I wondered if this post needs a trigger warning. Maybe it does. I don’t know now. What feelings stir up inside us when we hear of a child’s death?
My first experience with a child dying in front of me was soon after medical school graduation. I was an inexperienced 24-year-old working in a government hospital in Bangalore. I don’t remember many details, but I remember his face and his father’s face. He was all of two years old. Cyanotic. He was carried by his father, who looked as though he had traveled for many, many hours to come to the hospital.
I remember looking for oxygen fervently because that’s all I could think of when I saw those blue lips. I quickly brought him to the ICU, where my senior colleague was, and he tried to intubate him and then said, “He is dead.”
I stood there in disbelief, “No! do something!”
I remember feeling shocked; a paralyzing emotion crept from head to toe. I didn’t cry. I didn’t talk about it. I went about seeing other patients for that day with my head heavy from what had just happened. That numb feeling slowly made its way to my heart, where it stayed for a long time. I later learned that he had an undiagnosed congenital heart disease, and there was nothing we could have done that day to save his life.
The tears started to fall during my pediatric residency in NYC when I saw more young deaths. Silent, lonely tears, heaps of them, soaking the pillow my head lay on. At the end of the day. In darkness. Feeling helpless. Feeling disillusioned at times. I didn’t talk about it. The next day was another day to keep stoic, composure maintained, and carry on, one patient after another. But with every death, my heart was bruised, and I put a band-aid of tears over it as if in attempted healing until it remained but without the hurt. Dealing with death is never easy. But over the years, I, like most other physicians, have learned to cope through contemplation, reflection, gratitude, and giving grace.
As a pediatric attending, I didn’t excuse myself and leave the room when it was too much to bear. I would let my tears fall freely in front of parents, family, and colleagues. I grieved with them at the loss of their child. By then, I was a parent, too, and the loss of a child meant much more than words can ever describe.
In the medical profession, coming face to face with death and dying is inevitable. As doctors, we learn ways of coping, grieving, and healing ourselves to take care of the next patient in the best way possible. With medical causes of death and expected deaths, we realize our limitations, catalyze compassion, and look to learn and improve.
But what explains the senseless, horrific deaths of young children who are shot while they are in school? This post was not meant to be about me or how doctors grieve. I found myself grieving for children in Uvalde, and it took me on this memory lane of grief. I didn’t know those children; I don’t know their families, but I know the familiar emotion they are experiencing. My heart is grieving, yet I carry on with my day, cook, clean, tend to my plants, laugh with my husband, play with my children, tell them stories, snuggle with them as I put them to sleep, and say “I love you” and hear it back, with plenty of kisses. But these families simply cannot.
My heart is grieving because, like me, the rest of the world will go on, but I know that these families in Uvalde have been changed forever. It’s been weeks since the shooting, and I wonder if the doors are kept open, hoping that their child will return; perhaps, those parents are saying “I love you” only to see those words fall into empty spaces and evaporate. The untouched toys lying there just as how they were in the morning before they left for school, the empty little beds, the scribbles on the wall, those countless artworks, their clothes in the laundry, those pink shimmering sandals, and that bicycle in the corner, the missing lively chatter, the noise, the whining…that deafening silence that doesn’t go away – every little thing reminding these parents of their child, whom they won’t see, ever again.
If this doesn’t move you, then close your eyes and imagine the profound fear, horror, and panic that every child must have experienced in that classroom, in this supposedly safe environment- their school, before losing their life. Imagine the trauma and fear that will remain etched in the minds of all those young children who have survived.
A gun is a tool to kill. A man with a gun and enough ammunition can kill several people quickly. Why was an 18-year-old given an assault weapon, a semi-automatic rifle, capable of firing 100 rounds in 90 seconds and leaving bodies unrecognizable? Did it not ring an alarm in the mind of the person who let him buy it in a country where mass shootings are commonplace?
Uvalde resembles countless other such tragedies in the U.S., and such shootings will continue to happen if we don’t have stringent gun control. This has been said numerous times, yet nothing is done about it. Gun-related injuries are the number one cause of death in children in the U.S. Read that again. If only condolences and prayers could bring back these kids and prevent further such tragedies.
Rashmi Bhopi is a pediatrician.
Image credit: Shutterstock.com