Widow reflects on life, loss, family 1 year after West Fargo police officer's sudden death
Following the death of West Fargo Lt. Adam Gustafson on May 18, 2021, Amber Gustafson has faced the reality of a world without her husband. "The life and home we built, Adam and I did together. It took two functioning adults to make our jobs, home, kids and activities work. It should come as no surprise that it simply doesn’t work without Adam," she wrote.
WEST FARGO — It’s been a very long year since the sudden and heartbreaking death of 40-year-old West Fargo Police Lt. Adam Gustafson. A year filled with grief, loss, adjustment and enormous community support.
“Adam was always smiling,” said Amber Gustafson, Adam’s widow. “He didn’t get riled up about much. He was so funny. He could take difficult situations and find the humor in them.”
Adam grew up in Long Prairie, Minnesota, and spent his first two years of college at Minnesota State University, Mankato. He was so horrified by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that he left college and joined the Minnesota Army National Guard in 2001. He was deployed to Iraq in 2004 and spent seven years in the Army National Guard.
“He loved being in the Army,” Amber said. “He liked the camaraderie of it. He had a sense of pride in his country. He just loved America. I used to say Adam would paint the house red, white and blue if I let him.”
Adam’s time in Iraq convinced him to go into law enforcement. So, he finished college in 2008 with a degree in criminal justice from the University of North Dakota.
After training to become a licensed peace officer in Alexandria, Minnesota, Adam was hired by the West Fargo Police Department as a patrol officer in 2009. He thrived as a police officer and was promoted to lieutenant in 2018.
“He loved being a police officer,” Amber said. “It was the right spot for him. He worked very hard at it. He loved helping people. He loved the community engagement. He loved his co-workers. He was also the comedian of the police force.”
Amber, 42, grew up in Moorhead. She graduated from Moorhead High School, where she was active in dance, speech and theater. She went on to graduate from Minnesota State University Moorhead, where she majored in mass communications. I taught one of her classes, and she was an excellent student.
While in college, she joined the Army National Guard. She also worked at KVRR-TV in Fargo when I was news director there. Amber did a terrific job operating a studio camera or running the teleprompter for our live newscasts.
“I really liked being a production assistant,” Amber said. “It was really fun to see how a newscast is put together. A little stressful but very cool.”
With college graduation approaching, Amber was unsure of what to do for a career. A friend of hers in the Guard told her she would be a great lawyer. So, Amber looked into it. Law appealed to her because she thought it would be interesting, and she liked the combination of writing and speaking on behalf of others.
Amber did well on the law school admission test and applied to the University of North Dakota School of Law. She was accepted and enrolled there. However, her time in law school was interrupted for 18 months because her Guard unit was activated to full-time status due to the war in Iraq. After returning from Iraq, Amber finished law school in 2007.
As a lawyer, Amber achieved tremendous success. First, she clerked for Clay County Judge Lisa Borgen and other judges. Then, she worked for the Social Security Administration. In 2011, she opened her own law firm specializing in family law. Amber dealt with such issues as child protection, divorces, custody, child support and adoptions.
“I felt like I was really helping people in awful times of their lives,” she said.
With her career on the fast track, in 2018, Amber was selected by Gov. Mark Dayton to be a Clay County Judge.
“It was very exciting and really humbling to be selected,” Amber said. “I liked being a judge. It’s a challenging and difficult position. It’s a lot of work. A lot of conflict to deal with. It can be joyful or painful. There were very hard decisions. It was an awesome responsibility.”
Amber and Adam met in February 2004 when they both were in the National Guard and undergoing training at Fort Benning in Georgia. During some downtime, Amber was playing electronic Yahtzee. Adam came over and asked if he could play. Soon, they were trying to beat each other’s high score.
“I thought he was really fun and easy to talk to,” Amber said. “He was fun to be around.”
They went to Kuwait and Iraq together and became inseparable. They walked to every meal together, played many card games and talked a lot to each other. Their friendship turned into love.
“We knew we were going to get married,” Amber said. “He was handsome. He was cool. He had a presence about him. He could talk to anybody.”
Adam and Amber were married on Nov. 12, 2005. A few years later, they started a family. Walter was born in 2009. Ruby came in 2011. Emily arrived in 2014.
The Gustafson family of Moorhead had a lot of fun together and became very close. They often traveled all over the country, where they enjoyed kayaking and hiking.
At home, Adam did the cooking, the girls’ hair and all the school shopping.
“He was an amazing dad,” Amber said. “He loved being a dad. He loved cheering them on in sports.”
On May 18, 2021, Adam was working at the West Fargo police station when he suddenly collapsed. He was rushed by ambulance to Sanford Hospital.
