Helping Children Say Goodbye
Hospice staff can help families with children deal with loved one's death
My husband's grandmother spent the last six months in a hospice home in Central Wisconsin. The excellent care she received allowed her family to maintain some normalcy in their own lives, such as continuing to work and enjoying the holidays together. She died peacefully with her two sons and their wives by her side. Most of her adult grandchildren had visited her in her last 24 hours to say goodbye.
Despite my work in hospice, I chose not to take my children, ages 13, 12, 10 and 7, to say goodbye in those final hours. I had good reasons. Just the week before, Grandma was alert and had talked with them. They would have to miss school for the upcoming funeral and they didn't need to miss another day. The adults there probably wouldn't appreciate me bringing children at such a critical time. It's such a small room. Grandma wouldn't even know they were there (I didn't really believe this, but I still used it to rationalize my decision).
I share all of this with you for one reason. I regret it.
Historically, people were born at home and died at home surrounded by family, including children. In modern America, most people die in hospitals or nursing facilities, and children are rarely present. Over the last few decades, hospice providers have delivered managed care and support to allow people to die with dignity and comfort in their familiar surroundings with familiar people, including children if they desire to be present. Mine did, and I denied them that opportunity.
Online you'll find numerous resources on helping children through a funeral or grief after the loss of a loved one. What's lacking is how to support a child as they say goodbye while the loved one is dying. What if the child is present at the moment of death? How do we prepare them when we may not feel prepared ourselves?
In these circumstances, the hospice team can be a great source of support. Not every child will want to be present in the final hours. No child should be forced into an uncomfortable situation, but if a child strongly desires to see their loved one to say a final goodbye, perhaps we adults should oblige. Hospice professionals can help you support your child. All you have to do is ask.
What if your child wants to go to their loved one and you can't get them there in time? Is it possible to make a phone call to allow the child to say goodbye? My daughter wrote a letter, which my husband read to Grandma. Though she would have preferred to be there herself to give one more hug and kiss, she took some comfort in being able to express her love through writing.
We know how valuable it is for us as adults to make amends, ask for forgiveness and say goodbye to our dying loved ones. Remember to extend that same opportunity to children.
Angelia Neumann is the director of development and communications for the Sharon S. Richardson Community Hospice