Coping with grief

illustration of sunset to symbolize grief
PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: FAWN GRACEY/BOSTON CHILDREN’S HOSPITAL. BASED ON ORIGINAL ARTWORK BY ELIZABETH DOVICH

The line wraps around the stage in the Joseph B. Martin Conference Center and extends down the aisle. Stepping up to the microphone, a man in a yarmulke says a name, then places a long-stemmed rose in a nearby vase. Behind him, a little blonde girl whispers her sister’s name and walks to the vase. Behind her, a large family clad in matching t-shirts emblazoned with a baby’s smiling face follows suit. When everyone has had a turn and returned to their seats, a medical resident begins reading dozens more names as clinicians and staff from Boston Children’s Hospital cycle past the vases, each adding another rose.

By the time they’ve finished, the vases are full, the early summer sky outside has darkened and the families have gathered in the lobby. Some are old friends; others are just meeting for the first time. In another life, many of these families would never have crossed paths. But their presence at this event — A Time to Remember, the annual Boston Children’s memorial service for patients — has bound them together. They are members of a club no one wants to join: parents whose children have died.

A shared desire: Remembrance

The event is part of Boston Children’s official bereavement program, which offers grieving families a variety of services, from quick phone check-ins to daylong workshops. Because grief has no timetable, the program is designed not just to aid parents in the immediate aftermath of loss, but throughout the weeks, months and years that follow.

As program coordinator for the hospital’s Hale Family Center for Families, licensed clinical social worker Olivia Dole reaches out to parents about six weeks after their child has died, offering them a variety of resources — and giving them the opportunity to speak with other bereaved parents. The new family-to-family service has become a key aspect of Boston Children’s bereavement services. “Most parents won’t outlive their children, so having a child die can be a very isolating experience,” says Dole. “It’s so important to connect with other families because they can understand where you’re coming from.”

The service matches recently bereaved parents who express interest with “mentor” parents who have also lost a child, often with other similarities. This allows them to provide support, share resources and otherwise connect with someone who ‘gets it’ without having to return to the hospital — a place that can be comforting to some bereaved families but triggering for others. For this same reason, Boston Children’s offers bereavement support groups at its Waltham and Peabody locations as well.

Grief is a very individual process, and there’s no right or wrong way to express it, says Dole. However, bereaved families share one common desire. “Parents want their child to be remembered, whether that’s by the hospital, their care team, their family,” she explained. “Sometimes, the most important thing is to just have an opportunity to talk and to speak their child’s name.”

Boston Children’s Thriving blog will be publishing a special series for parents and families on the many aspects of loss. Our first story will appear on Wednesday, September 26.