Dealing with a painful part of holiday season

By on December 7, 2011

By: BETH KACHEL Review Correspondent, Staff Writer

Matt, Nicolle, Jen and Jamey Stradling (left to right) are holding the remembrance ornaments that will be given to each participant during the Holiday Service of Remembrance at Ephrata Church of the Brethren on Dec. 11. (Photo by Beth Kachel)Matt, Nicolle, Jen and Jamey Stradling (left to right) are holding the remembrance ornaments that will be given to each participant during the Holiday Service of Remembrance at Ephrata Church of the Brethren on Dec. 11. (Photo by Beth Kachel)

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.

But for many in our community, the familiar sights and sounds of the season do not bring joy. Instead, they trigger memories of past Christmas’s with loved ones now gone. With those memories come feelings of sadness, loneliness and loss.

If you have lost a loved one, the holidays can be extremely painful.

"It’s not all great joy and sharing and gifting in a lot of people’s lives," said Rev. Pam Fischer, director of Chaplaincy Services at Ephrata Community Hospital (ECH). "It actually can be a very difficult time of year."

The annual Holiday Service of Remembrance offers community members of all ages and backgrounds a special place to go this Christmas where they can remember their loved ones and receive comfort and hope.

The free community-wide service will be held on Dec. 11 at the Ephrata Church of the Brethren, 201 Crescent Ave.

Tom Stradling, funeral director of Stradling Funeral Homes, which co-sponsors the service with ECH, envisioned the service years ago and approached ECH staff with his idea.

"The holidays are probably the worst time of year for people on their grief journey," he said. "I felt the need to do something for the community and the community people who are on this journey."

Since 1997, the Holiday Service of Remembrance has comforted hundreds — far surpassing Stradling’s original vision and hope for the community.

This year’s service holds an even deeper significance for Stradling, whose wife, Janice, passed away eight months ago after 42 years of marriage and service together. Janice had been very involved with the service and had provided tremendous support in past programs.

"I’ll be honest," he said, "It’s going to be very difficult for me this year." Instead of introducing the ornament ceremony as was his traditional role, Stradling will be reflecting on his own personal journey through grief as his son, Matt, takes his place up front.

Joanne Eshelman, director of Community Relations at ECH, has drawn much meaning from her involvement with the Service of Remembrance since the very first year.

"I suffered a loss of my father at the holidays," she said, "I felt a personal calling to be part of this. And as part of the hospital… we looked at this as a way we could support people who have used our services as well." The 45-minute program begins at 2 p.m. in the church sanctuary with special music and time for quiet reflection. This year’s musical repertoire consists of harp, piano, viola and vocal pieces offered by local community musicians, including Galen Reed and Dr. Jun Chon.

"Music is a very special part of our service. It’s beautiful," emphasized Stradling.

From the call to worship and scripture reading to the candle lighting and ornament ceremony, each part of the service has been carefully chosen to comfort those who are grieving, said Eshelman. Child care is also provided for young children.

"We have a ceremony that you can actually put the name of your loved one on the back of the ornament and write a note and go up and put it on the Christmas trees," said Stradling, adding that the ornaments hang on the trees through the entire Christmas season and are returned to the family if name and address are included.

After the service, guests are welcome to stay and enjoy free refreshments at the informal gathering in the fellowship hall, offering a special time to connect with others also on a grief journey.

Still, some may choose to stay in the sanctuary after the service to sit quietly and pray or reflect on their loss. Eshelman stressed that members of the community who attend may participate at their own level of comfort — emphasizing that this service is a "safe place" for those who are grieving. "One service is not going to make all those sad feelings go away," said Eshelman, "Our hope is that it brings them some hope and comfort that they can get through these next few weeks and that there are brighter days ahead." Many within the community have expressed deep appreciation for the service, organizers said. Some have even made it a part of their holiday traditions.

"There are some people who come every year. The loss that they suffered might have been long ago, but this is something that helps them deal with the holidays a little better," Eshelman said.

Fischer encourages members of the community who may not be deeply grieving themselves to look around and think of someone they could invite to the service.

"I think it’s an encouragement that friends of people who have suffered loss might take the initiative to come with them," she said.

As the service has grown, members of the community have rallied, said Stradling, forming a dedicated group of about 25 volunteers consisting of nurses, doctors, community grief share members and church members from all denominations who do everything from greeting to setting up for the reception following the service.

"For us, it’s a great feeling because we could give back a little bit at a special time of year. But we could not have done that without the help of all the people involved," he said. "It’s wonderful."

Current committee members are: Mary Burkholder, Joanne Eshelman, Karen Good, Pam Fischer, Linda Pecorari, Matt and Nicolle Stradling, Jen and Jamey Stradling and Tom Stradling.

For more information about the service, call 738-6458. More GRIEF, page A6

About Ephrata Review