‘Daddy’s still here’ | Health Beat

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

How long would Matt be gone?

Could Bryce be able to see him?

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

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

The two had to be satisfied by talking on the phone or via FaceTime.

But when Matt ended up in the ICU two weeks after his hospitalization due to serious complications, he lost the ability to connect and communicate.

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

“He’d ask me about his dad, and he’d be like, ‘Mommy, why can’t I call Daddy? Why can’t I talk to Daddy?’” Lauren said.

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

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

‘Tools to explain’

Lauren was visited almost daily by Megan Trombka, MSW, a social worker on the hospital’s palliative care team, during Matt’s six-week illness and decline.

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

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

And she knew where to find it.

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

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

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

Just two months earlier, at the start of the pandemic, Wilson had launched a pilot program under the umbrella of Kind en Gezin. The focus: supporting children of adult patients in three Spectrum Health inpatient facilities in Grand Rapids.

For the first time, Kind en Gezinsleven would not only help sick children in the children’s hospital, but also children with seriously ill or injured parents or other relatives.

“We recognized that there would be plenty of kids navigating through really big changes in a parent’s or loved one’s health, or potentially end-of-life situations, and they wouldn’t be able to see the progress… with visitor restrictions like they were,” Wilson said.

“We had to find a way to help those kids understand what’s happening and also to shut it down.”

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

“It was hard enough for me to understand what was going on, and now I’m trying to figure out how to help a 6-year-old understand this,” she said.

“So coming up with Jen took that pressure off me because she gave me the tools to explain it to Bryce.”

Wilson started by asking Lauren to tell her about Bryce. She learned that he is smart and eager to learn, a concrete thinker, a fan of baseball and hockey.

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

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

Using age-appropriate words and pictures, the book explained Matt’s illness, described the medicines and machines in his room, and suggested ways for Bryce to process his emotions.

“It’s okay to be sad or even angry because this is happening,” the book says.

“Things to help: Ask for extra hugs. Color father a picture. Talk to an adult. Draw a picture of what you feel. Hug your bear tightly. Sleep with a shirt from daddy.”

Lauren took a printout of the book to Bryce and read it to him when he had questions about Matt. It yielded 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 fine balance.”

A second book

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

Wilson helped make mementos for Bryce—imprints of Matt’s fingerprints in clay “so that Bryce would feel like he had a part of Daddy close to him,” she said.

At Lauren’s request, she also wrote a second book for Bryce, which explains death and cremation.

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

“When a body is cremated, the most important thing to remember is that the body does not feel pain,” Wilson wrote.

“The person’s body is placed in a special container and then it goes into a machine, and it turns the body into ashes. The ash is small and looks a bit like dust or the stuff in a campfire ring after a fire is all set.

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

Matt’s death came one morning in late July, with his wife and parents watching by his bedside.

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

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

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

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

“Sometimes he grabs his bear and says, ‘See, Mama? Daddy’s still here.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, Daddy’s still here.’

Extend the reach

When Child and Family Life began providing support to children of adult patients, the team thought it would be a short-term program for the duration of the pandemic. However, over time, the need has only grown.

By the 18 months of the program, Wilson had helped the children of more than 400 adult patients.

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

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

“Often we try to protect our children by not giving them information, but children are very responsive and know when … something is wrong. So if they are safe and honest at their level, they know they can deal with this together as a family.”

Wilson usually stays involved with 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 children whose fathers had died, Lauren emailed Wilson to ask for resources.

“That’s what I love about the whole program,” Lauren said. “It was supposed to support Bryce, but I think Jen supported me just as much. It has benefited us both in different ways.”

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