Our Blog

Making memories with your child

By Helen Harvey, Community Healthcare Assistant

Hospice care is about living in the moment and creating precious memories. When I tell people what I do, they often tell me they don’t know how I do it, and how upsetting it must be. And while, yes, there are very sad moments, it’s also uplifting. You see the joy that the children experience, but you also have the honour of going on that journey with those families.

The families we care for are here because their time together is, very sadly, limited. We want to bring as much joy as possible to their time together but also make the end of life as calm, peaceful and beautiful as it can be.

Our Stars bereavement suite is at the heart of Chestnut Tree House, and it’s a place for families to come and spend time together, at end of life and afterwards. Parents often tell us that being at Chestnut Tree House is ‘like being in a bubble’. While they’re here, everyone knows them as their child’s parents, and everyone knows their child.

Going home without their beloved child is profoundly difficult. At Chestnut Tree House we provide a memory box when a child dies. The contents can vary, especially depending on the age, but they all aim to create tangible reminders that can be a great comfort in grief.

During the pandemic, we asked supporters to crochet hearts to give to bereaved families. One stays with the child, and the other goes to their family – a reminder of that bond, which will never fade.

Images of our Stars suite

Above: Images from our Stars Bereavement suite

A hand to hold

One of the activities we offer to families is making plaster casts of their child’s hands and feet. For parents grieving a beloved child, it can be a great comfort to have something tactile to hold, a physical reminder of the precious time they had with their baby. The detail is quite remarkable – you can see every line, every vein – so these pieces of art are as unique as the child they represent.

This is something we can do at any time and making a piece of art together as a family can be therapeutic and fun, as well as creating beautiful keepsakes. As well as creating beautiful casts of individual hands and feet, we are sometimes able to capture a cast of parent and child holding hands, a reminder of togetherness and a particular moment in time.

Making memory jars can be helpful too. We ask families to fill a jar with different layers of coloured sand. Each colour represents a specific memory or story and it’s great for siblings as you can talk around the subject while you’re doing it.

Another thing that’s quite important for many families is honouring occasions. So, if the family celebrates Christmas, they might wish to make a bauble decorated with the child’s handprint, so they’re a part of every future Christmas.

With some of the older ones, the focus is on digital memories. So, it’s about collating video clips, YouTube clips, or their TikTok or Instagram. Very recently we were involved with a young lady of 18 who had made a digital memory box, which was amazing. She had set up a YouTube channel to document her journey, her treatments, and fulfilling her bucket list.

Image of a foot cast for a child and a booka nd memory jar

Above: Images of a foot cast and memory sand jar

Part of the journey

We had a baby who came to Chestnut Tree House for end-of-life care and her 24 hours here were so magical. She had a swim with her parents, then we organised for a photographer to come in and take pictures of the family. We did her hand and foot casting with her grandparents in the room and mum and dad cuddling her, then she went to bed and died with them by her side. The whole process brought them peace and comfort because it wasn’t distressing or medicalised.  The death of a child is tragic and heartbreaking but at the same time, it can be beautiful and even positive in a sense because the end of life is part of the journey the family goes on together.

After a child dies in our care, we continue to support the family and remember their much-loved child. Either on their birthday or the anniversary of the day they died, their key worker will give the family a call. Some parents come to remembrance days and speak very fondly about the memories they made at Chestnut Tree House.

Remembrance event montage

Above: Images from our a remembrance event at the hospice

Memories that live forever

Sometimes, we don’t see the impact of memory-making until much later. I was talking to a woman who came to a bereavement coffee morning and whose daughter was here eight years ago. She said that she doesn’t open her memory box because it’s still too painful, but she knows it’s there when she’s ready. For some people it becomes like a shrine, others like to look at their memory box daily.

Since I’ve been at Chestnut Tree House, I’ve made sure I always take lots of photos. That is because early in my time here, I took a young lad out for the day. We had a wonderful time at a farm, where he went on a horse for the first time. A week later he became critically unwell, and a few days after that he died.  No one was prepared for it because that is not how his condition was expected to progress. When I looked on my phone, I had all these pictures and videos of him laughing and having fun. They became so precious to his family because they were a record of his last days of life.

Children’s hospice care is all about having fun and making memories – adding joy to shortened lives. I’ve learned to always take the picture, make the video – because those memories will live forever.

Making memory boxes

Before the death of their baby boy, Kate and Sam had never used our services. When Rupert died unexpectedly, he was brought to our special bereavement suite where his family could say goodbye in calm and beautiful surroundings.

About Baby Loss Awareness Week

Baby Loss Awareness Week, which takes place every year from 9 to 15 October, is an opportunity for people all around the world to acknowledge the pain of this bereavement and remember all the babies who died too soon. On 15 October, people around the world join the Wave of Light by lighting a candle at 7pm and displaying it in their window for an hour.

We offer counselling and bereavement support after the death of a child to all families who use Chestnut Tree House. There are other organisations who can help too:

If you’d like to light a virtual candle in honour of a child you’ve lost, then you can make a tribute here.