Sunday, 24 June 2012

The death of a child

Friday 29th June is Red Nose Day, when we are encouraged to make fools of ourselves for a serious cause.  For those of you who don't know, that cause is SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome), now expanded to include other childhood deaths, as SIDS and Kids.

It seems ages since the day started and when checking, found this year marks the 25th year.  In that time, the SIDS and Kids Foundation has 
  • raised awareness of SIDS,
  • funded extensive research leading to an intensive community and professional education program which has resulted in the marked reduction of SIDS in Australia,
  • created a 24/7 National Bereavement Support Line (1300 308 307).
With the reduction in the incidence of SIDS, the foundation has broadened its role to the areas of sudden unexplained death in childhood (SUDC) and to deaths as a result of accident.

A less tangible benefit of the SIDS and Kids work is that there has been an increased awareness of death in childhood in the community.  

As I mentioned in an earlier post, this is probably the greatest fear of any parent.  The death of a child is shocking.  The funeral of a child is overwhelmingly sad. The absence of a child from the intimate family and friend network is an appalling gap. 

There is nothing to say that doesn't sound trite or clich├ęd.  There are limits to the number of casseroles and cakes that a family can eat.

So what can you do?

  • Be there, in person and by phone but only for brief calls. Don't avoid the family just because you feel unable to cope: it's ok to say that you don't know what to say.  Don't feel you have to be bright and cheerful, just sit quietly and listen. Don't presume to know how someone is feeling: ask. People need space as well as company. 
  • Mention the child's name when talking. Share any memories you have and ask for the parent's memories.  Take copies of any photos you might have.  Don't be afraid of tears, and don't disapprove of laughter about happy times. 
  • Continue to ask the family to social events that you would have invited them to prior to the child's death, suggesting that they need only stay as long as they can manage.
  • Remember that any children in the family are also grieving and experiencing a tremendous dislocation.  Don't forget to talk to them too, about their brother or sister.  Don't smother them with attention/affection, but don't ignore them or think they are too small to notice the change.  Even very young babies are sensitive to changes in atmosphere.
  • Ask if you can bring a rose, rosemary or some other plant for the family's garden to remember the child, or make a donation in memory of the child to a children's charity.
  • Avoid the unhelpful, false hope of comments like 'time heals', 'you'll soon feel better', 'keep busy'.  Everyone copes in their own way.
  • Many families attend annual memorial services on Red Nose Day, and you can join them to commemorate the children who have died.
If you check the SIDS and Kids website, there are many resources that you can read that will help you to understand a little of what families may feel and think, and what they have found helpful.

And in the next few days, if you see a stall for SIDS and Kids, or are approached to buy a red nose or other merchandise, give generously. 

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