Thursday, March 24, 2011

Death Ritual: Funeral Celebrating Detroit Unclaimed Dead

Rest in peace.

On this third Wednesday of the month, I join with eight others at a Detroit funeral home. We are here to pay our respects to 28 deceased people who are both strangers and new friends to us. Our purpose is to provide a final send-off to celebrate their lives. For various reasons such as abandonment at the Wayne County morgue and hospitals or families not providing a funeral, these spirits of adults, children, and “little angels who died without taking a breath” have found their way to Perry Funeral Home in Detroit, Michigan.

This monthly ritual started about three years ago by a man who says he was driving in his car while listening to the radio one day and heard about unclaimed bodies stacking up in cold storage behind the morgue. Concerned about this increasing problem, he contacted the coroner who directed him to Perry Funeral Home where bodies were being sent for burial. Eventually, Perry Funeral Home made arrangements for members of St. Christopher and St. Paul Episcopal Church to become involved. They started the Celebration of Friends memorial services to bring formal closure to the lives of those with no other means of having this observance. Everyone is welcome to attend the rituals.

Various church members and others assist with activities during the service supporting funeral home services. Preparations include printed programs, American flags, candles, and beautiful white roses representing each deceased honoree. Roses are distributed to participants at the end of the service. Attendees are encouraged to give them to others to pray in honor of the deceased.

I sense something powerful in the room when each departed person’s earthly existence is acknowledged with an oral reading stating name (if known), date of birth, and death. Our sincere and enthusiastic response of “May he/she rest in peace” feels empowering, knowing our presence serves as testimony to their lives and our hopes for their future peace. We settle into satisfied and sing in celebration of this momentous occasion. Each one of our new friends has been claimed.

Frances Shani Parker, Author

Thursday, March 17, 2011

How Do Hospice Volunteers Cope? (Research, Video)

There is a common perception that hospice volunteers must have a difficult time being with people who are dying. Many times I have been told, “I don’t see how anybody can volunteer to work under those conditions. It must be depressing.” I reassure them that my hospice volunteer experiences are rewarding and uplifting.  Sometimes I ask them, “Do you really think I would visit dying people week after week for years so I could be depressed? Give me a break.”

While hospice volunteers generally embrace their positive win-win service experiences, they also have challenges that require good coping skills to benefit themselves and their patients. A study by researchers at Utah Valley University reported on volunteer feedback from interviews addressing this topic. What are some coping techniques volunteers incorporated?

1)   Problem-focused coping (seeking advice from members of the hospice interdisciplinary team)
2)   Emotion-focused coping (talking with others, going to funerals)
3)   Meaning making through appraisal (religious beliefs, downward comparison of oneself with others)
4)   Physical techniques (walking, deep breathing)
5)   Talking with the volunteer coordinator

Conversing with volunteer coordinators was the most significant coping mechanism of all. This further emphasizes the importance of their role in helping volunteers succeed.

This unique video showcases Tzu Chi (Chinese) hospice volunteers who serve in Scotch Plains, New Jersey at the Peggy Coloney House at Hope Village. This is a freestanding hospice that is part of the Center for Hope Hospice and Palliative Care.

Frances Shani Parker, Author
Becoming Dead Right: A Hospice Volunteer in Urban Nursing Homes is available in paperback at many booksellers and in e-book form at Amazon and Barnes and Noble booksellers.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Organ Donations: Family Response to the Experience (Research, Video 2:47)

People have interesting ideas about donating their organs to others after they die. Perhaps you have heard someone say they wouldn’t donate their organs because their bodies would not be complete in the afterlife or on Judgment Day when they returned.  With those kinds of thoughts, imagine how difficult it must be for some people to make the decision to donate organs of a loved one. Even families who view organ donation as a means for the loved one to live on in another person may find the ordeal distressful on some level.

What do people who have been involved in the organ donation process think about their experience? Response to a 20-question survey of organ and tissue donors' families in San Diego and Imperial County (California) reported these results:

1)   Most respondents (84%) indicated that family support was the most helpful thing in dealing with their grief, followed by the support of friends (74%) and religious and cultural beliefs (37%).
2)   Most (75%) indicated that they agreed to the donation so that something positive could result from their loss.
3)   Most respondents (93%) felt that they were given enough information to make an informed decision about donation.
4)   6% indicated that the donation process interfered with funeral or memorial arrangements.
 5)  More than 95% understood that their loved one had died before they were approached for consent.
 6)  12% said they still had unanswered questions about aspects of donation.
 7) 15% indicated that discussing organ donation added more emotional stress to their overall experience.

While most respondents seem to have had a satisfying experience participating in the organ donor process and regarding grief management, some have troubling concerns that can impact them negatively over time if they are not resolved. Healthcare workers have to be especially sensitive to those involved with organ donations both before and after the loved one’s death in terms of support and grief management.

Steve Ferkau has lived with cystic fibrosis his entire life. He has almost died on more than one occasion. His life changed eight years ago when he received a new set of lungs from a young woman named Kari. This video tells their story: 

Frances Shani Parker, Author

Friday, March 4, 2011

Hospice Volunteer and Dementia Patient Share Common History: Poem “Deeper Than Words”

Guarded from angry mobs by federal marshals in 1960, first-grader Ruby Bridges integrated William Frantz Public School in New Orleans, LA, my hometown. In protest during the first year, all parents withdrew their children from the school.

Hospice volunteers and patients come together as strangers and often discover that they have common histories or characteristics. These familiar experiences and qualities unite them in special ways that take their bonding to another level of understanding. Shared similarities can include civil rights oppression, languages, disabilities, military service, talents, occupations, travel, values, and other factors.

My book Becoming Dead Right: A Hospice Volunteer in Urban Nursing Homes concludes each chapter with an original poem. I was inspired to write this poem while watching my hospice patient sleep. I thought about our shared African American history that bridged our communication beyond her dementia and enhanced my respect for all she represented.

Deeper Than Words

The outside world arrives
wearing my willing face.
Toothless, your smile widens
like a baby’s hungry for attention.
Almost ninety-eight years old,
your inner candle still glows.

A hospice volunteer, I lean closer,
talk into your listening left ear,
“Today is Sunday, Miss Loretta.”
My news drifts away like smoke.
You stare at me through dying coals.
Whatever I ask, you whisper, “Yes.”

I stroke your age-softened arms
while your hazed mind masters sleep.
Watching you, I dream generations
of women black and strong, each one
a book of sustaining stories
about joy, pain, courage, survival.

Within your warm brown frame,
spirits from our common history linger.
Aides say you have dementia,
that you don’t know a word I say.
Our language goes deeper than words.
We speak to each other’s souls.

© Frances Shani Parker

Frances Shani Parker, Author
Becoming Dead Right: A Hospice Volunteer in Urban Nursing Homes is available in paperback at many booksellers and in e-book form at Amazon and Barnes and Noble booksellers.