Delving through colorful baskets filled with sweets and presents, Kristin Albers and her three children enjoyed a traditional Easter morning. Emma, Eila and Charlie assembled Lego kits — with their mother’s helpful hand — in a sea of pastel candy wrappers.
These would be the children’s last moments with their mother.
As the children spent the rest of Easter Sunday 2016 with their father’s family, Kristin accompanied her parents to a family gathering just east of Red Wing’s city limits.
“She went straight for the desserts,” her mother, Jane Albers, said.
A strawberry cream cheese dessert with a graham cracker crust, one of Kristin’s favorites.
Kristin later approached her father, Gary Albers, requesting a ride home.
“She looked so sick,” Jane said. “Her face was green.”
It was the last time Jane would see her daughter alive.
At the house the three generations shared, Kristin asked her father to wake her up at 5 p.m. before the kids returned home.
Calling downstairs as an alarm clock, Gary received no response. Checking the basement, he made a devastating discovery.
“Never in my life would I have thought that Kristin would commit suicide,” her mother said.
Family and friends were left numb and shocked as the rounds of phone calls began.
Why would a 34-year-old, devoted mother end her life with a rope?
In the last month before her death, Kristin spent time in two Twin Cities-area mental health facilities. Her support system — friends and family — said Kristin was more than willing to receive help.
She was hopeful. She had plans to better her life. What still angers those closest to Kristin is the lack of help she received, they said.
“A bed would open up, they’d keep her for 72 hours, then cycle her out for the next person,” Sarah Hendel Goering said, a friend of Kristin and her family. “No follow-up care or instructions besides a recommendation to see a doctor.”
Jane pleaded with staff at the facilities.
“Do you know how bad she is?” the mother would ask. “Can’t you help her?”
According to a Treatment Advocacy Center report, Minnesota closed approximately 56 percent of its psychiatric beds, plunging the state to the bottom of the nation in terms of beds per 100,000 residents at 3.9.
The decline continued since 2010, as Minnesota dropped to three and one-half beds per 100,000 residents, with Iowa rounding out the bottom at two beds per 100,000 residents after shutting down nearly 60 percent of its beds over that span.
It was no secret that Kristin struggled in her last year. Watching her go through “cycles of chaos” and mental health facility stays, friends and family said she was never diagnosed. She was never given a medical care plan.
Just eight days before her death, Kristin was released after a 72-hour stay in St. Cloud, Minn. Her discharge instructions, Hendel Goering said, were to see a doctor and try taking a new drug.
“We were researching a more long-term or in-patient type of treatment for Kristin,” Nicky Buck said, another close friend. “But we ran out of time.”
Realizing a disconnect
It was the summer of 2015 when those closest to Kristin started to notice some changes in her behavior. However, considering the events occurring at the time, friends said, the changes were not baseless.
“Life threw a lot at Kristin in a short amount of time,” Hendel Goering said.
Kristin and her then-husband Jason had been working on their marriage for some time. They discussed relocating to Florida, but divorce became inevitable. Jason, in the end, moved to Florida. Kristin remained in Red Wing with the children, a home to sell and a new chapter of life to begin. Kristin and the children moved in with her parents.
“That was a hard decision for her to make, but we could help her with the kids,” Jane said.
The first signs Hendel Goering noticed were bouts of confusion: “She would seem disconnected from reality, just slightly at first.” Hendel Goering recalls reasoning with Kristin, talking her back to reality.
“She would take some everyday object or news event as a sign for herself or that it was meant for her,” Hendel Goering said.
That autumn, Kristin’s confusion deepened. She became paranoid, seeing illusions and delusions.
“She would tell us that ISIS and the Illuminati were after her, that birds and deer outside the window were spying on her,” Hendel Goering said. “She had codes for everything. It changed constantly.”
LISTEN: Sarah Hendel Goering and Nicky Buck talk about the horror of doubting reality.
She was so scared, her family said. To her, it was real — the things she was seeing and hearing.
Throughout winter, Kristin was circling. Making plans, breaking plans.
“I would tell her that the sickness is making you believe machines are talking to you and birds are giving you signs,” Hendel Goering said. “It may appear real to you, but it is not.”
Jane said Kristin would ask frequently, “Do you believe me?”
“I would tell her, ‘Kristin you’re a good person, don’t believe that stuff’,” her mother said.
In late February 2016, Kristin was taken to the hospital in Red Wing. She was treated by emergency room staff.
“Red Wing saw the severity of Kristin’s mental health, they were not going to release her,” Buck said.
Kristin spent three days in Red Wing’s care, while staff worked toward getting her into a mental health facility.
“They had to wait because there weren’t any beds available,” Hendel Goering said.
In 2015, nearly 90 percent of emergency physicians surveyed said they held patients in their emergency rooms for lack of space in designated mental health facilities, according to the Treatment Advocacy Center.
A bed opened in Hennepin County. Kristin was admitted for 72 hours, then released.
“They told her to go see her doctor. That was all. No appointments set or follow-up,” Jane said.
