Ascension, CHRISTUS host virtual memorial services to honor deceased colleagues

December 1, 2020

Systems help co-workers to process grief


A Friday morning in October found Stephen Kazanjian, CHRISTUS Spohn Health System vice president of mission integration, gathered with about a half dozen frontline clinicians in the intensive care unit of CHRISTUS Spohn Hospital Beeville in southern Texas, offering them spiritual support as they grieved a colleague who died of COVID-19.


Kazanjian asked a few of them about the attributes that made their colleague special to so many at the hospital. He was gathering anecdotes for a virtual memorial he and his mission department colleagues put together. Since the pandemic's onset his team has hosted four virtual memorials honoring CHRISTUS Spohn employees, all of whom succumbed to COVID.

Millions of health care workers have been providing frontline health care amid the pandemic at increased risk to themselves. The Guardian and Kaiser Health News are investigating 1,396 deaths of frontline health care workers in the U.S. suspected of having died of the virus as of Nov. 18. In a joint "Lost on the Frontline" project, their reporters are writing short profiles of caregivers for whom COVID is the confirmed cause of death.

Stephen Kazanjian, second from left, CHRISTUS Spohn Health System vice president of mission integration, rounds with associates at a CHRISTUS Spohn hospital. He is part of a mission services team that helps associates cope with trauma experienced at work, including the death of a colleague.

CHRISTUS Health and Ascension are two Catholic health systems that pay tribute to their deceased associates, irrespective of the cause of death, to give the colleagues who cared about them a space to grieve. Both systems are being intentional about preserving the sanctity and meaning of their traditional in-person memorial services, now delivered via video link because of the pandemic.

Kazanjian says he's heard from staff that they found the virtual memorial services to be "beautiful, reverent, moving and poignant." Those hosting the services strive to capture the personality and achievements of the deceased including how they advanced the mission of Catholic health care through their work. "The stories from people who knew them well" are very poignant, Kazanjian says.

Layers of support
Kazanjian says it is customary for CHRISTUS Health facilities to hold services to memorialize associates, but pre-COVID, those services were usually held in the facilities' chapels, with all colleagues invited to attend. He says while some employees have asked that services be held in-person now to preserve the intimacy of that format, he has held firm on the need for virtual remembrances. "It would be a sad irony to gather to honor someone who died of COVID, and then to have someone contract COVID from that gathering," he says. The virtual memorials have been gatherings of 70 to 100 people — a crowd size that would have exceeded infection prevention restrictions.

CHRISTUS Spohn's mission integration department, including Kazanjian, his assistant and department chaplains, usually schedule the employee memorial services to take place after the family has held their own memorial or funeral service. Colleagues and the deceased's loved ones can attend the virtual CHRISTUS Spohn services.

Presented on the Zoom platform, the services normally include prayers, scripture, a video montage remembering the life of the deceased, music and eulogies by colleagues and family members. The service "paints a picture of who they were and how they lived," says Kazanjian.

Kazanjian suspects there are people who attend the virtual services who in usual times would be tethered to a particular hospital unit during working hours, and so unable to attend a chapel service.

He says the mission department supplements the virtual services with in-person, socially distanced rounding and crisis intervention presence for the team hit with loss of a colleague.

Kazanjian has been leaving a blank condolence journal in the chapel of the facility where each deceased colleague worked — friends and co-workers write down their thoughts and prayers. The book goes to the family of the deceased.

Kazanjian says he believes the services and additional support have been healing for health care staff who have been traumatized and exhausted by the pandemic. "It's been a very difficult six months — a time none of us would have expected. I always try to see the good in things, though; and I've seen heroism, courage and selflessness in the way our doctors and nurses have put themselves on the line. Sadly, some of them have died. What they've done and risked has inspired me and my team" in offering spiritual support.

Honoring the brave
Dave Ebenhoh, vice president of mission integration for the 146-hospital Ascension, says that in addition to virtual memorials that the system's facilities hold to honor individual associates, Ascension is remembering decedents at a systemwide level.


Since April, representatives of Ascension's mission integration, human re–sources, and marketing and communications departments have collaborated on ways to "honor and celebrate the sacrifices being made by our associates in the face of COVID-19, especially those who have died," says Ebenhoh. One way they are doing this is through monthly systemwide remembrances that begin with an email message to all 160,000 Ascension associates from President and Chief Executive Joseph Impicciche that pays tribute to colleagues who have died of COVID or other causes in the prior month.

Before including the names on the list, Ascension secures the permission of next of kin and ensures that the Ascension facility where the person had worked is tending to the spiritual needs of the colleagues and others mourning the person.

At the end of the week that the remembrance email message goes out, the Ascension departments involved in memorializing associates host a virtual service that is open to all Ascension employees. The service normally includes readings and prayers. Frequently, Impicciche helps to lead the services.

Holy and sacred
Ebenhoh says the service is intentionally very simple, with individuals recognized by name, "remembering that God has called us by name and, in doing so at the time of death, we offer them back to God."

"It is a holy and sacred moment to be a small part of witnessing their return to God's hands," Ebenhoh says.

Since Ascension began the services in May — at the start, they took place every other week — the system has memorialized 29 associates in this way. Ebenhoh says he's heard from staff who said they "were deeply grateful for the opportunity to gather, even virtually," to honor their colleagues.

He says, "We often underestimate the connection that people have with co-workers. There is a real and tangible sense of community that is often seen and experienced more deeply at moments of great tragedy, and COVID-19 has forced us to face many such moments together.

"To honor our friends and colleagues in this way invites God into our own hearts at a time when all of us need deep, deep healing," he adds.



Copyright © 2020 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

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