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By: Lindsey Young
The sun was shining that Thursday.
It was a beautiful fall afternoon in Minnesota, the final day of September. Kari Swaggert had left her desk for a few minutes to meet her husband, who was delivering a special anniversary gift.
She smiled as she stepped into the warmth and saw Kurt, who returned an affectionate look. He wore a light gray Vikings hoodie, and he'd tipped his sunglasses up onto his head to reveal the baby blue eyes he'd passed on to his older daughter, Kennedy.
Kurt and Kari embraced, and he suggested they snap a selfie together on his phone. There's nothing fancy about the photo, but it captures their love for one another. They exchanged a kiss and "I love yous," and Kari went back to work.
She never could have imagined that would be the last time she saw Kurt before he returned to the family's home and took his own life.
Kurt had struggled with his mental health since Kari met him, as a senior in high school, on a blind date in 2008.
He likely faced challenges much before that time, too, she acknowledged. He battled anxiety and depression, and he often doubted his worth and whether or not he was doing enough for his family.
The problem with our minds, though, is that they so often lie to us.
"He struggled with where he fit in outside of our marriage and parenting. He constantly would verbalize things about how he thought he was failing us, even though he clearly was not," Kari said.
She called Kurt "Dad of the Year" to their two daughters, Kennedy and Kora.
"He was, literally, the best dad I ever could have wished for," Kari said. "We were just smitten with him. We thought the world of him. But he needed a lot of reassurance there."
She added that Kurt had been raised to be a "good, caring" man; his character showed up daily in their marriage.
A typical evening for the Swaggerts included Kurt and Kari making dinner together, then Kurt helping with post-meal cleanup.
"I'd then find him crawling around on the floor with the girls on his back until his knees started to bleed," Kari said, laughing at the memory. "And then he would help with bedtime. He was super involved."
It's what made Sept. 30, 2021, all the more unthinkable.
In a healthy mental state, Kurt never would have taken himself out of his girls' lives. And yet after fighting his own mind for years, Kurt lost his battle to mental illness that day.
Kari recalled heading home from work that afternoon and calling Kurt a few times; when he didn't answer, she opted to go home before picking their daughters up from daycare.
"I think I immediately went into shock," she said of finding Kurt. "It's very hard to describe, but it feels like the worst, out-of-body nightmare I've ever experienced."
The minutes and hours that followed remain a blur to Kari, who remembers a flurry of first responders, as well as close friends who showed up to support her.
"All I could muster up the courage to say was just, 'What am I gonna do? What am I gonna do?' Kari recalled. "I probably said it a hundred times. Because in that moment, there's a million things racing through your mind: How am I going to raise these kids by myself? How am I going to do anything by myself?
"Kurt has been my biggest supporter and caretaker over the years," she continued. "We really did everything together. We did everything as a family. We loved to travel together, and he was my sounding board.
"I still feel like most days I don't know what I'm going to do. I keep doing it – but I don't know what that is going to look like down the road," Kari said. "Everything is still very uncertain. The thought of living the next 50 to 60 years without my soulmate, it's torture."
Defining identities beyond tragedies
The pain and trauma Kari has experienced over the past nine months is indescribable. It's very real and remains raw.
There have been days she hasn't wanted to leave her bed, but she does for the girls. She's had moments of anguish, moments of laughing over fun memories and moments of anger.
But even on the darkest days, Kari doesn't identify Kurt by the mental illness he lived with – nor the manner by which he died.
"In my mind, and I think the minds of probably anyone who knew and loved Kurt, he'll never be defined by his mental illness," Kari said.
Vikings long snapper Andrew DePaola shares similar feelings around mental health and not basing a person's identity by his or her illness or disability – whether physical or mental.
Mental health advocacy is deeply important to Andrew, who lost his cousin Bo to an accidental overdose in 2015. Bo struggled with depression that darkened some days more than others and stole joy from the little things in life.
Yet, Bo brought joy to the lives of so many – and that's how he'll always be remembered.
"He was just a really bright, smart, fun-loving guy. He was always smiling, laughing. Loved playing video games," Andrew said of Bo, who had been 10 years younger. "He was a very gentle, kind person, and he loved animals. I think butterflies were among his favorite animals, so now his family will remember him every time they see a butterfly.
