When Children Die

Like many other people from Ottawa, I have been very much affected over many years by the courage of Jonathan Pitre, who passed away on Wednesday evening. He was 17 years old and suffered from epidermolysis bullosa. There have been tributes for Jonathan from so many, including hockey players and civic leaders and journalists, as well as Moms and Dads and all the rest of us. One of the most moving tributes came from the journalist, Andrew Duffy, who has followed Jonathan’s story over many years.

Hard upon this story came the news of an accident in Saskatchewan that resulted in the death of 15 members of the Humboldt Broncos of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League. Most who died were under 20.

When I read through the tributes to Jonathan Pitre and his mother, or those for the Humboldt Broncos and their families, I feel so grateful that I have never had to cope with such a difficult event in my life. I wanted to write about this, but I wanted not to focus on advice on how to manage such tragedies.

I’ll give some references, in case some readers were hoping for advice. This is a great article from The Guardian considering one woman’s experience with the death of her child. I found that this article really helped me to contemplate how to be a comfort to someone facing this tragedy. I also found this article addressing what not to say to a parent whose child has died very helpful. The only guidance I would add to this list is: Be extra cautious about social media – it can catch people unawares, causing additional, unnecessary hurt.

I learned all I ever need to know about what it would be like for a child to die from the two women in my life from whom I have loved the most: my mother and my daughter.

My mother had two children who died very young. My oldest brother died of influenza in 1955 at age 2. This was 18 years before the World Health Organization first introduced flu vaccine recommendations for general use. A second brother died in 1956 of RhD hemolytic disease of the newborn. This is a condition that occurs when a mother who has an Rh negative blood type develops antibodies after being exposed to her child’s Rh positive blood during pregnancy. These antibodies may affect Rh positive children in subsequent pregnancies. The antibodies can cause severe illness, including death. In 1968, anti-RhD immune globulin (Rhogam) was introduced. By injecting inject mothers who were Rh negative with Rhogam, RhD hemolytic disease could be prevented. My brothers died too young to benefit from these medical discoveries.

As a child, and even as an adult, I could never completely understand my mother’s ongoing sadness over my brothers. However, in the hour after my daughter’s birth, having held her for not more than twenty minutes, I understood what every new parent also quickly understands: I could not bear it if I lost this child. I ceased to wonder about my mother’s sadness. I no longer wonder at any parent’s sadness. I know I would be inconsolable if I lost any of my children and that is what Jonathan’s mother and the families of Humboldt are going through today. Are we not all with them in spirit?

I also have one piece of advice that I can give. It is contained in this blog I wrote for The Scientific Parent. Sadly, it is one of the most popular blogs I have ever written. It provides advice on how to help children cope with difficult news. The Scientific Parent used the blog so much that they developed a graphic to go with it. I would like nothing more than for its circulation to end, but more realistically, I am glad if it is helpful.

Family Estrangement

A few weeks ago, the editors of The Scientific Parent asked me to provide advice on how to talk to children about the situation when family members are estranged from each other. Everyone has experienced this and it is often difficult for adults to understand. Imagine how difficult it is, then, for a child to understand why they can no longer se someone they love.

This post was written with these situations in mind. I am going to direct you to the Scientific Parent’s website to read it. While you’re there, why not look over some of their other articles.

Here’s mine:

How to Explain Family Estrangement to Your Child


My Expertise in Bad News

Most writers love to have a piece that people read over and over and, in general, I am the same way. Having said this, my second most popular blog, which is published on The Scientific Parent website http://thescientificparent.org/, has been reposted and read more often that I ever wanted or would like.

The particular blog is a piece that I wrote for The Scientific Parent at the time of the Lafayette Theatre shooting in July 2015. Almost a year has past and this post has been republished and read so often that it is becoming disconcerting. To me, it emphasizes how often the news is so terrible that we have to worry about its impact on children. We also have to wonder how much to tell children and how much we should try to protect them from seeing or hearing.

I will let you read the piece and use what is useful to you within it, but I want to reflect on some of the times in just this past year when you might have been able to use this little guide on talking to children about terrible events.

Here’s a short list off the top of my head, in no particular order of some of the issues that distressed the youth in my practice, before today’s shootings in Orlando:

  1. Mass Shootings: There are an average of 1 per day in the United States, all of them get coverage and so young people can always find one where the circumstances relate to their situation.
  2. The Paris Attacks in November 2015.
  3. The Refugee Crisis, in Europe especially but also around the world.
  4. The abduction of girls and women by Boko Haram.
  5. The Brussels Attack.
  6. The Attawapiskat Suicide Crisis.
  7. The Fort McMurray Fires and Evacuation.
  8. The attacks in Tel Aviv.

