Grief, Dying and the Pediatric Rehab Therapist

Photo: Matthew High

I often get asked “How do you do your job?” followed by “It’s so depressing” or “I couldn’t handle it”.  On most days I disagree.  I get to meet great kids with amazing spirits.  They teach me far more than I teach them which includes how to be a better person.  But today was hard.  Another little friend of mine was handed a “death sentence”.  I felt guilty because I couldn’t talk about it with his mother because I knew I couldn’t keep it together.  As a scientist, I know that the human body is a complex system beyond our comprehension.  As a spiritual person, I get that some things are meant to be beyond our understanding.  I still find myself asking “Why this kid?” “Why this family?”

Pediatric rehab therapists are on the medical front line.  The family is handed a diagnosis by a physician and left to figure it out on their own or referred to the social “experts” who really have no idea how how it feels to have a dying child.  Families often turn the us (rehab therapists) because we see them every week.  We are there to see tiny celebrations and share disappointing set backs.  They bring us videos because their child held a cup or said a word.  They ask questions we can’t answer: why? or how long? or what happened with other kids you have seen?  We see families in all stages of grief.  Some have been angry because we can’t fix it.  Some have thought if we push harder and faster the child can cheat death.  Some have shown accepting grace.

On days like today, I wonder how the pediatric therapist is supposed to grieve.  We are expected to show empathetic neutrality–be a compassionate listener, but keep our emotions in check.  The truth is, it sucks.  Watching children die and seeing their families experience overwhelming grief is not something I would wish on anyone. Today I decided that instead of trying to rationalize it, I would think about what I learn from it.

  • I do not know what it feels like to be a parent of an ill or dying child.  I never pretend I do.  I pray that I will never know what it feels like and thank God everyday for my healthy children.
  • Kids are the most resilient, amazing beings I have ever known.  
  • Sometimes the “experts” are wrong.  I have seen a lot of miracles and never judge a parent’s unwavering determination to make their child better.
  • It’s ok to grieve and it should be talked about.  Grieving is healthy human process.

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross has some excellent books on the topic.  We are, after all, only human.  If you are a healthcare worker and experience cumulative professional loss, I encourage you to acknowledge your feelings and get assistance if needed.  Peace!

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