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The Loss of a Child

It’s easy to get lost in grief. I chose thankfulness instead.

“Mom, I don’t feel so good.”

Little did I know that those words, spoken by my 24-year-old son, would be life changing. It was Thanksgiving Day in 2010 and I had just started our routine Thanksgiving day. Getting the dinner prepared and on the table for me and my son. I’m not the greatest cook but I make a special effort on holidays not to burn the turkey dinner.

When I heard my son say he wasn’t feeling well, my mom instinct sounded the alarm. It wasn’t normal for Tyler to feel so poorly he couldn’t eat. I looked at his eyes and noticed they looked odd. I put my kitchen towel down and told him we were going to the hospital. We had to walk; though, thankfully, the hospital was only about 10 minutes away from our house. I had no money for a taxi or bus. My son walked very slowly next to me which concerned me even more. Tyler was six-foot-four and usually walked way ahead of me. But this time his gait was uneven and he seemed to be struggling to even keep up. I asked him for his cell phone in case I had to call for an ambulance.

Eventually we made it to the hospital and Tyler was put in the back room immediately. Now my instinctive alarm bells were ringing off the chart. The nurse closed the curtain around his bed. I sat in a chair next to him. “This can’t be happening to us,” I thought. A doctor came by to examine my son. Tests were ordered and done. Nothing conclusive, I was told, and we were about to be sent home. Then a neurologist took another look at the tests. She ordered a CAT scan of Tyler’s head. The neurologist wanted to keep him overnight. I went home alone, hoping that it was just a bad migraine. A small part of me knew it was something very serious, but I wasn’t ready to face that fact yet.

Tyler at about 15 months.
Tyler (age 7) and Vivian with Santa.

Fighting for life

The phone rang at 4 a.m. It was the hospital. Tyler was in medical distress, and I needed to come in. Immediately. I rushed to the hospital and was surprised that the security guards allowed me in at such a late hour and that they knew who I was. I hurried to the ward where my son was and the nurse at the front desk ushered me to the nursing lounge behind the desk. My stomach sank because this wasn’t the normal procedure for someone to wait for news about a loved one. I was being given the utmost respect and consideration by the hospital staff. But instead of easing my mind, it scared me. As I sat in the nursing lounge, I heard the words “code blue” come through the speakers. I could hear the nursing staff rushing around out in the hallway. All I could do was wait for news about my son in that room. Eventually a nurse came to speak to me. She told me Tyler had started to bleed out, but they got it under control. Then a doctor came in to talk to me. He told me my son had a brain tumour. I don’t recall the rest of the conversation. All I heard was that Tyler had to remain in the hospital.

My son recovered enough that he was able to talk to me when he woke up. When I told him about the code blue, he was rather excited. That was the good-natured attitude Tyler had about his grave illness. His character came out in such a positive manner during his brief time in the hospital. He had a strength of character that was part spiritual in nature.

During his five months in the hospital, my son built a special relationship with the hospital staff that looked after him. The nurses would come over to chat with him when he was able; they enjoyed his sense of humour. Then, during the last week of his life, doctors stopped by to say goodbye. Many doctors and specialists fought to save him. Friends and family traveled from Kenora, Ont., our hometown, to visit us in Winnipeg.

An extended family of faith

My faith walk involves both prayer with the hands and with smudging. So we had people from both “worlds” offer support by lifting us up in prayer and in ceremonies. Tyler’s bedside became a place of faith. People came by to pray at his bedside or to share personal words of faith. At first I kept the curtains closed so as not to offend the other patients in the ward, but soon I decided that sharing my faith openly wouldn’t harm anyone. It might even help. 

Tyler’s bedside became a place of faith.

I can recall vividly the day my son passed away. I remember the emotions, not of lingering sadness but of thankfulness. Tyler had been transferred to a private room – on the burn ward of all places. It was the only space the hospital had for him as a palliative care patient. Rev. Margaret Mullin was there with him, a pastor who knows my family well and had offered her constant support during his illness. She gave the last rites to Tyler when he requested it and answered his barrage of questions about heaven. My older sister Pauline, who was like a second mom to my son, was there as well. There was also his dad, Lenny, who spent hours at our son’s bedside. Lenny and I are separated but we put aside our issues to be with our son.

Tyler passed away on March 7, 2011, with his family by his side. It was a beautiful moment to witness. I’m still in sheer awe of that moment. I had one hand on his chest. I felt my son’s heart slow and then stop. My other hand was holding his hand, and I felt his fingers give my hand the tiniest squeeze. Tyler was supposed to be brain dead at this point, unable to move. I looked at his face and saw it glow from within; his eyes rolled back slightly. There was a look of wonder and awe in his eyes as he passed away.

Vivian and Tyler in the hospital. Photos courtesy of Vivian Ketchum.

Choosing gratitude

Losing a child, even an adult child, is a difficult moment to imagine being thankful. Yes, I do have moments of a mother’s grief when I recall those final days, but there are also things I am grateful for. Like being thankful that my son was home on Thanksgiving Day and not out with his friends when he got sick. Thankful there was that resident neurologist on duty at the hospital on the day we came in. Thankful that she had my son stay overnight at the hospital instead of sending him home. Thankful for all the doctors and specialists who fought so hard to save Tyler’s life, including specialists who came from the U.S. They even tried new methods to get rid of the brain tumour. Thankful for the nurses who spent time by my son’s bedside when I and other family members couldn’t be there. Thankful for our faith community and the prayers. Thankful for the financial support from friends and family so I could be with my son when he needed me most. Thankful for my son’s dad who shared my grief as a parent. Thankful to Rev. Margaret for the pastoral care and support. Most of all, thankful to the Creator for allowing me a glimpse of what my son witnessed in his last moments.

Author

  • Vivian Ketchum

    Vivian was born in Kenora, Ont., in the Treaty Three area. A member of Wauzhushk Onigum First Nation, she is a residential school survivor. She writes to empower herself and to raise awareness of social issues. She has been called an activist and a protestor, but she prefers 'mother' and 'grandmother.' A kwe (an indigenous woman) trying to overcome past injustices with words and actions.

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