The mother of a Franklin College student murdered 18 years ago does whatever she can to avoid hearing the song “Silent Night” during the holiday season.
Another parent who lost her 9-year-old son in a car accident tries to avoid the toy aisles when she’s shopping, especially at Christmastime.
Both parents are members of a local support group for families who have lost children. Healing Hearts was started more than 15 years ago, and now includes dozens of parents who have lost their children through a sudden or prolonged illness, accident or murder.
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For many of those families, Christmas is a difficult time of year. In addition to its monthly meetings, Healing Hearts has a memorial service that features a slideshow of each child whose parents are part of the support group. The memorial service provides a way for parents to grieve, while honoring their children during the holiday season.
“I cry from the first slide through the end. I know the story of each and every one,” said Connie Sutton, whose daughter Kelly Eckart was murdered in 1997.
Many of the families also have started new and different holiday traditions, to cope with the pain of losing their child.
Sutton stopped opening presents on Christmas morning, because that’s when Kelly always begged for them to be opened. Now, Sutton celebrates Christmas a day early, and tries to box out the holiday on Dec. 25 by watching non-Christmas movies, she said.
For Sutton, the past year has been an emotional one.
Her daughter’s killer, Michael Dean Overstreet, went through a series of hearings to determine if he was competent to be executed. A South Bend judge ultimately decided he was not competent. She recently saw Overstreet’s brother, who police said drove Overstreet around the night Eckart was abducted and killed, and was able to tell him that she will never forgive him for his role in her daughter’s death.
This Thanksgiving, she couldn’t stop the tears from falling, she said.
“It never gets easier,” Sutton said. “You learn your new normal.”
But Sutton is celebrating a milestone this holiday season: For the first time in 18 years, she is not taking an anti-depressant anymore, she said. Now she feels the full emotional weight of the holiday season, which stings, but she wanted to be free from taking medication, Sutton said.
Hearing that Sutton and other parents are still living full lives after the death of their child has improved Shelby County resident Amy Gibson’s mental health, she said. Gibson, whose son Nathan died after a car accident, found comfort with other parents who lost their children through Healing Hearts.
That was why the group was started 15 years ago by local parents Sheila Heidenreich, Paula Ramey and Sutton. Each parent copes with grief in different ways, and the support group meetings are a chance to share ideas of how to push through tougher emotional days, Sutton said.
The group lets you be sad, angry or upset without getting a pity party in return, Gibson said.
“We’re all part of this unfortunate club,” Gibson said.
For Franklin resident Connie Quakenbush, whose daughter Holly Harlow died from breast cancer in 2007, the group is a place to share how she is feeling.
“You just let your feelings out. It’s a safe place where you can just say, ‘I’m hurting,’” she said.
Quakenbush has found volunteering at Homeview Health and Rehabilitation Center twice a week to be therapeutic and helps her get her out of bed in the morning. Quakenbush has volunteered at the nursing home for nearly 10 years, and knowing that someone depends on her improves her daily attitude, she said.
“I could easily crawl into a hole and live in the shadow of Holly’s death. It’s very easy to do,” Quakenbush said. “But I’m not going to do that. I’m going to live not in her death, but in her life.”