Please note that some of these situations or experiences may be things you’ve never considered could be a part of a child life specialist’s job duties.
That’s okay. While every day may not be sunshine, rainbows and butterflies – not every day is like this either. Any job is going to have good/bad parts to it. This is just my way of sharing these parts of the job in a transparent way so that you are aware that we do so much more than play.
The child life specialists that I asked these questions to are still active and working in the field. So while it may be the not-so-good parts of child life, they are able to process these things and continue to do the good work that child life provides to patients and families every day.
I think most people who get far enough to be certified are aware that we work with bereavements. We help families process the death of their loved ones and provide legacy-building and memory-making opportunities. These next paragraphs are things that Certified Child Life Specialists shared they were not prepared for.
Some deaths of children happen so suddenly that parents are actively grieving and can hardly take care of themselves, let alone their other children. I always advocate for parents to be the ones to tell their other children, rather than a stranger, about the passing of their sibling. Sometimes though, it is too difficult and they need help. Just being present for these conversations can be heartbreaking, but having to chime in and tell siblings that their brother/sister died is soul-crushing.
It isn’t something that many think about prior to being in the situation itself, but sometimes we don’t make it in time prior to the child passing to do memory-making. This means that you will touch and hold children who have already died.
Some hospitals require their child life specialists to provide memory-making to children who have passed after hours – meaning trips down to the morgue. One child life specialist shared that music helps her when working in the morgue as well as taking a trusted colleague with you.
Some child life programs will take referrals from FDIU (Fetal Demise In Utero) to provide memory-making. This means providing families with footprints on a deceased, not fully developed baby. One CCLS shared that she had to do this for a family who had just lost their 26-week baby, while she was 26 weeks pregnant herself. Sometimes personal and professional aspects will overlap. It is so important to have good boundaries and self-care.
One Certified Child Life Specialist shared having to do handprints on a baby who died during open heart surgery whose chest was still cracked open.
Another CCLS shared the importance of being okay when families say “no” to memory-making. While we may feel initial judgmental towards these families, we must remember that we are not in their position. We are not them. It may be against their beliefs or it may honestly be the only decision the family feels they can make in this situation. Making peace with others’ decisions that may differ from ours is important to learn early on in your career.
Deep breaths, talking it through with a trusted colleague, and again, practicing good self-care are what will help you be able to cope and process through these challenging parts of being a Certified Child Life Specialist.