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Breaking sad news to children

Image Courtesy D. Sharon Pruitt on Flickr

Image Courtesy D. Sharon Pruitt on Flickr

One of the toughest tasks that I’ve ever had to do at work didn’t involve any blood or trauma, but it left me choking back the tears just the same.

We had been called to a young mother found by her husband when he arrived home after work, as he entered the living room he was confronted by the sad scene of his little daughter sitting beside her “Mummy’s asleep” she whispered to him.

It appears that she had unexpectedly collapsed while at home looking after her little girl. He called 999 immediately and we were there within minutes, but unfortunately it was already too late.

Initially the details were unclear due to the confusion that can naturally occur in these situations. However, once we realised that it had been more than an hour since her heart had ceased beating and she no longer breathed for herself we stopped our attempts at resuscitating her.

I broke the dreadful news to her husband that his wife had died. Breaking the news to him it was hard enough, but then he asked me to help tell their four year old daughter.

There was no hurry now; she had been taken upstairs by relatives by the time we had arrived, which gave us a bit of time to organise ourselves. I realised at this point that I had never had to break bad news, in particular the news of the death of a loved one, to a young child before. I felt ill prepared and emotional just thinking about it. I remembered some stuff from way back during my nurse training which I called in to play. It suggested not telling children bad news in their own bedroom, as that should be a sanctuary that they can retreat to in the future. It was also about the importance of using age appropriate language rather than medical jargon and using the term ‘has died’ or ‘is dead’ rather than ‘gone away or ‘gone to sleep’ so there is no room for confusion.

Dad and I talked and we decided that it was best if the news came from him with me there for support. We agreed that if he should feel unable to say it, he would give me a look and I would step in and say what needed to be said on his behalf; and when it came to it, that’s exactly what happened. He was too upset and unable to articulate the words when faced with his daughter’s open expression.

As I said the words ‘Sweetie, I have some very, very sad news for you…I am so sorry but Mummy has died…’ I thought my heart was going to bang out of my chest, and my throat squeezed and burned with raw emotion as she turned her head in to her father’s neck and began sobbing pitifully.

I’m not just a paramedic; I am first and foremost a mother. The pain of their loss touched me deeply, but children are amazingly resilient. She has a loving father and wonderful extended family to care for her so I’m sure that she’ll be fine, but of course the nature of my job means that I will never know for sure.

If you are experiencing a similar tragedy and are looking for support, please visit the Child Bereavement Charity.

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