‘Dad is still here’ | health rhythm

When Matt Christopherson, 32, ended up at Spectrum Health Butterworth hospital in the summer of 2020, his 6-year-old son Bryce had a hard time understanding the situation.

How long would Matt have been gone?

Could Bryce see it?

Why was he so sick? Could others get the infection from him?

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

The two had to be content with talking on the phone or FaceTime.

But when serious complications landed Matt in the ICU two weeks into his hospital stay, he lost the ability to connect and communicate.

Suddenly, life became more complex for Bryce and his mother, Lauren.

“She would ask me questions about her dad and say, ‘Mommy, 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 could his father not be there…but I wasn’t there either.”

Lauren spent most of that summer at her husband’s bedside, having taken family leave from her job as a gastroenterology nursing technician at Butterworth Hospital. Bryce stayed at home in Grandville, Michigan, with a grandfather.

‘Tools to explain it’

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

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

When Matt’s health didn’t improve, Trombka knew he needed support.

And he knew where to find it.

He 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 were able to 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 Child and Family Life. Her focus: supporting children of adult patients at three Spectrum Health inpatient facilities in Grand Rapids.

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

“We recognized that there would be a lot of kids who would have to go through really big changes in the health of a parent or loved one, or possibly end-of-life situations, and they wouldn’t be able to see the progression … with visitor restrictions as they were.” Wilson said.

“We needed to find a way to help those kids understand what’s going on and also be able to shut down.”

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

“It was hard enough for me to understand what’s going on, and here I am trying to figure out how to help a 6-year-old understand,” he said.

“So having Jen took that pressure off me because it was giving me the tools to explain it to Bryce.”

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

He gave the family a pair of matching teddy bears, one for Matt and one for Bryce.

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

Using age-appropriate words and images, 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 feel sad or even angry that this is happening,” the book says.

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

Lauren took a hard copy of the book to Bryce’s house and read it with him whenever she had questions about Matt. She 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 fine 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 — Matt’s fingerprints in clay “so Bryce would feel like he had a part of Dad close to him,” he 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 on a special stand and then it goes into a machine, and it turns the body into ashes. The ashes are small and look a bit like the dust or stuff inside a campfire ring after the fire is over.”

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 occurred one morning in late July, with his wife and parents sitting vigil at his bedside.

Wilson’s book became 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,” he said. “He gave me the words without really 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 teddy bear along with his own.

“She still sleeps with her two teddy bears every night,” she said.

“Sometimes he grabs his bear and says, ‘See, Mommy? Dad is still here. And I’m like, ‘Yeah, dad is still here.’

Expanding the reach

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

By the program’s 18-month mark, Wilson had cared for the children of more than 400 adult patients.

She is now working with the Spectrum Health 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 grief.

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

“A lot of times we try to protect our kids by not giving them information, but kids are very attuned and they know when…something is going on. So being honest on their level in a safe way helps them know that they can process this together as a family.”

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

So when Bryce asked Lauren, more than a year after Matt’s death, if she could talk to other kids whose parents had died, Lauren emailed Wilson to ask about resources.

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

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