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A bag that holds no privacy

One of my favorite primetime series is "This Is Us." It depicts the Pearson family's triumphs, troubles, and tight bonds. Its heartwarming drama captured many hearts.

For me, one episode stands out: "The Death of Jack Pearson." He dies suddenly and unexpectedly. His wife, Rebecca, breaks down. Alone and devastated, she receives his belongings in a plastic bag and walks down the hallway to leave the hospital. The scene is barren, without comfort or compassion. In a word, chilling.

Sadly, variations of this scene unfold thousands of times every day. In the U.S., hospitals and hospices customarily hand over your deceased loved one's belongings in a plastic bag.

Picture the passage. You are in shock. Your loss is sinking in. All you have is your loved one's things. Clothes, a phone, glasses, a watch, keys, a book.

Each item memorializes them. They were using it when you last saw them. It was a part of them. After the last rites, it is how you will keep them with you.

But, as grief overcomes you, a nurse or security hands over your loved one's possessions in a plastic bag. A bag that holds no privacy, a transparent bag that reveals blood stains on clothes or other items. It is crude, callous, even cruel.

No matter how carefully and kindly the hospital looked after your patient, you retain this last, stinging indignity forever.

I do.

My experience made me look for alternatives to the plastic bag. I found two, in Ireland and Australia. The Irish Hospice Foundation's Friendly Hospitals Program pioneered handover bags. Nurses who care for patients perform a final kind act by respectfully returning their things in a specially designed bag.

Australia's Sunshine Coast Hospital And Health Service replicated handover bags but added resources for coping. Other organizations in Australia, the UK, and Brazil have adopted the idea. My mother's memory inspired me to adapt it for the U.S.A.

My mother, Phyllis T. Highbridge, was an artist. Using her paintings, I created Compassion Kits. Each kit has four items:

1. A door sign to protect a family's privacy during their patient's final hours

2. An eco-friendly transitional belongings bag

3. A condolence card, and

4. A memory garden seed packet. (The card and door sign are available in English & Spanish.)

I started the nonprofit Transitional Bridges to offer these kits to hospitals and other inpatient institutions. (You can request a sample kit at https://www.transitionalbridges.org/our-work/compassion-kits/.) Since 2023, we have supplied kits to 85 institutions. Our target is 150 in 2024. (We also have a Patient Assistance Program.)

Funds for running and publicizing Compassion Kits and the Patient Assistance Program come from kit sales, our online gift shop, and donations. (If you give, do consider a monthly donation.)

Death is not a typical topic of conversation. However, when people ask me what I do for a living, I tell them about Transitional Bridges and our Compassionate Kits. That lets them share their personal experiences with those plastic bags.

I met Jonathan at a conference and got talking. His father received end-of-life care in a hospice. He remembered, "It was shocking – coming back home with all my dad's belongings in a doggie bag."

Or take my colleague Mindi. She recalls, "My mom was hospitalized for a minor issue. When I got a call at three in the morning telling me she had passed, it was a blow out of nowhere. We had seen her a few hours earlier. She was fine. They were talking about sending her home. Nothing prepared us for having to walk out of the hospital with her belongings in a transparent plastic bag which screamed 'someone died' to the entire world."

Jonathan, Mindi, I, and countless others have similar painful exits carved in our minds. There is a better way. One that lets healthcare professionals treat bereaved families with dignity and empathy.

The bag matters!

Lorene Morris is the founder of Transitional Bridges.

 

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