Every year the children’s hospital in Syracuse, NY, hosts a memorial service for its young patients who are now “angels.”
Many things resonated with me Friday night as I sat among several dozen families who had lost a child to cancer or other disease, but three stand out.
Saying the child’s name aloud
During the service, family members and friends are invited to go up to the microphone and say the name of the child they are honoring.
It is the most touching part of the ceremony, because it is tangible proof that the memory of the child remains alive — not just to the child’s family, but to anyone who hears it, including other parents in the church coping with their own similar grief.
One child’s name was spoken by members of a large family, and it was clear by the number of people who went to the microphone — and the emotion in their voices — that the child had died recently. Indeed, 2-year-old Jack had died of a rare cancer just two months earlier.
Many names later, as a poignant reminder that the pain of losing a child never goes away, the parents of a young girl who died 20 years ago walked together to the microphone and said her name.
I wondered what went through the minds of Paige’s parents — she would be about 28 now — as they watched Jack’s family struggle with their new, raw grief. What could they possibly say or do to ease that family’s pain, even if just for a moment?
The symbolic gift of a compass
Perhaps they could borrow from the words of the hospital staff, whose grief was also quite evident. These doctors, nurses and child life specialists took care of these children for months or years, only to lose them despite their best efforts.
Their message in the booklet read, in part:
“For each of you, the journey with your beloved child through illness and death brought unexpected turns into fear, doubt and confusion — into the complete unknown. You wondered, ‘Where is my direction? What will guide me home?'”
As family members returned to their seats after speaking a child’s name, each was handed a compass as a reminder “of the times you looked into your hearts and your children’s hearts and found your direction home.”
A young girl’s tribute to her sister
But the moment that hit me hardest this year occurred when I least expected it, before the service began. A cellist played while people filed into the church, and I leafed through the booklet that contained the names of the children (about 700 names, grouped by the year the child died, from 1972 on).
I fixed on a simple poem, “I Miss My Sister,” and one line jumped out at me for its beautiful innocence and honesty: “If my sister had lived, she would know how hard it is to pass fourth grade.”
The young author’s tribute to her sister Tristyn, who died five years ago, ends in much the same fashion: “I promise to always remember her and speak out loud in her room so that she knows how much I miss her. I am just a girl who misses her sister.”