Commentary

Gone But Not Forgotten: How VA Remembers

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Caring for veterans at the end of their lives is a great honor. The US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) health care professionals (HCPs) find meaning and take pride in providing this care. We are there to support the patient and their family and loved ones around the time of death. When our patients die, we feel the loss and grieve as well. VA health care providers look to our teams to set up rituals that pay tribute to the veteran and to show respect and gratitude for our role in these moments. It is important to recognize the bonds we share and the grief we feel when a veteran dies. The relationships we form, the recognition of loss, and the honoring of the veterans help nourish and maintain us.

Although the number of VA inpatient deaths nationwide has been declining steadily for years, internal reporting by the Palliative and Hospice Care Program Office has shown that the percentage of VA inpatient deaths that occur in hospice settings has steadily grown. Since 2013, more veterans die in VA inpatient hospice beds than in any other hospital setting. Therefore, it is useful to take stock of the way hospice and palliative care providers and staff process and provide support so that they can continue to provide service to veterans.

In the same way that all loss and grief are unique, there are many diverse rituals across VA facilities. This article highlights some of the unique traditions that hospice and palliative care teams have adopted to embrace this remembrance. We hope that by sharing these practices others will be inspired to find ways to reflect on their work and honor the lives of veterans.

The authors reached out to VA palliative care colleagues across the country via the Veterans Health Administration National Hospice and Palliative Care listserve to ask: How does your team practice remembrance? Palliative care providers responded and shared the unique ways they and their teams reflect on these losses.

There are many moments for reflection from the time of death to the weeks and months after, to the entire year of cumulative loss. Some observances start around the time of death. Susan MacDonald, RN, GEC, from Erie VA Medical Center (VAMC) in Pennsylvania reported that following the death of a veteran in the hospice unit, there is a bedside remembrance that includes the chaplain, care team, family, and other loved ones. At the John D. Dingell VAMC in Detroit, Michigan, the clinical chaplain leads a memorial service after a community living center (CLC) resident dies.

Several VAMCs, such as Detroit and Erie, have an Honors Escort or Final Salute. In these ceremonies, family, employees, residents, and other veterans line the hallways to honor the veteran on their departure from the building.1 At the VA Maine Healthcare System, Kate MacFawn, nurse manager, Inpatient Hospice Unit, explained, “We debrief every death the day after it occurs. The doc[tor]s check in with the nursing staff on each shift, and the rest of the multidisciplinary team discusses [it] in our morning report.”

Palliative care providers consider the physical spaces where the veteran has spent those last moments and the void that is left. Karen Pickler, staff chaplain at Northport VAMC Hospice Unit recounts:

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