BUCKHANNON – Each Christmas season, West Virginia Hospice in Buckhannnon pauses to pay attention to the lights adorning Christmas trees.
The local hospice office allows them to act as a reminder that the love of family members lost during the year burns on in the hearts of their loved ones.
In fact, it’s exactly what the annual Love Lights Ceremony, which took place Monday in West Virginia Wesleyan College’s Wesley Chapel, is all about, said hospice’s executive director, Mary McCartney.
“We always hold [the Love Lights Ceremony] around the holidays,” McCartney told those gathered in the pews of Wesley Chapel. “The lights on a tree remind us of the lights in our hearts that tell us that we’ll never forget that loved one, that we’ll always have them with us in our hearts.”
There are a number of misconceptions about hospice – that it means giving up on a patient’s medical treatment, or that death is right around the corner.
In reality, hospice is a support system that places a patient’s family at the center of decision-making about their family member’s care, W.Va. Hospice pamphlets explain. Its purposes are not only to provide comfort to patients while managing pain and controlling symptoms, but also to offer a host of bereavement resources for the patient’s family members.
Local hospice chaplain Jenifer Suehs-Vassel said she spends a great deal of time with patients and their caregivers simply remembering – remembering stories from their past, remembering what they were like before they became ill and reminiscing about the time they spent with loved ones and friends.
“That experience of remembering reminds us that life is more than just this moment of illness or this moment of grief,” Suehs-Vassel said. She said grieving a loved one is similar to the experience of advent for Christians, who spend December awaiting the Christmas miracle of the birth of Jesus Christ on Dec. 25.
“I think in our best moments, even in our grief, we are hopeful,” she said. “We wait with hopeful expectation just as the Christian church is waiting to celebrate Christmas … We let the memories of their love bring light and joy to our lives and we wait with hope to see them again.”
During Monday’s ceremony, hospice honored three families who lost parents during 2018.
Susan Harsh, whose mother, Roseann Marshall, passed away in January, said she would be forever grateful for the comfort and joy hospice had provided while her mom lived at Serenity Care nursing home.
“We were just so glad to have someone come and say, ‘We’re here, we want to help you,’” Harsh said. “At that time I had been taking care of my mom for about 10 years, mostly by myself with some help from a few people, but nothing really steady. And to have somebody say, ‘I want to help you’ is the best thing that you could ever hear when you’ve been caregiving and scared and not knowing what’s going to happen to your parent.”
Having hospice in her corner also allowed her mother to interact with other people, which she greatly enjoyed, Harsh said.
“To see her interacting with somebody other than just me and her family and feeling like somebody cared for her was the best gift that hospice could ever give,” Harsh said.
Chrissy Hull’s mother, Carol Lanham, passed away in March, but the family opted for in-home hospice care beginning in 2015. Hull’s mother had been in the hospital and learned that the next course of chemotherapy would likely land her right back there.
Lanham told her daughter she wanted to go home for the holidays, so that’s exactly what she did.
“We celebrated so many milestone on her bucket list,” Hull said. “She flew an airplane. She rode a Harley Davidson motorcycle. I never thought I’d see that happen, but it happened … she had fun doing those things, and that was the main thing.”
Hull said hospice employees had become like family to her.
“I’m so appreciative of all that you did for my mom and my family,” she said.
Mark and Rhonda Cerullo lost both Mark’s mother and father – and Rhonda’s mother-in-law and father-in-law – Emerick and Antoinette Cerullo, in 2018. Rhonda Cerullo said hospice had been an invaluable resource during their season of loss.
During the ceremony, the First United Methodist Church choir sang several songs, including “Go tell it on the Mountain” and “This Little Light of Mine.” Attendees joined hands as a tree outside the Chapel was illuminated.
McCartney, the executive director of hospice, urged anyone who believes in hospice’s mission to donate to the W.Va. Hospice Promise Foundation, a nonprofit organization that’s entirely run by volunteers. The money is used for grants that fund home repairs, cover funeral expenses and more.
“One percent of the donations goes back to help care for local hospice patients in Buckhannon, West Virginia and in all areas of West Virginia,” McCartney said. “It provides grants for home repairs, appliances, anything that a hospice patient might need and not be able to afford.”
Grants are awarded on the basis on financial need and are sometimes used to pay for end-of-life expenses like funerals.
“There are a lot of people that have spent all their money on battling their disease and just don’t have a lot of money left at the end of their life, so we’re very happy to be able to step in and help,” McCartney added. “I think we’ve helped about 12 people with funeral expenses this year.”
For more information about donating to the Hospice Promise Foundation, call 304-473-6800 or mail a check to: W.Va. Hospice, 6 Hartman Plaza, Buckhannon WV 26201.
Donors may also visit https://lhcgroup.com/foundation and download a donation form, which should be mailed to: the Hospice Promise Foundation, 901 Hugh Wallis Road, South Lafayette, LA 70508.