Ten years ago today, on December 8, 2011, Sam Grorud, 16, climbed up the ladder to Heaven after fighting a courageous, nine-month battle with leukemia.
It is only human for us to cry and pose the question, “Why?” Sam, however, responded heroically to God’s call. He wrote, “I still have dreams of walking Milbank High School’s (halls) on weekdays, but what if God wanted me to take the road less traveled from the beginning. Who am I to argue with such an omniscient power in my life.”
If you are a Christian, you believe in eternal life. If you are a human, you probably struggle when someone you love leaves their earthly body.
Teresa and Jim Grorud graciously agreed to talk with us and to candidly explain how, for the last 10 years, they have been attempting to reconcile those very things.
“Everyone grieves differently, “Jim, Sam’s father and often a man of few words, said. “And that’s okay.”
Teresa, Sam’s mother, said, “My faith. It’s definitely my faith that has kept me going. Knowing I will see Sam again, knowing that God has a plan for us, and knowing it’s a plan to prosper and not harm us.”
She explained how she believes God’s ways are not always our ways. “Jim was diagnosed with cancer twice and had a massive heart attack that left him in heart failure. His mom died of cancer. My mom died of cancer. My sister died of cancer. Those are hard things. But, when you go through hard things, there are blessings, too. So, although I would never wish something like this for anybody else, I know I have blessings that other people can’t understand.”
Jim, a pilot for Delta Airlines, discovered that flying was where he could find peace. Teresa said, “He really needed to work. So instead of taking a couple of months off, he went straight back to flying. Jacob [Sam’s brother] was in the second grade. On the one hand, I had this overwhelming grief. But on the other hand, Jacob gave me a reason to get up in the morning and keep going. I don’t know what I would have done without him. Oh my goodness, I’ve had children in school for over 30 years now. If I could only grow up to be smart as Sam was. He was definitely wise beyond his years.”
According to the Groruds, the Milbank Area does not have a support group for parents who have lost a child. Teresa said, “It’s probably because it’s a small town. I’ve mentioned to our pastor that if anyone is in need I am always willing to talk with them.”
She said, “Most couples who lose a child don’t make it. Our marriage has most certainly taken a hit, but we survived, and we have each other. She said , “Now that Jim has been retired for the last year, he does 98 percent of the cooking. He also does 99.9 percent of the grocery shopping and so many other things. Like this morning, I was thinking, ‘I’ll have a bowl of that leftover vegetable ham soup for lunch, but first I’ll hop in the shower.’ When I got downstairs, Jim had grilled pork chops and made baked potatoes and corn. Or, another morning, I might be lying in bed and he’ll bring me a ham omelet for breakfast. He really spoils me.” Jim sums it up by saying, “We have figured out how to offer each other grace.”
The Groruds have found comfort with their two dogs, Dory and Padre’. Dory used to keep watch over Sam on his bed in the hospital. Teresa said, “She would growl at the nurses. She was only 13 months old at the time and I wondered how a puppy could sit on that bed all day and not feel the need to run, roll around, or chew on things. She was a great comfort to Sam. She had a sixth sense, especially about his illness.”
“And Dory was particularly sensitive to any visitors in Sam’s room. She always protected him. I remember one doctor the nurses didn’t like, and we didn’t particularly like. We always hoped she wouldn’t have to come in to care for Sam. It seemed as though Dory knew this doctor was not kind hearted. The nurses laughed at her insight. They’d say, ‘Yep. She’s a good judge of character.'”
Sam, however, was adored by the hospital staff. Isaac Lindquist, now a graduate student in Omaha, and Sam were close friends from the MHS Class of 2013. Isaac recalled, “In 2016, I volunteered for my basketball team at our conference tournament at the Children’s Hospital in Sioux Falls. The director was speaking, and she talked about one of her favorite patients. She described how he acted in the hospital and the sheer size of his funeral. I nudged my teammate and said ‘I think she’s talking about my friend.'”
“I approached her afterward to ask if she had been talking about Sam. She looked at me wide eyed and wondered if I knew him. When I said, ‘Yes’, she got all teary eyed and gave me a big bear hug. Five years later, Sam still meant so much to so many people.”
Teresa also tells how when Sam died at the hospital in Minneapolis, his room was full of staff members. “I had no idea who those people were. I recognized some of his doctors, but who were all the other people? It turns out, they were x-ray technicians, cat scan techs, and other workers from different parts of the hospital that we never saw. We learned Sam had met them and had touched them all in his way.”
“I tell people he literally preached the message of God around the world because his CaringBridge page went to many countries. As you know, he died on December 8, so, Christmas cards from Germany, Australia, and England arrived in the mail just after he had passed away.”
“Sam always had a tremendous message of hope,” Teresa said. “And he was always so positive. It didn’t matter if he had just thrown up or endured a painful procedure. Someone would come by and say, ‘How are you?’ He’d always reply, ’Fantastic.’ I really want that to be remembered about him.”
