The spring of 1895 was horrific for the Arens family living along West Bow Creek. My grandfather John was only an infant, but his three older siblings and his father, Joseph, all were stricken with diphtheria.
The family farmed west of Constance, Neb., just a mile east of where I live now. My grandfather’s older sister Mary, 7, passed away first. When the neighbors traveled to St. Helena, Neb., to buy a wooden casket for the young girl, they carted two more caskets with them and hid them in the granary so my great-grandparents wouldn’t see them. Everyone knew the other children would die too.
They did. Within a five-day period, my great-grandparents lost three children, including their son, William, 6, and another daughter, Ida, 4. It was believed at the time that my grandfather was spared because he was still nursing my great-grandmother and gained crucial antibodies from her milk.
If you can, imagine what it was like for my great-grandparents to bury their children and attend the funerals alone, because no one could go near them who hadn’t already been exposed to the disease.
Furthermore, the entire family and the farm were quarantined. No one could visit them for more than a year. They were completely isolated from the neighborhood and community, because of the intense fear from that disease. At the end of that year of quarantine, the neighbors all got together for a big celebration, but nothing could bring my grandfather’s siblings back.
My grandfather did not get sick, but he witnessed the effect on his parents. My great-grandfather Joseph lived through the ordeal, but he was an invalid for many years and was hampered by lingering effects for the rest of his life.
Years later, he would tell friends that losing the children was earth-shattering, and not being able to have human contact with neighbors, to talk over their extreme grief, was another difficult part of the tragedy. My great-grandparents relied heavily on their devout prayer life and faith-filled convictions to carry them through the ordeal.
The lesson from this story for us today is that talking to someone when stressful events overwhelm us is perhaps the most important way we can deal with tragedy and challenges. When I attended the South Dakota Farm and Ranch Stress Summit, that was a message that resonated from many of the mental health resources.
For our own mental health, it often is helpful to us to share our feelings about challenges, difficulties and general stress with family and friends, pastors or licensed therapists. We also can gain solace from helping others who also are in distress.
As humans, we need that contact. We need sometimes to simply get things off our chest. We need to be able to express our problems and fears to someone without being judged. Talking things out really does help. And helping others work through the same difficulties makes us feel a sense of community and empowerment.
As farmers, this goes against our grain. We aren’t used to sharing our problems with the world, unless it has to do with machinery breakdowns, weather or market prices. We are good at pitching in for the neighbors when the chips are down, but we often find it difficult to share how we really feel about challenges when bad circumstances strike. And we generally hate asking for help.
No matter where you farm, this past season you have most likely experienced some deeply difficult days from weather and markets. I would encourage you not to quarantine yourself from the world, as my great-grandparents and grandfather were forced to do.
Seek out family, friends, neighbors, pastors or therapists who can help you work through the pressures and stresses of this past season. It doesn’t do you any good to keep it bottled up inside. Being able to share these issues with others helps us connect with those we are close to, and they help us deal with troubles in a more positive way.