I was asked this question a month ago:
“I have always wondered about how child life services are implemented for death and dying situations, specifically coming from a fellow Christ-follower. I know it’s not professional to bring spirituality into the interventions, but it gives me conflicting thoughts. What are your thoughts and experiences…?”
Death and dying situations are tough no matter what. As a believer in Christ, I know that what I do for these families matters and He has His hand in ALL OF IT. Even when families believe in another God or when they believe in nothing at all.
My biggest belief in these death and dying situations is that God has called me to love. Simple as that. Love your neighbor. And when your neighbor is going through the worst moments of their life, you’re called to love them as they are. Where they are.
It feels very “child life” anyways, since I’m always meeting children as they are, where they are.
When people are grieving, depending on their personality, they will usually do one of two things:
1) engage in conversation wanting to share stories about their child. This is more normal for families who were expecting their child’s death due to diagnosis or illness.
2) remain silent as they are in very deep and emotional time of grieving
I always introduce myself – NOT as the child life specialist – as “child” and “life” are two things they just lost, but as someone to help with memory making.
I don’t overwhelm the family with questions or conversation (unless they start it) but instead, I sit in the uncomfortable silence as a mother holds her baby and cries. When I’m in the room doing memory making, I speak to God in my head a lot. I just pray silently that Jesus would wrap His arms around this family left with a big hole in their hearts.
I also speak to the child. I let him/her know when I’m taking their hand/pressing it into a canvas or dipping their feet into a mold. I use their name. This is the last time a family can hold their child while someone refers to their child by his/her name. And I like to initiate that for them.
We provide our families with several forms of memory making: hand/foot molds, hand/foot prints, and a lock of hair.
We get a lot of our resources for bereaved families from Grief Watch (click here) – such as the remembering heart (for mom), love stone (for dad), as well as the singing butterfly ornament. We also give each family a bag of feeling hearts.
I love the feeling hearts because they’re tactile and are a tangible way to “feel” your feelings. Some family members choose to keep the heart as a remembrance of their loved one and will carry it with them in their pocket or purse. We encourage family members to hold them and remember a positive memory of their loved one.
Below is an example of the 3D hand molds that we create and provide our families after their child passes away. You’re able to see every intricate part – from their fingernails to the creases on their hands.
The two biggest pieces of advice I can give when participating in bereavements and memory making opportunities are to 1) follow the lead of the atmosphere to which you are entering, and 2) when the day is over – take care of yourself. Talk to a coworker about your struggles with the day (what went well for memory making vs. what could use improvement in the future) and your feelings about the death overall. Journal, eat junk food, exercise, shower and climb immediately into bed – do whatever you need to do to take care of yourself tonight.
This job is not always bubbles and pretend play. Sometimes it’s death and memory making. Regardless, we as child life specialists enter in and meet these patients and families where they are. And love them through the really difficult times in their lives.