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Handover bag concept offered nationally as sensitive way to return possessions

Social worker Nola Powell and project officer Wendy Pearse with the handover bags, card and booklet.

Whether someone dies in a hospital, hospice or residential aged care facility, it’s not unusual for their possessions to be passed back to their family in a plastic garbage bag. An End of Life Care Committee in Queensland has developed a more sensitive and respectful approach, which it hopes will be adopted nationally.

The Committee, from Sunshine Coast Hospital and Health Service (SCHHS), developed handover bags, which are printed with a tree symbol designed to represent the cycle of life.

“The aim of the handover bags is to convey to the family and staff that whilst the person was a patient with us, we cared for them and respected them,” says SCHHS principal project officer for End of Life Care, Wendy Pearse.

“This care and respect begins the moment they arrive with us, until the time they leave. We will treat their belonging with the same care and dignity that we showed to the person who died.”

The same purple symbol is printed on resources which can be given to families in the bag, including a bereavement card and a booklet titled “When someone dies…”. It also features on door signs which indicate to staff and visitors that a patient has died.

SCHHS is offering free use of the project’s graphic design elements to interested healthcare organisations. While content can be adapted to suit local needs, it is hoped the tree symbol will be retained and become widely recognised.

Ms Pearse says the project was inspired by equivalent resources developed by the Irish Hospice Foundation’s Hospice Friendly Hospitals Program. After learning about their handover bags, she was interested to know how possessions were returned by SCHHS staff.

“When I dug a little bit I found staff had to return belongings in something, and sometimes it was a plastic bag and I thought ‘We can do better than this’,” she says.

Ms Pearse says the two consumer representatives on the End of Life Care Committee provided valuable feedback throughout the project.

Of the many quotes and statements suggested for the bereavement card, the representatives highlighted those that were emotionally loaded or could mean different things to different people. They decided on the simple message, “Our thoughts are with you”.

Ms Pearse says staff have the opportunity to write on the card, sign it, or “even draw a love heart to say you touched my heart and you weren’t just a patient to me”.

“Sometimes the patients you’ve cared for in the past do stay with you,” she says.

“I know in the past, if I’ve been involved with a patient on a ward, you sometimes feel like they leave and you never got to say ‘I’m sorry and I cared’.”

The 23-page booklet, developed by the SCHHS social work department, contains information about grief, loss and bereavement. It offers advice for supporting grieving children and young people, provides practical information on finalising affairs and contact details for local support services.

The tree symbol, printed on its own without text, is proving a sensitive way to flag when someone has died to ensure that only essential staff enter the room. Pinned onto a curtain, or laminated and hung over a door handle, it makes staff aware when they need to be quiet to create a respectful environment for grieving family and friends. It also saves ancillary staff the embarrassment of entering a room and offering refreshments inappropriately.

Ms Pearse says the Sunshine Coast Health Foundation, Wishlist, funded the local project. As a guide for others who might use it, purchasing and printing 1000 bags and 500 cards cost less than $3000.

For further information or to use the symbol, contact


  • Wonderful concept! !

    - Cassandra Dunphy
  • Love this idea.. my dad just passed and I had to clean out everything my self it's just a hard thing to do after someone you love has just passed away, dad was in a lovely Nursing home

    - Judy
  • Thank you for sharing this beautiful idea. I would like to copy your plan and propose to residential facilities in the NSW regional area where I live and participate in Community projects & campaigns.

    - Virginia Adlide
  • What an amazing idea and a beautiful thing to do for the people that are stuggling after their loved one has passed on.

    - Vicki Glennon
  • What a beautiful concept. Thank you for sharing.

    - Kath Watkinson
  • God bless you. We need care after we loose our loved one THANK YOU

    - Jean
  • This should be Queensland wide great idea. Our hospital Sends loved ones belongs in a brown paper back say pts belongs.

    - Karen pascoe
  • Excellent idea! Much more dignified than the garbage bags we use (as we have nothing else). Only problem for me personally is I have a tattoo of the tree of life on my neck symbolizing my triumph over a near death experience.

    - Janet Kerswell
  • I think this is an absolutely wonderful idea!!

    - Carol Tenney
  • Yes some sensitivity at this end would be really nice. I remember beng quite a bit traumatised when I picked up my mothers things in two black garbage bags. The head nurse was caring though. I don't know that a 24page booklet would go down that well, maybe a bit of overkill... Nothing can really replace an authentic human touch.

    - Liz
  • Fabulous idea...plastic bag with patients belongings printed on a harsh welcome to a world without that person.

    - Margaret
  • Lovely idea having lost both parents & having their belongings handed back in black plastic bags was so harsh. I thank you for your compassion.

    - Diane Valler
  • when my mother died, my husband & sister had 3.5 days to empty the room. the staff gve us very large bags - like shopping bags but much, much bigger - in which to put her belongings. we were offered refreshments. We were told there was a 'guard of honour' (staff & residents) when she was taken by the funeral director out the main door.

    - Hazel
  • Fantastic concept. Many years ago I did some research (Melbourne) with a colleague ,(in Leeds UK) interviewing the relatives of people who had sudden deaths in the ED. In both sites we had relatives say things like "I took my wife in and I came home with a garbag" " I wonder if they cared about him, after all his clothes were just shoved in a rubbish bag". We learnt how important it is to take the extra couple of minutes to fold and pack belongings properly before return.

    - Marg Nuttall
  • What a wonderful idea.

    - sharon morris
  • Ive been on both sides.rubbish bags are very confronting to the bereaved, these are fabulous, I always try to save pharmacy boxes as they 'feel' better than using the 'rubbish' bags the facility tells us to use.. My old facility had shopping type bags with their logo printed and this felt better too.

    - Christine REISCHEL
  • Please can you provide me with more information re this concept. Also about the information provided in the booklet. Will this booklet be available and fre to print or cost per book. I an the staff development Nurse at Kalamunda Hospital and we have 25 palliative patients. This is something I would be interested in possiability discussing we can implement too.

    - Judy Brand
  • Hi Judy. Great to hear you are enthused. If you email Wendy Pearse ( I am sure she will be very happy to help with each of those queries.

    - Heather Wiseman
  • This is beautiful and resonates with me am going to push for a similar thought process for western nsw!

    - Sally
  • I would loved to have has this to give to a family after a final farewell

    - Maccaz
  • It is a wonderful idea,it gives purpose to the person,s life after death,and the tree symbol start,s with life,flourishes for a life time then dies how very appropriate.The bags and cards show such respect for each loved one.

    - Maureen Meston Pockett
  • It's a perfect concept. Such a simple and beautiful way to make a positive change. Too many people have memories of exiting hospital rooms and hallways with large clear bags filled with their loved one's belongings for the world to see.

    - L. Morris
  • Thank you, a very sensitive and respectful act towards families. I hope others take this on board.

    - Mary B Murphy
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