I see only adolescents in my practice. Even though they have mental health problems, like all adolescents they want to change the world. In fact, when they begin to feel better, many of my patients have a new found optimism that they will be able to make a difference. When I wrote this piece for The Scientific Parent, I thought about the advice I have given that people told me was most effective. I am pleased that this advice is useful since I want children and youth to be able to see past these tragic events to a better time.

With that in mind, I left out one piece of advice in that article: the advice to share with them the positive aftermaths of people and communities coming together to heal and care for those affected. Fortunately, these are as certain as the tragedies themselves so watch for them and celebrate them with children. Research tells us that to be hopeful and optimistic begets resilience. In this difficult world, we need to help build resilience.




Once again, I was honoured to have been asked by The Scientific Parent to submit a blog on adoption.

What was most gratifying was that my niece, who was adopted by my sister and her husband at birth, believed that the views I expressed did in fact reflect her own experience. That’s an expert review.

Here is the link to my blog on the website of The Scientific Parent:

How Do I Tell My Child That They’re Adopted?

From Scientific Parent

Once again, I was invited to write for Scientific Parent, a great website that has well-researched information on many topics for parents.

This time I considered some of the best ways to help an older child manage and enjoy the birth of a sibling. People who know me know that I most enjoy working with families, helping them to be strong and resilient. I speak a bit about this in this post, but may want to develop that idea a bit more in the months to come.

Here’s my blog.


While you’re on the website, why not consider subscribing to http://thescientificparent.org/

Back to School – My Own Survival Suggestions

For the first time in many years, I do not have anyone at my house starting school however I can still remember all the things I used to resolve to do that made the beginning of the school year easier to face:

  1. Make 1 extra lunch every day – for you! How many parents work to prepare the tastiest, most appealing, healthy lunches? Does this work? After a summer of rushing out the door with nothing more than an apple or cheese, pull together 1 or 2 extra lunches so that you and your partner have something good to eat at midday. It will be a healthier option than anything you can pick up in the cafeteria at work or a fast food place and you will save a lot of cash.
  2. Drive people! Everywhere! This is the best way to catch up with your child about what is happening. Pick someone up right after school and the story of the entire day will be out of their mouths before they even think about what they’re saying. Something that often shuts down any conversation with a parent is the look of horror as they tell you who is selling drugs or drinking at school. That horrified look is not apparent as you drive because you are busy staring ahead at the road. Perfect!
  3. Text! Don’t phone! If you’re expecting to hear from someone when they need a lift or with details of after school activities, you’ll get much better responses from a text that can be treated discreetly than from the dreaded “Phone call from your Mom”. It’s possible that every parent knows this already but that’s not the impression I get in my office from the grimaces that appear when a cell phone rings.
  4. Get your own homework project. Most of us realize that it’s very effective to spend homework time with your young children to be both an encouragement and a resource, but how do you stick to that plan when you have so much to do? My solution is to get your own project, handwork, your journal, a novel you’ve been meaning to read and work on that project during homework time. You’ll accomplish something you never thought possible to complete, like knitting a pair of mittens or rereading Crime and Punishment. You can see that built into this suggestion is the possibility that you can provide additional support by reading, or rereading, what your child is reading. You can also become a bit of a pain with this so you’ll have to tread carefully with the latter half of this suggestion.
  5. Consider a family night or an open house with one night per month. At one point, for several years, there was one night at our house for which anyone’s friends could be invited for dinner. This included my friends as well. The meal was nothing fancy and could be easily extended for additional unexpected guests, or one extra teenage person. In general the best kind of food for a group that includes teenagers is lots of food.

Having been both bookish and the Teacher’s Pet when young, I look forward to the beginning of school. This morning, I will be eager to hear how my patients and their families are managing. I will remember coming home with a new speller – a book no one even knows about anymore – and covering my textbooks, another relic of a bygone time. Today, with summer hanging heavily in the air, I will begin a new year for, in fact, I have never given up the habit of understanding September to be the beginning of the year.

Another Parenting Post

I have such happy memories of my children’s years as toddlers, but it wasn’t always easy. The Scientific Parent asked me to contribute to their blog and I had an opportunity to think about what had most helped during those years. I also remembered the most successful advice about parenting a toddler that I provided in my own Child Psychiatry Practice.

The exciting thing about every toddler is that their personalities and interests emerge. Helping them to learn self-control ensures that each will make their mark in a world that so desperately needs them.

Here is the post: http://thescientificparent.org/how-to-help-your-child-learn-self-control/