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Gail Rink: When Children Die

Regardless of the cause or the child's age, we all need to comfort and be comforted during such times

Children are not supposed to die. It is out of the order of things. It is too sad. A loving God would not let that happen. Yet, children do die. They die from disease, accidents, stabbings, shootings, suicide, drug overdoses. Some die at birth. Regardless of the cause of death or the age of the child, it is so painful to have a child die. I have been with parents in this transition.

Gail Rink

Years ago, I arranged for transportation for a 90-year-old mom to visit her 60-something son at Heath House. She walked up the front steps with dignity and, as if called, walked directly into her son’s room, said her goodbyes and existed with the same grace and dignity with which she had arrived. Grieving parents are resilient.

I have been humbled many times in my hospice work to see the grieving parent comforting those who come to comfort them. Those who want to comfort are awkward. What do I say? Do I say his or her name? Do I talk about my kids? What do I say to his or her brother or sister? This awkwardness is normal. Everyone dreads having to have that first conversation with a bereaved parent — and everyone especially dreads the thought of becoming a bereaved parent.

Questions from a bereaved parent are always best answered from truth. Including, “I feel so helpless. I’m not sure where to start.” The parent will appreciate the candor. The parent will guide you, they understand your helplessness. Ask, “How are you?” or say such things as, “I so missed Jack at the homecoming game.” Parents want their child remembered. Speak his or her name.

“Remember the great time we had at church camp? Jane stuffed all those pollywogs in a jar, put it under the porch and they baked. What a stench! I will miss her.” Hugs. Casseroles. Memories. Silent presence. Chores. They are good things, too.

Depending on your closeness to the family, offer to help in ways the parents may not ask for. “Your cars need washing. I’ll take care of that.”

Grieving parents are emotionally isolated in the early days of sorrow — days filled with emotional thunder. Comfort can come from simple gestures by sincere, loving friends and other family members. Kindness is healing.

Acknowledge the other children in the family. “I am so sorry. How are you doing?” Depending on the age of the sibling, he or she will respond in their own way. Be present. Listen. Offer a day at the park, a trip to the movies, a run to Costco. Kids like normalcy. Parents appreciate the break. Parents are very protective of their surviving children.

During the years my daughter was in college, I facilitated the hospice Parent Bereavement group. So many Tuesday nights, I would phone her; not thinking of the time difference. “How are you doing, Lovey?” I’d ask.

One Tuesday night, her tired response was, “It’s after 1 in the morning, Mother. What happened? Did another child die?” Of course, the answer was yes and my response was, “Be safe. I love you.”

When a child dies, we all need to comfort and to be comforted.

— Gail Rink, MSW, is executive director of Hospice of Santa Barbara.

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