Posts Tagged ‘death of child’

When A Child Dies

January 9, 2010

Last week I got the news that the three year old son of friends of mine had died.

He had been put to bed for an afternoon nap and he didn’t wake up.

Sometimes we get the message that there is something wrong with the universe. This is one of those times. Children are not supposed to die. Parents die first. That is the rule upon which so much of the universe is built.

It’s more than a rule, isn’t it? It’s more like the law. Don’t we live by that law almost as much as we live by the law of gravity?

The little boy was at his day care centre. That’s where it happened. It’s another layer of complexity that gets added into the grief of the parents. The Police are involved. There has to be a coroner’s report. The Dept of Community Services have to review the day care centre. There has to be a court case convened, a judge, things have to be investigated.

Somewhere in the pile of bureacracy are two grieving parents and a grieving older brother. And on the periphery are other people – relatives and friends and next door neighbours and customers at the family business and teachers and mates at the elder brother’s school and the check-out staff at the local supermarket because everybody knows everybody else in a small town.

I’ve known other children to die. I have conducted the funerals of them. Some of them were the children of my friends. Some of them were complete strangers.

I was present when the son of friends died in hospital, the end of a difficult struggle against cancer. We sat around his bed that final day and gently wiped away the blood that was spilling through the damage protective coating of his brain and continually dripping from his nose, the result of the tissue damage that had been caused by his treatment. Late in the afternoon his body could take no more of either the disease or of the medical intervention.

We laughed at his funeral. We laughed at the joy that he had brought to his family and friends. And we cried. We cried at the dismay we felt over the course of his illness and at the grief we shared at his death. People expressed their surprise at how right it was that we should laugh, and as they told me this their tears started down their cheeks once more.

I supported the decision of other parents, also friends of mine and for whom I had conducted their wedding, in sacking one funeral director and going to another half way through the funeral arrangements for their still-born child.

It was nothing particularly that the funeral director had done that angered them, it was their grief showing up in an unexpected manner. I respected their rage against whatever or whoever it had been that had broken that fundamental law of the universe that ‘children don’t die’. Don’t you get angry at people who break the law? And so you should.

Trouble was, these particular parents didn’t know who to get angry with and the funeral director had said or done something that put a target on his forehead. He didn’t know what he’d done or said, neither did the parents for that matter. Their anger was sufficient for the moment. And so I spent time with the funeral director following that funeral, talking through with him what was really going on for these parents.

I did some of my chaplaincy training in the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne. It’s a place of great expertise and there were medical people there who were considered among the best in the world in their field. But late one afternoon I was called to the bedside of a seven year old boy who was dying from a tumour that had started low in his brain and was travelling down his spinal column. He was not expected to live through the night.

I sat holding the hand of an unconscious boy who’s breathing was barely strong enough to detect. His skin was the colour of a grey cloudy sky and that night I learned that the colour of impending death can be worse than that of death itself.

He was alone. His parents could not take the sadness any more and had left the hospital. Nobody knew where they had gone, and back then there were no mobile phones and no SMS messages to urge grief-stricken parents to come back to the hospital. The boy died that night and I never met his parents. It was January 1982.

Why do I remember that event so clearly? I remember it because of my anger. I sat with that little boy with a rage building within me, a rage against this tumour that was doing so much damage. A rage of being in one of the world’s great places of healing and yet even here they could not open up this boy’s body and remove the mass of renegade cells bent on self-destruction.

And I was angry that there was nothing I could do, nothing except sit and hold his hand in the darkness and try to be for him the love of his grieving parents. That anger and that love is worth remembering.

And so back to my friends and their little boy. I conducted the wedding for this couple many years ago. They were our next door neighbours back in that town and so we saw much of each other. Then they moved town and we moved town and we lost touch over time. But last week a mutual friend passed on to them a christmas email from me, and they emailed back. And in the catch-up came the news of the death of a little boy that I had not met, nor even known about, but who’s death brought tears to me and difficult and fitful sleep.

It was a night of struggle with that question ‘Why does this happen?’ We might also put it in this form, ‘Who was it that broke that basic law of the universe that ‘children don’t die’?’

Welcome back to where we started.