Supporting grieving families during lockdown

Fiona Rankine
Monday, November 30, 2020

People are often intrigued about what it is like to work at Rainbow Trust Children’s Charity and support families with a very sick child, even more so when that support is anticipating or facing the death of the child.

Obviously, it is not something that is done without training, knowledge, experience and having robust support for yourself. Over time I have developed a depth of understanding, my own approach, and a way of managing the impact it can have on me so I can continue to meet new families and offer them the space to grieve in a way that is unique to them.

Like so many professionals working with children and their families - at the heart of what I do are the relationships that I build with the families: being there for highs and lows and getting to understand what is helpful for them. I try to build a relationship by doing small things over time and by being a quiet presence in their lives so that it will feel natural for them to lean on me at the most difficult of times.

Speaking recently to a parent who I have supported through her sons’ cancer treatment, and then sadly through her grief when he died, she told me, “it was easy to have you there after he died because you knew him and us, we shared memories together. I remember you just turning up to see us at the hospital during treatment… it meant a lot.”

But no level of experience could have prepared me for the impact of Covid-19 on my role. Suddenly ‘just turning up’ was no longer an option. For the first time ever, being physically present was the exception rather than the norm and it’s been hard… really hard!

It was challenging at first to pick up the phone or arrange a video call with grieving parents when usually I would be able to sit with them, gauging their sadness and responding empathically. Of course, they understood that it was not how it should be, the world is not as should be, and for them living with loss and bereavement, nothing is as it should be.

This year I have been supporting a single mum whose daughter died from cancer during the first lockdown. Unable to visit them in the hospital where she died, we have spoken on the phone and exchanged many, many texts. I helped with funeral arrangements and made all the phone calls that were needed, helping to choose flowers remotely and arranging visits to the chapel of rest. I have since been able to offer physically distanced meetings outside the home where we share memories of her daughter and talk about her grief.

So, this year things have been very different. The support I have given has been distanced, virtual and interrupted all through circumstances beyond our control. Does this mean that the support has been less valuable though? I have continued to offer families with children at the end of life, in-person support wherever possible. We have exchanged reassuring touchpoints and practical tasks with phone calls and Zoom meetings, stopping to remember a child privately when we have been unable to attend funerals in person.

At the heart of what I do is still the relationship I build with families, even if I’m not physically in a room with them, and this is what they can lean on when they face bereavement.

This year I have learnt something I never thought possible - that ‘being present’ does not mean being there in person. Being present virtually for a grieving family can be just as worthwhile. Presence is the knowledge that wherever the family are, they are being thought of and held by people who understand and care about them and will continue to do so for however long they need you.

Fiona Rankine is an advanced practitioner at Rainbow Trust Children’s Charity

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