Life after the loss of a loved one can be lonely and confusing for an adult. Imagine what it is like for a child. As a pediatrician, it is a challenge for me to understand my young patients’ perspectives in this situation and then to follow their evolving perspective as the lens of normal child development does its work. Having experienced the death of one of my parents as a child—as I recounted in my piece “My Father’s Doctor”—gives me some insight, but, still, it is so easy for an adult to forget life through a child’s eyes.
I am particularly struck by Nancy Stephan’s “Of Birds and Mice” because it offers a rare insight into a grieving child’s perspective. She reminds us that children do understand and feel more of the experience than we sometimes give them credit. “People give me little details…because they think I was too young to remember. But I do remember.”
She portrays the long-lasting imprint the death of a parent has on a child’s life. She tells the story of a brief exchange between two cousins, the first conversation acknowledging her cousin’s grief over the death of Stephan’s mother forty years ago. She was the child “saying something awful” and that something was that her own mother had just died next to her in bed. Her experience of her cousin’s response to her was having “someone else yell[s] at [her] to shut up”. As an adult, when her cousin finally shares his own grief regarding the writer’s mother that night, she has an epiphany that he yelled at her “because shutting up might make what they’re saying not true.” That such a moment of connection and clarification between the two cousins could give her a sense of gratitude forty years later speaks to the sense of isolation she once felt and the significance of the loss in her life.
It demonstrates how long people can share lives without acknowledging an important but terrifying moment between them. It demonstrates the persistence of a misunderstanding. It demonstrates how healing it can be for someone to share his or her grief with you.
Jennifer Chianese works as a general pediatrician with Bass Wolfson pediatrics, affiliated with Children’s Community Pediatrics of the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. The experience of discovering dyslexia in her children was the impetus for her to begin writing. At first it was a tool for dealing with the emotions of struggling to find help for a disability neglected by educators, psychologists and doctors. She is hopeful that writing will become a means for speaking and advocating for her patients and all dyslexic children faced with the stress of inadequate education and diagnostic systems currently in place. In the midst of writing about dyslexia, the story “My Father’s Doctor,” which seems to have been buried for years, presented itself and demanded to be written.
© 2016 Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine