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Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette
Attendees place personalized ornaments on the remembrance tree at a Lutheran Hospital ceremony to commemorate lost loved ones.

Lost loved ones remembered during ceremony at Lutheran

– As end-of-year holiday celebrations approach, it can be difficult emotionally for families who have said final goodbyes to loved ones.

But staff members at Fort Wayne’s Lutheran Hospital tried Saturday to bring them some comfort.

Saturday morning in the hospital’s South Lobby stood two Christmas trees waiting to be decorated with ornaments bearing names of deceased family members.

One tree was adorned with a pink ribbon symbol and was dedicated to former breast and other cancer patients. The other featured blue and white flowers and was accented with clear glass balls with blue, white or silver ribbon inside.

Members of the military were remembered with balls containing red, white and blue ribbons, said Jean Skaggs of Decatur, a Lutheran nurse who was preparing ornaments for hanging with her daughter Kelsey, an IPFW nursing student and patient care associate at Lutheran.

Sherry Cotner, an intensive-care nurse who coordinated the tree project, says the decorating provides a ritual to help the bereaved cope when they’re feeling sad during an otherwise celebratory time.

“They’re hard for people,” she said of the holidays. “Hopefully we can use this to help them remember the good times when they were together.”

Fort Wayne residents Tammie Billingsley came to the event with her daughter Ashley Billingsley, niece Shinisha Grayson and Grayson’s daughter, Shiniah Jones, 10. Their extended family lost three members in 2013 – Tammie Billingsley’s fiancé, Frederick Vines, her cousin, Herman White, and Geneva Murdock, Shiniah’s great-grandmother.

“Fred was such a great person who loved everyone with a free heart, especially family,” Tammie Billingsley said. “I thought Thanksgiving would be a good time, because he loved people and he loved family and holidays, to come out and show how appreciative we all are because of what he has done in our lives.”

Cathy Galey of Fort Wayne said she spent a lot of time this year at Lutheran Hospital before her son, Joe VanWald, also of Fort Wayne, died at 31 from complications of cystic fibrosis.

Diagnosed at the age of 2, VanWald was not expected to live through his teenage years, she said. “He surprised them,” she said, adding that VanWald had been awaiting a double lung and liver transplant when he suffered pneumonia and complications from blood and kidney infections.

Galey attended with her mother, Jean Lahrman, who memorialized her husband, Clarence F. (“J.R.”) Lahrman, of Fort Wayne, as well as her son and grandson, Rick and Beau Lahrman of Spring Hill, Tenn.

She said her husband died of leukemia 19 years ago. Rick had complications from juvenile diabetes, and an automobile accident claimed Beau at 17 in 1996, she said.

Asked how she copes, she said, “The good Lord gives us extra strength.”

In its fifth year, the tree project usually gets between 250 and 300 names, some from hospital staff and some from the public, Cotner said. People could submit names in advance or come to the campus to place an ornament.

Names on ornaments did not have to be former Lutheran patients, Cotner said. “Anyone can place an ornament,” she said.

A brief ceremony, including a reading of all the names, took place at 12:45 p.m. Volunteer musicians, including a brass quintet from St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Fort Wayne, and pianist/vocalist Thomas Hall of Winona Lake, a graduate student of opera at DePaul University in Chicago, provided holiday music throughout the event.

“We all learn from everyone who has passed away,” said Cotner, who added that even nurses and staff can feel sad remembering former patients at holiday time.

“It’s a way of remembering those who have touched us, and hopefully, we have touched them as well,” she said.