I have been thinking a lot recently about how we foster connections as child life specialists. Most recently I have been working with a young girl in the hospital who I will call Anna. Anna was not from the United States and her family was not able to be present at the hospital. In their place was a full time caregiver for Anna, a woman who had been with her through all of her hospital experiences for the past year, 24/7, never leaving her side. Perhaps you have had experiences with situations in which families can't be present. I am reminded constantly of how different family systems are and ways in which we support these systems, no matter how difficult to navigate.
Sadly for Anna, the time came for her caregiver to leave and the family to reenter her life. On the bright side, she was medically ready to leave the hospital where she had been for so long. On the down side, she was losing the one woman she had grown to call "mommy." The loss was so great for her that one day she stated that she never wanted to leave the hospital because she didn't want to leave "mommy." And each time we played together she would want to end with a game of hide and seek in her room. The challenges felt abundant in this situation. This was a major change in this young girl's life and as a specialist there were things I felt I could have a direct impact on and things that were out of my control, as is common in many instances in our work.
In thinking about how to help Anna foster a connection to this caregiver after her departure I turned to a child life favorite, hand prints. Anna and her caregiver made hand prints side by side on a large canvas that Anna could then take to her new home with her. We also read the book the "Invisible String" and made a bracelet with each bead representing a person Anna loved and who loved her. The caregiver had the most beads on the bracelet, followed by the nursing staff, doctors and child life. In order to help process and identify all the feelings she was having about this change in her life we read the book "The Way I Feel" and then acted out the emotions which allowed for expressing what she was feeling from a safe distance. Addressing the fact that she had been disconnected from her parents and siblings for so long, we created a body drawing of Anna and then wrote an All About Me list on the drawing as a way to foster communication and familiarity between Anna and her family. When her parents and siblings came to visit, we played group games together as they became reacquainted with each other.
I would be kidding myself if I didn't see that these activities were helping to prepare me for Anna leaving the hospital as well. When the day came for her caregiver to tell her goodbye, and Anna's little arms wrapped tightly around the neck of her "mommy", my heart broke a little. Anna left the hospital shortly after the caregiver to begin what in her mind was an entirely new life, with people she didn't know that well going to a home to which she had never been. And this is often one of the harder parts of the job; the part of the story where the child life piece ends and we continue on in our work with other children and families, hoping that we in some way helped a child navigate something that most adults would have a hard time coping with.