Working in a Level III Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) can be very gratifying. The babies in the NICU are there usually because they have been born prematurely, have experienced a difficult delivery and/or show signs of medical problems during their first days of life. In addition to helping the babies, the NICU staff is also skilled in supporting parents during what can be an emotionally challenging time. Every day, I see babies go home to their families after surviving premature birth and months of medical intervention. Most NICU parents have experienced all of the trials and tribulations of their tiny baby's life because they have spent almost every waking moment sitting next to their child's bassinet in the NICU. Sadly, every so often, some of our tiny patients do not make it. Their parents don't experience the joy of bringing their baby home, rocking him to sleep and rejoicing in his first smile or first words. For these parents, the joy of birth is replaced by the debilitating emotions of grief.
As a NICU nurse for 25 years and a grief counselor for families who have lost children, I am often asked by friends of grieving parents, "What should I say?" Death has a way of making people feel helpless and at a loss for words. The death of a child is particularly hard to justify. People want to say something to make it better, but there is no quick fix in these situations. No cliché is appropriate. I suggest resisting comments like "Everything happens for a reason" or "They are in a better place". My advice to well-meaning people is: if you don't know what to say, don't say anything. Just be there--holding their hand, giving a hug and showing that you care without words. If you absolutely feel the need to say something, keep it simple. Tell them that you don't know what to say, that you are sorry for their loss and that you will keep them in your prayers.
As with everything, life moves on. After a death and a funeral, people return to their normal lives. But for families who have lost a child, life as they knew it stopped on the day their child died. They need to work through their grief to be able to heal. One of the best ways to help a grieving parent is talking about their child, especially mentioning him by name. It makes them feel better to talk about their child. Many people, however, don't mention the child because they don't want to upset the parent or make them cry. Someone once said, "Tears are nature's way of washing away our pain." For many parents, just being able to tell their story--even if it is over and over again--will help in their healing and acceptance of the death.
I have learned that for some families it is important to have a tangible memorial of their child. Many times there is no gravestone or burial site for a family to visit. Inspired by the families that I've counseled and by my own personal experiences with loss, I helped create an Angel Garden. The peaceful outdoor sanctuary is a special place for families to heal and to see their child's name written forever. The reaction to the Angel Garden has been very positive. Families are so grateful to have a place to reflect and remember.
My advice to friends of grieving parents is to stay in touch after the funeral is over. Don't tell them to call you if they need anything. They are not going to call you when they can barely get themselves up and dressed every day. Be pro-active. Stay in touch. Stop by. Schedule a lunch. Theirs is a long journey of grief and that grief has no timetable. It will take a long time to go through it, not just get over it. Also, keep in mind the special days that might be particularly difficult like holidays, birthdays or due dates of a pregnancy that ended too early. Call or send a note of acknowledgement. Keep your words short and sweet--just showing that you care means the world.
Ann Coyle, RN, BA, is the winner of the Johnson & Johnson Campaign for Nursing's Future's 2012 Amazing Nurses Contest. She is a Neonatal Intensive Care Nurse at Virtua Voorhees Hospital in Voorhees, NJ. . In addition to nursing, Ann is the facilitator of the HOPING Bereavement Support Group for families who have lost children. Ann is also the inspiration and the force behind the hospital's Angel Garden, which is a memorial garden and waterfall--"a peaceful place where parents and families can go and remember their babies."
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