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A close up of a hand painting watercolors inside the tracing of a hand

Families remember their loved ones through art

Artists and musicians provide vital support for patients, families

The traced handprints that Allison Ward designs with bright watercolors are not the most complex pieces the Spartanburg artist creates, but they are among her most impactful work.

The images are based on the hands of patients at the Spartanburg Regional Hospice Home, where she visits weekly as part of the Spartanburg Regional Foundation’s Healing Arts program.

Ward consults with nurses at the hospice home to approach families about whether they would like a handprint painting of their loved one. With permission, she will trace the patient’s hand on a piece of white paper that she takes to a conference room or common area to paint. She adds the patient’s name in calligraphy and presents the pieces to the family.

“It’s just the most overwhelming, wonderful thing that I do,” Ward said. “Sometimes family members will grab me and hold onto me and tell me that I’ve given them a piece of their loved one. It’s hard to put into words what this means to me.”

Ward is one among a number of artists who work with Spartanburg Regional Hospice patients and families. These include paid visual artists and musicians, volunteers and students.

As Spartanburg Regional Hospice director Kim Ross explained, the idea is to provide comfort, enrich lives and strengthen connections for families and caregivers.

“Our goal is to serve the whole patient, to make every moment count, and to provide the support families need,” she said. “Music and art have a way of bringing comfort and perspective when families are going through difficult times.”

Carol Shultis is the director of the music therapy program at Converse College. With her colleague Anita Swanson and their students, Shultis uses music to help calm hospice home patients’ anxiety and, in some cases, give family members an opportunity to create special memories.

These visits are often interactive and collaborative, Shultis explained. For example, the music therapists and patients may work together on a song that includes lyrics describing the patient’s emotions or state of mind.

Sometimes, a patient will request to hear or sing along with a favorite song from their past. Family members in the room might not have known that the song was meaningful to their loved one.

“It helps the family know their loved one in a deeper way to learn something they didn’t know about before,” Shultis said. “It’s a powerful thing for a family to experience something like that together when someone they love is dying.”

Visual artist Sylvia Spears appreciates the connections she makes with patients and families, too. Like Ward and Shultis, she checks with nurses to make sure it’s appropriate to approach patients and their loved ones about her work. She then explains that she would like to create a banner featuring the patient’s favorite Bible verse, poem or lyric, written in calligraphy.

“I try to make them inspirational and personal for each patient,” she said. “Anything they might want me to put on that banner, I’ll try to do it.”

Spears said the process often gives patients and families the opportunity to express their feelings and share their experiences.

“Sometimes it opens the floodgates with people, and we end up having a nice conversation,” she said.

The banners are intended to lift the spirits of patients. They sometimes have a profound effect on families, who may keep the banners as mementos.

Spears recalled her experience with a woman whose husband was near death.

“She sought me out and said it meant so much that someone cared,” Spears said. “She and I were in the lobby crying together – there was just a real connection.”

Ward and Spears work with hospice patients as part of Spartanburg Regional Foundation’s Healing Arts program. In addition to hospice, the Healing Arts program touches other areas of Spartanburg Regional Healthcare System, including Behavioral Health, Pediatric Rehabilitation, the Spartanburg Hospital for Restorative Care, the Ellen Sager Nursing Home in Union and more.

“All of our participating artists are so talented and they truly care about the patients they serve,” said coordinator Kristi Ward. “Their work helps to relieve stress or feelings of grief and Spartanburg Regional Foundation is proud to provide funding to support their efforts.”

Learn about the Spartanburg Regional Foundation's Healing Arts Program.