This is the last picture of Endre and Birgitte. – Then the avalanche came.
“This is an amazing day!” It is the voice of Birgitte (25) calling out to her husband, Endre (30) who is ahead of her on the ski trek as they make their way along Durmålstinden, which towers 1,061 meters above sea level. It is a sunny Maundy Thursday afternoon in Tromsø, which is situated in the north of Norway. Birgitte was able to exchange her evening shift to a day shift at the hospital where she worked in order to use the evening to do what she and her husband love to do the most: go skiing in powder snow under an open sky.
During the ski trip they talk praise each other’s skills and laugh, clearly in love, as they film their adventure. This video will capture some good memories for them to take with them when they travel eastwards in a few months to fulfill their dreams of working with both medical aid and missions. Birgitte stretches her hands upwards in pure wonder when they finally reach the summit of the ski trek at seven o’clock in the evening.
At the same time, in the village of Ål located in Hallingdal, Bente Sletten finds herself celebrating a commemoration dinner at the local church. It is eight o’clock and the sky has grown dark. Together with her husband, Tor, Bente is seated at a long table surrounded by friends from church. They share bread and wine to remind them of Jesus’ last meal with his disciples and clearly enjoy each other’s company. During the meal, Bente shares her thoughts about communion, using the same words that she often did when explaining the meal to her children. She explains how Jesus knew that he was going to undergo a very painful experience soon and wanted to have fellowship with his friends before he went out into the darkness.
The same night, Bente sleepily checks the clock. The time is one thirty a.m. and the doorbell has been ringing. She answers the door to find the priest with whom she had shared communion earlier that night standing there. The words come rapidly out of his mouth. “Endre, your son-in-law, is dead. Birgitte is seriously injured and receiving care in the University Hospital in Tromsø.”
The young married couple had triggered an avalanche as they descended the mountain around eight o’clock. It had claimed the life of their son-in-law. Now the life of their daughter hung in the balance between life and death.
The Birgitte Cabin
“I went around the next few days with my insides frozen,” says Bente. “I was so in shock that I hardly cried.”
On this evening there is a fire lit inside the fireplace in the cabin secluded away in the mountains of Ål, but the memory of the accident over Easter is still printed inside their minds as clear as a photograph. There are pictures of Birgitte hanging on the walls and on the table lies an album from her wedding of two years before the accident. For her parents, this cabin which they bought after the accident has become their ‘Birgitte Cabin’. It is a place where they hope others can come to in order to regain their strength as they did.
“ ‘God, you just have to come through now’ was my main thought, ” says Bente when she explains how immediately after the accident a prayer group consisting of friends from all over the world formed to pray for their daughter.
“The first day after the accident we believed Birgitte would survive her injuries and we just thought through the practical consequences which would come from them. Would she be able to attend her own husbands funeral? Would she be able to recover all of her functions again? We can get through this! But then we began to realize that the situation was much more dangerous,” says Tor calmly.
In the hospital in Tromsø lay Birgitte. She was still warm and her skin tone normal. Her parents felt that it was good to be near her for as long as they could. Good Friday was longer than normal. In the hospital room they prayed together and then thanked their daughter for all of who she had been before saying their last goodbye on Saturday night. The injuries sustained made living impossible and slowly, but surely, her respiratory system shut down.
The apartment which Birgitte and Endre had left in hast to get up to the mountain stood forlorn. Small notes written to each other were scattered everywhere. The notes contained words of encouragement about how much they appreciated and loved the other. On the table Birgitte’s Bible lay open to the passage which she had been reading the morning before the accident: Psalm 103. Coming into the quiet, dark apartment was a hard thing for Birgitte’s mother. She explains that the moment she entered was when she realized that what had happened was absolutely final.
Birgitte’s parents know much of what happened before the avalanche accident. Friends and colleagues of the couple have filled in some details and then there are the film and photographs which the couple took themselves on the ski trek which explain much of what happened. Also, there were three teenagers sitting outside at a vantage point of Durmålstinden when the avalanche occurred. These three were the reason why the couple was excavated from the snow just forty-five minutes later.
“We know so much about their life and have evidence that everything was good with them right up to a few minutes before they died. This has made a difference in our grieving.”
Birgitte and Endre had been married for two years when the accident occurred. Today, there is a memorial stone for Birgitte in the graveyard next to the grave of her brother, Kristian.
A Test for Marriage
Bente and Tor know what sorrow is. They have also lost their oldest son, Kristian. He could not cope with life anymore when he walked onto thin ice on the river and drowned. In addition their grief over his death, both parents also carried with them the pain and despair which their son had known.
“In some ways it made the grief more brutal than when Birgitte was taken from us,” says Bente as she looks into the warm fire.
“Seeing the hope and testimony which Birgitte and Endre were when they lived has given us strength in our grief,” explains Tor.
“We have moved forward from the previous time and found new ways to deal with life. It is very painful to be in the same position again today,” says Bente.
The couple has grieved in different ways and at various times from each other. This has taken a toll on their marriage. Tor went back to work quickly, maintained his social engagements, and dealt with the pain by working out. Bente, on the other hand, withdrew and experienced feeling constantly tired.
“Many people are probably not aware of the differences which can exist between genders and couples when it comes to grieving. This tests married life. For me, it has been painful to see that Bente has struggle the most with sorrow,”says Tor.
“Both we and our other two children experience being out of alignment from the grief,” adds Tor after a pause.
For both Bente and Tor, the days after the accident are permanently stamped into their minds.
Comfort in the Words
“When the road ends and the sun goes down, so life begins in another place.” The warm tones of Jan Honningsdal’s voice fill the October air in the cabin with the same song which was sung at the funeral.
“They were so heaven focused and down to earth. They were always good to be around,” says Bente. She has found comfort in all of the notes and journals which Birgitte left behind. In particular, her three years in YWAM with missions work, both inside and outside Norway, paint a picture of a life lived closely with Jesus.”
“Birgitte was very open about her personal walk with Jesus and would often ask me if I would like to read this or that of something she had written. I see it now as a personal treasure in my life,” says Bente.
The Phone Message
The plane tickets for Birgitte and Endre had been ready and waiting for them. They should have left on a journey and had a job where they hoped that they would be able to make a difference. They had a vision of a ministry for those in desperate need. The following Autumn, Bente and Tor had made plans to visit the couple where they would have been living. Needless to say, their trip to visit their daughter and son-in-law never took place. Then, on a cold January day last year, they received a special phone call. It was the mission alliance calling to tell them that they had won a mission trip due to their contributions and help to the alliance.
“Thank God! We are able to travel to the East after all! It is a huge thing for us,” explains Bente. “With such a challenging year behind me, I am now ready to travel to the same area where Birgitte’s heart for missions was.”
Written by Åsne Gotehus Køhn. Translated by Emily Huyck.