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Program helps those carrying grief through the holidays

Springfield couple’s personal experience guides their effort to aid others.

For families dealing with loss, getting through the holidays can be like trying to negotiate an icy sidewalk in the dark while carrying too many presents.

The difference is they’re overburdened with grief, not packages, and they’re struggling to maintain a tricky emotional balance while holiday lights flash at them through a sometimes disorienting mental fog.

Springfielders Tom and Theresa Wolverton, who have walked that walk, will lead “Surviving the Holidays,” a program for people dealing with grief during the holidays, from 3 to 5 p.m. Saturday at Southgate Baptist Church, 2111 S. Center Blvd.

The program, also hosted by Don and Audrey McKanna and Howard and Wendy May, will feature a 40-minute video and small group discussion among people Wolvertons say are in “the club no one wants to be in.”

They joined that club in March of 2010 when a call from a Dayton hospital summoned them into a nightmare.

It wasn’t just that their 28-year-old son, Troy, an Iraq war veteran, had died of self-inflicted knife wounds after a high-speed police chase. He also had stabbed his former girlfriend nearly 40 times, killing her and leaving her two children without a mother.

“It was just such a painful thing losing him that I couldn’t deal with the murder part,” Theresa Wolverton said.

“We weren’t going to let one moment, one day, take away everything away from our history with him,” her husband added.

It was in the midst of reeling from that loss and shock that Tom Wolverton found himself putting ornaments on the Christmas tree that holiday season and found “I could not go any further.”

The Wolvertons put the rest of the decorations away and went through the holidays with a tree that had “a few lights on it.”

“We did not want to celebrate,” he said.

Mrs. Wolverton said that on the way to finding “a new normal,” she and her husband have discovered, “you never get over” the shock and loss, “you just get through it. There’s always a hole in your heart that is shaped like your loved one.”

“The first thing I tell people (about getting through it) is don’t let anybody tell you how you should grieve,” she said.

“When you approach the holidays,” her husband added, “if you don’t want to do something, don’t do it.”

Because of the expectations of the season, “(you’re) torn between your heart’s desire to please others and dealing with your grief, your loss,” he said.

Mrs. Wolverton said that friends may think your presence at a large party might help revive your spirits. But sometimes, a crowded room of happy people “is the last place you want to be.”

“You don’t have the capacity” for happiness, she said. “It’s not there for now.

“It’s going to come back,” she continued, but grieving people have to give themselves permission to look after themselves.

“These other people aren’t grieving your son,” she said. “You are.”

Tom Wolverton said another difficulty is that “sometimes people don’t know how to react to you. Sometimes they won’t say anything for fear of saying something wrong.”

On the other hand, he said, “when people come to make an effort to comfort you, it’s amazing,” he said, and the relief they provide is more than they can know.

“Some cards you re-read and re-read and re-read,” his wife added. And each time she appreciated the effort it took to send.

The advantage of being among others going through loss is not having to explain all that to one another, they added.

The Wolvertons are devout Christians and believe that God is working through them as they hold programs like Saturday’s and the 13-week GriefShare seminars they help to lead.

But Tom Wolverton adds that “half the people who go through GriefShare nationally do not have Christian faith. And yet the commonality we have there — the sharing and the tears — are phenomenal. You begin to build this bond with one another. There’s this camaraderie that develops.”

“I think there’s a lot of hurting people in Springfield that need direction and help” with their grief, he said, particularly during the holidays.

“And that’s our goal.”

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