Metro

Yvonne Abraham

Hospital caregivers commemorate the patients they lost

CAMBRIDGE — On Thursday, members of Addie Mae Laycox’s grieving family returned to the place where they’d had to let her go.

It wasn’t easy for some of them to come back to Cambridge Hospital, where their family’s expansive matriarch — mother of nine, grandmother of 28, great-grandmother to nine more — had died.

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“We spent a lot of time here,” said her granddaughter Emily Laycox. “They did so much for her. It’s very hard.”

Still, this place, and the people in it, will always mean something to them. During the several months the retired nurse, 85, was in and out of this hospital, she had done what she always did: charmed staffers, made new friends, and put the needs of those around her first, even as she struggled. In March, her massive family packed into her room, laid their hands on her, and said goodbye.

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But they weren’t the only ones who lost her that day. The people who work here — doctors, nurses, cleaners — had gotten attached to Addie, and wept for her.

Every year, this hospital system acknowledges the grief that binds families and caregivers with a memorial service to mark its patients’ passings. Staffers at Cambridge Health Alliance’s three hospitals and 15 primary care practices gather up the names of the patients lost that year, and invite their families to help doctors, nurses, social workers and others involved in their care commemorate them.

It honors the patients and their families, but it’s just as important for the caregivers, whose vital work allows little time to grieve.

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“There is a real mutuality there,” says Sister Theresa Carlow, the interfaith chaplain at Everett Hospital, who began the services nine years ago. “We want to remember along with families all those we have dedicated our lives to, and who have blessed us with that interaction.”

So many patients have blessed her, Carlow says. She recalls one woman — homeless, with many illnesses. “There was something about her,” Carlow said. “She touched the spirit of the person she was talking to.” One Good Friday, the woman succumbed to despair. Carlow reminded her that even Jesus had felt that way as the end neared, and the woman seemed to take comfort in that. When she died a couple of days later, doctors and nurses gathered around her, crying and summoning memories of her, as if at a wake. Years later, the loss still stings.

Only a few families made it to Thursday’s service, which is typical. The hospitals send out hundreds of invitations, but it’s hard for people to return to the place where the fog of grief descended. Along with hospital staff, they sat in rows in a meeting room on the hospital’s third floor, a few dozen people in all.

A doctor played the violin. An administrator sang. A social worker and a volunteer read poems about grief.

Then, the names of the dead were read. One after the other, six hospital staffers recited the litany of loss — more than 300 names, each practiced and pronounced with care. It took more than 15 minutes to speak them all.

“For me, it becomes a prayer,” Carlow said of the names. “It’s done with reverence and respect, and you let the names flow over you, and it becomes a very spiritual experience. It’s a way of calling those people to that space.”

It was powerful, gut-wrenching, and life-affirming all at once. Those whose names were spoken counted, as do the people who loved them, and who cared for them as patients. They were all bound together.

Addie came to the memorial service here, her daughters said, to hear her husband Joseph’s name read aloud after he died in 2007. It gave her family pain, but also some comfort, to hear Addie’s on Thursday night.

“If she were here, she’d check in with everybody to see if they were OK,” her daughter Teri said. Her family is not OK. But, like everybody who lost her, and all the others here, they’re trying to get there.

Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at yvonne.abraham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeAbraham.
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