Inviting Children to the Bedside of the Dying

September 16, 2022, Hospice

Inviting Children to the Bedside of the Dying

Reflections from a Hospice Admissions Nurse
Clinical Nurse Specialist Chris Schaeffer, MS, RN, CHPN,

While adults often have a natural instinct to protect children from death, allowing a child to visit with their dying loved one can help them gain perspective. It brings comfort to the dying person and helps the child understand that our bodies grow old, grow sick and die. It allows them to understand the importance of being in the moment, of sharing joys and making memories.

If a child wishes to care for a dying person, allow them to do so. Allow children to participate in meaningful ways of saying goodbye. Keep their schedules and boundaries as close to normal as possible and provide affection, love, care and supportive listening. Let children know that they are welcome to ask any of the questions they have.

As a hospice admissions nurse, one of my most heartfelt memories is of a family with two little boys who shared a special moment with their grandmother as she was dying. Here is their story.

I recently admitted a woman to hospice who had suffered three massive strokes in two weeks. She had been a vital, thriving 71-year-old who had just moved into the arts district of her favorite city with her beloved husband—and now she was dying.

Her family was intense. Her sister was an ultra-protective mamma-bear in her interactions with me. I had to step back and realize that this family was going through an accelerated grieving process and that they were in a 100 percent reactive state of being.

As I stood there and surveyed the situation, I saw so much sorrow and so much love. I saw the exhausted husband falling asleep in the middle of conversations because he had been by his wife’s side non-stop for two weeks. I saw the devoted sister (whose nickname for her dear sister was actually “Sister”) curled up on the hospital bed with the patient. I saw children and nephews and nieces and grandkids milling about.

I did my job and tried to answer a million questions and solve another million problems within a finite three-hour time span. I ordered medications and equipment, and showed them how to place a draw sheet under the patient and lift her gently in the bed. I helped them clean her and then massage her tired, aching body. I did all the nursing “tasks” and yet still felt the sorrow all around me.

I was impressed and encouraged by their comfort level with an obviously gravely ill person lying in the room. I explained the importance of keeping activity around the patient normal and about how to touch her and explain who they were each time, as she could no longer turn her head or see very much. I told them how much she wanted normalcy and activity and PEOPLE.

I discussed end-of-life issues with the family, letting them know the physical signposts of what to expect and what to do. Then I saw something that really touched me. I saw two little boys with tousled hair and matching green pajamas come running into the room for a “bedtime story with Grandma.”

They gathered around her bed with their mom (the patient’s daughter), and then she took out a favorite book. There were many classic children’s books that I might have expected but was surprised when she pulled out Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are.” They all settled in and started reading, and my heart just melted.

The scene was so honest, so heartbreaking and so sad—and yet so right. They were, quite literally, saying “Goodnight” to their precious grandmother. How fitting and appropriate and natural. As I was leaving, I heard the words from the book, “I’ll eat you up, I love you so!”

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