Thanks for the memories : Survivors gather to honor loved ones at annual Cottage Hospital event

Heidi Braunger places a note for her mother Nancy, who passed away in August 2013, during the "A Gathering of Remembrance" memorial service held at the Burtness Auditorium in Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital.
Heidi Braunger places a note for her mother Nancy, who passed away in August 2013, during the “A Gathering of Remembrance” memorial service held at the Burtness Auditorium in Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital.

A group of around 40 mourners gathered on Sunday afternoon for Cottage Hospital’s annual memorial service, “A Gathering of Remembrance.”

The event provides families and loved ones of those who have died in the hospital’s care in the last year another chance to say goodbye. Started four years ago by members of the hospital and its nondenominational clergy, the memorial is a short service with numerous texts read by staff and a chance to place an origami crane with a message to a love one on an altar.

Jaynie Wood, Child Life Specialist of Children's Services, reads a short story from a children's book, "Water Bugs and Dragonflies," during the Gathering of Remembrance Memorial Service held at the Burtness Auditorium in Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital
Jaynie Wood, Child Life Specialist of Children’s Services, reads a short story from a children’s book, “Water Bugs and Dragonflies,” during the Gathering of Remembrance Memorial Service held at the Burtness Auditorium in Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital

The Rev. Pam Washburn, director of Spiritual Care at Cottage, opened the memorial.

“We recognize that people grieve differently,” she said. “And they grieve differently because they are individuals for one, but also based on who it is they have lost.”

In earlier years, this memorial was in fact two: one for children who had passed and another for adults. Last year, the two were combined.

After a prayer by the Rev. Teena Grant, clinical chaplain, Clay Napier, who began this memorial four years ago with the Rev. Grant, gave a reading of “Gone Too Soon.”

Jaynie Wood, child life Specialist for Children Services, read the story “Water Bugs and Dragonflies,” Doris Stickney’s children’s book that helps explains death to young children.

The microphone then went to Mehrdad Mehr, Cottage’s pediatric intensivist and a practicing Zoroastrian.

Death, he said was an “unavoidable encounter” that we all would face. Memories, he said “daily reincarnate our loved ones.” Yet despite his own rationalizing, he admitted, “I have yet to find that inner peace that allows me to cope with the death of a family member or a friend, a child or an adult.”

Finally, after a short responsive reading, with call and response involving the audience, the Rev. Jim Schmidt, the hospital’s on-call chaplain, further explained the idea of keeping loved ones in our memory, then quoted a poem called “Memory.”

Musicians Sherie Davis and Mark Alciati perform during the event
Musicians Sherie Davis and Mark Alciati perform during the event

“And though life is not as it was before/And never will be again./Our memories are much richer/Than if love had never been.”

The service ended with a call out to the names of the departed, with time for each representative family member to approach the altar, place a paper crane, spend a quiet moment and then leave with a tiny memento bag with a stone engraved with “Cherish the Memory” on it.

Some attendees came solo, others with families. Some sobbed openly, some were more stoic. But all were there to pay respects and heal a little.

One was Lynn Alonso, whose son Micah McCabe, a SBCC student, passed away last December. His death came only 14 months after she had lost her husband, Micah’s father.

“This ceremony at the end made me cry,” she said. “Micah had a memorial. There was a party and I spoke and people spoke and it was how he would have wanted it. This was more for me coming here and writing a little note on the crane.

“It was a good thing. I felt I had to come to this.”

“Grief is really weird,” she continued. “I don’t know what stage I’m at. … It’s been really, really hard.”

Mrs. Alonso wasn’t alone. She had brought, in a small carrying bag, her service dog Gertrude, who she had also carried to the altar. She’s had her since her husband died, she explained.

“Micah used to call her his chick magnet,” she smiled. “He’d cruise on State Street in his big truck with this little dog.

“I had to bring her.”

Another one of the attendees was Heidi Braunger, who had come with her boyfriend of 20 years, Justin Soenke, to continue mourning the sudden loss of her mother, Nancy Braunger, in August. They had come because of the letter that Cottage had sent. She had chosen a green crane for her mom’s favorite color.

“I hope to make her proud,” she said between tears. “It just reinforces and helps me go through the grieving process because it just doesn’t seem real. And so I thought that instead of avoiding these opportunities, I’d face it head on and just celebrate her.

“Every time I break down my friends tell me, well, that’s love,” she added. “It’s not something to turn away from.”

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