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.

On New Beginnings

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The late Maya Angelou once said, Stepping onto a brand-new path is difficult, but no more difficult than remaining in a situation, which is not nurturing to the whole woman. Though I do not believe I am starting a new beginning in order to escape a previous negative situation, I do agree forging a new path is challenging. Of course it is. However, it can also be incredibly rewarding. Wasn’t it Christopher Columbus who said:

You can never cross the ocean until you have the courage to lose sight of the shore.

In less than two weeks, I will be starting my journey as a graduate student pursuing a master’s degree in social work. I am very excited, and the bookish side of me is squealing over the social work textbooks I bought a week ago. Truthfully, I’m having to fight the urge to start devouring each chapter. However, I’ve been through enough school to know I’ll have plenty of time to read my textbooks over the next 13 weeks. As a matter of fact, I better soak up these last two weeks of blissful “summer vacation” before graduate school takes over my life.

When I graduated from college a few months ago with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, many of my friends gave me a dazed, yet terrified look when I asked them if they had plans following graduation. In response, they either shrugged their shoulders, mentioned travel or said something along the lines of, Get a job, I guess. That being said, I know as much as anyone how scary it is to imagine graduating from college and not knowing what to do next. Halfway through my junior year of college, I realized I’d have to go to graduate school if I planned to do anything within the field of psychology (or even a similar field). Therefore, the choice of going to graduate school was essentially a no-brainer for me. Although, I do know it’s not that easy of a decision for most people.

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Additionally, I can also understand the desire to travel following graduation. After all, these are the prime traveling years, right? We might as well get out and see the world while we have the time…and before we take on all those adult responsibilities like paying bills and working full-time. Though I’ve always loved to travel, it wasn’t until I left the comfort of the United States that I started to develop a deeper appreciation for other cultures and areas of the world. The first time I traveled out of the country (January 2010), I was a senior in high school, and I went to Peru with a group of my schoolmates for 12 days. Over the course of those 12 days, I learned more about poverty than I ever could grasp from reading a textbook. I also visited Machu Picchu, one of the seven wonders of the world,ate alpaca for the first time (and loved it!), and saw an incredible sunset over the Pacific Ocean.

Though the Peru trip was phenomenal, I wasn’t home very long before the itch to travel started up again. In June of 2012, I studied abroad in Ireland for five weeks. Ever since seeing the movie P.S. I Love You, it had been my dream to visit Ireland. Therefore, when I realized I had the chance to not only visit Ireland but to study there for four weeks, I took up the opportunity as fast as I could. Even now, two years later, I can honestly say it was the best decision I’ve ever made and the trip of a lifetime.

Since I chose to go study abroad in Ireland without knowing anyone else who was going, I made a big leap before even setting foot in Ireland. However, I wouldn’t have done a single thing differently. Not knowing anyone before leaving was a big test for my introverted personality, but I needed that push. I needed that push to do something that scared me. Because you know what I learned? I learned that traveling “alone” is the greatest way to soak up everything, but it’s also a chance to have an experience that’s solely for you. It’s not the experience your parents would want or even the one some of your friends might have had when they studied abroad. It’s yours, and it’s happily filled with as many used bookstores and ice cream parlors you can find.

We travel, some of us forever, to seek other states, other lives, other souls.-Anais Nin

Cliffs of Moher, Ireland

So yes, by all means, travel. Travel your little heart out. I’ve done that, and I hope to travel a lot more in the future. However, for now, graduate school has my heart…and probably my soul…for the next two years. I’m fine with it, though. I’ll be getting an education in the field I want to enter, and I’ll be gaining first-hand experience as well. It’s not quite as enjoyable as traveling, I’ll admit, but I’m determined to make it a really great two years.

~Til tomorrow, friends.