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Kentucky by Heart: Writing, faith in God help Rita Setness cope with unexpected loss of son

By Steve Flairty
KyForward columnist

Writing a book called Surviving Child Loss was, for Nicholasville resident Rita Setness, part of her personal therapy in attempting to survive the loss of a child.

In fact, her writing about son Jonathon began soon after his unexpected death at age 26 in December 2013. As one might expect, the emotional blow of her son’s sudden passing tossed Rita head long into a frantic search to make sense of such a cruel interlude–more like an ambush-—into her family’s life.

“Right after I lost Jonathon, I realized that even though I lost him, I still had a connection,” she said. “I could still talk to him…not that he’d answer back, I’m not crazy. (But) I started writing him a letter every day: ‘Dear Jonathon…,’ telling him what I was thinking, how I was feeling, what was going on with the family.”

The Setness family: Jonathon, Zachary, Rita and Brandon (Photo Provided)

The two were very close, even at his birth, she noted. Jonathon, even while growing into adulthood, loved to talk with her about the day he had, the things going on in his life, and the challenges he struggled with. There are the other two sons, Brandon, the oldest, and Zach, the youngest. The relationships they had with their mother have also been good, but in a different way.

“Because their personalities were so alike, Brandon and Zach butted heads a bit,” said Rita, “and Jonathon was always the peacemaker.”

But one should not construe Jonathon to be a soft piece of milquetoast who let others run over him. Rita talked about the weight problem he had while growing up, and how some tried to pick on him when he was a high school senior. It stopped rather abruptly, however.

“He had a manner and command of himself that they just didn’t pick on him,” she said.

Jonathon dealt with a medical condition called polycystic kidney disease, a condition that Rita also battled earlier in her life. She underwent a kidney transplant in 1997, and has been relatively healthy since. Though Jonathon died, officially, of a brain aneurysm, it was connected to his kidney condition, along with a stroke, according to Rita.

She still remembers vividly the Friday morning that she found her son motionless in the family’s basement, where he was lodged between the laundry room door and a freezer.

“I had finished reading the paper and was going to go get my nails done, so I went to the top of the stairs and was calling his name,” she recalled. When he didn’t answer, Rita walked downstairs and soon found Jonathon.

He was pronounced dead at the Saint Joseph Jessamine Emergency Room a few hours later.

Predictably, Rita was devastated, as were her husband, Michael Setness, the other two boys, others in the family and friends. It was totally unexpected, and according to a doctor close to the situation, he would have expired even if he had been in the presence of medical attention.

Steve Flairty grew up feeling good about Kentucky. He recalls childhood day trips (and sometimes overnight ones) orchestrated by his father, with the take-off points being in Campbell County. The people and places he encountered then help define his passion about the state now. After teaching 28 years, Steve spends much of his time today writing and reading about the state, and still enjoys doing those one dayers (and sometimes overnighters). “Kentucky by Heart” shares part and parcel of his joy. A little history, much contemporary life, intriguing places, personal experiences, special people, book reviews, quotes, and even a little humor will, hopefully, help readers connect with their own “inner Kentucky.”

Looking back now at the difficult journey of learning how to live without the physical presence of her middle son, she remembers things like her early denial that Jonathon was dead, the things said to her in the aftermath that hurt even though meant to help, and in a positive vein, the reassurance she feels today regarding the fact that not long before Jonathon’s death, she had spent some meaningful moments with him in the middle of the night as he needed comfort on some personal issues.

A tough experience such as Rita’s can be shared with words, but not truly understood unless something similar has happened to those hearing those words.

“It was like I was lost in a valley,” she said. “I remember going to the grocery store with Michael to get some meat…and not being able to figure out what I’d do with it if I bought it. Everything was dark. I remember the boys coming and we’d talk and cry together. That helped me more than anything.”

Those around Rita tried to say the right things, but for some, it didn’t turn out that way. She offered these examples.

“Somebody said to me: ‘Can’t you just pretend that he’s somewhere else?’” Of a recent infant being born in the family, a person remarked: “Can’t you just be happy about the baby?” Another mentioned to Rita that they knew of someone who had lost two or three kids, but that “they’re doing just fine.”

But rather than becoming habitually bitter, Rita continued to write about grieving and relying on her faith in God. That included a regular online blog that she noted grew to have 300 to 700 readers. That led to Surviving Child Loss, published by WestBow Press in May. It has 224 pages and is divided into short, daily devotions written in a personal way about the subject. She shares her difficulties, yet also manages to add Christian perspective.

“With the book, I just hope to help people as much as it has helped me to write it,” she said. “My thought was that it would be helpful to me and a ministry to help just a few parents to find their way through this maze of pain and anguish and everything that cycles through us.”

This column originally appeared on September 20, 2016

NOTE: Rita Setness will be signing her book as one of the authors at the Kentucky Book Fair this Saturday, November 18, 9-4, at the Kentucky Horse Park.

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Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of six books: a biography of former Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and five in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. Steve’s “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #4,” was released in 2015. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly KyForward and NKyTribune columnist and a member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.” (Steve’s photo by Connie McDonald)

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