Parting is never easy; it is harder when life is taken away at a tender age.
I was a little apprehensive when we arrived at Elsie’s* home for a bereavement visit. Only two weeks earlier, Elsie had lost Alex*, her nine-year-old son to a type of brain tumour called DIPG (Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma) which is not curable. DIPG is a brain tumour found at the base of the brain; it is highly aggressive and difficult to treat.
“Fireman” Alex had been our Star PALS patient for exactly a month. During our nurse’s initial visits, Alex had expressed his desire to become a fireman, when he grew up and to also visit a fire station. Our team had then quickly scheduled for Alex to visit a real fire station. Although tired, Alex had enjoyed the visit to the station and the company of firemen at the station. A few days later, our nurse purchased some plastic fireman’s hats and arranged for a family portrait, with every member wearing a fireman’s hat. The portrait turned out beautiful. Alex passed away two days later.
Elsie has three other children, seven-year-old Brenda*, Carol* who is four and Dave* who is two. Elsie greeted us warmly as she opened the door for us. Grandma was preparing lunch, whilst Dave was taking a nap. Brenda and Carol were in school. We sat on the floor with Elsie and asked her how she was. “The same lah! What to do? I feel sad, but I have to be strong for the other three” she said. She went on to tell us that her hubby Tony* had asked her about Alex’s final moments and she had refused to tell him anything. She had been angry with Tony, as he had not been there for Alex during his dying moments, but she now thought that perhaps that was Tony’s way of coping. In the last two days, she had updated Tony that Alex was at peace when he passed away. She told us that Dave probably missed his brother a lot, as they used to sleep together. Dave would cuddle up to Alex ever so often. With a rueful smile, she told us about an incident at a recent family gathering. Carol was teased by her uncle that she was getting chubby, but she retorted that mummy was fatter. Elsie corrected her saying that she had given birth to four children and that’s why she had put on weight. “Wrong Mummy, there are only three of us!” replied Carol. To which Elsie said “Carol, did you forget about your brother, who only recently went to heaven?” “Oh yes, I forgot!” Carol quickly added. Elsie told us she felt sad but understood that Carol was still young.
We chatted with Elsie for over an hour, allowing her to recount and recall the wonderful memories of Alex – he didn’t like injections, but because he knew it would be good for him, Alex would tolerate it with only a small grimace on his face. Elsie was strong. She did not shed any tears.
We left a comfort box for the family – a box filled with paraphernalia, with the hope of bringing some comfort – a soft toy, a scented candle, handwritten cards, some colouring crayons and most importantly, a personal letter written by another bereaved parent, especially for Elsie and her family.
We will support the family as best we can, but I know it will be a long and arduous journey for Elsie, Tony and everyone in the family. Grandma was quiet throughout and she will definitely need support too. It will be like the ebbing and flowing of the tide. We will feel alright one moment and very down the next. Time will heal, but for each individual, this “time” will vary. We pray for strength and courage for all bereaved families!
*not their real names
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