This article comes at a very good time indeed. Why?
Because in the last 48 hours, I've received four emails from providers ill-prepared to provide support to parents of children who have died (or are dying). Our educational system must do better to prepare them for being a compassionate provider because what they say and do has a long term impact on families.
Here is the first email from a prestigious teaching hospital's LCSW:
"... I need to find some support for parents who have experienced a fetal death... they lost their fetus."
Here is my response in part:
".... and can you please clarify because I'm a little confused? Do you mean that they lost their baby? If so, I would appreciate if you would use that language when speaking about their child..."
(I mean, when was the last time any of you went up to an obviously pregnant woman and asked her, "When's your fetus due?" Or when was the last time you were invited to a 'fetus shower'?)
As it turns out, yes, indeed, their baby died.
Why would an LCSW (!) use such minimizing language? 1) Because he or she has not been taught better in the academy, 2) because he or she is not being mindful, 3) because he or she works in a grief-avoidant culture that wants to buffer the horror of death at the beginning of life.
One more that I will share from an emergency room physician who asked for tutelage around this issue:
"If the body is badly damaged, I think the parents should be protected... so I told her she shouldn't see the body..."
Here is my response in part:
"... by "the body" do you mean their son? I assume he has a name? I would invite you to consider your own discomfort and perhaps lack of education around traumatic death... our next training is in September and I would highly recommend it for you ( www.certificate.missfoundation.org ) - and please, I encourage you to refrain from using this language. In most cases, it only serves to further the gap between you and the families you serve."
Why would an ER doc use such minimizing language? 1) Because he or she has not been taught better in medical school, 2) because he or she is not being mindful, 3) because he or she works in a grief-avoidant culture that wants to buffer the horror of death in the middle of life.
In instances that many parents have shared with me over the past two decades, those intimations of insensitive language seep into the I-Thou relationship. I contend that our higher educational and healthcare systems must do better and teaching about crisis, traumatic grief, and compassionate interventions, both acute and postvention. I also contend that providers are, at least in part, responsible for their thoughtful speech and deed.
We must honestly confront our own fears about sharing space with those who have experienced traumatic death. stop being mindless in the provision of healthcare education. We must consider changing the ways in which we treat people during their most wounding hours. Pedagogy must change. We must embody compassion, we must care for all aspects- not just the physical- of their being, and we must extend to them our loving kindness.