COAST CITIES — Cynthia Harrison, Seasons Hospice & Palliative Care San Diego volunteer seamstress, has stitched up 143 memory bears over the last three years to help families deal with the grief of losing a loved one.
Harrison has not met most of the families she sews bears to comfort, but she said she feels a connection to them through seeing the fabric they choose and sometimes getting a note explaining more about them.
The memory bear program began in 2010 when Ryana Goldberger, director of supportive care for Seasons Hospice of San Diego, wanted to find a way to comfort families after a Seasons Hospice & Palliative Care patient passed away.
“Each time Ryana brings a new batch (of fabric), it’s like Christmas,” Harrison said. “I never know what kind of clothing families will send. Of course, there are pajamas and robes, but there are well-loved jeans and T-shirts with writing on them that are significant to the families.”
The first bear was sewn for the Seasons Hospice & Palliative Care director of business operations who had a grandmother receiving hospice care.
From there the idea grew.
Now there are eight volunteer seamstresses who have sewn a total of more than 250 bears.
Each seamstress works at her own pace. Goldberger said there is no hard timeline for volunteers to get the job done.
Most volunteers can sew a custom 12-inch bear in six hours and ship off the finished bear within a month of receiving fabrics.
“Every bear has its own personality,” Goldberger said. “They’re all unique based on the clothing and what our clients tell us about their loved ones.”
Families that have a loved one receiving hospice care are informed that they can request up to three memory bears with two fabrics each, and are reminded again in a condolence note when their loved one passes.
This allows families to plan ahead and determine memorable clothing to make into a bears.
“It’s typically a conversation prior to the patient’s death,” Goldberger said.
The service is optional. Seasons Hospice & Palliative Care provides volunteers sewing supplies and pays the shipment costs of delivering the finished bears to the hospice care business office.
A hospice care social service worker delivers the bears and checks in on how the family is doing.
Goldberger said many families find it a way to connect, hug something soft, and hold onto memories after their loved one passes.
Families say a lot of memories are wrapped up in clothes their loved one used to wear.
“A teddy bear is something to hold and hug,” Goldberger said. “It’s a good way for us to give back to families and offer support.”
Last spring a tea was held to allow families to meet and thank volunteers. Families said the tea allowed them to express their thanks and have a bit of closure about their loved one’s death.
What Goldberger did not expect was the emotions of volunteers who also wanted to meet the families and learn more about them.
Harrison attended the tea and saw a little boy holding a well-loved bear she had sewn.
“The family explained that the toddler, who had been so close to his grandmother, had recognized the fabric of the bear as being his grandmother’s and immediately embraced it,” Harrison said.
“I was very touched by how attached the families were to their bears. I had no idea that they would mean so much.”
Goldberger said the tea would continue to be an annual event.
“It’s a really special program,” Goldberger said.
Seasons Hospice & Palliative Care cares for patients in their homes, nursing homes, hospitals and assisted living facilities. Patients range in age from newborns to age 110. The majority of hospice care patients are age 65 and older.