Processing Grief Through Art

Alumni honor friend through book "The Stars in the Sky"

December 13, 2022 |

Haylee Blauert and Jason Jasperson in front of artwork from The book their authored and illustrated called "The Stars in the Sky"

Master of Science alumni Haylee Blauert and Jason Jaspersen (pictured) wrote and illustrated a book about grief and loss. The two participated in a panel discussion and art exhibit around the book's themes of mental health, mentorship, grief, and creativity at Bethany Lutheran College.


In 2016, a program connected to Recreation and Parks Leadershp Studies at Minnesota State University, Mankato received devastating news: 2015 graduate Rob Kinzel had been killed in a car accident. He was just 33 years old.

Kinzel’s instructors and classmates were gutted by the loss of the loving, vibrant and charismatic young man.

“Rob was a creative and authentic person,” Jason Jaspersen, a 2019 graduate says. “You felt known when you talked with him. He burned calories just by listening.”

Creative Reflection

Jaspersen soon realized that others mourning Kinzel had similar feelings.

“Rob made an impact on people everywhere he went,” Jaspersen says. “He grew up in New Jersey, went to college in Kentucky and grad school in Minnesota. His community in each place shared the same sentiments about him. Everyone wanted more of him.”

A page from the book "The Stars in the Sky"

That included another classmate, Haylee Blauert, a 2016 graduate. As the one-year anniversary of Kinzel’s death approached, Blauert found herself doing some creative reflection—a hallmark of the experiential education learning process. “I found myself thinking about what you do when someone dies,” Blauert says. “There are no answers.”

As Blauert continued to reflect, she began thinking of creative ways to memorialize Kinzel and share his impact with others. Eventually, the kindergarten teacher landed on an idea close to her heart: writing a children’s book. “I love children’s literature,” she says. “So much happens in children’s stories.” Blauert knew she’d need a talented artist to partner with to bring the story to life.

For that, she tapped Jaspersen, an artist and art professor. “It had to be Jason,” Blauert says. “He knew Rob and had already done a portrait that captured Rob’s character.”

Making the Hurt Helpful

The result of their collaboration, “The Stars in the Sky,” is a moving tribute to Kinzel’s spirit and a meditation on what we experience when someone we love disappears.

In the book, Kinzel is represented by a character named Sir Robert, a “humble leader” who is “respected and trusted” by the people of his village. Sir Robert is an adventurer, a thinker, and a teacher. Sometimes he shares his adventures with other villagers; other times he travels alone.

During one solo adventure, Sir Robert travels into the Dark Forest surrounding the village. He’d avoided the mysterious place for years, warned away by stories of other travelers who’d ventured in but not out. On this journey, the woods “began to whisper words only Sir Robert could hear.”

The allure of those words drew him into the Dark Forest, forever. “And though Sir Robert never returned, the scatteredremanence of his light touched the trees, the sky, the hearts of every person who knew him,” Blauert writes in the book. “Through the stars in the sky, they could feel his goodness.”

Though the book strikes a hopeful tone about loss, it does not provide answers. That’s by design, Blauert says. “Experiential Education says questions are more important than answers,” she explains. “This book doesn’t offer resolution or answers.”

What it does provide is a way to approach one of the great mysteries of life—for those who knew the real Sir Robert, as well as for those who did not. “We tried to take a specific person and event and tap into something universal,” Jaspersen says. “We tried to find a way to make our hurt helpful.”

Learn more/purchase "The Stars in the Sky"
Video of the book