoes will stay near the door. Not for his sake, but for ours.”

Even though time has gone on and Donna and her family have been able to find some peace and comfort through their faith and in each other, their grief hasn’t magically disappeared. There are times when that grief is still very fresh, raw, and intense. Stephen’s death left a huge hole in their hearts.

That’s what has inspired Donna and her husband, Randy, to lead a GriefShare program twice a year through their church, Calvary Baptist Church in Watertown. Originally, they just wanted to be part of the group but were asked to take it over after the organizer stepped down.

Donna wants to help others who’ve suffered loss and need help processing their grief. All are invited to attend and are welcome to participate, even if they don’t belong to a specific church. The group meets weekly in a banquet room at Schmutzler-Vick Funeral Home in Watertown.

“I tell people we facilitate and lead grief for us because we need it,” Mueller said.

Several group members have repeated the program’s 13-to-14-week cycle multiple times. It’s encouraging for Donna to see the new friendships that have developed from within the group.

“It’s a beautiful thing to see that grieving people are now reaching out to other people who are hurting and comforting one another,” Mueller said. “We are such a tight group right now, and I wonder if we’re ever going to shake anybody. But I think they’re always going to keep coming.”

When Laura was honored as the Modern Woodmen of America Chapter 5005 Hometown Hero for 2022 this past October, there was a small celebration at Bigg’s Bar & Grill in Watertown. Donna never would have known the event was taking place, except when rummaging through her mail one day, she came across a postcard with details about Laura’s upcoming award. Donna knew she had to attend if she could make it in time.

“I came late because I had to work and I said, “where is Laura, who is Laura?” Mueller said. “Everybody pointed to her, and I said, ‘I don’t know if you remember me, I’m Donna Mueller,’ and she gasped and jumped up and threw her arms around me and held me tight for a long time.”

It was their first time meeting face-to-face, but to Donna, it was like they had known each other for years.

“Out of all the people she talks to every day, Laura remembered me and the things we talked about two and a half years later,” Mueller said. “That meant so much to me because I honestly feel like I gained a new friend, and we really know one another.”

Donna found out what so many others already know about Laura. She is always there for her patients, family, friends, and the many people she meets in the community. Since joining the Rainbow staff in June 2019, Laura provides grief support to patients and their families and is busy leading grief support groups and organizing Rainbow's annual memorial service and holiday grief program. She also contributes her expertise in a monthly blog called Conversations in Grief and provides COVID relief at Fort HealthCare. On top of that, as a certified chaplain, Laura officiates weddings and funerals of clients who have no church or religious affiliation.

Lots of people came up to Donna at Bigg’s and thanked her for nominating Laura for the award, but she said it wasn’t her doing. Surprisingly, an anonymous supporter put everything in motion for Laura’s well-deserved honor.

“Everyone who knows Laura loves her because she’s a warm, quiet, sensitive, empathetic person that you want to talk to,” Mueller said.

“I simply listened to how she grieved for her son, claimed his memories and how he lived, and clung to her faith in God, and then went on to find purpose by leading the Watertown GriefShare group,” Wessels said.

Laura was happy to be able to connect with Donna again as they both continue their work in the community, helping parents, spouses, and children who’ve experienced loss and are learning how to live each day without their loved ones.