Friday, August 28, 2009

Don't shut me up or out

We were in a hospital waiting room yesterday, and overheard the following conversation, about children dying:

W 1: “I saw this 13 year-old girl outside the hospital and her 6 year-old sister had just died. She lay down on the ground and wailed “I want her back, I want my sister back!”. I kept saying “Will someone sedate that child?”, but nobody would act.

W2: “I knew a family whose daughter was dying and they asked the nurses to keep their daughter’s hope alive. That night this nurse got a book and showed her exactly, picture by picture, what was happening to her lungs, and told her that she only had 4 months to live. I’d have took that book and beat her stupit wit it. After them telling the staff to keep the worst from her!”

The grammatical and spelling errors in W2 are actually Dublinisms that I didn’t want to change.

But seriously, it made me think about how we react to death and dying, in particular when it relates to a child, or maybe more accurately, a minor.
We don’t, obviously, know the full story in either case, but in W1, maybe the girl didn’t have enough time or information beforehand to come to terms with the idea of her sister dying. And doesn't she have the right to express her emotions? Certainly the idea, to me, of sedating somebody who is expressing a very normal emotion, is bizarre. Who wouldn’t want to howl “I want my sister back!"?

In W2, perhaps the child had asked, or indicated that she knew she was going to die; in that case, what is the nurse to do- lie to her? Does that child have a right to know what is happening to her?

I don’t have any answers to these questions, but I certainly found the conversation thought-provoking.


  1. Definitely it's normal to howl. Sounds like W1 was in distress as well...maybe she needed sedating?

    Without knowing the whole story, it's easy to blame the nurse. Secrets do have a way of getting out. Obviously, the family weren't yet ready to abandon hope.

    Ethical behavior is so difficult to assess even when we know all the facts. Life is really just shades of gray. I think many people would be happier if it were black and white.

  2. This is an excellent post for continued dialogue!
    I have seen both sides and been on both sides of W1, as the child. Your title says it all! If you don't get it out now, it WILL slap you in the face later! And LATER, after it's had time to fester and create emotional infection, it is ALWAYS uglier! LET THAT BABY GIRL SCREAM for her little sister!

    W2: This one is incredibly thought provoking. I have never been placed in this situation. My first gut reaction says, "If the child wants to know, let the child know." There is a delicate balance in working out the details with family. However, the person dying should be able to have the facts presented, especially if they request, regardless of age. (I hope I don't have to experience this one, since I gave an opinion.)

  3. I am in the fortunate position of never having had to face such a situation. I do believe though that if there's enough time a child should be made aware of the facts, gently, in a language she/he can understand and accept.

  4. Death is something, I don't think we ever completely come to terms with. How can we accept it?? Especially when it's a child. I'm an adult and I fear and can't comprehend death, how can anyone expect a child to. I worked as a Hopice nurse for several years and one of the main things I learned is..everyone handles the death of a loved one differently, it's not right to judge or to have expectation for behavior at a time like that.

  5. Thanks everyone for those insightful comments.
    I suppose the concensus is that it's not a "one size fits all" thing..death is very personal as is how we deal with it, from whatever angle we're exposed to it.
    I just thought the conversation was very interesting.

  6. Thanks for stopping by! I am loving your blog so far and intend to visit quite often. :)

    Your post got me thinking... People react so differently - and at times, inappropriately - to the reactions others have towards death. So many people have been taught to restrain and conceal emotions that they then look negatively upon others who are capable and willing to share such emotions with others. I have never had to experience a small or young child dying when I was old enough to really comprehend it, but the reaction W1 spoke of does indeed sound very natural and normal. Why would you want to repress those emotions? I agree too with your opinion on the second scenario. If a child knows they are dying - and lets be serious, most do when the time comes - why lie or hide anything? It doesn't help.

    Whew! Off my soapbox. Very interesting and thought provoking for you to post, though.

  7. Oh it must be so harrowing to watch children go through these terrible experiences. They should be allowed to deal with it on their own terms. The stiff upper lip approach can cause great damage to a child. My parents were stiff upper lip types and the behaviour I learnt from them was to bottle things up and never talk about them, the damage from which I'm only just starting to unravel.

    The second child's situation is more difficult to judge really. Some children are very grown up, but I can see how others should be sheltered from such truths. It depends on the child and whether it will help them or scare them. I can't imagine how hard it is to make that choice. Any choice in these circumstances will probably seem wrong afterwards I'm sure.