"He had a great heart and a great disposition. He had a great outlook on life," Andrew added. "Your mental illness doesn't define who you are as a person. It doesn't define Kurt; it doesn't define Bo. … He cared about so many people and just wanted to make sure that everyone was well off and taken care of, and he was such a kind, gentle soul. That is who Bo was."
Because of Andrew's own understanding of mental illness and the loss of Bo seven years ago, news of Kari's situation felt especially heavy.
Kari worked during the 2021 season as a Vikings COVID-19 Coordinator; included in that role was screening coaches and players as they entered the facility each morning and ensuring each had a contact tracer.
"Walking in, Kari would be the first person you'd see, and it was such a positive way to start your day," Andrew said.
When he entered the building on Oct. 1, he immediately noticed Kari's absence and lack of her smile and upbeat greeting. Though he didn't realize at the time what had happened, it crossed Andrew's mind that he hoped all was OK.
News about Kurt's death soon reached the team, however, and Andrew's heart went out to Kari.
"My thoughts went right to making sure she was OK – what, if anything, I could do," he said. "It sounded like she had a great support system at the time, so for somebody like me, maybe that's just a hug, a smile.
"Maybe I could take your mind off of it for a minute or two, or five," Andrew told Kari during the conversation for this story. "What I could do just to help, I wanted to do that. I didn't know what that looked like, but I was willing to do whatever was needed."
Hearing of Kari's experience, Andrew noted, brought back a flood of memories of his cousin's passing.
"I remembered the feelings and emotions I'd felt," he said. "I think when I put myself in your shoes, Kari, it kind of helped me relate more to what you possibly could be going through.
"When you hear [a similar experience] and it's someone you know, it's someone you work with, it's someone you respect – it makes it all that much more real to you."
Use care when trying to help
Losing a loved one as a result of mental illness is something Kari, Andrew and I share in common.
In 2011, I lost my Uncle Jerry and my friend Ty, both of whom took their own lives, within six weeks of each other. They both were tender, caring individuals who loved others well and were loved by many.
I have friends who have lost siblings and others close to them, and I know this type of grief will resonate with many readers.
Others may also wonder the best way to support someone grieving the loss of a loved one.
"I think everyone handles their grief so differently, and it's hard to know what's best for each specific circumstance and person," Kari said. "But as you're looking to try to help someone through these situations, some of the things I've learned – just follow the person's lead. Whoever's grieving, follow their lead."
Actions taken even with the best of motivations can sometimes be hurtful, she reminded. For instance, if helping the person go through belongings of the person who passed, it's important to be gentle – physically and emotionally – with the items. Even the smallest, seemingly insignificant thing can hold tremendous meaning after someone has died – and clothing can feel deeply personal.
"Literally every single thing we had has some sort of memory tied into it. Even down to stupid things like IKEA furniture – because I can remember the day we went and bought these things and the fight I'm sure we had putting it together," Kari said, laughing softly. "When someone else comes in and looks at your stuff, it's easy to say, 'She doesn't need that.' But the reality is I really needed to lay my eyes on every single little thing and make those decisions myself."
Kari expressed gratitude to the Vikings organization for helping carry her through such a difficult time.
"I don't know how I would have survived that time without them. … Not just the organization itself, but my coworkers showed up in very tangible ways," Kari said. "To be specific, things that really help are showing up with a meal. Or saying, 'Hey, I'm going to come [with food] Tuesday or Wednesday – which works for you?' Or, 'Here are two dates I can help with childcare. Which one is most helpful?'
"Here's the thing. I don't know how to grieve, either. I'm 31 years old – I never expected to be a widow, plan a funeral, all of those things," Kari said. "But having people constantly check in on me … and actually show up, that is the biggest gift you can give someone who's grieving.
"To the people who took us in after he died, the people who helped me move, the people who held my hand at the funeral, and who have taken care of my girls like they were your own, thank you," she continued. "From the bottom of my heart I want you all to know how much you saved me during this time."
Lastly, don't avoid talking to someone about his or her loved one.
