When 32-year-old Matt Christopherson ended up at Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital in the summer of 2020, his son Bryce, 6, had a hard time grasping the situation.

How long would Matt be gone?

Could Bryce see him?

Why was he so sick—and could others catch his infection?

Matt had acute pancreatitis, and pandemic protocols prevented Bryce from visiting his dad in the hospital.

The two had to be content talking by phone or via FaceTime.

But when serious complications landed Matt in the ICU two weeks into his hospital stay, he lost the ability to connect and communicate.

Life suddenly grew more complex for Bryce and his mom, Lauren.

“He would ask me questions about his dad, and he would be like, ‘Mommy, why can’t I call Daddy? Why can’t I talk to Daddy?’” Lauren said.

“That was probably the hardest part, because I felt like not only could his dad not be there … but then I really wasn’t there either.”

Lauren spent most of that summer at her husband’s bedside, having taken family leave from her work as a gastroenterology nursing technician at Butterworth Hospital. Bryce stayed home in Grandville, Michigan, with a grandparent.

‘Tools to explain it’

Lauren received near-daily visits from Megan Trombka, MSW, a social worker with the hospital’s palliative care team, throughout Matt’s six-week illness and decline.

Initially, Trombka did all she could to help Lauren provide emotional support for Bryce.

When Matt’s health failed to improve, Trombka knew she needed backup.

And she knew where to find it.

She called Jen Wilson, a 22-year veteran of the Child and Family Life team at Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital.

“I’ve worked with kids in the past quite a bit, but I know when I need Jen, and this was clearly one of those situations,” Trombka said.

“We could see from our palliative lens that Matthew was not getting better.”

Just two months prior, at the outset of the pandemic, Wilson had launched a pilot program under the Child and Family Life umbrella. Its focus: to support children of adult patients at three Spectrum Health inpatient facilities in Grand Rapids.

For the first time, Child and Family Life would serve not only sick kids at the children’s hospital but also children who had seriously ill or injured parents or other family members.

“We recognized that there would be plenty of kids who were having to navigate really big changes in the health of a parent or loved one, or possibly end-of-life situations, and they would not be able to see the progression … with visitor restrictions the way they were,” Wilson said.

“We needed to figure out a way to help those kids have an understanding of what’s happening and also be able to have closure.”

Wilson stepped in at just the right moment for her family, Lauren said.

“It was hard enough for me to comprehend what’s going on, and then here I am trying to figure out how to help a 6-year-old comprehend,” she said.

“So having Jen come on, it took that pressure off me because she was giving me the tools to explain it to Bryce.”

Wilson began by asking Lauren to tell her about Bryce. She learned he’s bright and inquisitive, a concrete thinker, a fan of baseball and hockey.

She gave the family a pair of matching teddy bears—one for Matt, the other for Bryce.

Then she created a book-like document especially for Bryce called “Daddy’s Hospital Visit.”

Using age-appropriate words and pictures, the book explained Matt’s illness, described the medicines and machines in his room and suggested ways for Bryce to process his emotions.

“It’s OK to feel sad or even angry because this is happening,” the book said.

“Things to help: Ask for extra hugs. Color dad a picture. Talk to a grown-up. Draw a picture of what you feel. Hug your bear tight. Sleep with a shirt of dad’s.”

Lauren brought a printout of the book home to Bryce and read it with him whenever he had questions about Matt. It provided the right words.

“I didn’t want to scare him too much, but I didn’t want to lie to him either,” she said. “It was like trying to find that fine balance.”

A second book

A few weeks into his hospitalization, Matt’s condition worsened and his organs began to fail.

Wilson helped create keepsakes for Bryce—imprints of Matt’s fingerprints in clay “so that Bryce would feel kind of like he had a part of Daddy close to him,” she said.

She also wrote a second book for Bryce at Lauren’s request, this one explaining death and cremation.

Wilson based the text on a conversation she had with Lauren about the family’s belief system and Lauren’s thoughts about death.

“When a body is cremated, the important thing to remember is that the body does not feel pain,” Wilson wrote.

“The person’s body is placed in a special holder and then goes into a machine, and it turns the body into ash. The ashes are small and look a little bit like dust or the stuff inside a campfire ring after a fire is all done.”

The book concludes: “Sometimes when grownups talk about dad, they will cry because they miss him so much. You might feel sad and want to cry too, and that is okay.”

Matt’s death came one morning in late July, with his wife and parents sitting vigil by his bed.

Wilson’s book became an important part of the family’s grieving process, Lauren said.

“In the beginning, when he had first passed, I would read it (to Bryce) at least once a week,” she said. “It gave me the words without really having to sit down and think about what to say.”

On the day of his death, Lauren brought Matt’s teddy bear home to Bryce so he could keep his dad’s bear together with his.

“He still sleeps with both of his teddy bears every night,” she said.

“Sometimes he’ll grab his bear and be like, ‘See, Mommy? Daddy’s still here.’ And I’m like, ‘Yup, Daddy’s still here.”

Expanding the reach

When Child and Family Life began offering support for children of adult patients, the team thought it would be a short-term program, for the duration of the pandemic. Over time, however, the need has only grown.

By the program’s 18-month mark, Wilson had served the children of more than 400 adult patients.

She’s now working with the Spectrum Health communications team to polish her children’s books and make them available for download. They’ve identified dozens of books to prepare for publication, on topics such as trauma, cancer, COVID-19 and bereavement.

“When families meet with me, they’re like, ‘I don’t know how to tell a child this.’ So providing the books gives them a script,” Wilson said.

“A lot of times we try to protect our children by not giving them information, but kids are very in tune, and they know when … something’s going on. So being honest at their level in a safe way helps them know that they can process this together as a family.”

Wilson typically stays involved with kids for a month or two, but she remains available to families long after a crisis has passed.

So when Bryce asked Lauren, more than a year after Matt’s death, if he could talk to other kids whose dads had died, Lauren emailed Wilson to ask about resources.

“That’s what I think was so great about the whole program,” Lauren said. “It was supposed to support Bryce, but I think Jen supported me just as much. It benefited both of us in different ways.”