Memory Box Preserves Memories of Lost Family Members

By Norah Machia

For nearly 20 years, Upstate University Hospital has helped grieving families find a special way to preserve some precious memories of their lost loved ones.

The hospital’s caring medical staff works with terminally ill patients and their families to create memory boxes, a lasting and impactful initiative that provides comfort to families long after they leave the hospital. In some cases, the boxes may be created in honor of those who pass away unexpectedly.

“The memory boxes are introduced to patients and their families as a comfort care measure, and to help preserve the memory and legacy of that person,” said physician Suman Swarnkar, associate professor of medicine and director of palliative care. The memory boxes offer a way for the family to honor their loved one and have something special to remember them by, she noted.

Each memory box comes with moldable clay to create a handprint of the patient. Other items that can be collected for the box include fingerprints, locks of hair and even EKG strips.

Nurse practitioner Lori-jeanne West holds a memory box that’s offered to families of terminally ill patients.

These are typically combined with remembrance items from the family, such as personal letters or cards, photographs and special jewelry or other sentimental keepsakes. The patient or family members decide what will be placed in the memory boxes.

“Patients may use these nicely decorated boxes to create their own stories,” Swarnkar “They may include items related to loved ones, and those that have significant meaning in their lives and their family’s lives.”

The family may also be provided with books (particularly for young children who have lost a close relative) and other support materials to help with the grieving process. “These boxes are made to last, and families hold onto them for a long time,” she added.

Memory boxes are created only after the medical staff determines it would be a good option for patients and their families. The medical staff is sensitive about which families may or may not want to participate, said Swarnkar.

“Everyone is different” when it comes to handing the loss of life, she noted. “Some may just want a handprint or may take home a neck pillow that had belonged to the patient.”

The memory boxes are covered through the annual fund for Upstate University Hospital called “Friend in Deed.” It’s one of many programs and services offered to patients and their families for which there are no other funding sources.

Donations made to the Friend in Deed fund are also used for programs such as nutritional support for cardiac patients, home monitoring and telemedicine resources for diabetes and hypertension patients, a behavioral health education library, and spiritual care support for patients, along with many others.

The annual fund is administered through the Upstate Foundation, a nonprofit organization that is the primary resource for receiving and distributing philanthropic gifts to Upstate Medical University. Donated funds help to support patient health care, health care provider education, scientific research and community health initiatives.

Sometimes more than one memory box will be created, particularly if a family would like each child to have one, said Lori-jeanne West, nurse practitioner in the Upstate University Hospital Intensive Care Unit.

In one case, a mother in her 30s had died after sudden cardiac arrest, and a memory box was created for each of her three young children, all who were less than six years of age, said Ms. West, who is also an assistant professor at the College of Nursing.

“Many people are interested in having something to hold” that contains memories of their lost loved one, she said. Families often put the memory boxes in a special place in their homes where they can sit quietly and look through them.

It often helps a family member to relax or meditate while thinking of the person who passed away. Some families have also saved the boxes for their young children to look through when they get older, Ms. West said.

“Sometimes it’s such an overwhelming experience that a family can’t looks at the box right away, but they look at it after some time has passed,” she said. “It’s been so meaningful for so many families and has helped them through their grieving process.”

For more information on how to support the Friend in Deed campaign, go to