Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Annual Memorial Service at a Cancer Center

by Sydney Dy

So many wonderful things have happened during my 15 years helping develop and lead so many of our palliative care programs throughout Johns Hopkins Medicine. As a big highlight, I was asked to be the staff speaker at our Cancer Center's recent annual memorial service. It was such a moving experience, with our lobby full of 300 family members and many staff who spent countless hours putting this together, and a lot of love. The most amazing part was the mother of a patient we had who died at a young age after her transplant, that we all felt so badly about, who told us she came especially to thank us for making sure she was comfortable.

Inspired by Alex Smith's sharing of his memorial service remarks on GeriPal last year, I share here some of what I said. The services are posted on our website if you want to see what it is like as a model for your own program.


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Everyone told me to speak from my heart, and to make this personal, so that is what I will try to do.

I am so honored to be asked to speak to you tonight. I am here as the physician with our pain and palliative care program now for many, many years. I am also here as the daughter of Lester Morss, who was a patient here for a very brief time. My mom and my dad’s sister are here with me to honor him and all of you. A year ago today, my father, who was an avid photographer, was taking his last pictures – at my daughter’s bat mitzvah rehearsal. Eleven months ago today, he died at home, with all his family around him, just a few hours after telling everyone goodbye.

And I am here representing my amazing transdisciplinary team who has worked for so many years to improve living with cancer here, and so many who have supported us, and all the staff here.

Mostly, I am here to thank you all for sharing your loved ones with us and allowing us into this most precious and intimate part of living: caring for your loved ones at this most difficult time in your lives. We thank you especially for what you have taught us: we have learned so much from you that allowed us to take the best possible care of our family members when this happened to them. So I thank you all, for lending us your loved ones for a time, for helping me to help my father and my family, because although there are no right answers, at least I had a path in front of me to follow, paved by my learning from you. An example set by you of compassion; of caring; of amazing strength; of the power of love; of how to survive the most challenging of circumstances; of honoring those that you have lost; of being a better person every day, because they lived. They lived. And we remember, we remember them. We remember them with you today. And for every patient I see, I try to take that extra moment, to bring in something that you have taught me. I thank you for that as well: for everything that you have done to make us a better physician, a better nurse, a better social worker, a better chaplain. A better daughter, a better mother. We are part of your legacy. We know the physician is the least important part of the team – and the most important part is you, the family and friends. What matters is not the types of treatments we gave you, but the legacy and love that you shared and that is still here– that they are still with us.


Caring for someone with cancer is so hard. Cancer is suffering and losing everything and chaos and trying to make it through another day. The terrible things i did – being short with my loved ones despite my best intentions – and the wonderful things you did – forgiving, kindness to each other, talking about things we never talk about, together. And grieving is so hard - grieving is wishing that things had been different and thankfulness for what we had and forgetting the things we so desperately don’t want to forget. And as my daughter wrote: wishing for just one more day.

We thank you for allowing us into the most sacred and intimate moments of your lives – to see the very essence of your souls, the amazing love and caring and the incredible things you have done, what you and your loved ones were able to accomplish despite such tremendous suffering. We thank you for teaching us so much, for teaching us what will allow us to take better care of all the future cancer patients who walk through our doors. We thank you for all the incredible work that you did that makes our work possible. I know how little what we do helps – but I hope it does help, even a little. Of all the things I’m working on personally this year, the most important has been forgiveness. This has taken me such a long way: forgiving all the crazy things that happened, forgiving myself, for the things I wish I had done. It has helped me so much to let these things go. And I hope you can forgive us too: for not listening as well as we should, for thinking a treatment would work when it didn’t, for not calling you back right away when I know you were waiting by the phone. I hope you can forgive us, because we tried . And I hope we can do better. A little better every day, because of you.

From my heart, from all of us, I thank you for helping us heal from our own losses. For taking care of your loved ones, helping us to give back, makes it possible for us to go on. For me personally, it has been such a gift this year to work with you. I thank you for all you have taught us and helping us by coming here tonight.

Maya Angelou died this year also. And here’s a bit of a poem that helped get me through this year:

And when great souls die,

after a period peace blooms,

slowly and always

irregularly.

Our senses, restored, never

to be the same, whisper to us.

They existed. They existed.

We can be. Be and be

better. For they existed.

And we remember them.

Sydney Dy, MD, MSc is a palliative care physician and researcher in the Departments of Health Policy and Management, Oncology and Medicine, and Duffey Pain and Palliative Care Program, Johns Hopkins.

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