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Tree honours the departed

Celebration mixes with heartbreak as, one after another, daughters, sons, grandchildren, wives, husbands, sisters and brothers hang Christmas tree ornaments created in the memories of those they have lost.

Christmas is an especially challenging season for people who have lost loved ones in the previous year, says Pastor Dale Fallon, chaplain for the palliative care section — Unit 32 — at Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre.

It’s difficult to celebrate when there is an empty chair at the table, says Fallon.

To help ease families through the season, the staff and volunteers at Unit 32 have created an annual remembrance celebration, including a prayer service after which people are invited to hang memorial ornaments on a special tree in the hospital’s chapel.

The 23rd-annual Tree of Remembrance Service, held in a hospital auditorium on Sunday, honoured the families and friends of the 150 people who died while under care on the unit between November of 2011 and September of this year.

Palliative care is targeted at people whose illnesses cannot be cured, said Fallon.

Some people return from the unit to long-term care and some go home. But the gravity of their condition is such that Unit 32 is a place where many people will spend the last days of their lives.

The idea of holding an annual celebration was brought to Red Deer by a nurse who had worked in another hospital, where a similar program was in place, said Wendy Henry, who is one of the charge nurses on Unit 32.

Along the assistance they provide for patients on the unit, its palliative care team looks after the needs of their families, helping them learn to cope with their loss.

Henry said she does not believe professional staff can afford to let their own emotions interfere with the care they provide their patients and the families of their patients.

She experienced the unit “from the other side of the desk” in August, when her stepmother, Claire Ellis, died after battling a lengthy illness.

“You have to be professional. You’re the one who has to keep it together, because everybody else is really upset. It was way different with Claire, because that was my family.”

For the staff to be kind with patients and their families makes all the difference in the world, said Henry, who has worked on Unit 32 since 1986.

Her stepbrother, Brian Ellis, said he valued the help offered in both Red Deer and at the Calgary Foothills Hospital because his mother was kept in good spirits to the end.

“She went through the entire ordeal saying that the staff were incredible. She had not one bad thing to say about anybody who cared for her,” said Ellis.

Fallon said that, while the service has strong Christian foundations, its organizers do their best to include people of all faiths.

“We try not to make it so aggressively Christian in a sense, but it is within a Christian context,” he said.

The celebration is timed to give people a chance to reflect and celebrate the lives of those who have been lost during a time of the year when they will be missed the most, he said.



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