“They’re all in Heaven” - Happy memories console woman who suffered deep losses

Tammy Walro

        Shock. Unimaginable grief.  A pure nightmare.
        That’s how Dolores DeFriece describes her life 10 years ago after an EF4 tornado with estimated winds of 175 mph tore through northern Wood and western Ottawa counties on June 5, 2010.
        When the storm passed and the sun came up on Sunday, June 6, Dolores learned the heartbreaking news that her older daughter, Mary Walters, Mary’s husband Ryan and their 4-year-old son Hayden had perished when the twister struck their Millbury home. The Walters’ 7-year-old daughter Madison (Maddie) was injured, but survived.
        On the evening before, the Walters family had dinner with close friends, Scott and Kristie Gibson. Planning to attend a 9 a.m. church service the next morning, they went to bed. They were asleep in the upstairs bedrooms when the tornado ripped the second story off their home.
        That same Saturday evening, Dolores, who lives in Walbridge, was visiting her son, Dan, in Waterville. “We ate, and then we were watching the news and they said a tornado was heading toward Waterville, so we went down in the basement. About 12:30 a.m., we all went to bed,” she said.
        Dolores was awakened at about 2 a.m. when her sister-in-law, who lives in Genoa, called and asked if she had been watching the weather reports.
        “I told her we had been but then we all went to bed,” Dolores said. “She said a tornado had touched down in Millbury. My heart sunk to my feet.”
        Dolores immediately tried to reach Mary by phone, and fear overtook her as her daughter never picked up. “I told my son Dan, ‘I’ve got to go; something’s wrong.”’
        Dan discouraged his mother from going, telling her conditions weren’t safe for her to go out. Reluctantly, she agreed, determined to head to Millbury the first thing in the morning.
        “I didn’t sleep that whole night. I kept calling Mary’s number, but it just rang and rang,” Dolores said. Mary’s siblings were also trying to reach her, alarmed that their sister was not answering.
        “The next morning, we got word that the survivors were either at the Lake Township Fire Department or at the church in Millbury,” Dolores said.
        “Then we learned from Ryan’s best friend, Scott, that Ryan was in the hospital, and that Mary, Hayden and Maddie were also taken to the same hospital,” she said.
        “When we got there, I asked, ‘Scott, where’s Mary?’ He didn’t say anything, but his face looked as though somebody drained the blood out. I knew immediately that Mary was gone – call it mother’s intuition or whatever you want,” she said. “I just broke down and cried.”
        Dolores learned that Maddie suffered serious injuries, and that Ryan was in critical condition.
        “I asked about Hayden,” Dolores said. “I prayed that God would not let my baby grandson be laying in a field crying for his Mommy and Daddy, and they wouldn’t be coming.” She later learned from first responders that Hayden had died instantly from the impact of being thrown by the tornado.
        “All I could say was, Mary and Hayden were in Heaven,” Dolores said.  
        Ryan succumbed to his injuries a week later on Sunday, June 13.
        Family, faith and friends            
        Looking back, Dolores isn’t completely sure how she made her way through the excruciating grief in the aftermath of the tornado.
        “At that time, our whole family was in such a state of shock,” she said. “You see these things happen on the news, but you never think it will happen to you.
        “I did a lot of praying,” she said. “Our church offers GriefShare, and I went through that twice. The first time, I just sat and cried. I went religiously every week, but I never said a word.
         “My best friend, who lives in Bowling Green, also helped me tremendously, when my husband, Delmos, died 15 years ago, and then through Mary and Ryan and Hayden’s funerals,” she said. “Everybody needs at least one true friend and I’m lucky to have that.”
        She also found comfort in the tributes and outpouring of community support in the days after the tragedy. “I went to the unveiling of the memorial at the Lake Township Police Department on Cummings Road. The plaque there has the names of all seven tornado victims,” she said. “They’ve got another little plaque in the park in Millbury, and I went to the dedication of that, too.
        “That was hard, so hard. It really hit me when I saw Mary, Ryan and Hayden’s names and placed my hand on them,” she said.  “It hit me, ‘Wow, this really happened.’”
        Happy memories
        As the 10th anniversary of the tornado approaches, Dolores says she is trying to focus on happy memories of Mary, Ryan and Hayden.
        She talks of Mary’s passion for her role as a wife and mother, and how her daughter was known for her fast speech and contagious laugh.
        “She had a loving, caring spirit; she would give you the shirt off her back if she thought you needed it,” Dolores said. “Above all, Mary had a deeply personal relationship with Jesus Christ, and wanted Ryan and her kids to have that too.”
        She sees a lot of Mary in Maddie, who is now 17 and living with her aunt, Amy Sigler, who is Mary’s sister. “She looks so much like Mary, and has some of her facial expressions,” Dolores said. “There’s also similarity in the way she does things, the ways she organizes and cleans.
        “Maddie is a miracle,” she said. “She asked me point-blank one day after the funeral, ‘Nana, why did God save me and take my whole family?’
        “I said, ‘Oh, sweetie, Nana doesn’t have the answer to that. When you get to Heaven, you ask God and he’ll give you the answer,’” Dolores said.
        “I know God has a reason for her being here.”
        The family plans to mark the 10-year anniversary by celebrating Mary, Ryan and Hayden with prayers and a balloon release at the cemetery. “That’s what Maddie wants to do,” Dolores said.
        “The anniversaries were very difficult in the beginning, but not as much anymore now because I know they’re all in Heaven,” she said.
        “I find it therapeutic to talk about them, to remember happy times,” she said. “At first, you’re so shocked and overwhelmed when tragedy hits you, but now there’s a peace, which you think will never happen.
        “If by sharing my story, I can help someone else going through a tragedy like this, then it’s well worth it,” she said.


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