Providing comfort at a time of loss

When a person dies in the hospital, the loss is felt by everyone around them: families, friends and the health care team that has cared for them during their hospitalization. Patient care units at Christiana Care have long ensured that families are supported through these difficult times, but recent efforts, created in partnership with the Patient and Family Advisory Council, are helping to better ensure a consistent, comforting experience for families.

A systemwide program to better coordinate bereavement support began in March, after receiving input from the Patient and Family Advisory Council.

“We showed them sample cards and other materials,” said Denise Barbee, MJ, BSN, RN, director of Patient and Family Relations. “We were eager to hear their ideas.”

Denise Barbee MJ, BSN, RN
Denise Barbee, MJ, BSN, RN

Barbee worked on the initiative with a multidisciplinary team that included Senior Patient Relations Specialist Kellie McQueen, Clinical Pastoral Education Supervisor Metty Mesick, MDiv, MAPC, BCC, ACPE, and Lead Nurse Practitioner Shirley Brogley, ACHNP, ANP-BC, of the Supportive and Palliative Care Program.

Their goal was to ensure that every family receives a message of condolence within seven days. Each card also includes contact information so grieving family or friends can reach out and learn more about resources in the community that might help them in a time of sorrow. Their efforts recognized and aimed to supplement already established protocols in some areas of the hospital, including the Emergency Department, Women’s & Children’s and the intensive care units.

“Some families may receive two cards where there is overlap with an existing program,” she said. “Most important, we now know that every family will receive at least one. They often are at the lowest point in their lives after losing someone they love. We want them to know that there are people who care.”

Michael Gervay, who serves as a patient and family adviser, worked with nurses in the Wilmington ICU to develop a protocol for staff to follow when a death occurs. That begins with a moment of silence. The family is presented with a memory box that includes a candle, a card from the staff and a small ceramic heart. Some loved ones also include a lock of the patient’s hair.

Gervay was motivated to become a patient and family adviser after his own experience when his father passed away in the Wilmington ICU.

“It’s a very simple thing to put together, yet it’s extremely meaningful for families,” Gervay said. “It eases the pain a little bit.”

Barbee said these gestures of compassion and caring also help the staff who are impacted by a patient’s death.

“With each card that we write, we reflect on that life,” she said. “We hope we are giving them some sort of comfort.”