- Associated Press - Saturday, May 19, 2018

VIRGINIA, Minn. (AP) - Mick Wudinich’s son, Jeff, is never far from his mind.

He wears a bracelet inscribed with a reproduction of his son’s signature: “Love You, Jeff.” And a tattoo on his forearm depicts a cross with angel wings. “Never Forgotten . Jeff,” it reads. “Dec. 31, 2015.”

Jeff is “my guardian angel,” said Wudinich, of Eveleth.

Jeff Wudinich died on New Year’s Eve 2015 from complications following the 32-year-old’s open-heart surgery.

His dad has struggled quite a bit since that day he witnessed his son’s final moments after Jeff collapsed at Wudinich’s home, was revived by paramedics but would later die in the emergency room.

When everyone else is celebrating the end of one year and looking ahead to the next, Wudinich finds himself thinking back to the day he lost his son.

But there is a place on the Iron Range that has provided some hope and peace to Wudinich - the Angel of Hope Children’s Memorial Park in Virginia.

There, on the south shore of Silver Lake, a bronze angel with her arms outstretched watches over the park and the memorial tiles on the Wall of Love.

It is one of the last places Wudinich and his mother visited together before her death last September. The dad and grandma spent some time at the wall, where a memorial tile reads: “Jeff Wudinich, Forever Missed, Never Forgotten.”

“We talked to my son. We said, ‘We love you, Jeff,’” said Wudinich, who has a replica brick of the tile on display at his home.

“It’s a nice spot over there,” he said of the Children’s Memorial Park, which provides “a good way to memorialize our children.”

The park is part of a national and international network of children’s memorial parks that offer a place of peace and comfort to parents and family members who grieve the loss of a child, regardless of age or how the child died, the Mesabi Daily News reported.

The initial angel statue and subsequent memorial parks were inspired by Richard Paul Evans’ book, “The Christmas Box.” In the story, a mother mourns the loss of her child at the base of an angel monument.

Custom-engraved tiles are dedicated on the Wall of Love each year, and orders for those to be installed this year will be taken through Monday. Orders received after that will be dedicated next year.

Wudinich, who has joined the park’s volunteer committee that meets monthly, said he would also like to begin a summer gathering at the setting.

An annual candlelight vigil is held at all of the parks each year on Dec. 6, on the anniversary of the dedication of the first children’s memorial park in Salt Lake City.

While the vigils are beautiful, the weather in northern Minnesota in December is not ideal, said Wudinich, who is considering an additional annual July balloon release. People would write names or messages on the balloons, there would be music and perhaps ice cream would be served.

It would also be a chance to spread awareness of the park and for those who have lost children to gather together. “An automatic bond” is created when meeting others who have experienced that heartbreaking loss, Wudinich said.

“The grief never goes away,” he said, explaining his own overall feeling as one of “helplessness.”

The Angel of Hope park is a spot where precious children no longer with us are remembered forever, he said.

Wudinich will always remember his son as young man who was a very hard worker; who enjoyed construction and landscaping. Jeff owned and operated a small business where he built one the largest yard waterfall projects in St. Louis Park, Minnesota.

Jeff also loved hockey and music and he played drums and symbols in the Eveleth Clown Band. And he was known for always helping others.

Toward the end of his short life, Jeff developed sepsis, a blood infection, and he was diagnosed with a tear in one of his heart’s valves. He was sick for more than a year, in and out of the hospital, received many blood transfusions and underwent many MRIs, Wudinich said.

The father said he believed his son was finally on a true road to recovery after Jeff’s successful open heart surgery in Minneapolis.

Jeff had returned to the Range after the operation and was at the home of his dad and stepmom Brenda, where he also had home health care nurse, when he collapsed in the bathroom on New Year’s Eve.

Wudinich rode in the ambulance with his son to Essentia Health-Virginia. A medial helicopter was called to transport him to Minneapolis because of the recent surgery, but Jeff never even made it on the air ambulance.

Jeff’s dad said he still avoids driving by the hospital. “I’ve had a real tough time.” Wudinich suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, which he said stems from the traumatic events of his son’s passing.

He said medication and the support from his family and his wife have “saved my life.”

“Sometimes you can cry at the drop of a hat. And sometimes you feel hardened,” he said. “Everyone handles grief in their own way.”

Wudinich said his son’s death has also been difficult on Jeff’s older brother, Derek, whose 3-year-old son, Knox, “reminds me of Jeff.”

Knox enjoys following his older brother, Nash, around, just like Jeff did with Derek.

“My grandkids and stepgrandkids are what keep me going,” Wudinich said. “Not a minute goes by that I don’t think of Jeff.” Wudinich said he has a photo of his son that he keeps in the compartment of his Harley-Davidson. “Jeff comes motorbiking with me.”

Losing a child “changes your whole life,” he said. “When you meet others who have lost children, it’s like you’ve known them for 50 years.”

Wudinich said he hopes parents who understand that ever-present pain will also find some comfort at the Angel of Hope Children’s Memorial Park.

His son, he added, was like a ray of sunshine, and sometimes when the sun comes out, Wudinich will think to himself: “Jeff came out. . It’s like a smile from heaven.”

Gloomy days can be difficult, he said. But the wonderful thing about the Angel of Hope park is it’s open all the time, no matter the weather.

It’s always there for loved ones to find peace under the wings of an angel.


Information from: Mesabi Daily News, http://www.virginiamn.com

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