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Bereavement and Dealing with the Death of a Child


This topic is never something easy to talk about openly, and it seems to become even more taboo when speaking about children dying. As a certified Child Life Specialist at WakeMed Children’s I am thrown into that topic, and in fact, it’s part of my job to go through it with patients and families.

Who Are Child Life Specialists?

Certified Child Life Specialists (CCLS) have degrees in Child Life, Child Development, Psychology, or related fields. We go through a rigorous internship process and pass a national certification exam to reach our credentials. We act as the developmental coping experts in the hospital, making the hospital an ‘easier’ place to be for our patients and families.

This is done by helping pediatric patients (and their families) prepare for surgical procedures, admissions and other hospital processes. We also engage our pediatric patients in bedside play to increase normalization, as well as offer procedural support, education, and distraction to get pediatric patients and families through their hospital stay.

You may see Child Life Specialists working in a variety of areas, such as: pediatric day surgery, endoscopy, inpatient pediatrics, pediatric ICU, and the Children’s Emergency Department. Because of the wide areas that we cover, we are exposed to a variety of situations that our patients and families go through, including death.

Dealing with a Pediatric Death

Dealing with a pediatric death at WakeMed is not an easy time for anyone. However, there are some things we as Child Life Specialists can do to provide support for those families that are going through it.

#1 – Offering Emotional Support

First, we are there throughout the process to explain everything going on to the family and provide emotional support. Whether this is in the emergency department or at bedside in a patient room.

#2 – Making Memories

We want to make sure our families can take home special memories of their child if the circumstance allows, so we create hand-molds/prints, and cut locks of hair if the situation allows for these items.

#3 – Providing After Care

Finally, when it is time to say goodbye, we send home grief and bereavement resources for families. We provide general resources, as well as specific resources to send home with families who have other children.

Since we work with children and are specialists in development, we work closely with siblings and other child family members involved. If there are other children present during the death, we assist the family in delivering news to these children. Other times, we advocate for siblings to be involved if it’s appropriate. If family members are not at the hospital during the death, we can send home resources as well as provide language for caregivers to use when talking to other children about the death of their loved one.


A True Team Effort

Child Life cannot provide the support mentioned completely alone. At WakeMed, we collaborate with our amazing  staff, including: the medical team, registered nurses (RNs), Social Work and Spiritual Care teams to provide the best patient and family-centered care we can during these tough times.

If you’re dealing with grief, or have someone in your life who you think would benefit from grief and bereavement resources, you can view this list of helpful resources as well as this document containing appropriate developmental responses to grief by age group.

About Jessica Van Voorhis, CCLS

Born and raised in Southern California, Jessica received her bachelors degree in Child and Adolescent Development from California State University, Fullerton. Jessica has been a Child Life Specialist for three years.

One of the most rewarding parts of her job is being able to make the hospital environment a less intimidating place for patients and families by providing education and knowledge, and giving them the skills to cope through future visits. At WakeMed, Jessica provides services to all areas that treat pediatric patients, and she truly enjoys working for an organization that continuously puts patient and family-centered care first.