Hospice holiday event offers emotional connection for families

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There was no shortage of emotion at the PACCAR Medical Education Center when dozens of families who had lost loved ones were recently reunited with the Adena hospice employees who had cared for them.

“I saw many embraces that night where people would just come up and wrap up a nurse and they would just hold each other,” said Brooke Elliott, hospice volunteer coordinator.

“You always kind of wonder if you did anything or if you had any kind of an impact in their lives,” said hospice chaplain Cameron Caseman. “Then, you have a lot of families that came up to me, gave me a hug, and wanted to just talk about whatever was on their minds.”

The evening marked the return of Adena’s Christmas Hospice Memorial event after two missed years due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The event, which serves as part of the bereavement process for families who had a loved one in hospice, often times ends up being as therapeutic for those employees who cared for the hospice patients as it is for the family members they at one point had become very close to.

“For us, it’s such a heartfelt thing,” Cameron said. “We live for the patients, but this is really good for the staff because they get to have contact with families they may not have seen for at least the last year, if not longer in this case.”

At Adena, care for a hospice patient’s family doesn’t end when the patient dies. There are regular follow-up phone calls and letters to check on the family’s well-being and, with the height of the pandemic moving into the rear-view mirror, other planned activities such as a late summer/early fall picnic being eyed for a return in 2023.

The Christmas event, which normally involves families of patients who died in the past year and this year saw more than 100 people attend, comes at what is often a critical time for families.

“During the holidays, looking over and having that empty chair for the first time that they’re used to having filled with mom, dad, brother, sister, spouse, or some other loved one, that can be a very difficult time to get through,” Cameron said.

Because the hurt doesn’t necessarily fade quickly, the decision was made that for this year’s event, the families of patients from this year and the two prior years impacted by the event’s cancellation would be invited to take part. That meant Brooke would have to reach out to around 1,000 families with invitations.

The event itself provides several opportunities for reconnecting, remembering, and finding comfort in each other’s company. Guests were greeted by the beautiful melodies of the Waverly High School choir singing from the second-floor walkway overlooking the lobby. In the pond area behind the center, nearly 400 luminary bags representing those who had passed in 2022 were set up so families could find the one bearing their loved one’s name and, at the end of the evening, take it home with them.

A table was set up to allow children to work on crafts, food tables provided refreshments, and Santa was on hand so families could grab a free keepsake photo for the holiday. During the formal part of the program, several moments brought visible emotional reactions from staff and family members alike.

One of those was the reading of the list of names of those in hospice who had lost their lives over the past three years, a list that covered 16 pages. Different caregivers were called upon to read the names on a portion of the list, with the solemn ringing of a bell before each portion filling the air.

For caregivers who had gotten close to some of the patients and their families, reading of the names became a difficult task. In many cases, as each name was read, the patient’s family members would stand to honor him or her.

The formal part of the program, which included additional music, a devotion, and a poetry reading, concluded with another emotional moment. The student voices in the choir rose in a chorus of “Silent Night”, only to be joined by those in attendance singing in a tribute to those they had lost.

“It was a really cool moment,” Cameron said. “There was a lot of hugging and tears and just being with each other.”

Having the opportunity to share those moments with the families is important for hospice staff, who must come to work each day caring for and getting close to patients who don’t have a great deal of time remaining. It’s not uncommon, in fact, at a weekly meeting involving hospice staff to have to read through a list of seven or eight patients who may have passed since the previous meeting.

“I love my job, but there’s one bad part about it and it’s that you meet a lot of great people at the end, and that makes it difficult,” Cameron said. “The roll call of names at the event lets people know that we’re human, that we’re just as vulnerable as they are. We try to be strong, we try to be tough and show that it doesn’t bother us, but it does.”

Families at the event also had the chance to view memory jars – glass vases that throughout the year staff members add decorative stones to at each weekly meeting in honor of those who have passed.

Being integral in planning the Christmas event wasn’t something Brooke could have possibly dreamed of doing when she was volunteering with hospice at the age of 11, in part due to the fact that her mother was serving as program director. At that time, the event consisted of the placement of luminaries in a park and a short ceremony in a local church or the original hospice office space.

This year, Cameron believes was one of the best events in his time with the program.

Brooke is grateful for the role she could play in that.

“It showed me just how truly special this staff is to these families,” she said. “They become part of those families, sometimes for months, but they go for weekly visits as the patient’s life is coming to an end. Just the impact this staff has on the families, you can really tell that by these connections.”

To learn more about Adena’s hospice program, click here or call 740-779-4663