By Katherine Lesch
At the end of last year, we had been through eight months of fighting COVID-19 at the hospital where I’m a chaplain. It had been what we thought was the worst. COVID patients could not have visitors even if they were dying. The hospital had two or three ICU units with COVID patients and one medical/surgical unit with 23 beds full of COVID patients who were not on ventilators but could very well be comfort care patients who were dying. Nursing staff would tell us, “They deteriorate so fast,” or “A patient is dying every shift,” or “We lost three patients in one shift.” It seemed we could not keep up with the deaths.
This particular day in December 2020, the nurse manager of the medical/surgical unit asked for extra care for her staff because the losses they had experienced had been so great. When the chaplain covering the unit asked how we could help, the manager asked for a ritual.
The three of us chaplains working that day pulled together to develop a ritual for the staff that afternoon. We held the service outside on a deck area at the hospital around 3 p.m. In attendance were the unit staff, the chief administrative officer of the hospital, and chaplains. Staff from the unit who couldn’t be present were connected through a Zoom link.
We were surprised to learn at the last minute that the marketing crew was coming to video the ritual and interview the nursing staff. The video ended up revealing how powerful a moment this impromptu ritual was for them. This is their story of compassion and care.
It was a windy December day. A chaplain gathered the group and explained the order of the service. We had a bowl of pebbles so each person could come up one at a time, pick up a pebble, write the name of someone who had died of COVID-19, and then drop it into a vase of water. One by one, the staff came forward, not only writing a name but taking the time to share the story of the person and their experience. It was a profound moment, standing in the wind, hearing the stories, reflecting, and being present to the people and the sorrow.
Another chaplain read the poem “Each of Us Has a Name” by Shirley Zelda, followed by a closing prayer. At the end of the service, a nurse poured the water from the vase onto the flower beds around the deck as a symbol of nurturing the new life to come in the spring.
The staff took the vase of pebbles, with a battery-operated candle symbolizing the light in the darkness, back to their unit, so that they could continue to write names and add pebbles to the vase. This ritual has carried the staff through almost a year now. They continue to remember each patient who dies, taking a moment to write the name on a pebble and placing it in the vase – the scared vessel holding the memory of patients along with the depth of care and compassion they received from this staff.
Katherine Lesch, BCC, is chaplain supervisor at UofL Health/Jewish Hospital in Louisville, KY.