The Gresk family with Gunner before he passed away at 5 ½ months. (Submitted photo)
When Kyle and Carly (Lewin) Gresk tucked Gunner, their 5 ½-month-old, in bed one night, they had no idea that it would be the last time they would hear his giggles and cries, or see his bright blue eyes. Their perfect, happy, cuddly baby went to sleep and never awakened.
Whether anticipated or unexpected, the pain that follows the death of a child is likely to feel overwhelming and endless. With time, healthy coping tools and assistance from loved ones and professionals, the worst parts of grief will eventually pass.
For Kyle, Carly and their other children, Dakota and Mason, nothing was OK after Gunner died.
“It truly felt like I was completely numb and had to relearn how to complete everyday tasks. It was a struggle to get out of the house, or more honestly even our bed. Kyle felt he needed to be our family’s rock and be strong for me and the kids but didn’t give himself time to grieve or ‘feel,’” Carly said. “Dakota, our daughter, who was 6 at the time, was potty trained but began wetting the bed again. Mason was 3 at the time, had trouble going to bed, and kept asking (us) if he would wake up.”
While the family received support from their family and friends, it wasn’t enough to handle the pain and anguish of losing their baby. They had difficulty finding mental health therapists, and eventually, Carly’s boss helped them find someone, though support groups tailored to the loss of a child were nearly impossible to find.
“The closest one we were able to find, even with the help of my employer, Children’s Wisconsin, was almost an hour and a half away from our home,” she said. “Financially, my husband and I were able to take time off work, but many families are forced to go back to work far too quickly, if not immediately.”
Three months after losing Gunner, Kyle and Carly began Guardian Gunner, a not-for-profit charity organization offering support for families going through pregnancy, infant or child loss.
The organization offers in-person Christian/Catholic faith-based support groups for bereaved parents in southeastern Wisconsin, child workshops for ages 3 and older for siblings, virtual support groups for out-of-the-area families, sunshine boxes with helpful resources and comfort items, crosses made from funeral/important flowers, and assistance for families in finding mental health therapists, as well as providing financial support when able for monuments.
“In working through this tragedy first hand, we identified so many deficiencies within our community, and we wanted to pay forward the grace we found,” said Carly, whose organization was recognized by the IRS in October 2021. “It means the world to us to be able to reach the families who are struggling and provide some sunshine in their lives. From what we have experienced, a tragedy like this can either push people toward Christ or away from him. We can see the difference in the way families grieve in those who have faith versus those without. We hope to be a testimony to these families, to be able to show them that our sunshine comes from God’s light.”
In addition to support groups and sunshine boxes, Guardian Gunner partnered with Versiti Blood Center of Wisconsin to host blood drives to honor families who have experienced loss. They also facilitate a Christmas card exchange where “loss” families are connected with others and can spread some cheer in honor of their child.
“Guardian Gunner is open to any and all prayer requests, where loss families and others can submit an anonymous request online,” Carly said. “We have a dedicated group of prayer warriors who focus on them and know the importance and power of prayer.”
Since it began, Guardian Gunner has provided support to more than 200 families throughout Wisconsin and 28 other states, as well as families in three other countries. The organization was initially 100 percent funded by the monetary gifts to the Gresk family from those who attended Gunner’s funeral, as well as the money they had saved in their son’s baseball glove piggy bank.
“We started with a little more than $3,000, and after sending a few sunshine boxes to families, and purchasing two monuments, we knew we had to fundraise. Currently, we accept donations and have run one fundraiser thus far but plan to host one (or more) annually,” said Carly.
The family are members of St. Clare in Wind Lake; Carly admits her faith was not that strong before Gunner, who they nicknamed “Gun-Gun,” died. She struggled with questions of where people go when they die, she wanted to know why he died and where he was, and wanted to know how to get her and her family to heaven someday as well. Carly always knew she was called to be a mother; however, she felt she lost her purpose along the way.
“I knew I had to make changes for both our family and me, and I knew the only way we could truly be comforted was through our faith in Jesus Christ. After all, nobody else can truly give you the correct answers to my previous questions,” she said. “I read the Bible every day, I went back to confession, brought my family back to church and our children participated in faith formation. We now have the answers that do matter. God takes every horrific tragedy and turns it for the good. God provides us with the most comfort, and has faithfully and consistently been the backbone of our healing. Do I still have panic attacks? Do we still cry? Are we lost at times? Of course. However, through the Holy Spirit, we have the tools we need to push forward, and know that leaning on Jesus Christ is how we continue to walk in the sunshine.”
For more information on Guardian Gunner, visit: https://www.guardiangunner.com or contact Carly Lewin Gresk at firstname.lastname@example.org.