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When Another Child Dies

Because children who are close in age strongly identify with one another, this kind of tragedy is bound to stir up a child's fears about his own death. "When will I die?" "Was it because he was bad and deserved it?" "Maybe I do too!" Many children also start remembering their spats and rivalries, and feel guilty and responsible for what happened: "I wish I hadn't ever been bad to him. Maybe I caused it." These kinds of fears are tough for any parent to deal with, but again, the more honest you can be about the fatal illness or accident and the more you can reassure your child that he didn't cause it, the better off he'll be. When a brother or sister is terminally ill, letting your child become actively involved in caring for his sibling will help him accept the loss when it comes and will also be of comfort to the sick child. It is for just those reasons that we now have family visiting at the Children's Hospital in Boston. However, when we first asked the hospital personnel to allow siblings to visit, they resisted. They brought up the danger of infection that other children might bring in and the possibility of too much activity for the sick children, but we persuaded them to give us a chance to try it out. In the hospital at the time , there was a 2-year-old named Danny who was dying of cancer. He'd lost all his hair from chemotherapy and was so thin he was virtually skin and bones. But he had a winning smile and a cheerful disposition and was a favorite of all the nurses and doctors. One day his parents asked if they might bring in Danny's brothers, aged 4 and 6. They (and we) were afraid that Danny might not get to go home again and that the two older boys would be inconsolable. This was our test case. Danny was sitting in a playpen at the nurses'station when his parents arrived. His wispy face brightened a bit when his mother came over to pat him on his bald head. His father touched Danny's hands when the child held them out, but was afraid to pick him up for fear of hurting him. His mother said, "Danny, we have a surprise for you!" The boy's eyes lighted up, and he cocked his head, waiting to find out what it was. At that moment, his two older brothers came off the elevator and rushed over to this little skeleton of a boy. When Danny saw them, tears began to stream down his cheeks. He pulled himself up to stand at the side of the playpen and hung over it, both arms extended towards his brothers. He kept repeating "Oh! Oh! Oh!" as if he couldn't believe they were really there. The 4-year-old reached out to rub Danny's head and face. He touched and touched his little brother, and with each touch, Danny fawned and squirmed as if he couldn't get enough, looking at his brother adoringly. The 6-year-old, John, then pulled a chair over to the playpen and asked his parents if he could hold Danny in his arms. By this time there were tears in the eyes of everyone of us. The head nurse nodded, and Danny's father picked Danny up gently and put him in his brother's lap. As John rocked and sang to his little brother, Danny happily cuddled up to him. He reached up to feel John's face. He explored his brother's eyes, his hair, his nose, his mouth. Since that episode, we have had unlimited visiting for siblings. All of us could see what Danny's brothers meant to him and what he meant to them. We could see how critical it was for both the dying child and the well children to have this loving reunion.

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