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'Still Here in Spirit'

CHOC Service Will Recall Children Lost to Illness

October 21, 2000|WILLIAM LOBDELL

There will be lots of tears, for sure. But there will also be hugs, laughs and healing--especially healing.

Parents and grandparents, brothers and sisters, nurses and doctors will gather Sunday at Children's Hospital of Orange County in Orange for a memorial service to remember the youngsters who lost their battles against illness, disease or injuries inflicted upon them.

"I'm going just because I totally adore all the doctors and nurses who took care of Laura," said Gail Susskind, a Huntington Beach resident whose 13-year-old daughter died last year of a brain tumor. "Even though that was the saddest part of our lives, we have some great memories."

Marie Polhamus, hired last year as the hospital's first full-time chaplain, came up with the idea, though she's quick to point out it's hardly original. She had worked in hospice care for five years, where memorials were a standard practice in helping families sort through the grief.

"It's such a healing place to be," said Polhamus, a 60-year-old mother of six and grandmother of 14. "It's a time when parents can express gratitude and other things they want to express to doctors and nurses. And the same with the staff. Time allows them to be more human and feel those feelings of loss and share them with the parents."

About 100 children die each year at CHOC and its Mission Viejo affiliate. The names of 143 boys and girls who passed away will be read aloud Sunday. Some have died in the last six months. Others died years ago. After each name is spoken, someone in the audience will say, "Here!" If the child was Latino, the response will be in Spanish.

"It shows the children have gone away physically, but they're still here in spirit," Polhamus said.

The first memorial, held in the spring, drew more than 70 families. Sunday's event will be smaller, Polhamus said, since the initial service attracted parents who lost a child as far back as five years ago.

The memorial will include harpists, readings, helium balloons with messages written to the children tied to them, and the release of 50 white doves.

It's a cathartic experience for everyone, including Polhamus, who is faced all too often with having to watch children die.

"It's brought me to the brink of disbelief in God and back to the deep comfort of total belief," said Polhamus, a Catholic. "I'm not called to understand everything. I'm called to be faithful and be his presence here."

That means helping parents and children to lean on "the God of their understanding."

"I like being part of helping them get in touch with their spirituality," Polhamus said, "because that's where they can find the comfort and peace they need.

"It's not important what faith I have, it's important that I recognize the value of their spirituality."

What of the inevitable "why" question: "Why did God allow my child to die?"

"There aren't any answers to that question," Polhamus said. "There will never be a satisfactory answer to the 'why' question until we die and go to heaven and find out for ourselves."

Susskind thinks about that day often.

"Instead of making me angry with God, I feel really lucky that I have someone there to open [heaven's] gate when I get to see Laura again," Susskind said. "I think she's really well taken care of right now."


William Lobdell is the religion reporter-editor for The Times' Orange County edition. His column runs Saturday. His e-mail address is


Memorial Service

The Sunday memorial service at Children's Hospital of Orange County is open to the public, especially to anyone who has lost a child. The gathering will be from 2 to 4 p.m. in the main lobby of hospital, 445 S. Main St., Orange.

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