Amber was at the Clay County Courthouse participating in a Zoom meeting with her close judicial colleagues. Her cellphone rang. West Fargo Police Lt. Jason Anderson was calling. Amber didn’t think anything of it. She silenced her phone. Anderson called again. This time, Amber called him back.
“He told me, ‘We found Adam unresponsive. We’re doing CPR. You need to get to Sanford as soon as possible,’” Amber said.
She ran out of her office, and a co-worker drove her to the hospital. Amber called Adam’s dad and brother.
“I ran into the Sanford emergency room,” Amber said. “They were working on him. He was already gone when I got there. He looked dead.”
A doctor asked Amber about Adam’s medical history. She told him that he’s healthy and not taking any medications.
“I am holding Adam’s hand. My dad makes it in,“ Amber said. “The doctor then told me, ‘We’re gonna call it.’
“I said, ‘Are you sure? Do you have to do it?’
“The doctor said, ‘Yes, I have to do it.’ They were very kind.”
The machines in the room stopped running. The room became very quiet.
“I just couldn’t believe it,” Amber said. “The shock of an unexpected death was so stunning.”
Adam died of a heart attack. It turned out he had a severe heart ailment that had gone undetected.
Out of respect and support, the Sanford hallways were lined with police officers, spouses, judges and law school students.
“They were crying. They couldn’t believe it,“ Amber said. “They were hugging me and guarding the door. I waited for Adam’s parents. Everyone said they can’t believe it and how sorry they were. It was devastating.”
Amber told her parents and relatives what happened. While she was still in a state of shock and disbelief, she knew her biggest challenge was to regain her composure and tell their children the tragic news.
“I told them we have to talk,” Amber said. “I said, ‘I have to give you some news that our lives will never be the same.' I said, 'Daddy died, and you will never see him again.'”
The reactions from the children were varied.
“My oldest daughter (then 10 years old) thought it was a joke,” Amber said. “I told her, ‘It’s not a joke. I just came from the hospital.’ My son (then 11 years old) started crying. My youngest daughter (then 6 years old) got on my lap. They were like, 'What?'”
Shortly afterwards, the children went out to play with their friends. Later that day, they came back and were bewildered.
“One of the kids asked why did it happen,” Amber said. “Then I realized I never explained it. So, I told them.”
Preparing for the funeral was surreal for Amber.
“I’m thinking I can’t believe I’m here for this. Writing an obituary and picking out funeral clothes for my children.”
She received hundreds of cards and letters from around the country. The funeral was packed with friends, family, people from the law enforcement and judicial communities and total strangers. Amber was amazed by that and the processional in the streets.
“It was a showing of support that I couldn’t imagine,” she said. “The people that lined the streets for the processional. Unbelievable. They never met him. It’s pretty extraordinary to be on the receiving end of that. It says a lot about our community. It’s remarkable that they care so much about him and our family. I was touched and moved by the community support.”
Shortly after the funeral, reality set in for Amber.
The children needed someone to shop, cook and clean for them, and take them to the doctor or dentist. They needed someone to be there for their many activities, such as hockey, band, orchestra, baseball and softball. They needed a parent to talk to them about their lives and about Adam's death. Meanwhile, Amber’s job as a judge remained very demanding. It was overwhelming.
So, she made the difficult decision to resign as a judge effective Feb. 4, 2022.
“My kids need a parent,” Amber said. “They need a parent to meet them when they get off the school bus. I realized I couldn’t be a judge and a single parent at the same time. It was hard to quit, but I know it was the right decision.”
In Amber’s spare time, she is still writing thank-you notes to those who comforted her after Adam’s death, and she is writing a blog about her grief. That blog has yet to be made public, but it reveals her pain, sense of loss and innermost thoughts.
In one section, she wrote, “Mourning the loss of your spouse, the person you created your life and family with is a difficult task … The life I spent my first 40 years building is gone … The life and home we built, Adam and I did together. It took two functioning adults to make our jobs, home, kids and activities work. It should come as no surprise that it simply doesn’t work without Adam.”
She also wrote about stepping down as a judge, saying, “Holding myself and my children together during this sorrowful time required both hands and each day my hands were busy and full. It took some time to realize that I had no hands left with which to hold my position.”
Amber has learned a lot since Adam’s sudden death.
“You need to live your life,” she said. “Do trips. Be kind. Tell people you love them while you can.”
While Adam is gone, he will always be in Amber’s heart.
“I think about him every day. How can you not? I still can’t believe he’s gone,” she said tearfully. “I miss him. I hope all his dreams for the kids come true.”