Chapter 3: The visit
When the child doesn’t want to leave the patient
A child may have many reasons for why they don’t want to leave the bedside. If the patient is still alive, they may worry that the patient will die before they are able to visit again. In these situations, talk with the child or parent about when they can visit again and ways they can stay connected (e.g., phone or video calls).
If death has occurred, the child may worry about the patient being left alone or about what will happen to them afterwards. They may also wonder if the patient is “really dead” or if they might wake up again. Remind them that when a person dies, they don’t wake up and their body doesn't feel pain, cold, hunger, etc., so they won’t need the same things as they used to. Let the child know who will “take care of” the patient’s body after they leave.
Preparing for the possibility that it’s the last visit
It’s not always possible to know which visit will be the last. If death is close, let children know that this may be their last chance to be with the person while they are alive. This gives them the chance to say goodbye if they want to or just spend time with the patient. This can be a very powerful moment for everyone, with a lot of deep feelings expressed. Allow children all the time they need for this final separation.
The following ideas can create meaningful memories for children on any visit to the ICU and give a meaningful conclusion to the visit.
Giving the patient a hug or a kiss
Taking a photo of holding their hands
Singing a song or saying a prayer
Leaving something that they brought, drew, or wrote while there
Tracing the patient’s hand on a piece of paper or fabric
Regardless of what is done or said, some children (like adults) will not feel “ready” to leave the patient. Especially when the patient has died, it’s preferable for children to find a way to separate from the patient’s body on their own terms.
“Some people wish they could stay with their person forever. It’s okay to feel that way. It’s hard but they try to find different ways to feel close to the person. [Pause] It’s almost time for you to go. How can I help you to walk away when it’s time? Would you like to hold my hand and we can walk away together? Would you like me to count to 10? Would you like to take 3 deep breaths and then go”?
“In case [patient] does die, is there something you’d like to do or say before you leave today”?