Sierra Baumgart remembers learning from Sam. Sierra, who is now an executive assistant in Phoenix, said, “One of my favorite memories is when Megan (Schliesman) Halajian and I went to visit him in the Sioux Falls Children’s Hospital. Sam mentioned how long it had been since he had been outside so Megan and I convinced the nurses to let the three of us go and hang out in the grass. I remember sitting and soaking in the sunlight and noticing just how happy it made Sam. It was obvious he was so thankful for the gift of being outside. It made me see what a truly amazing person he was even with everything that was going on. I will always look back very fondly on that day.”
Megan (Schliesman) Halajian, now a pharmacist, lives in Broomfield, Colorado. She said, “One of my favorite memories of Sam (though likely not our parents’ favorite) was playing Texas Hold ’em tournaments during recess in elementary school. Though it was short lived, he was undoubtedly a worthy opponent!”
“The one that sticks out the most to me about Sam, though, is his infectious smile. No matter what was going on or what we were doing, he was all smiles. Usually, he had a few cheesy jokes to go along with it, but he found the light in every situation and made the best of it.”
Megan said, “If I could talk to Sam today, I would say, ‘Your strength during the most difficult of times is a constant reminder to keep living each day to its fullest. Never take a moment for granted. Do all things with joy. I will never forget your ability to laugh through it all. We miss you more than words can say. Thank you for smiling down on us these past 10 years.’”
“It’s 10 years later,” Taylor Welberg remarked, “and I am still choking up trying to write this. Sam, I wish you could have been around these last few years. I could have used some of your advice. Thanks again. You helped me more than I felt I ever deserved. Love ya man!”
Taylor now works as a success coach in Sioux Falls and he added, “Hold tight to people in your life like Sam. Those who bring you a smile every day, those who give you a hard time but in the only way that seems to make you laugh, those who are kind beyond measure, and lastly, those who show you they care. Sam was one of those people to me and many, many more. Hold those people tight and cherish them every day.”
“Sam was definitely a gift,” Teresa said. “It took me seven years to get pregnant with Sam and all that time, I would cry out to God, ‘Please give me a child! Please give me a child!’ And I would hear Him say to me, ‘Are you willing to take on a challenge? And I would think of all the things that could happen, and it freaked me out. I’d hesitate and say, ‘I can’t do that.’ Then, months would go by, and we would repeat our conversation. Finally, I said, ’I will take whatever you will give me. Just give me a child.'”
“When Sam was born his pediatrician came in and he said Sam is so perfect, we can’t find a single identifying mark to put on his birth certificate. Then, 16 years later, I finally found out the challenge God was asking me to take. But, would I do it all again? Yes! And over and over and over again!”
“But, when people ask me how many children I have, I say ‘four’ because Sam’s still my child.” The Groruds have an older son Dustin, 34; Jacob, who graduated last year from MHS; and Hunter who joined their family a year ago in August. Hunter, who is Jacob’s brother, was 13 when he arrived, although he had spent many summers in Milbank.
Teresa recalled, “When Hunter was born, he and Sam began this amazing relationship and it always continued. The time Hunter visited Sam in the hospital, though, was the only time I saw Sam sad about his sickness. Hunter walked in the room all excited and found Sam hooked up to seven different pumps with wires going everywhere. Hunter had seen Sam without his hair and never seemed to notice, but, that time, he was really scared. Sam became sad because Hunter was afraid. I remember thinking: maybe God knows Hunter needs a guardian angel and when you get to heaven you can watch out for him. He’s that link to Jacob.” Maybe Sam is also that link for others.
Teresa said, “When Sam died, we’d been in Minneapolis for almost six months. We expected to stay for three days, maybe. So, we took clothes for only three days. But, along the way, we picked up more stuff. We had a load going home, and friends came to help us. Jim was holding the door and saying things like ‘take that box to the office’. Two years later, I went into the room where the cell phone from the hospital ended up. The phone had been packed away for two years, but the alarm went off that day. How could it have any juice after two years? I knew it was a message from Sam.”
“And, a couple of days before my dad died, he saw Sam and said, ‘Oh, there’s Sam.’ My sister said, ‘Dad, do you see Sam?’ Dad said, “Well, he’s right over there in the corner.’ And she said, ‘Dad, do you think Sam’s here to take you home?’ He answered, ‘Oh, no, not yet!
Our other sister was out of the country and couldn’t get home for three days. My dad waited for her to arrive home and then died within a couple of hours. I know that Sam was there the entire time waiting for my dad to be ready.”
