‘Dad is still there’ | health beat

When Matt Christopherson, 32, ended up in Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital in the summer of 2020, his 6-year-old son Bryce struggled to process the situation.

How long would Matt be gone?

Could Bryce see it?

Why was he so sick – and could others catch his infection?

Matt had acute pancreatitis, and pandemic protocols prevented Bryce from visiting his father in the hospital.

The two had to settle for talking on the phone or via FaceTime.

But when serious complications took Matt to intensive care two weeks after his hospital stay, he lost the ability to connect and communicate.

Life suddenly got more complex for Bryce and his mother, Lauren.

“He was asking me about his dad, and he was like, ‘Mom, why can’t I call dad? Why can’t I talk to dad?'” Lauren said.

“That was probably the hardest part, because I felt like not only his dad couldn’t be there…but I really wasn’t there either.”

Lauren has spent most of this summer at her husband’s bedside, after taking family leave from her job as a gastroenterology nurse technician at Butterworth Hospital. Bryce stayed home in Grandville, Michigan, with a grandparent.

“Tools to explain it”

Lauren received almost daily visits from Megan Trombka, MSW, a social worker with the hospital’s palliative care team, throughout Matt’s six weeks of illness and decline.

Initially, Trombka did everything she could to help Lauren provide emotional support for Bryce.

When Matt’s health didn’t improve, Trombka knew she needed backup.

And she knew where to find him.

She called Jen Wilson, a 22-year veteran of the Childhood and Family Life team at Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital.

“I’ve worked with kids a lot in the past, but I know when I need Jen, and this was definitely one of those situations,” Trombka said.

“We could see from our palliative lens that Matthew was not improving.”

Just two months prior, at the start of the pandemic, Wilson had launched a pilot program under the umbrella of Childhood and Family Life. Its goal: to support the children of adult patients at three Spectrum Health hospital facilities in Grand Rapids.

For the first time, Child and Family Life would not only serve sick children in the children’s hospital, but also children whose parents or other family members are seriously ill or injured.

“We recognized that there would be a lot of children who would have to deal with very big changes in the health of a parent or a loved one, or perhaps end-of-life situations, and they couldn’t not see the progression…with the visitor restrictions as they were,” Wilson said.

“We had to find a way to help these kids understand what’s going on and be able to move on.”

Wilson stepped in at the right time for his family, Lauren said.

“It was quite difficult for me to understand what was going on, and then I try to figure out how to help a 6-year-old understand,” she said.

“So bringing Jen in, it took that pressure off me because she gave me the tools to explain it to Bryce.”

Wilson started by asking Lauren to tell him about Bryce. She learned that he was bright and curious, a concrete thinker, a baseball and hockey fan.

She presented the family with a pair of matching teddy bears, one for Matt, the other for Bryce.

Then she created a book-like document especially for Bryce called “Daddy’s Hospital Visit”.

Using age-appropriate words and images, the book explained Matt’s illness, described the drugs and machines in his room, and suggested ways for Bryce to deal with his emotions.

“There’s nothing wrong with feeling sad or even angry because it’s happening,” the book says.

“Things to help: Ask for extra hugs. Dad color a picture. Talk to an adult. Draw a picture of how you feel. Hold your bear tight. Sleep in a dad shirt.

Lauren brought a printed copy of the book to Bryce and read it with him whenever he had questions about Matt. He provided the right words.

“I didn’t want to scare him too much, but I didn’t want to lie to him either,” she said. “It was like trying to find that right balance.”

A second book

A few weeks after his hospitalization, Matt’s condition worsened and his organs began to fail.

Wilson helped create keepsakes for Bryce – imprints of Matt’s fingerprints in clay “so that Bryce kinda felt like he had a part of daddy close to him,” she said .

She also wrote a second book for Bryce at Lauren’s request, this one explaining death and cremation.

Wilson based the text on a conversation she had with Lauren about the family’s belief system and Lauren’s thoughts on death.

“When a body is cremated, the important thing to remember is that the body feels no pain,” Wilson wrote.

“The person’s body is placed in a special support and then passed through a machine which turns the body into ashes. The ashes are small and look a bit like dust or stuff inside a campfire after a fire is over.

The book concludes: “Sometimes when adults talk about dad, they cry because they miss him so much. You might feel sad and want to cry too, and that’s okay.

Matt’s death occurred one morning in late July as his wife and parents watched by his bed.

Wilson’s book has become an important part of the family’s grieving process, Lauren said.

“In the beginning, when he passed away, I read it (to Bryce) at least once a week,” she said. “It gave me the words without really having to sit down and think about what to say.”

On the day he died, Lauren brought Matt’s teddy bear back to Bryce so he could keep his father’s bear with his own.

“He still sleeps with his two teddy bears every night,” she said.

“Sometimes he grabs his bear and says, ‘See, mom? Dad is still there. And I’m like, ‘Yup, daddy’s still here.

Extend the reach

When Child and Family Life began offering support for children of adult patients, the team thought it would be a short-term program, for the duration of the pandemic. Over time, however, the need only grew.

After 18 months of the program, Wilson had served the children of more than 400 adult patients.

She is now working with the communications team at Spectrum Health to refine her children’s books and make them available for download. They have identified dozens of books to prepare for publication, on topics including trauma, cancer, COVID-19 and bereavement.

“When families meet me, they say, ‘I don’t know how to say that to a child.’ So providing the books gives them a storyline,” Wilson said.

“Often we try to protect our children by not giving them information, but the children are very attentive, and they know when… something is happening. So being honest on their level in a safe way helps them know they can process this together as a family.

Wilson typically remains involved with the children for a month or two, but she remains available to families long after a crisis is over.

So when Bryce asked Lauren, more than a year after Matt’s death, if he could talk to other kids whose fathers had died, Lauren emailed Wilson asking for resources.

“That’s what I find so great about the whole program,” Lauren said. “It was supposed to support Bryce, but I think Jen was just as supportive. It benefited both of us in different ways.

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