"I think people think if they say Kurt's name or bring him up, it will make my hurt worse. And that's just not true," Kari said. "I mean, there's no point in time where I'm not thinking about Kurt. It's so validating, and it makes my heart so happy, when people say his name or share memories of him. That's what helps keep him alive."
The feeling is shared by Andrew, who emphasized the importance of celebrating Bo's life and legacy.
"Not bringing up Kurt or Bo's names, not bringing up circumstances that could make people feel uncomfortable, that's not what we should be doing," Andrew said.
He illustrates this annually through the NFL's My Cause My Cleats game, when he represents Bo’s Effort, a nonprofit established in Bo's memory to break the stigma surrounding mental illness.
Andrew's uncle and aunt continue to bring Bo up in daily conversation, he noted, which he believes is important.
"That's them keeping [his memory alive] … and I think being able to honor him with the cleats, I'm doing that, as well," Andrew said.
Sources of pain can be plentiful
If you're struggling, Andrew, Kari and I want to remind you that you are not alone.
If you're in a dark place, please keep fighting. Even if you can't see the light at the end of the tunnel right now, we promise you: It's there.
Last spring, I shared my own journey with mental health and an especially trying time in which I felt truly hopeless. And though it sounds heavy, I only mean it to be real: In some of those moments, I didn't want to die – but I also didn't want to exist in that state of being.
According to Mayo Clinic, many people considering suicide – or abusing substances at a dangerous level – "view it as a way to end the emotional or physical pain they are experiencing."
"I think that speaks volumes. Because if that's the case, there's always help to be had," Andrew said. "There's always help out there; there's always resources."
Kari is actually closer to this topic than some may know. And perhaps one thing that's helped her walk through these past nine months is her unique perspective on mental health.
Looking back on her childhood, Kari remembers regularly suffering stomachaches at school and later experienced different challenges.
"I didn't know it then, but I certainly know now that I was dealing with anxiety at a very young age," Kari said. "It's still something I deal with every day, and it's been amplified since Kurt died."
She found herself in an incredibly toxic relationship during high school, even requiring her to file a restraining order after a painful breakup.
"That, coupled with friend drama and other teenage issues in general, caused me to try to take my own life. I ended up in the hospital due to an overdose of pills," Kari shared. "It was a lot for a teenager to take on, especially when you are young and in love. I really struggled, and it was a hard place to come out of."
Shortly after that time, Kari met Kurt – who became her "bright, shining light at the end of a very dark tunnel."
It was Kurt who effectively saved her life.
"I don't talk about this a lot, but I feel pretty comfortable bringing it up because I am at peace with it now," Kari said. "It's a part of my story and I'm glad I am still here and can share my experience with others who may be struggling. It's so important to be honest about these topics; I'm not doing myself or anyone else any justice by pretending it didn't happen. We all need to make sure we take care of our mental health and talk about it.
"I just want any young person out there who is listening to know that things do get better. Even if you are in a dark place where it seems like there is no escape, there is," Kari said. "I feel like I am proof of that."
Mental illness does not discriminate. It doesn't differentiate between men and women, Black and white, wealthy or not.
Part of breaking down the stigma around the topics of mental illness and suicide is continuing to have these conversations.
"There is that stigma when people say, 'Be a man. Handle your business.' It's like, 'Well, what does that mean? What does that look like?' " Andrew said. "I think people tend to gloss over it and say, 'Just be a man.' Well, we need to lead by example and show young men what that means … which I think is talking about these things. Getting it out there."
He and Kari both encourage others to check on their friends and family members.
When someone is facing a mental health crisis, it may not be easy for him or her to reach out. So ask the tough questions, Kari said: How is your mental health? Is there something you need to talk about?
Andrew added that it goes so much farther than a "Hey, how are you?" in passing.
"We get in the groove where that just means 'Hello,' you're just so conditioned to be like, 'Yeah, I'm good,' " Andrew said. "I'll just ask about a certain topic – a new job, a new baby, a new relationship – like, 'Hey, newborns. It's really tough, right? How's that lack of sleep?'
"That just kind of gets your foot in the door, but gently," he added. "Relating with people gets them to open up a little bit more."
"And remember, just because someone is smiling doesn't mean that they're fine, doesn't mean that things are OK," Kari said. "Remember to check on your strong friends, too."