Arriving back home, Kristin was tired, her family said, but began working adamantly on future plans. She had been working two waitressing jobs in town, but was aiming for more.
“The goal was to work at BIC in Red Wing for a year, get a balance back to her life, get her mental health in order,” Hendel Goering said. Kristin then planned to transfer to the Clearwater, Fla., BIC plant with the children.
“She and Jason could co-parent together,” Hendel Goering said.
In mid-March, Kristin’s focus turned toward Emma’s, Eila’s and Charlie’s birthdays.
Amidst the parties, strong paranoia, illusions and delusions started sneaking in again. Searching for their own answers, friends and family thought that Kristin’s behavior were symptoms of schizophrenia and potentially psychosis. They wondered if her automated, repeated prescriptions to treat ADHD were contributing to her worsening paranoia.
LISTEN: Gary Albers explains what it was like trying to reason with his daughter.
“When she was talking more about non-reality things than reality, I knew that she was teetering over that line,” Buck said. “She knew she needed to go get help again, but needed to wait a few days for Charlie’s birthday.”
Charlie’s birthday was the last of the three.
Throughout the circling, Kristin managed to work, be a mother, prepare for a job interview and land the job.
“She was set to start her new job the 28th,” Jane said. “She was so excited.”
March 28 never came for Kristin.
Battling for reality
Kristin had returned home from St. Cloud eight days before her death.
Nicky and Sarah both communicated with her the day before Easter.
“I felt her sadness,” Buck said. “She was a good mom, but she felt like a failure.”
LISTEN: Nicky Buck describes feeling her friend's sadness.
Throughout those final months, family and friends did not shy away from asking her if she would ever plan to hurt herself.
“She grabbed my arm,” said Sarah, demonstrating with a forceful grip, “and looked me in the eye and said she would never do that to her children. They were her entire world.”
Driving home from the family Easter meal to rest, Gary asked Kristin the question again.
“We got home and I asked her if she was going to do anything to herself,” he said. “She said, ‘No, no, no. I would never do that to my kids’.”
Something must have snapped, her parents and friends agree. Her sickness in that moment took over and became stronger than her reality.
The days following Kristin’s death were a blur, her parents said. Jane doesn’t remember the funeral, just small details.
A year later, the pain felt by Jane, Gary, Sarah and Nicky remains raw. It rises, palpable in the air as they speak together about their beloved Kristin.
Born in Seoul, South Korea, Kristin was adopted by Gary and Jane and brought home at the age of 6 months.
“She was something else,” Jane said with a small laugh, recalling her daughter’s childhood. “She was very smart, almost too smart for her own good.”
Stories make it clear that Kristin brought a certain excitement and spiritedness with her wherever she ventured.
“She had a sparkle,” Hendel Goering said. “The laughs never stopped when you were with her.”
“Her energy could get me so excited, no matter what I would be dealing with, she brought brightness to my life,” Buck said.
Everyone agrees that she loved meeting new people and could talk to anyone.
Her friends cherish the story about Kristin seeing a homeless man near an intersection.
“She went into Walgreens, bought some food and supplies, then went and talked to him,” Hendel Goering said. “She didn’t have much herself, but she was doing her part in that moment to make a person happy or smile.”
Friends since middle school, Hendel Goering can’t bring herself to erase phone messages from Kristin.
“I lost my soul sister,” she said, “and those kids lost their mom.”
Emma, Eila and Charlie now live in Florida with their father.
“They all pull beautiful qualities from her,” Buck said. “Her brightness, her heart, her passion for things and her kindness.”
“And the silliness,” Hendel Goering adds with a smile.
Life after death
Gathered around the table where Kristin left her suicide note, her parents and closest friends have far more questions than answers a year later.
“Why wouldn’t they help her?”
“Where are the resources?”
Jane has reached out to lawmakers and medical professionals. Local doctors who knew and treated Kristin have reached out to the family.
“They told me that Kristin should be alive,” Jane said. “They knew, we all knew, she never wanted to kill herself. Doctors do everything they can to help a cancer patient. Why was Kristin any different?”
Mental health funding discussions are occurring nationwide.
Currently, Minnesota lawmakers are looking at ways to offset a loss in federal funding for mental health care. Health and human services funding proposals from Gov. Mark Dayton, the House and Senate each include more than $6 million over two years to offset looming losses of federal funding.
Kristin’s supporters have become advocates for greater attention to mental health needs, educating themselves on systemic issues.
“Some of the best doctors who want to help can’t because they have protocol to follow — and a lack of beds, resources and money,” Hendel Goering said.
Kristin’s family and friends encourage anyone seeing signs of a struggle or change in a loved one to seek mental health guidance. Their passion for mental health awareness, however, comes at a painful cost.
“I can’t understand why they help other illnesses to the extent that they do, and not mental health,” Buck said with frustration. “It’s just not right.”
Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States, according to American Foundation for Suicide Prevention data.
“It might be you next time, or someone in your family,” Jane said. “There’s too much of this happening.”