Doernbecher memorial service honors children who continue to touch our lives

Julie Rose, PCC student in graphic design

April 13, 2013, marks the 19th annual OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital Memorial Service. It began with a few patient families, along with some hospital staff, casually inquiring if there could be some kind of annual remembrance honoring children and young people who had been treated at the hospital during the previous 12 months, but ultimately could not survive their individual health challenges.

Some patients had a long hospital history due to ongoing medical needs and were well-known to the staff. Others lived only minutes to hours in hospital care. Regardless of the length of life or duration of hospitalization, each life had importance and meaning. Each child had made a difference (sometimes a significant impact) on family, loved ones, friends or hospital staff.

These realizations amplified the value for an annual occasion of remembrance. They also underscored an important fact: Bereaved patient families find it comforting to know that their child is not forgotten, that the child’s life has somehow influenced others during whatever life span the child experienced. It is important that their child be remembered as an individual and not so much identified by an illness, injury or disease.

Memorial services are usually associated with the duties of chaplaincy, so it was that Doernbecher Chaplaincy was approached with the idea. Also contributing to the annual remembrance taking shape was a developing collaborative work relationship with Doernbecher’s Child Life team.With Chaplaincy’s focus on spiritual care and the Child Life team’s attention to enrichment and transitional needs, both services often interacted to support patients and their families in addressing end-of-life needs. It was obvious that the coordination and hosting of a Doernbecher Memorial could be most effective as a shared endeavor.

The Child Life team, led by Sandy Westfall, knew patients well and had a wealth of sensitivity and creativity to bring to the occasion — and they were willing to do so. Years later we learned that a joint hosting of an annual memorial service was considered unique and not a norm for children’s hospitals.

Chaplaincy and Child Life have been thankful for the helping hands of others. In the memorial service’s 19-year history, groups serving Doernbecher, such as hospital volunteers, the Children’s Cancer Association, Candle Lighters, Friends of Doernbecher, CHAPS and others too numerous to name have provided support through participation, goods and donation of time.

Through the years, support has never wavered, testifying to the value of the service. It is also worth noting that the memorial services initially were supported by unsolicited donations from patient families to help underwrite costs, but Doernbecher’s Chaplaincy and Child Life team have remained at the core of the service’s annual planning and coordination

Five to six weeks before the service, uniquely designed invitations and a cover letter of explanation are sent to the families of those to be honored and to hospital staff. Prior to the service, families are given the opportunity to set up individual displays honoring the remembered child in an adjacent room. The reception can be an opportunity for them to share their child’s display and story with others who may be interested. Supervised activities for younger children who would need diversion while the parents attend the service are available.

The service usually lasts a little over an hour. It consists of general remarks reflecting on the value, contribution and importance of the children remembered. The name of every child honored is read — between 95 and 120 children are listed in the memorial program each year.

Music selections are incorporated. A brief slide presentation is included of medical and ancillary staff in their varied hospital settings, acknowledging in a general way those who cared for the children and supported their loved ones. Slides of children’s art are also folded in the service format. Guests are given opportunity to briefly share remembrances and thoughts honoring a child or the children in general.

We endeavor to make the service culturally and spiritually sensitive. Because varied spiritual outlooks are represented, the service does not pursue a religious tone. It honors the spiritual of such an occasion, but in a nonsectarian way. The time closes with a reception. Food is served. Attending families and hospital staff have an opportunity to visit and reflect together.

Through the years, the response to the memorial has been positive. Obviously, for some to attend and re-enter the hospital campus is challenging. On a few occasions, after driving a considerable distance, a family has gotten to the auditorium door and decided they couldn’t stay because it was too emotionally difficult. Others have reported a sense of comfort, support and help after having participated in the memorial time.

Reactions vary for staff as well. Some report they find it emotionally hard to revisit patient loss. Others value the reconnection with patient families and remembrances of patients who have touched their lives. Chaplaincy and Child Life recognize that in a large group people will have varied reactions to journeying loss. We seek to meet individuals wherever they are and allow for their adjustments. Chaplaincy and Child Life are available before, during and after the service to circulate and provide support if needed.

A 19-year history suggests that the memorial service is addressing a need. It takes time and effort to put this occasion of remembrance together each year. We are appreciative of the assistance and support we receive from others in this annual endeavor.

We remain committed in our motivation that the children be remembered — they and their families are worthy of our recognition. Each life remembered has made a difference in some way. The collective impact of that difference has helped shape the OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital community — and continues to influence individual lives.

James Berry, M.Div., B.C.C.
Chaplain, Spiritual Services
OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital

Sandra Westfall
Manager, Child Life Program
OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital


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