An absent presence

Reflecting on the support I have given to families facing the death of their child I am aware that my presence in that moment, or in the time soon after has been the thing that many of them have valued the most. At a time when words can be of little meaning, being close at hand to comfort physically and to nurture practically is the thing that connects them to the world that seems to have stopped because their child has died.

It is always a great privilege to be invited into a family’s life and to support them during a child’s illness. Should that child eventually die, and the family call me to be with them at this most personal of times, it is a huge honour to be trusted in such a way.

In the summer of 2019, I received a call from the hospital treating a baby whose family I had been supporting for some months. I had been looking after their older child so that they could visit him in the neonatal unit and then spending time with his Mum offering emotional support when she returned home. Sadly, that morning the baby had died. I went to the hospital immediately and was able to see him and his parents as they spent some precious time together. I looked after their older child so they could have as much time as they needed. I supported them with practical arrangements, going to the Registrar’s office and Funeral Directors, and then driving them safely home.

To describe the emotions of such a day is impossible, but talking to the family sometime later, they told me that having me there had helped them to keep going and continue to step forward. They also relied on me to fill in gaps in the memories of that day which were fuzzy from shock and grief.

In contrast, earlier this year I have been supporting a single mum whose daughter died from cancer during the first lockdown. Unable to visit them in the hospital where she died, we have spoken on the phone and exchanged many texts. I took on helping with funeral arrangements and making all the phone calls that were needed, helping to choose flowers remotely and arranging visits to the chapel of rest. I have since been able to offer physically distanced meetings outside the home where we share memories of her daughter and talk about her grief.

So, this year things have been somewhat different. The support we have given has been physically distanced, virtual and interrupted all through circumstances beyond our control. Does this mean that the support has been less valuable though? We have continued to offer families with children at the end of life, in person support wherever possible.

We have exchanged reassuring touchpoints and practical tasks with phone calls and zoom meetings, stopping to remember a child privately when we have been unable to attend funerals in person. At the heart of what we do is the relationship we build with children and their families and this is what they lean on if their child dies.

This year, we have learnt that being present virtually can be just as worthwhile, because presence can be the knowledge that wherever you are, you are being thought of and held by people who understand and care about you and will continue to do so for however long you need them.

If you would like to learn more about the support we provide for families, please click here.