(FULLERTON, Calif.) -- Under the orange glow of a Southern California evening, the doctors and nurses at Providence St. Jude Hospital in Fullerton, California stand in their blue scrubs and white coats, holding tiny white boxes. In those boxes, butterflies representing all of the victims of COVID-19 who have died at this hospital in the past year.
"The spirit of the butterflies and the spirit of our loved ones take flight amongst us,” said one of the speakers at the ceremony.
All at once, the white boxes were opened and 200 butterflies took flight.
The ceremony marks a rare moment for these frontline workers to pause. With COVID-19 numbers coming down in many parts of the country, they're taking that moment to mourn all of the lives lost. Some are dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder and other anxieties.
Part of that healing is this ceremony.
"This ceremony is something we've never done before,” said the same speaker. “But it seems appropriate to mark the end, hopefully, of an unprecedented year. When you work in health care, you're familiar with loss. But the suffering experienced last year by families, friends, and health care professionals were beyond anything we could have been we could have imagined.”
Among those family members coming back to say thank you is Patty Trejo, whose husband Joseph died in March.
"He said how he saw the stress on the nurses and the physicians,” Trejo told ABC News’ Alex Stone on ABC Audio’s ‘Perspective’ podcast. “He got admitted at 10:30, he said by two o'clock the hallways were full of patients. And his heart was melting. He goes 'I feel so bad for the families and the nurses and the doctors,' not only the doctors, he said just the staff in general, right now."
Her husband was at the hospital during the height at Providence St. Jude in February when the hospital was overflowing.
In the past year among those who came in were Rick Moran and his wife Georgina. They both work for the hospital, and they got COVID. His wife never left: she died here.
"She was very loving,” Moran told the ‘Perspective’ podcast. She was a woman of faith. All her patients loved her, all her coworkers loved her. Since she has been gone it's not been the same at her facility. She's touched a lot of people, a lot of people with her prayers."
Like many hospitals, executives at Providence St. Jude are trying to figure out how to make sure the mental health of its staff is solid, to make sure now that things are calmer, and those staff members can take a moment and reflect.
“We were quite exhausted and we talked with our staff and we never knew the difference between being tired and fatigued, now they do,” hospital CEO Brian Helleland told the ‘Perspective’ podcast. “And that is just something that we looked forward to, getting to a place where we could let people have vacation and just be home with their families and take time away. We had some people who worked 20 plus days in a row."
As the butterflies take to the sky, the tearful staff here remember those patients to whom they had to say goodbye.
"With this symbolic gesture, we honor those who have left us and encourage those left behind to have hope and know that our loving God is always with us, even in the darkest of days,” said a speaker at the ceremony.