To ease a parent’s grief, say the child’s name aloud

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:

A compass given to family and friends at the annual memorial service for children who were treated at Upstate Golisano Children's Hospital in Syracuse, NY.

A compass given to family and friends at Upstate Golisano Children’s Hospital’s annual memorial service for children who have died.

“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.”


About Jim McKeever

Writer, father, runner, advocate based in Central New York.
This entry was posted in cancer, children's hospital, Irish Investigations and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to To ease a parent’s grief, say the child’s name aloud

  1. Jill F. says:

    There are no words to ease the pain of losing a child of any age. I know, as I have lost a child.

    That service sounds like a beautiful tribute for the families, friends, and caregivers to the angels.

    I have found that saying it writing my son’s name, Daniel, provides a moment of sadness but also memory.


  2. Oh Jim…..that poem should be read to everyone. Thank you for sharing this. And remembering these children with their families.


    • Jim McKeever says:

      Thank you, Colleen … the service is a wonderful thing the hospital does for these families each year.


      • I think it is lovely. And lovely are the people who come out to support one another. The parents who’s child was taken twenty years ago….to support the parents who’s pain is so new. Some things about living are so much more important than others. Love and support.


  3. Patti says:

    This spoke to my heart. I had the privilege of meeting Paige’s father this past week. He and all angel parents and families are remarkably strong. My prayers are with them.


  4. markbialczak says:

    Thank you for this honest and embracing portrait of how families forever will battle the grief and cherish the memories of these dear children departed. It is quite touching, Jim. I’m glad the hospital holds this service of remembering every year.


  5. Jim McKeever says:

    Thank you, Mark … It’s so hard for all of them– parents, siblings, friends, caregivers. They are stronger than they know.


  6. gjroma says:

    Powerful post Jim! The lines about the sister’s poem really got me—I can’t imagine life without my sister by my side. I am sure that has to be very tough job to do some days because of the loss that may be inevitable…God bless you as you continue to work, comfort and care for these kiddos and their families.

    Have a great week!

    Always for Africa, Gabrielle Romano


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