“Also, as I recall, it was the day my sister was coming home, when my dad put on his angry voice and said, ‘No, Not Yet!’ I don’t know who he was talking to – God, an angel, Sam. I don’t know, but I know Sam was there waiting for him”
“My nephew, Dewey, was almost five when Sam died,” Teresa related. “God gave Dewey a special gift. When we knew Sam was near the end, somebody called my brother in Arizona. It was nighttime and my brother started to pack and my sister-in-law began to look for flights. Dewey asked, ‘Dad, Dad, what are you doing?’ My brother said, ‘We have to get to Minnesota before Sam dies. We’re trying to get ready.’ ‘Daddy’, the little boy responded, ‘Sam won’t die until afternoon. (Sam died at two o’clock in the afternoon.)
Teresa continued, “Sam had entered the stage when he stopped communicating with us, but when my brother’s family got there, Sam woke up and spent three more days with us. We were sitting on Sam’s bed in the hospital, Dewey was with us, and we were playing music. Suddenly, Dewey said, ‘Daddy, I see the angels coming.'”
“In the weeks after Sam died, Dewey said, ‘Dad, Dad, Sam wants a hot dog.’ I can laugh now because Sam was always about the food. He loved food. At church at age five, he shouted out his favorite food was broccoli. But, I really believe Sam was there spending time with Dewey because of Dewey’s special gift. Yes, there are a lot of ways we still sense him with us.”
“Of course, it’s different and at times I feel jealous of other mothers. There is sorrow. Seeing his classmates there’s joy, but there’s sorrow, too. Just a couple of months ago, we went to Sam’s girlfriend’s wedding. She has kept in close contact with us, and there was such joy at her wedding. But, I admit, I sat there and thought that could have been Sam.”
Although Sam is absent in body, he remains in spirit. Many of his classmates from the MHS Class of 2013 understand that.
Sierra Baumgart also said, “If I could, I would tell Sam we all still remember him. And without fail, every year around the beginning of December, a classmate reaches out to check in. Even though we all went through something traumatic, Sam brought us together and continues to do so.”
Rachel (Richardt) Stephan, now an RN in Sioux Falls, agrees. “Thank you, Sam, for being such an amazing friend. You taught me so much at a young age during your battle and it has made me a better person. I miss you so much!”
Sam also lives on by assisting other students financially. In honor of Sam, the Groruds fund a one-year scholarship for an MHS senior through the Milbank Education Fund. They are also considering extending it to a two-year scholarship. Teresa said, “One way that people can remember Sam is to donate to the Milbank Education Foundation in Sam’s memory. That will help fund the second year scholarship.”
Even before the scholarship was started, Sam had an impact on students – not only in Milbank, but across South Dakota.
Dezmond Ward, who now works at the US Capitol and lives in Washington, DC, recalls. I met Sam in first grade and we instantly hit it off. We became the best of friends (except for that time in fourth grade when we fought over the same girl.”)
“My senior year at MHS, I served as the student body president. One of my responsibilities was to lead the student council in raising money for the Children’s Miracle Network and present the check at the annual South Dakota Student Council Convention in Pierre.
That year, the speaker began by telling a story about a boy who battled cancer, yet he had maintained an upbeat and positive attitude. I immediately knew it was Sam.
The recollection was difficult to hear, as it was unexpected, and I didn’t have time to brace myself for such intense feelings. But, what struck me most was that kids who never knew Sam – kids who were from places all around the state – were overcome by Sam’s story. Sam was still making a difference and touching lives. That’s what Sam did.
It was with pride that I went up on that stage to present our check and introduce myself as being from Milbank, the home of Sam Grorud.
That experience has helped me as I continue to grieve Sam. The feelings come unannounced and the sadness can be triggered by simple things like a song that takes me back to a time when Sam was there.
Each year, on the anniversary of his death and on his birthday, I remember my friend and the impact he made on my life during his short time on this earth. His life was a gift and he will never be forgotten.”
Teresa, of course, had not read any of these comments from Sam’s friends when she said, “I love it when Sam’s classmates stop over to visit, send a message, or I run into them at the store. I have appreciated every wedding invitation and every announcement of a new baby. Because I do want him to be remembered.”
“A lot of times, though, I’ll have tears and people will misunderstand. They say, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said anything.’ My tears, though, are tears of joy. I have tremendous joy in having had this child. And I do want him to be remembered. He did a lot of good things in his short life.”
Sam’s gravesite is in the east end of the cemetery,” Jim said. “There’s a bench nearby to sit on.” Teresa added, “When we decided to place the bench there and to put Sam’s words on it, I thought, I hope a hundred years from now, somebody will be sitting on this bench thinking about, oh, what must this child have been like. I love the idea that people go out there and sit.”
Sam’s bench might be a quiet place to go if you, like the Groruds, are grieving the loss of a loved one this holiday season. Truth be told, we all are. We never stop missing the people we love. But, when the greatest truth is told, we know they haven’t truly died. Love is eternal. They might seem far away, but they are never gone. Gaze heavenward and find the star that guided the wisemen to the baby Jesus. Then, look again. There’s a star with Sam’s name on it.