Feature articlesMay 2018

A heartfelt memento for grieving families

When it appeared there was no choice for Jeff Sankoff but to discontinue life-supporting medical care for his father, he was approached by staff of the JGH’s Medical-Surgical Intensive Care Unit (MSICU), who proposed something special: creating a memento—a heart-shaped pillow bearing the painted imprint of his father’s hand.

Eventually, one was given to each of his father’s seven grandchildren, who chose handprints in yellow, blue, pink and other colours.

“After the idea was explained to me, I knew my kids would cherish something like this,” Mr. Sankoff says. “To this day, the kids hold onto their pillows. It was a nice gesture and we were very appreciative.”

Since 2015, the MSICU has offered these pillows to the loved ones of patients who have passed away, to help with the grieving process.

Most often, with the family’s consent, the handprint is made in the patient’s room after an individual has died, in the presence of members of the healthcare team. In some cases, the handprint is made when the patient is comatose.

In the JGH Medical-Surgical Intensive Care Unit, the family members of a patient who has died while hospitalized can request a heart-shaped pillow bearing the handprint of the deceased patient.

In the JGH Medical-Surgical Intensive Care Unit, the family members of a patient who has died while hospitalized can request a heart-shaped pillow bearing the handprint of the deceased patient.

“It might sound a little morbid,” says Pina D’Orve, Social Worker in the MSICU. “But our experience has been that it brings some closure to the families and also to our staff.”

First, the patient’s hand is coated with water-based paint. Quickly afterward, the nurse firmly places the hand on the heart-shaped pillow for about 10 seconds to ensure that the paint is transferred properly. Family members are encouraged to participate, whether by holding their loved one’s hand during the process, painting it, or simply watching.

“People tell us beautiful stories that they wouldn’t have otherwise shared,” Ms. D’Orve notes. When a family member chooses the paint colour, they often explain that their choice symbolizes their loved one. Some requests have included blue and white to represent the flag of Greece, green for the patient’s love of gardening, or sky blue, the colour of the patient’s eyes.

“The colour often represents who the person is,” Ms. D’Orve says, “and we receive a lot of requests for flag colours.”

Since the initiative began, the team has given pillows—supplied by The JGH Auxiliary—to the families of about 75 patients.
“They often leave holding the pillows really tight,” Ms. D’Orve says. “I’ve had feedback from families when we do a follow-up call, saying they truly appreciate this memento.”

Up to eight pillows have been given to a single family, and on average, three per patient are requested.

“There is no limit,” Ms. D’Orve says. “It takes time, especially if each family member wants a different colour, but it’s worth it for us. In the end, the families go home with their loved one’s unique handprint.”

The painting supplies are funded by the MSICU staff. From time to time, staff bring in baked goods or other items to sell to the team, and the money raised is used to buy new materials.

“It’s a fun initiative for us to take part in as a staff,” Ms. D’Orve says. “We hope to continue doing this for as long as possible.”

A closer look at the pillow hand-printing process is available in the slide show below.

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