How a grieving wife started a suicide loss survivors group in Eagle County

Kris Miller writes that the group is a love letter to her husband

Kris Miller
For the Vail Daily

After longtime local Kenny Dahlberg took his own life, his wife formed a support group for those who have lost loved ones to death by suicide.
Courtesy photo

As part of this year’s Longevity Project focusing on behavioral health issues in the High Country, the Vail Daily asked readers to share their personal stories. We’re sharing this submission with permission from Kris Miller, who hopes that her story can help others who are struggling with grief and loss. This article discusses death by suicide and suicidal ideation, and some people might find it triggering. If you or someone you know is in crisis, please contact your physician, go to your local emergency room, call Eagle Valley Behavioral Health’s 24/7 crisis line at (970) 306-4673 or Colorado Crisis Services at (844) 493-8255 or text TALK to 38255.

October 27 was a Friday, just like any other countless Fridays before.

My husband Kenny Dahlberg awoke long before the sun to arrive at his job at Home Depot on time.

Kenny was a beautiful soul with a bright heart. He was an athlete from the very beginning, playing peewee sports in his tiny hometown of Effie, Minnesota.

As Kenny grew, so did his natural athleticism. By the time Kenny was in high school, he was the quarterback for the varsity football team, the captain of the basketball team, and the captain of the baseball team as well as a mighty pitcher with wheels that could outrun most any ball. He ended up going to college on a baseball scholarship.

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While Kenny loved being on all of his teams, one of the challenges he faced was, that while fast, Kenny had a small but mighty offense. Kenny took hit after hit as the quarterback. This was back in the day that sacking a quarterback was highly encouraged, and helmets were in their infancy. It retrospect, those hits may have taken a toll more than we will ever know.

After attending college, Kenny learned quickly that he was much better suited to be in the woods, hauling lumber for his dad and grandpa in the logging business, than sitting in a classroom. He soon found himself back in the North Woods hauling lumber to paper mills like the Potlach Corporation and into Winnipeg. Never missing an opportunity to push some boundaries, and never meeting a stranger, Kenny soon figured out how to bootleg “real Canadian Molson” in the jump seat of his 18-wheeler on return trips from Canada for he and his buddies to enjoy on the weekend.

I don’t know what it was about Molson from Canada versus Molson in the liquor store, but apparently the Canadian brew was so much better that it was worth the effort,

As the logging industry began to slow, and Kenny having an itch to do something new, he got a call from a friend and decided to head west, ultimately winding up in the Eagle River Valley.

Kenny, like so many, got a job doing maintenance and driving taxis. This left plenty of time for socializing, making new friends and enjoying the long ago, truly pleasurable nightlife in Vail — the olden days, I always say.

Kenny kept his athletic prowess tended to by playing softball (beer league), baseball (competitive league), pickup basketball at the school as well as coaching women’s softball and playing golf.

Never one to let the status quo warm under his feet, Kenny wanted something more. Wanted to create something of his own — a legacy of sorts here in the valley.

There was a tiny little hole in the wall dive bar (Kenny’s favorite kind) in Avon called the Penalty Box. Kenny became friendly with the owners, and ultimately bought the bar. He worked hard, taught himself the food and beverage industry, and created the greatest locals spot ever called The Brass Parrot.

Kenny Dahlberg serves a beer at The Brass Parrot, the locals bar he started in Avon.
Kristin Anderson/Vail Daily archive

People flocked from near (the apartments upstairs), and far (a list a celebrities that will go down in infamy), to the most comfortable, easygoing, inclusive restaurant (and still a bit of dive) bar in town.

As for myself, Kenny and my trajectory had continually crossed paths ever since his early days in town (I was fortunate enough to grow up here). Ultimately, due to powers left up to the imagination, the office I worked in was right across the hall from The Brass Parrot front door. Kenny and I became wonderful friends and confidants. We were so very fortunate to fall in love with our best friend — we were married up at Piney Lake back in the day when it was still cool and rugged, and not everyone knew about it.

The Brass Parrot continued to thrive and Kenny was incredibly proud of what he built. So many people met at the Parrot, began dating and ultimately started families of their own. I can’t begin to imagine how many people Kenny’s dream touched, and created new dreams for them and their families.

The Parrot had a good run — 21 years in this valley in food and beverage is a big deal. As with all things, times changed. The landlord wanted to sell the space for over a million dollars, which, was out of Kenny’s reach no matter how we looked at it. He made the impossible decision to sell the business, however, due to lease negotiation difficulties; he ultimately had to close the doors on his dream.

We spent some time post-Parrot goofing off. Lots of trips to Lake Powell with our beloved German shepherds, and a few trips back and forth to his family cabin on a lake in Northern Minnesota. Never one to sit idle, Kenny went to work — punching a time clock at Home Depot. He quickly grew through the ranks there due to his incredible work ethic, and his natural ability to run equipment. He became a trainer for trainers on all the equipment, and was a safety manager.

I wish I could pinpoint a day, or a moment in time when Kenny became cloudy, depressed or angry. I cannot. There were subtle changes. He quit walking as tall as he once did, he started talking about failures (closing his beloved business), he became more quiet, more inside of his own head, less social, less joyful.

These changes were subtle in nature. There’s nothing that glared out to us, the people that love him. All of these indicators are ideas I have rationalized in the endless days and nights since his death. I have spent so much time retracing every conversation, every nuance I can think of to make sense of what happened next. Did he sustain injuries playing football? I will never know. Did he battle a hidden depression for years? Was there one moment that caused Kenny to hurt, or was it a culmination of a life lived?

Oct. 27, the Friday like so many others, starting out without fanfare, just another workday. When Kenny arrived home after his shift, we sat down as we did every day at the end of work. Since it was a Friday, we talked about the weekend. Did we want to try to get together with some friends for brunch at the Turntable? Did we want to make some menus and cook the weekend away as we had done countless weekends before? I decided to run out to pick up some eggs. I was probable gone 20 minutes.

When I returned, Kenny had a noticeable and negative change in character and mood. He was angry and sullen. The rest of this story is too difficult to put in to print. Suffice it to say, one minute I was getting the dogs fresh water, the next, my husband was dead. A life ended too soon. A life full of hope and plans and love, all gone, in an instant.

The only part of this story that is mine is what has happened since Kenny died. There was a long period of time that my dogs and I simply hid from the world. We were alone in our grief, no matter how much friends and family and church members tried to help. Grief due to the loss of a loved one by suicide is like no other grief. It has a life of its own. A taste, and smell, and tangible weight that is unrelenting and ever present. It is a process of one hour at a time, then one day, and so one. There are days a person simply cannot do more than the basics of living — brushing your teeth becomes victorious as you have finally accomplished something towards the living side of life.

Because Kenny was such a light, and built such a legacy, I needed to do something.

It has become my passion to create the Suicide Loss Survivors Group. This group now has backing from Gracious Savior Church and SpeakUp ReachOut. It is in its sophomore iteration now.

I continue to receive training and guidance to become a valuable member of our grieving community, to help others that are helpless, during a time that is unfathomable to most. Grieving Kenny is never ending; my ability to help others is a way to honor the man who gave so much joy to everyone he met. This group is my love letter to him. This group will be part of his legacy.

Our next five-week group begins Monday, Jan. 10, 2022. It will run for five consecutive Mondays from 5-6:30 p.m. at Gracious Savior Church, and online. More information will be available as we approach the New Year.

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