Reach out to those who can’t celebrate

As joyous and fun as the holidays are, not everyone can celebrate. All of the holiday hype merely adds fatigue and angst for those who have no family or who have lost loved ones this time of year.

Amid our own holiday celebrations, my wife and I have our moments of remembrances. My father died a few days before Christmas a decade ago. So did my father-in-law nine years earlier. A young adult friend, studying to be a doctor, succumbed to cancer, also at Christmastime.

I’m not writing this for sympathy. I’m sharing our story and asking for awareness. For us, the holidays bring mixed emotions. We can be joyously celebrating one moment, and suddenly out of nowhere, we are pricked with the painful reminder of those whom we loved but are now gone.

The sadness, the loss, the hurt all appear uninvited. What sets off the sensation is unpredictable. It could be a familiar fragrance, an innocent comment, or a peculiar sound. It could be nothing more than the thought of missing a father, mother, brother, sister, or friend.

In the cases of my father-in-law and my father, we were relieved when they finally could cross over to the other side. Dementia and cancer can be cruel, gut-wrenching deaths. Even if life’s end does come during the holidays, there is comfort in knowing their physical misery has finally ended.

It was especially so for my father. Dad loved Christmas. When he died 10 years ago, the Ohio winter weather was brutal. An extended cold snap and heavy snow guaranteed a white Christmas. Dad would have loved the brightly decorated church welcoming the holidays.

We said our goodbyes to Dad on December 26, which was a Saturday. We understood if folks couldn’t come. To our surprise, scores of people young and old braved the weather. We were glad they had taken time out of their own holiday plans to pay their respects and share their sympathies with our family at the visiting time and attending the service.

Every year, as we approach this most hallowed time, there are moments when I hear Dad’s voice as clear as if he were still with us. I think it’s a reminder of how childlike Dad embraced Christmastime his entire life. The thought brings a smile to my face every time. That’s the way our father would want to be remembered.

But for others, it can be different. When you lose a loved one no matter the age or situation, the loss can be a shock from which some never recover. If the death or traumatic accident happens during the holidays, the grief can even be more profound.

We must give both space and grace to those who grieve. They need their time alone to mourn, whether their personal loss was recent or decades ago.

However, we must also be inclusive of them, especially if they were left to live alone. That may mean including those who grieve in family gatherings, or it may mean visiting them on their own time and in their own surroundings. Whichever, they must not be forgotten.

The holiday season is meant to be a joyous time, one of celebration, good cheer, and gracious giving. We should always honor it that way.

We must remember, however, that not everyone can celebrate in that manner. Personal loss changes people. In our reveling, we must recognize and embrace their grieving.

Doing so may be the most appropriate gift that we give them.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2019

A drought of a different kind

Miller farm by Bruce Stambaugh
The farm of my late in-laws, Wayne and Esther Miller, as painted by my recently deceased mother, Marian Stambaugh.

By Bruce Stambaugh

Our family has experienced a drought far beyond the on-going dryness that our area and much of the country is currently enduring. My mother died in April, and now my mother-in-law, Esther Miller, recently passed away. Both were 90.

The word drought is usually defined as a long period of dry weather. Wherever they live, Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania or Virginia, all of Esther’s grandchildren have had to endure this drought. In some areas, the drought is considered moderate while in others it is much more serious.

Funeral flowers by Bruce StambaughThe second definition of drought encompasses a much wider, deeper meaning. Drought is a lengthy serious lack of something. When you lose your mother and your mother-in-law within three months of each other, one cannot help but sense a serious lack of something.

I know I do. My brothers and sisters do. Now my wife and her sister do as well. All of our parents are gone. We are now the elder generation. I’m not sure I’m ready for that distinction yet.

I also know the grandchildren, though they are scattered across the country pursuing their various careers, feel that certain dryness, too. They don’t have to say anything. I can see it in their eyes, their non-verbal sorrowful expressions.

Like my mother, Esther was a good, God-fearing person, dedicated to rearing her family the best way she knew how. She learned those loving skills from her mother, and perhaps her own grandparents.

Reality has set in for all of us. The torch has been passed. It is up to us to carry on what was modeled for us for all those years.

Esther Miller by Bruce Stambaugh
Emotion overcame Esther Miller at her 90th birthday celebration.
I remember the very first time I met my future in-laws at their 80-acre farm east of Louisville, Ohio. I hadn’t been there long when Neva’s father asked me if I wanted to see the pigs. How could I turn down that offer?

I not only got to see the pigs, but also the milk cows and the heifers, too, and the grain bins and hayloft and the tiny milkhouse. At the time I thought Wayne was just being nice. On the way home, Neva told me that she knew her father liked me because I got to see the pigs on the first visit. It took other suitors at least three visits.

