Creating space to pause, reflect and share experiences with dying and death

Reflection Room in Thunder Bay Hospital

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Reflection Room in Thunder Bay Hospital

Reflection Room in Thunder Bay hospital offers ‘safe space’ to share feelings about death

Staff, visitors invited to read comments, post what’s ‘in their heart’ about patient or loved one’s death

Jill Marcella (left), manager of the North West Local Health Integration Network regional palliative care program stands with Paul Holyoke, director of research at SE Health, in front of the comment ribbons, part of the Reflection Room pilot project in Thunder Bay, Ont., encouraging people to talk about death and dying. (Cathy Alex/CBC )

Organizers of the Reflection Room at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Thunder Bay, Ont., would like to see a month-long pilot project, which encouraged staff and visitors to contemplate and share their thoughts on the end of life, become a permanent installation.

The goal of the dedicated space is to give people “the opportunity to reflect on death and dying and the loss of loved ones” and then to write down those thoughts and leave them behind for others to read, said Jill Marcella, the manager of the North West Local Health Integration Network (LHIN) regional palliative care program.

The display was set up in a recently renovated area of the hospital, close to its busy main entrance. The natural wood on the walls, the soft lighting and the framed comments from previous exhibits all created a comforting “safe space” for people to “sit in quietness and think,” she said.

There were approximately 20 reflections posted in the Thunder Bay room, said Paul Holyoke, the director of research at SE Health in Toronto, a not-for-profit home care group overseeing the Reflection Room project.

Even just one comment would be considered a success, said Holyoke, who has overseen 33 Reflection Room installations.

Jill Marcella (left), manager of the North West Local Health Integration Network regional palliative care program, and Paul Holyoke (right) director of research for SE Health Toronto read the comments posted in the Reflection Room at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Thunder Bay. (Cathy Alex/CBC )

“Some left stories, and some read stories, and took those stories in their hearts and in their minds, and probably, if our experience is true from other places, have relayed those stories elsewhere and started conversations that otherwise would not have happened” he said.

Many people expressed their gratitude for the experience, said Marcella, with staff in particular finding it a beneficial place to visit.

“Working in hospice, or in a hospital where death is often a common experience and there aren’t a lot of supports in place for staff once they’ve had a patient that’s died, and I think this type of a Reflection Room is one way of being able to have staff acknowledge that they’ve been impacted by the death of a patient and to be able to reflect on that and I think it’s a healthy part of the grieving process,” she said.

Comment left in Reflection Room in St. Joseph’s Hospital in Thunder Bay, Ontario. (Cathy Alex/CBC )

Research shows that acknowledging the grief health care workers feel when a patient dies is important when it comes to issues of mental health and burnout.

A Reflection Room also gives them the permission to mourn the much more personal and intimate deaths in their lives, said Holyoke.

Reflection Rooms offer people a place to sit and remember someone they’ve loved and lost. The lightning is gentle, soft music is playing and there is plenty of kleenex handy. These spaces purposefully invite people to think about death and dying, and then to share those thoughts by writing them down and pinning them to a special reflection wall. For the past month, St. Joseph’s hospital – Thunder Bay’s chronic care facility – has been hosting a Reflection Room as part of a research project with a S.E. Health, a not-for-profit home care group in Toronto. Paul Holyoke is the director of research at S.E. Health, and has participated in 33 Reflection Room installations. Jill Marcella manages the palliative care program for the Northwest LHIN. The CBC’s Cathy Alex spoke to them earlier as they were beginning to pack up the exhibit. 7:03

“Health care providers deal with other people’s deaths all the time, and they have deaths in their own family and friends circles and so they have a sort of double grieving opportunity or burden,” he said.

Creating a permanent reflection space in a hospital would be another step toward “trying to normalize the experience of death and dying,” said Marcella.

The rooms, with their candles, cards and comments, open the door for people to ask “why am I reacting this way,” to a death, and ultimately allows people to “address the dead directly and remembering precise moments that bring back good memories, regret and gratitude for lives,” said Holyoke.

Comment left in Reflection Room in St. Joseph’s Hospital in Thunder Bay, Ontario. (Cathy Alex/CBC )

He and Marcella are working on a proposal to have the Reflection Room visit other communities across northwestern Ontario.

Holyoke is taking the concept to Calgary in January 2019, followed by Winnipeg in March 2019.

You can hear the full interview on the CBC program Up North here.

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