On What I Learned From Dying Children

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I read an article recently by a woman who teaches poetry and prose to dying children. Throughout the article, the author regularly mentioned how a certain little boy’s death would one day prevent her from ever returning to work. That little boy became another little girl who became yet another child. They all faced something we don’t talk enough about: death. Eventually, the author mentioned how this work contains so much sadness and fragility, and yet it is also the work she could never dream of walking away from.

From August 2013 to May 2014, I had a yearlong psychology internship with Arts For Life, a NC-based non-profit organization focused on teaching art to children and families battling serious illnesses and disabilities. Specifically, I worked with two populations of children: children undergoing treatment for cancer and other blood disorders and children undergoing physical, occupational, or speech therapy. I began this internship for a variety of reasons. However, the main one was due to my previous hospital experiences. As a child, I had to undergo three intense surgeries, which later included intense physical therapy, and I spent all this time in the hospital. During this time, the one bright spot in all the days of physical pain, tears, and uncertainty was the weekly craft nights. For one hour every week, I got to focus on making an art project rather than dwelling on how much pain I was in, which exercises I needed to do, or an upcoming surgery. Having a chance to put all my energy into something completely outside of myself helped to decrease some of my anxiety. Some of those nights, I dare say I might have even been happy. Due to my enjoyable experiences with art projects in the hospital, I knew I wanted to provide these same opportunities for other kids in the hospital.

Having the opportunity to teach art to children in the hospital was an amazing experience for me, and I loved every minute of it. I loved seeing the regular kids every week who finally became used to me and would come up and just start talking. I loved watching the kids burst with creativity, coming up with an alternative project I hadn’t even considered. I loved seeing the smiles on their faces when they finished their project and ran to show their parents. I loved finding new ways to teach the children. However, more than anything, I loved being able to take in all the different lessons they ended up teaching me without even knowing it.

They taught me the true meaning of strength. They taught me what it means to not let an illness define you. They taught me how “art” and “perfect” are rarely in the same sentence, and that’s perfectly okay. More than anything, they taught me the importance of noticing the small things. One little girl I worked with was battling cancer, and yet she was one of the happiest little girls I encountered during my internship. She smiled, she laughed, and she played. Most importantly, she did one thing I believe we often forget. She noticed every moment: every smile, every time of laughter, every speck of blue sky. She absorbed every single piece of life, soaking it all in. Though I try more and more each day to live like her, I still have a long way to go.

Numerous friends asked me how I was able to be around kids who were dying. And you know what my response was? “How could I not?” These kids needed me. They needed the chance to be able to fully express themselves. They needed a positive person in their lives who could bring something good into their hospital experience. They needed someone who cared. A few years ago, I never imagined that person could be me, and yet, those children gave me the most memorable 9 months of my life.

Though I never did lose any of the children I taught, it was a thought I kept in my mind. The more I read the article written by the woman who teaches poetry and prose to dying children, the more I’ve begun to understand that we all deal with death in our own way. How I might have reacted to losing a child I taught may not be the same way one of the child’s nurses might have reacted. That being said, the important thing to remember is even if I had lost a child I taught, there were still tons of other children who needed me. Though one day might have felt quiet as I mourned the loss of a particular child I cared for, there were always more children coming to clinic the following day, and I needed to be the best I could be for them. Being sad around them wasn’t my job. If I got sad, they might have become sad as well. That’s why positivity is so important.

Teaching art to children with serious illnesses and disabilities was not easy, but it was the first experience I’d ever had that made me feel a deep sense of purpose. Seeing a smile on a little boy’s face meant I was part of his happiness. Having a little girl cling to my leg begging me not to leave warmed my heart more than she will ever know. I just hope one day the children I worked with know how much they changed my life.