Twenty-five years ago, Father Kirby Blanchard became the first priest to manage the Pastoral Care Department at what is now St. Joseph's Medical Center in Brainerd. Shortly after his tenure began, a special worship service was started through the hospital's sponsorship.
At these annual services, community members took pause to remember, share and pray about loved ones lost in death. This powerful rite, intended to heal, connect and acknowledge, continues today.
The Day of Remembrance Memorial Service will be June 13 at First Congregational United Church of Christ in Brainerd. This year's service will be the first with combined sponsorship by SJMC's Spiritual Care Department and its Home Care and Hospice Department.
Anyone who has lost a loved one is welcome. There need not have been any affiliation with St. Joseph's during the deceased loved one's illness, said the event's planning committee members.
"What the heart has once owned and had it shall never lose."
-- Henry Ward Beecher
"We come this day to share with one another our journey through grief and our climb to hope," reads the service program draft. "We come together knowing that we are not alone in our struggles and believing we will not be left empty in our search for renewed life. God's loving presence is with us. We gather today with questions still in our hearts, with mysteries still in our souls. Yet we gather as seekers of the truth, wherever it will lead us, and as pilgrims on the way, wherever our journey begins."
The SJMC hospice program, which dates back to 1980, has also been sponsoring a service like this each year for most of its history. The Pastoral Care Department was up to two per year. Now the departments are joining together to do this year's service, which will continue into the future.
Scheduling the service in the summer makes it easier for many people to come, said Karen DuBord, director of SJMC's Department of Mission Integration and Spiritual Care.
"Many people minister to the elderly," she said, and it's harder for those people to get out in the harsher seasons.
Spiritual care is an important part of hospice, said committee members. Hospice chaplain, the Rev. Bill Ingvolstad, makes himself available for dying people and families interested in having his assistance. Sometimes Ingvolstad's role is to connect them to another minister or parish of their choosing.
An important part of hospice is the grieving process, or bereavement care. The memorial service is part of that care, or process, said Barb Anderson, SJMC's director of home care and hospice.
"Hospice is an active and growing program, serving an average of 70 people and their families each year," Anderson said. "A number of people are on the hospice team, including pharmacy, physicians, volunteers, nursing staff and chaplaincy. ... I think it's one of the better examples of collaborative care out there."
Hospice nurse Jeanne Christensen will visit family members in their homes for one year even after a loved one's death. That service is provided to anyone with a loss who lives in the area, not just those whose loved ones have died here or participated in the hospice program, said committee members.
St. Joseph's hospice program also does a quarterly mailing, which is sent out for a year to those who've lost a loved one. There is also a support group for the grieving, usually facilitated by a social worker or chaplain. Many former support group members continue to meet on an informal basis after the group ends, perhaps meeting for coffee regularly, said Anderson.
The newsletter, the home visits, the support group -- all these components, together with the worship service and the hospice care -- make up the support system not only for the dying, but their families, before and after the patient's death.
In order to be admitted to the hospice program, Anderson said, a person must meet three criteria. The first is a prognosis or life expectancy of six months or less. Second, there needs to be a primary caregiver at home. The hospice program is intended to supplement care by someone else for the dying person in their home. And third, the patient needs to have stopped treatment or therapy, in other words curative treatment, intended to cure the disease.
Sometimes people think that hospice is limited to those with cancer. But it's for all who are dying, Anderson said. They provide hospice care for people with heart disease, Alzheimer's and a host of other illnesses.
"Hospice volunteers are out there spending time with dying people and their families, which is incredible," Anderson said.
Harry Head, one of St. Joseph's hospice volunteers, has done this work for the past eight years. "It gives you a feeling of helping a little bit," he said. "And it certainly teaches you about your own mortality, so to speak."
The first patient he saw lived 11 months, well past the six months set as a guideline for hospice. Most of the people he works with live for about a month, Head said. A couple of them have lived only one day following the initial hospice visit.
"Most of the time, people don't get involved in hospice soon enough," said Head.
Anderson added, "That's an issue nationwide, that people don't come into hospice until the last months."
Alas, it would often benefit patients and families greatly to start sooner.
Head said, "The hospice nurses are special people. ..." and hospice team members can "let the caregivers go to the grocery store, and just get out a little while."
"Our hospice nurses do some incredible work. They are very competent, good and caring. For many of them, I think it's a mission," Anderson said.
Sometimes dying patients need certain medications administered, pain management, respite for the caregiver and visits to the hospital. Medical staff members on the third floor are trained in hospice care and tend to them while in the hospital.
Dr. Timothy Yeh, a practicing oncologist at Brainerd Medical Center, is the hospice medical director.
About the upcoming June 13 service, DuBord said, "It is an ecumenical memorial service (open to people of all faiths). It's part of what we offer in terms of the bereavement process. It helps people come together to share loss and remember loved ones in a worship service."
Officiators will hand out cards as people come in for the service, and ask them to write loved ones' names on them. A candle will be lit for each person named. Toward the end of the ceremony, during silent pause for reflection, names of the deceased will be read, set against background music.
The service also will include hymns, meditations led by Chaplain Bill Ingvolstad, music by pianist Dick Ankrum, a time of remembrance and candle lighting with prayer. A designated time of departing, a blessing and the closing hymn, "On Eagle's Wings," will follow the naming of those being remembered.
The service will last about one hour, with a catered lunch and reception afterward. It will be at 4 p.m. Wednesday, June 13, at First Congregational United Church of Christ, 415 Juniper St., Brainerd.
Also, the Grief Support Line, at 828-7442, is open on a regular basis to provide information on grief, or for details on times, places and dates for grief support groups.
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