I’ve said time and time again that I love my job. I seriously would not be able to leave my own child day after day if I wasn’t doing work that I felt SO strongly about. But there is one part of my job that I hate. A part of my job that makes my stomach cramp up when the phone call comes though. Where I feel clammy and awkward and out of place. And that is bereavements. Death is, unfortunately, a part of working at a children’s hospital, but it is (luckily) a part that I am not forced to deal with on a daily, or even monthly, basis. But every once and awhile I seem to hit a “death streak” where I happen to do a few bereavements back to back and I seem to have hit that streak now, having done two bereavements in the past two weeks, both dealing with pre-school age males.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with child life, our role during a death is two fold. First, we are a sense of support for the family. We are there to comfort, to talk, to grab a glass of water, to hold a hand; basically whatever the family needs. Many times that includes talking with any siblings the patient had; explaining death in the best possible way and keeping them busy and occupied while their parents and other adult members of their family grieve. The second part of our role during a death is making a memory box for the family, should they choose to have one. Our memory boxes contain a hand mold (or foot mold if it’s a baby) or ink print and a lock of the child’s hair. We are the ones who touch the child, making the mold or print, washing the ink off their hands, and making the mold/print as “pretty” so to speak as we possibly can so that it can be a special keepsake for the family. This second part, the part where I am working with the patient, is the part that is the most emotionally exhausting for me.
During grad school I took a class on Death and Bereavement. During the class we talked a lot about this unfortunate part of our job as a child life specialist and I tried my best to prepare myself for something that is really impossible to prepare for. During the class, however, I was most concerned with the first part of our job during a death. How would I know what to tell siblings? What if the family doesn’t want some stranger there during their time of grief? What if I say something awkward or insensitive? That was what worried me the most and, to be honest, I thought very little about the second part of our job. The part that requires me to be (usually) alone in the room with a child who has died. The part where I touch their hands and press their little fingers hard into a mold. The part where I look at their patient sticker and notice that they just recently celebrated a birthday. The part where I leave that room and have to immediately put a smile on my face as I walk in to see my next patient.
Today, as I held the hand of a young boy in my own, ready to do his prints, I thought about how I would be the last person to ever lovingly hold his hand. I found myself looking at his clean cut nails and wondering when his mother last cut them. Having no idea that this horror was just around the corner. Being a mother myself makes every bereavement more vivid. I hug Leah before putting her down and my mind jumps to horrible images of her dying during the night. Of someone doing her hand molds….and my stomach seizes and I am overwhelmed with fear. Because, I’ll be honest, it’s impossible for me to be a part of a death and then move on with my life without any lasting effects. I remember every bereavement I’ve done during my time as a child life specialist. The death where the family was prepared. The one where they told funny and touching stories and even laughed a little. The death of a tiny baby and how frantic his mother was while she waited for her husband to arrive. The death of a father where I struggled to fit his hand prints on paper while his children watched. The death of a young boy while his two siblings ran around the ER….the list continues and each detail is etched in my brain where they will most likely stay forever.
So today I will let myself unwind. I will let myself mindlessly watch Dance Moms while Leah naps. I will let myself eat that extra large bowl of ice cream, should I so choose. I will work out hard at the gym and let my mind wander. And, if I need to, I will think about it all later and I will let myself cry. Because that’s what helps me. That’s what helps me return to work tomorrow with a smile and a renewed sense of love for my job. Listen, all you future child lifers, dealing with death sucks. Touching a dead child? No one should have to do that. But guess what, it happens. And through it all, I still think child life is the greatest profession in the world. Because, even doing this part that I hate the most, we are still loving, serving and supporting patients and families. And that’s what makes our job so uniquely special.