By Jim Manzardo
“Could I take his feet home with me?”
In most any other context, this comment would seem jarring, but sitting next to her son, Patrick, who a short while earlier had died, this mother’s words made all the sense in the world. She was experiencing the beginning of the most intense grieving one can ever know and anticipating the next most painful part of her grieving — leaving her son’s body.
As she held and caressed Patrick’s pale, cold, stiff hand, this mom was lamenting that these moments would be her last to touch her son. Like other grieving mothers before her, she asked how she would go on living without him. She had known the greatest of all loves, for which she had given her whole self. Now she was suffering the harshest and most terrifying of all griefs. If we encounter the divine in relationship and in children, then indeed the love of parents for their children ought to be the most intense, most divine, and the most heart-wrenching when a child dies.
The mother’s caring boyfriend tried to console her, assuring her that his spirit would always be with her. She nodded and agreed that Patrick’s body was just a shell of him. Yet I knew from experience that though I referred to him as a body, he was still Patrick to this mom. Her boyfriend also reminded her that she had her son’s foot mold to take home with her. At our hospital, when it is clear that a child is dying, we offer to families some specific memory-making options, including bereavement photography, hand and foot prints, locks of hair, a pre-death recording of their child’s heartbeat usually put to music, and a hand or foot mold. It is very much a team effort.
We are fortunate to offer the service (or really the ministry) of a sensitive, empathic, and compassionate photographer who spends time at the bedside with the family, capturing in black and white the most tender moments of families touching, kissing, cuddling, lying with their dying or just deceased child. He later develops the best photos and presents them to the family in an album. My music therapy colleague has a special stethoscope with which she records the heartbeat of a dying patient and then, if families wish, overlays it with music significant to their child. Also, as my art therapy colleagues work with patients who have life-threatening illnesses, they are keenly aware that each project a child creates may be a legacy piece for that child’s family.
Having worked for more than 23 years at this same pediatric hospital, I have become known as an expert in making hand and foot molds. This delicate, creative task is not something my chaplain colleagues, nurses, or I went to school for, nor is it found on our job descriptions. But we each have felt a certain privilege in being able to contribute to something so valued by grieving families. Some families frame them and display them somewhere in their home. Others keep them on a shelf in the box we provide, inconspicuous on the outside, but very much known to the family. One mom said that almost every day as she walks by the mold, she gently touches the hand of her daughter.
These photos, recordings, artwork, locks of hair, prints, and molds are really not objects to help parents remember their deceased children. Though fearing it, no parent ever forgets a child who has died. Rather these objects can serve as lifelines after parents must tear themselves away from their child’s body, a life preserver that keeps them from drowning in the initial tsunami of grief, and relics that give parents a physical connection to what is essentially their own and their child’s passion.
Absolutely nothing and no one, not even another son or daughter, can ever take the place of a deceased child, but for many parents whose child has just died, having something they can see, feel, touch, smell, hear of their child, can in a small way be a comfort during parents’ agonizingly long period of separation, until they encounter their children again in the next life.
Jim Manzardo, BCC, is a chaplain at Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago.