By Sr. Monica Okon, HHCJ
Prior to COVID-19, my pastoral care department celebrated a monthly memorial Mass in the chapel for the families of patients who died the previous month, and the chapel was usually full. During the pandemic, no Mass was celebrated for patients who died from February 2020 to September 2020. But as the numbers of dead kept increasing, it became obvious that we still had a need for this meaningful memorial service – particularly when so many patients died without their family members at bedside.
We had to do something different that was still meaningful and provided spiritual support to the families. Our pastoral care director, Sr. Pauline Gilmore, FMM, wrote to inform them of a memorial Mass during November, the time in the liturgical calendar when the dead are remembered, celebrated and prayed for. Different days in November were dedicated to celebrating all those who died in a particular month. For example, those who died in the month of September 2020 were remembered on Saturday, November 28, 2020. We wrote to the families, “For their remembrance, a list of the deceased will be placed at the foot of the altar. Our sincere hope is that this will bring comfort to your family as you mourn your loss.”
We did not plan for this event to be live or shared, but many families were happy to know that their loved one was being remembered and prayed for at a specific hour. And some families did show up at the hospital with flowers on the day of the Mass. We invited them in to participate, masked and distanced.
At New York-Presbyterian Brooklyn Methodist Hospital, where I did my residency and now serve on the CPE advisory board, I recently participated in a Zoom bereavement service. For years, Joo Young Hong, the coordinator of pastoral care, has organized an annual perinatal bereavement service. The occasion offers a safe place for families who have lost a baby to grieve and share their sadness and realize they are not alone. Although the service was virtual, it still captured the warmth and intimacy of previous years. Prayers were shared; songs played; poems and responsive psalms read; a reflection presented; and we lit candles as “a symbol of hope through our recognition of loss” while the names of the babies were read. A blessing was offered at the end of the service by the director of the Pastoral Care Department, Peter Poulos.
Even though it was a virtual service, some of the changes were actually improvements. I was personally struck that not only did more people join in the virtual service on Zoom, but more families were willing to share their stories because they did not have to hold a microphone and stand in front of a group of people. Many families shared their stories and others expressed where they are in their grieving process. Above all, they felt supported by the hospital.
To celebrate these angels is always very meaningful, since it brings families who are in the same situation together. I pray that these families continue to experience the love and comfort of this community of support, and may their babies be seen as angels to their parents and families. For all the dead, may you rest in peace. For all who mourn–– we love you, we pray for you and please reach out for someone to listen to you as needed. We the chaplains are always here for you.
Sr. Monica Okon, HHCJ, is a staff chaplain at St. Francis Hospital in Roslyn, NY.