Reimagining Grief: Woman shares her story after losing daughter in tragic drowning

Published: Aug. 10, 2022 at 9:41 PM CDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

DULUTH, MN. (KBJR 6) -- It’s something absolutely no one wants to experience: losing a child.

Five years ago, Maggie Wacker lost her 10-year-old daughter Lillian, after she drowned in Lake Superior.

Wacker’s ex-husband, the father of her two daughters, also died.

Five years later, Wacker is now a published author, detailing her journey through grief, after the worst loss imaginable.

On Aug. 10, 2017, Maggie Wacker’s life was irrevocably changed.

“Your first thought is, ‘this can’t be happening,’ this happens to other people, this happens on the news, this happens in movies, it’s not like real life,” Wacker said. “And yeah, it was real life.”

Wacker’s daughters, Iris and Lily, were swimming in Lake Superior with their dad Ryan.

Wacker was at work in New Richmond, Wisconsin.

She recalls her then 12-year-old daughter Iris calling.

“She just kept telling me that they were in the water and they were playing a trick on her, and she couldn’t find them anymore,” Wacker said.

The daughter called 911, a search, then Ryan and Lily’s bodies pulled from the water, both eventually pronounced dead at the hospital.

That was news Wacker was fearing.

“I just like, stood there, I just didn’t even know what to feel, I couldn’t cry. I was in shock,” Wacker said.

For the first responders on scene of the drowning it was a different kind of shock.

“I think at first it doesn’t always, it doesn’t always hit you right away,” current Duluth Fire Chief Shawn Krizaj said.

Then deputy chief of operations, he recalls the day, and how the search quickly intensified.

“At some point, I realized that it was becoming more of an escalated incident, becoming more than just a quick -- literally grab someone out of the water and get them to the beach, as things were kind of moving from what we would consider a rescue to a possible recovery,” Krizaj said.

In the immediate months that followed the drowning, Wacker said her grief was compounded with change.

Mourning the loss of her daughter, she went through a divorce, a job transition, and a move.

“It’s just trying to grasp and fathom what happened, and it takes a long time, I’m still working through it, and I don’t think it’s something that’s ever closed,” Wacker said. “There’s no closure. It’s how do you learn to live with loss and changes?”

In those early months of grief, Wacker said the best advice she got was from a co-worker who had lost his son.

“I said, ‘Does it ever get better? Does it get better?’ Wacker said. “And he said, ‘It will never go away, but in time it gets softer.’”

Over time, Wacker began to process her grief through writing.

Her book was published this year: “Reimagining Grief: Exploring Bereavement Beyond the Process.”

“I think it’s something that started more as therapeutic and cathartic for me, it took about four years to write it,” Wacker said.

Dr. Markita Suttle, a critical care physician in the Pediatrics Department at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Ohio, studies bereavement and the effects of child loss on parents.

“If you look at the research, the data on adults that are grieving, time and time again, you will find that parents that experience child death experience the most intense forms of grief,” Suttle said.

She said writing a book after experiencing traumatic loss is not uncommon.

“There are a lot of grieving individuals that find things like journaling or writing poetry, or writing books, are really helpful ways to navigate grief, especially when that grief is really intense or prolonged or complicated like we often see in cases where parents lose children,” Suttle said.

From a support standpoint, Suttle said listening to what a person needs when going through grief is vital.

“You’re not necessarily always going to have the right words, but knowing that you’re available to these people and you’re willing to be part of their support network and walk that journey with them is really really important,” Suttle said.

That’s a message Wacker echoes in her book.

She hopes other parents can find some solace in her story.

“The book in an essence -- yes it’s my journey, but also, it’s to share with other people like, what you’re going through, you’re not alone,” Wacker said.

She said the pain of losing one of her daughters is something that will never go away, but neither will Lily’s memory.

“I love talking about her. I know a lot of people don’t like talking about the kids they’ve lost, but Lillian, she was, she was crazy, so imaginative, she was my girly girl, she was exactly like me, pretty much,” Wacker said.

A young girl, who will never be forgotten.

“She was just a really wild and free, amazing soul. And she did more in her 10 little years than I think most of us do,” Wacker said.

Every year, in Lillian’s honor, Wacker and her family provide a scholarship called the Awesome Award to one kid who embodies Lily to attend YMCA Camp St. Croix.

Prior to this 2017 drowning, DFD said there hadn’t been a drowning since 2003.

To learn more and purchase Wacker’s book, click here.

Copyright 2022 KBJR 6. All rights reserved.