On November 6, Lauren and Wes Clay should’ve been celebrating their son John Pearson’s first birthday.
Instead they visited the pediatric intensive care unit at Batson Children’s Hospital, where John Pearson died this past March of complications from a congenital heart defect.
And while the visit was hard for the Clays, it was also healing for them to be around the many familiar faces – people they came to know as friends during their five-month stay there.
The PICU staff would have it no other way.
When a child dies after a stay in the PICU, one might assume the efforts of the child’s health-care team would end. But for Batson’s PICU team, which operates within a family-centered care paradigm, their attention simply shifts more squarely to those who grieve.
“We’re just trying to take care of the families,” said Pam Courtney, R.N. and co-chair of the PICU’s Bereavement Committee. “It goes far beyond bereavement.”
The Bereavement Committee, created in the late 1990s, brings structure and organization to practices already in place to help grieving families. Nearly every single person on the PICU staff is a member.
Some of those practices actually begin before the child’s death and, as Courtney mentioned, extend far beyond those terrible days when a child dies.
Lauren Clay recalls the nurses periodically giving them John Pearson’s footprints and handprints throughout his stay in the unit. It seems like a small gesture, but Clay said she and her husband were so concentrated on John Pearson’s health that they never thought to do it, and now she cherishes the memento.
“The nurses took the time to do these things and I don’t feel like I missed out on things like getting footprints. I didn’t even ask for them. They just did them and that was so special.”
When a child does die, Courtney said the committee tries to give the family whatever they want to keep of their child’s, whether it’s just the hand- and footprints or a lock of hair.
The committee also gives the family information on how and where to find grief support, for parents as well as siblings and grandparents.
But that’s not where the help ends.
For the next year following the child’s death, a member of the committee – often a nurse who took care of the child – sends cards signed by everyone in the unit on the child’s birthday and other holidays like Thanksgiving, Christmas, Mother’s or Father’s Day.
“We want to hit hard times when they’ll be missing the child,” Courtney said. “Just to let them know we’re thinking of them.”
The final card goes out on the anniversary of the child’s death.