Esther welcomed me with equal warmth. Excellent host that she was, she offered me a beverage and a delicious homemade snack. She could have written a book on being a homemaker. When Neva and I announced our engagement to her parents, Esther responded in a most amicable way.

“We are glad to have you in the family,” she said. “If we had had a son, we were going to name him ‘Bruce’.” I was at home away from home.

I remember hustling our young daughter and son into the Miller farmhouse one Christmas Eve in the teeth of a blizzard. Once inside, the warmth of the gracious hospitality far exceeded that of the comfortably heated home.

Farm sunset by Bruce Stambaugh

During our times of loss this year, we have experienced the kindness and thoughtfulness of many, many others. They each found their own ways to share in our mourning via food, flowers, cards, emails or calls. We felt blessed by those expressions of sympathy.

In addition, the family has found a wellspring of refreshing comfort despite our maternal losses. We rejoice that our parents enjoy an eternity that will never know any kind of drought whatsoever.

This column appeared in The Bargain Hunter, Millersburg, OH.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2012

Healing among the mourners

World War II Memorial by Bruce Stambaugh
My father, Richard H. Stambaugh, 89, got his only visit to the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. courtesy of Honor Flight. As part of a review of the first decade of the 21st century, this picture appeared on the front page of nytimes.com on Dec. 24, 2009, three days after Dad had died.

By Bruce Stambaugh

In August, I emotionally crashed and burned. I thought I had been dealing pretty well with my father’s death late last year. Truth is, I wasn’t dealing with it at all.

Like so many others who have lost loved ones, I kept myself busy, and suppressed any emotions and hurts that spontaneously tried to ooze out at serendipitous times. I denied my suffering perhaps afraid to let myself go. I needed to properly mourn, take care of myself and share with others just how much Dad meant to me.

I thought I had of course. But I was just fooling myself. I know now that what happened to me was inevitable. I was in denial and the resulting consequences finally had caught up to me. I thought I was alone in this internal battle, and had to be strong for our mother and myself.

In his final months and days, Dad had received marvelous care from Hospice of Holmes County, along with the staff at Walnut Hills, the assisted living facility in Walnut Creek, Ohio where he and Mom lived. After his death, I began receiving monthly mailings from Hospice. Most of them had articles and literature on grieving.

Thinking that I was doing just fine, I usually glanced at them and that was it. That information was for others, not me. I was wrong.

The day my emotions hit rock bottom another Hospice mailing arrived. In it was an invitation to attend a special five-week session on grieving. I wasn’t tolerating the depression medicine the doctor had prescribed for me. I decided to stop the meds and start the counseling.

The group was small, which allowed for intimate, personal, confidential sharing. We met once a week for five consecutive Thursdays. I knew most of the handful of people who attended. The lives of rural people tend to intertwine consequentially.

Dick Stambaugh and Bob Dole by Bruce Stambaugh
Seeing Bob Dole, who was instrumental in making the World War II Memorial a reality, seemed to energize my father. Dole is often at the memorial to greet Honor Flight veterens.

Participants made the two hours each week a priority. We laughed, cried, listened and comforted each other. Our common, profound grief, our tears and smiles bonded us together with measureless compassion.

By the end of the final session, I had a greater appreciation for what others go through, how much people hurt even years after losing a loved one. I was no exception. I learned, though, that hearing the varying situations of others helped see my own issues in a new and realistic perspective.

We learned that grieving is an ongoing process. It takes time and understanding.

Still, I saw healing in my fellow mourners, and I felt healing myself. The last night we met, each of us took turns sharing something significant about our loved ones. Pictures, quilts, special mementos were all passed around.

I showed a slideshow of the Honor Flight trip I took with my father and older brother to Washington, D.C. in September 2009. Honor Flight is a program begun a few years ago to transport as many World War II vets as possible to the memorial in their honor in the nation’s capital.

I served as Dad’s guardian for the day, wheeling him around in his wheelchair. My older brother assisted two more able bodied vets. When asked where that experience fit in his 89 years of living, Dad said it ranked right after his marriage.

Knowing how much the trip meant to Dad, my brother and I were blessed to have been a part of that marvelous experience. In the same way, I was honored to have participated in the bereavement small group. The unconditional love and acceptance I experienced were unforgettable and priceless.

The hugs and handshakes upon parting told me the feelings were mutual.

Stambaughs at the WW II Memorial by Bruce Stambaugh
My older brother, Craig, Dad and I posed for a picture at the Ohio pillar at the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 12, 2009.