A reader writes: My 6 year old niece died suddenly a month ago. She was a completely healthy, strong little girl, until all of a sudden she wasn't. She had been sick for a few days with a low grade fever and a headache. Her parents thought it was just the bug going around. One morning she woke up still complaining of her headache, but asking her parents if she could still go to her cheer competition the upcoming weekend. She was so excited about it. She fell back to sleep. When her father went to wake her an hour or so later, she started seizing. He rushed her to the hospital, where she continued seizing until at one point she stopped breathing and was intubated. She never woke up from that point. Once many tests had been run we were told that she was brain dead and she died from bacterial meningitis.
That was a month ago. I'm looking for guidance on how to support my sister. She has been completely devastated by this, understandably. Her children are her world. She has another son who is 12 and she's trying to be there for him, but I can tell she is in complete agony. I've never seen someone in such pain. She and her husband are dealing with their grief in such different ways and I think she feels very alone.
I have been with her for this whole month, since as soon as we found out my niece was sick, but I live far away and need to return home soon. Do you have advice on how to support her from afar? I think eventually she may want to do a sort of group therapy but right now she says she isn't ready. And I think she's come around to the idea of talking to a counselor for herself. She has already set her son up for counseling.
I know she needs to grieve and get through it herself. But she is my big sister and my absolute best friend and it kills me that she is in such tremendous pain and I can't help her. Any bit of advice would be greatly appreciated.
My Response: I’m so sorry to learn of the death of your precious niece a month ago, and I can only imagine how devastating this must be for your sister, for her family and for you. And of course your lives are forever changed as a result -- because there is nothing more difficult to understand than the experience of losing a child. After all, we are not supposed to outlive our children, are we? It goes against the natural order of things, it just isn't fair and it is so very, very hard to accept. Nevertheless, as I'm sure you already know, the bond you have with this child will be with all of you forever, just as long as you keep her memory and the love you share with her alive in your hearts. Your sister will always be her mother, you will always be her aunt, and she will always be your beloved niece. Death may end a life, but it certainly does not end the bond of love that exists between you and this precious child.
You’ve asked for advice on how to help your sister, and I hope you'll take time to visit each of the pages on the Grief Healing Web site - it contains a wealth of information as well as links to many other wonderful sites, each of which I've reviewed personally. See especially the links listed on the Death of an Infant, Child or Grandchild page; many of these sites were developed by parents, grandparents and relatives whose feelings and experiences may be similar to your own. See also Helping Someone Who’s Grieving.
In addition to what is available to you online, I sincerely hope that you’ll encourage your sister to find someone to talk to about this. The loss of a child is a burden much too heavy to bear alone. You can tell her that sharing her feelings, reactions and experiences with another (a trusted friend or family member, a grief counselor, someone on the Internet, a clergy person or in a support group comprised of other grieving parents and grandparents) gives her a safe place to express herself, helps her understand that what she is feeling is normal, and may give her the hope that if others have found a way to survive a loss like this, then she will find her own way, too.
You could be quite helpful in doing this research for your sister. On her behalf, you can contact her local library, mortuary or hospice organization to find out what bereavement resources are available in her community. I also encourage you to contact the local chapter of The Compassionate Friends, whose mission is to assist families toward the positive resolution of grief following the death of a child of any age, and to provide information to help others be supportive. (See the site's Chapter Locator page.)
Below is a video featuring Drs. Gloria and Heidi Horsley interviewing Patricia Loder, Executive Director of The Compassionate Friends. This woman transformed her devastating grief into a way to help others who have shared the experience of losing a child. In this video, Patricia discusses what she has learned through her own experience as a grieving parent, and the role that her organization now plays in helping grieving parents, grandparents, siblings and others who are struggling with the death of a beloved child:
See also the MISS Foundation, offering support and resources after the death of a child. Help your sister to find and read some of the wonderful books about coping with the death of a child that will help both of you learn what to expect in the weeks and months ahead, and that will reassure you both that you are not alone in this grief of yours. See my site’s Articles ~ Columns ~ Books page for suggestions, especially those listed under Books for Children and Those Who Love Them.
Another resource available to your sister is our online Grief Healing Discussion Groups. Our Loss of an Infant, Child or Grandchild grief forum is available to her at no cost, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Your sister is most welcome to join us.
It’s also important for your sister to keep her primary care physician informed as to what's going on in her life, to follow her advice, and to do all she can to take good care of herself physically as well as emotionally.
Your sister may find these articles useful in understanding and supporting her 12-year old:
Helping Grieving Children: A List of Resources
Tips for Helping Children and Adolescents in Grief
I have no profound answers as to how you help your sister to live with this, other than to encourage her not to try to travel this grief journey alone. And as other bereaved parents have learned, she will do this just as she is doing it now: day-to-day, one day at a time, and if that is too much, one hour or even just one moment at a time. I’ve said it elsewhere, but it bears repeating: I happen to think that a person in your sister’s shoes deserves a medal of honor just for having the courage to get out of bed in the morning.
I also encourage you to pay attention to your own grief as well: the grief you feel at the loss of your niece and the pain you feel for your sister.
Please know that I am thinking of all of you, pulling for you and holding you in my heart.
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