One can learn a great deal from a dying child, though the learning is bittersweet. As a pediatric psychologist, I am afforded the opportunity to work with children and families dealing with a myriad of health issues, from cancer to AIDS to multiple organ transplants and everything in between. Sometimes I am called to help with treatment adherence or to assess for depression, other times I help families adjust to chronic illness or teach behavioral pain management techniques. On occasion, I am called in to help prepare a child and family to say their inevitable goodbyes. These are the cases that wrench the soul.
Children should not die, but they do, sometimes unanticipated and sudden, other times expected and painfully slow. It is in those children who face the ominous certainty of death that I have witnessed the greatest strength. I have witnessed in them pure joy and extreme sadness, terrifying fear and unquenchable hope. There is something indescribably resilient in the spirit of a child that even death cannot destroy it. The courage and acceptance these children present in the face of death is unfathomable to me still. A 9-year old boy succumbing to AIDS who shortly before he died demonstrated his understanding of death through his wrestling figurines, looking up at me with big brown eyes after solemnly placing a wrestler in a shoebox, smiling, and pointing towards heaven. A 14-year old boy with a reoccurrence of cancer, this time metastatic, whose last wish was to attend summer camp where he could be a “normal” child for just one day who was airlifted to camp, only to die hours after returning to the hospital surrounded by his family. A 19-year old young woman with a multiple organ transplant whose presence filled the room even when she could no longer talk, her eyes revealing the spirit that belied the multiple line infections, an ostomy bag, and atrophying muscles that ultimately overcame her physical being on Christmas Eve night.
Some people wonder how I can work with sick and dying children; I say I am blessed to have such an opportunity. In their realities I have grown. They have taught me to seek joy in the day-to-day experiences that I might otherwise take for granted, from running at sunrise in the crisp morning air to watching the sun set slowly on the horizon, melting into molten hues of red and orange. They have taught me to fully experience and to express my emotions, to admit when I am scared, and to reach out a hand for support when I am in need. They have taught me the importance of saying “I love you” everyday because the certainty of tomorrow can never be guaranteed. I carry the memories of the children with whom I have worked with me, their joy and pain in my heart, their ageless wisdom in my mind, and their essence in my soul. One can learn a great deal from a dying child…this I believe.
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