Hospice volunteer makes comfort bears for grieving survivors
On Thursday, Nov. 2, people who help others pass away peacefully gathered at Addie’s to honor a woman who makes life easier for folks after they’ve lost loved ones.
Officials, staff and volunteers of Bluegrass Care Navigators were there. So was Shirley Bubany, along with some of the people for whom she’s made what she calls “comfort bears.”
Her work with what was then known as Bluegrass Hospice began shortly after her husband, Johnnie “Babe” Bubany, passed away in 2005. She wanted to repay the men and women who helped them in his time of dying and others who, like her, would be facing life without those they loved most.
“During that time, I got to thinking about what I’m going to do for the rest of my life, because I’ve still got lots of energy and still want to help people. And I thought, ‘What can I do?’” she said.
Bubany, who lives in Lawrenceburg, had already been a school teacher, Girl Scout leader and civic volunteer. When she asked how she could help Bluegrass Hospice, she was told the group required volunteers to wait one year after the death of loved ones.
When that year passed, Bubany went through the required training, then began making home and nursing home visits, taking people to the hospital for treatments and visits, and providing respite care.
Then she got, as she puts it, “side-tracked” after making a few teddy bears from polyester fill wrapped inside the deceased person’s clothing.
Two hundred bears later, she’s still at it.
“It takes one day to make a bear, and it’s turned into almost a full-thing now,” said Bubany, who still visits nursing homes and makes “11th hour visits” to people who are dying.
As fellow volunteers, staff and others walked into Addie’s late that afternoon, Bubany posed for a picture with two of her comfort bears.
On her right knee was a rare bear whose origin didn’t involve loss. It was wearing camouflage made from a uniform worn by her son-in-law, an Air Force veteran, who’s alive and well. On her left knee was one made for a fellow hospice volunteer whose late husband had often worn overalls and a cap.
“And she came to me and asked me if I would not make a bear, but cut his clothes down, his favorite work outfit down, and fit a bear with it. So I cut his overalls and his shirt and I had enough material left over to make a little hat, and she keeps a picture of him in that outfit on the roof … in the big overall pocket,” Bubany said.
Another Bubany bear is in a display case at the Lexington Veterans Administration Center, where, she said with a smile, it was moved after some of the patients began to quarrel over who got to hold it.
Some of her orders come with special instructions, like a monogrammed pocket the survivor wants the bear to wear.
“It just depends. Every bear is different,” she said, adding that she’s just about worn out one pattern and is looking for another.
In between handshakes and hugs with the people who’d come to honor her, Bubany was asked if she had a favorite comfort bear story.
The daughter of a man whose wife of 54 years passed away Feb. 28 told hospice officials that he wasn’t sleeping. Bubany made a bear from his wife’s housecoat and two pillows from her clothing. After it was delivered, she was shown a photo of the man sent by his family.
“They sent a picture of him asleep with the bear and the pillows,” Bubany said.
She didn’t know that the man she helped find peace would be at Addie’s that day, but Wayne Gibson, looking sharp in a suit and tie, was there, with his daughter, Judy Powell, who also volunteers for Bluegrass Care Navigators.
Gibson happily posed for a picture with his daughter and what he calls “Momma Bear.”
“Oh, it’s hard to explain. It really is. It really boosted my spirits a lot. I’m so proud of it I don’t know what to say,” he said. “It means the world to me.”
Gibson said he no longer sleeps with the bear by his side, but he’s sleeping far better than he did in the weeks following the death of his Doris, and he does so on a pillow made from one of her shirts.
“I just think she’s amazing. She’s an amazing lady,” Powell said of Bubany.
Bubany said she doesn’t usually meet the people she makes bears for because it’s too emotional. She was happy to make an exception at Addie’s.
Gibson was one of several who wrote letters about Bubany to the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization, which presented her with an award in September during their annual conference in San Diego. (Bubany was also named volunteer of the year in 2011 by a state hospice organization.)
Before she stepped back inside Addie’s, she was asked if she’d like to say anything else.
“I can’t think of anything,” she said. “It’s just – what an honor this is.”