Sheila Heidenreich knows the moment she learned of her daughter’s death will never leave her memory.
But the repetitive playback of that day — receiving the phone call to rush to the hospital on Labor Day, and arriving only to learn that Carrie Ann Clayburn had died in her sleep — made it difficult to function for several months after.
Heidenreich’s involvement in Healing Hearts, the local support group she helped found, has helped her control when the memories play in her mind, she said.
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The Trafalgar woman goes to the meetings to help people who have more recently begun going through the pain of the loss of a child, but she will always want people to know about her daughter. Clayburn had been an honor student at Indian Creek High School and was just beginning her freshman year at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.
She was an extrovert, loved animals and had shown grand champion goats at the Johnson County fair.
Clayburn died of a ruptured pancreas while on a camping trip in 1998. She was 18.
For Heidenreich, her healing process involved replacing her grief with good memories of Carrie. That process takes some people longer than others, she said.
Along with Healing Hearts, Heidenreich credits her husband John and her daughter Jenny Thompson with helping her cope with the loss.
“I don’t know if I would have made it through without Jenny. It definitely made Jenny and I closer,” she said.
Now, Heidenreich has two grandsons, 2-year-old Liam and 4-year-old Tegan.
She is able to focus her thoughts and energy even more on the boys when she sees how excited they are for Christmas. They remind her of both her daughters when they were that age.
“I think just now they are starting to make it seem alive around here again,” she said.
In her dreams, she still sees her son, smiling and laughing.
Seven years since his death, Sandy Steffen revisits some of her most powerful memories of her son in her dreams.
Steve Ott was 37 when he died in his sleep in 2007 after competing in an automobile race. Ott raced modified stock cars and sprint cars for several years at tracks around the Midwest.
The dreams where she gets to see him again help her keep going.
“Some people at our meetings have dreams about their child and it upsets them. For me, when I dream about Steve, I take it as a blessing that I’m able to visit with him. It helps carry me through,” she said.
The holiday season is especially hard for Steffen. It was Ott who used to get his brother and sister to gather at Steffen’s house on Christmas, something that has rarely happened since his death.
Instead, Steffen goes to visit her son’s grave at Orchard Hill Cemetery in Wanamaker, sometimes for two or three hours on Christmas day. Her husband Lynnie will go along, pay his respects briefly and then sit in the car while Sandy has time alone at the graveside.
“The holidays are still so hard. I go visit the others, but it’s not the same. He loved the holidays,” she said.
Steffen used to visit Ott’s grave every other week, but was advised by her doctor to reduce the frequency of the visits. She agreed, but always wants to be sure her son would never think she’s forgotten him.
Steffen started attending Healing Hearts meetings just a few weeks after her son died. That is too soon for many grieving parents, but for her, the time was right.
Now, she tries to provide the same listening ear to others.
“When I first came in I had a lot of unloading to do. Sometimes people just need somebody to hear them. This is a place where you can go and talk about your child when other people might be uncomfortable with you sharing,” she said.
Eight years after his death, most family and friends have heard the same stories about Blake Dickus.
They’ve smiled, remembering the Super Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog video games he liked to play. They can picture how he looked: He liked to dress well, and have his hair fixed a certain way. And they’ve chuckled about the odd taste he had developed for ketchup — partly to see the response from his mother.
But friends and family never stop Christina Dickus from sharing those stories about Blake, who was murdered, along with his stepmother, in Franklin when he was 10.
“I feel comfortable with them that if something happens and I say, ‘Oh, Blake did that too,’ or even if they have heard a story before they never stopped me from sharing it again. Nobody wants to act like Blake didn’t exist. I can talk about him and it doesn’t bother them,” she said.
Over the years, she has noticed that some of the people she was close to at the time of the murders have withdrawn. Perhaps they feel awkward or maybe they are shielding their own children, who also knew Blake, from the difficulty of the situation, she said. She is not angry, and instead counts it as another example of how everything in her life changed the day Blake died, she said.
The case remains unsolved, and Christina Dickus is guarded about sharing personal information about herself and her family. She continues to plead for anyone with information about the case to come forward and help police.
But she is also able to focus on happy memories of her son. She credits brothers and sisters, her parents and her longtime boyfriend with helping her deal with the loss.
She remembers how he liked to stay up late, and how she would find him asleep in a spare bedroom, where he had gone late at night to watch a movie. His favorite food was cheese pizza, but he also had been adding ketchup to nearly everything — from a peanut butter sandwich to pancakes.
“I would say, ‘That is disgusting.’ But he would just laugh and think it was funny – but then he would keep eating it that way,” she said.
Christina Dickus no longer attends the monthly meetings of Healing Hearts, but does go to the yearly memorial service.
“I’m very thankful that I went because it definitely helped me. I know if I ever need to talk to any of them now, they would be there for me because it’s just a very nice group of people,” she said.