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Omaha Magazine

Nurses Honor Guard: Celebrating and Commemorating Their Fallen Colleagues

Dec 27, 2020 02:37PM ● By Sara Locke
Debra Zobel, Nebraska Nurses Honor Guard founder

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Since the days of Florence Nightingale, nurses have been the right hand of doctors and patients worldwide. Now, more than ever, they are serving on the front lines of medicine. In the last year, a virus hit that prevented loved ones from being there to hold the hands of their ill or elderly relatives. Nurses have stepped in and made sure that nobody slips away without the compassion of human touch.  

During a year of especially high sacrifice, these heroes have changed from scrubs in their garages to protect their families, worn two-week-old PPE on their 12-to-24-hour shifts, and skipped meal after meal so their patients never have to fight alone. While this feels like an above-and-beyond service to the families relying on nurses as their final connection to their loved ones, for those brave enough to accept the position, it’s all part of the calling.

Sometimes, that calling is so loud that no amount of hesitation can quiet it. Debra Zobel, local founder and Nebraska Community Leader of the Nurses Honor Guard, believes service stops being a choice once nurses have chosen their path. It’s simply a way of life.

A Leap of Faith

Zobel was able to ignore the nagging feeling that she was being pulled into further service, until it made itself known to her loud and clear.

Zobel first heard of the Nurses Honor Guard two years ago. It’s an association of current and former nurses who assemble to officially end a nurse’s duties after they have passed. They don full traditional regalia and carry a lit Nightingale lamp in procession, then present their colleague’s casket or urn with a white rose. The congregation then honors them by reciting the Nightingale Tribute. At that time, they perform a roll call, speaking the nurse’s name and sounding a triangle three times. After the third chime, they announce that the nurse is officially released from their duties, and the lamp is extinguished.

“It was such a beautiful service to provide, and when I thought of all the nurses I’d worked with and befriended in my career, I felt that each one deserved this recognition. I took it as a passing thought and tried to move forward. I told myself that I was too busy, that I didn’t have the money to launch something like this, that I didn’t have any idea how to run a nonprofit. There were more than enough reasons not to do it and I told myself to let it go, but something in me just wouldn’t. I did a lot of soul-searching, procrastinating, and praying.”

As Zobel reflected on what her friendships with nurses had always meant to her, the call grew louder. 

“Everyone has a nurse friend. One friend who happened to choose nursing as a profession,” Zobel said. “You never let that one friend go, because they’re so sincere, so loving, and thoughtful. Everyone is thankful for their nurse friends. As a nurse myself, I happened to have been lucky enough to know and work with so many of these genuinely caring people, and when I thought of them, I decided to jump.”

Zobel believed that if she was doing the right thing, all of the pieces would fall into place. If she were doing the wrong thing, she had surrounded herself with people who loved her enough to help put those pieces back together. 

“You think that moment of stepping off a cliff into something you don’t know is the hard part,” Zobel said. “They don’t tell you that once you’ve jumped there will be another cliff, and another. You have to keep making hard decisions and taking risks, but every time I started to feel discouraged, something else would happen unexpectedly that opened the next part of the path. It was hard, but it was the right thing to do.”

Call of Duty

Zobel reached out to her network of nurses, creatives, techs, and legal minds and managed to put together a six-member board and set to work.

“We’ve partnered with clergy, morticians, hospitals, and community members to help connect us with those who may need our services,” she said. “We got our 501c3 organized and brought on legal counsel to be sure we were doing everything right. We had a lot of remarkable people just show up along the way who really paved this road for us. It was just a reminder that this was exactly where we were needed. I’d answered a call like this before, and when you hear it and you listen, there is just a peace in doing what you know you are here to do.”

That call saw the newly formed Nebraska Nurses Honor Guard proceed into their first service in November 2019. 

“There were four of us at that first ceremony. It was an absolutely beautiful service. In our hearts, we were there for our colleague. In this case, a former coworker of one of our board members. But once the service began, we realized how much this was for the family. That family had been without a wife and mother from the dinner table for years while she cared for others. Being able to show them that her services meant something to us, too…that was the extra good we didn’t even realize we were doing.”


NNHG soon brought on an additional 20 members, and then added seven in Lincoln. To date, the growing roster has attended more than 50 services in little more than one year. 

Vice president Sheralyn Jarvis sees that this passion has served as a peaceful transition from the chaos of a nursing career she has loved since her graduation in 1978, to her impending retirement. 

“I think the same is true of any service position,” Jarvis explained. “You start down this kind of a path because you want to help people. You prepare for this lifetime of taking care of everyone. But if you love it and if it’s really what you’re supposed to be doing, you’ll very quickly find that this kind of service really fills you up...Giving these families that time and space to grieve was far more impactful for us than I had believed it could be.”

Jarvis knows that no matter what is born to create better health care for families, nothing will ever take the place of nurses. 

Visit or @NebraskaNurseHonorGuard on Facebook to learn more. 

This article first appeared in the 60 Plus section of the January/February 2021 issue of Omaha Magazine. Click here to subscribe to the print edition.

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