Mother nature built us to protect our offspring and, where necessary, the offspring of other members of our “tribe”. Elephants and non-human primates have been reported to foster or adopt motherless infants and raise them as their own. Few adults can bear to see the suffering of a child.
Life can throw some of us a lot of pain. But perhaps the worst kind of pain we endure is the kind we experience when our own small children are suffering. We are supposed to be able to protect them, right? And when we can’t it’s awful.
I suppose many different kinds of doctors see parents suffering when their children are ill or traumatized, but my partner Dr Moshtael and I see it nearly daily. And because we specialize in the care of the very young child with eating disorders, we frequently see parents struggle to watch the suffering of their own young child. It’s one thing to see a little kid struggle because of an infection or a cancer, it’s another to watch them battle the ravages of a brain disorder. It all just seems so unnecessary. Fathers, in particular, struggle with conditions where their young child’s brain disorder is impervious to rational intervention. Why can’t they just eat? Why can’t they recognize how wonderful their life is? How much they are loved? How beautiful they are?
Even though we at Kartini Clinic are good at treating young children who are wasting away, whose growth has stopped, who have to miss school for treatment, whose parents must often leave other children at home while they seek agonizingly long care in Portland, children who may engage in self-harming behaviors in addition to food refusal, who may need a nasogastric tube for a while, who may say they want to die… And although we may eventually get to experience the joy of seeing such a child return to smiles and laughter and, yes, eating; for the parents treatment is a long walk through hell. Keep going, we tell them (and tell ourselves), keep going and never give up. But sometimes the haunted eyes of a parent stay with you.
So if you are the parent of one of our patients and you see another parent struggling and sorrowful, please reach out and offer them a hand. Together we will certainly do everything possible to heal the children, but parents themselves may need the kind of healing doctors cannot always give. Reach out a hand in friendship and compassion. And let’s all keep going.