When a young parent is dying, how do we help?

I frequently receive messages from other therapists and allied health professionals who are confronted with a grief moment they feel unprepared to handle. There really is no higher compliment than to be asked to step in from a distance to offer support as they support their client. Recently there was a request about a young mom who is dying, leaving behind a young child.

How do you, as a therapist or medical professional, help with that?

How do you give her what she needs when what she really needs is to live long enough to see her baby grow up?

How do you make that better?

The first answer is you can’t make it better. You can’t provide that miracle, and neither can the medical professionals. She is not going to survive whatever illness is encroaching on her and her new life with her child.

The second answer is you can add to what she can leave behind. You can help her say goodbye. You can help her find some sense of control. You can help her make decisions she needs to, and to tell those who will be providing care what she wants. You can do all of that. Your relationship can be a final gift.

These are my suggestions when helping someone prepare to die and leave a child behind. (I use those words deliberately. When facing death we need to be honest in our words).

You can make a difference when someone is closing out their life in so many ways.

  1. She can record her voice in books that she can read and record. Amazon and others have them.
  2. Make videos- little ones, big ones- as soon as possible. Death can come quickly.
  3. Sign the birthday cards for the coming years
  4. Look at be Remembered- it’s an online do your own memories to leave behind. There are others like that.
  5. Prepare the family for allowing her to hold her child no matter how sick she gets. It is entirely possible.
  6. Take a lot of pictures of them together. That will matter a lot later.
  7. Help her leave a legacy for that baby. Her wishes, her dreams, her hopes. What they would have done together. What she loved in childhood that she wants that baby to experience. What having that child meant to her. Why she chose the name. How she imagined them growing up. Giving the baby permission to love new people who will step in to try to fill the role of mom. Favorite books she read in childhood she can leave behind with a note in them.
  8. Your client might want to read “The Last Lecture” – it is not long, and it is about dying before kids are grown and work is done.
  9. Do not go into the 5 stages- give her permission to grieve the life she will not have in whatever way she needs to. And to finish the other relationships that surround her. What does she need to say to those she loves? What does she need to hear from them?
  10. Make sure someone is preparing her for the dying process so she can make her own decisions and puts them in writing. She needs a POLST (Physician’s Order Regarding Life Sustaining Treatment), and for those around her to know what it says. Make sure she has a hospice she can trust and that they will do continuous care when her death is coming. Help her to not be afraid of pain meds because of the stigma around them. That’s not medical advice- refer her to her hospice and doctor to talk it through.
  11. Make sure she and her family understand the dying process. It reduces fear to have knowledge. It normalizes what is coming.
  12. If she needs to feel in control, suggest she make her own final arrangements. It can be liberating.
  13. Use humor when you can.
  14. Make sure she gets some sun for as long as she can.
  15. Be the holder of space so she can explore what is happening.
  16. Do not be surprised if this is faster than you expect.

Leaving behind small children is an especially harsh reality when someone is terminally ill. Giving them a way to leave a part of themselves behind for them is important. We all need to leave a legacy. It’s even more important if your children will not have a memory of you.

I know for certain that we never lose the people we love, even to death. They continue to participate in every act, thought and decision we make. Their love leaves an indelible imprint in our memories. We find comfort in knowing that our lives have been enriched by having shared their love.

Leo Buscaglia