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Magazine: The Light on the Horizon

Karen Guennigsman of Holy Trinity 1054 in Winsted, Minn., traveled to Norway to visit her son and heal from the loss of her husband.

On Whale Island in Norway, the winters are brutally cold, dark, and long. But for 17 years, it’s been the home of Brian Guennigsman and his family. This past winter, when his mother Karen visited them for three months, it was a time of bonding and reflection far away from their home state of Minnesota. Last July, Roger Guennigsman, Brian’s father and Karen’s husband, passed away. Their time in Norway was an opportunity to reflect and heal from the tragedy. A light on the frigid, northern horizon, Karen drew closer to her son’s family, sharing memories of Roger while feeling his presence all around them.

“Visiting Brian in Norway was a healing process for us,” said Karen. “I could feel Roger there.”

Karen was unable to see Brian in the months since Roger passed. It was especially difficult to plan international travel during a pandemic year. In November, however, Karen found herself on Whale Island with Brian, his wife, and his children.

One day, Karen and her grandson were sitting on the couch when he randomly reached between the cushions and pulled out a picture of Roger. It was completely out of the blue.

“I had sent it to Brian years ago,” said Karen, laughing. “I said, ‘See? Roger’s here!’”

After he passed, Karen began packing up Roger’s shirts, but she didn’t know what to do with them. Store them away? Donate them? Her friend then came up with an idea to make them into blankets for Brian’s family. After her friend sewed them, Karen brought the blankets to Norway for the family.

The coastal scenery of Whale Island is breathtaking, but in the winter, it’s pitch black almost all day long. Despite the incessant darkness, Karen was still able to communicate with neighbors while exploring the island. Whale Island sits near the North Pole. “For a couple hours in the morning, it’s somewhat light, and then all of a sudden it gets completely black until the next morning,” said Karen. “It’s very hard on younger people. They are very friendly, however, and most of them speak English. It’s pretty easy to communicate with the locals.”

Across the way from her Brian’s home, Karen noticed an indigenous Sami man who owns the reindeer in the area. Each one is branded like cattle.

“In the summer, the reindeer come down off the hills and mountains and lay down on the man’s property,” said Karen. “The kids will go outside and throw carrots. It’s different. It’s magical.”

In high school, Brian met his future wife at a graduation party. She was a foreign exchange student, and when she soon returned to Norway in the summer, Brian went along with her. After going back and forth between the U.S. and Norway to see her during his college years, Brian decided to move there permanently. One day, he walked out of his bedroom and told Karen and Roger that the country he had fallen in love with would be his permanent home.

Now a bioengineer, Brian bikes to work and often goes into hospitals to assist with COVID tests.

“In order to stay in Norway, you just can’t move there,” said Karen. “You have to know the language, work there, or study there.”

After a mutation of COVID entered Norway, Karen decided to leave at the end of January. In the months since she returned to Minnesota, she remains grateful for the time she spent with Brian and his family. She knows Roger is all around her.

Article by Connor McEleney

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