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Reflections on the Death of a Child

Elisa Klein, late daughter of Ben and Charlotte KleinHow does a parent survive the death of a child? We learn from those who have walked through that valley of darkness. Charlotte Klein, a Congregation Or Ami congregant, shares her story:

My name is Charlotte Klein

I am an 81-year-old wife to my husband Ben, mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. In life you are destined to experience both joys and sorrows, and it is how you choose to deal with each that will make a difference in your future. 

Deborah Joy, our Second Child

I was blessed to have a healthy, beautiful two-year-old daughter when I became pregnant with my second child. My pregnancy was normal and I was excited when my doctor decided to induce me and deliver a beautiful little girl, 7 pounds, 4 ounces, who we named Deborah Joy. I was a little concerned when I was having difficulty getting her to nurse.

Ben and Charlotte KleinMy pediatrician had been on vacation when she was born, and I was shocked to get a phone call at the hospital from the doctor “on call” asking me who I wanted for a surgeon. I answered, “Wait a minute,” thinking I needed to consult with our parents since we didn’t really know any surgeons. The pediatrician answered, “Mrs. Klein, you don’t have a minute”. I was stunned! I was in a Catholic maternity hospital. A new hospital across the street was where the surgery would take place.

I Remember her Little Face

The nuns, who were also registered nurses, brought the baby to my room wrapped in a blanket so that I could kiss her goodbye, before they took her across the street for the surgery. I remember her little face: eyes, nose and mouth close together, a high forehead, and a clef chin like her father’s. Little did I know this would be the last time I would hold her and kiss her.

The diagnosis was Cystic Fibrosis. The surgery to repair a blockage in her intestine (common in babies born with CF) went well and we had hopes of bringing her home soon afterwards. But because of that disease, infection set in, pneumonia followed, and she lived for only for 3 weeks.

To say we were devastated would be an understatement. My husband had been the optimist, never expecting that we were about to lose our child. This was 55 years ago and the pain still lives within me.

It took me quite a while to get pregnant again, because I was in such a fragile mental state.

Elisa Ruth is Diagnosed with Cystic Fibrosis

In January of 1962 we were blessed with another beautiful baby girl. Everything was going along fine with the baby; we named Elisa Ruth Klein. A few colds and stuffy noses later, when she was five months old, my pediatrician suggested we should run the test for Cystic Fibrosis just to be sure nothing was wrong. He knew that after bearing a child with CF, my husband and I both carried the recessive gene for CF and there was a one in four chance of any future children could have the disease.

Soon after we received the devastating news that Elisa did indeed test positive for Cystic Fibrosis, but since she would start the medication at such a young age, her prognosis was good. Children with CF are prone to upper respiratory infections. My husband was advised to build a tent over her crib and she always slept with a vaporizer going into the tent. Even when she went into a regular bed, a tent was added at the head of the bed around the pillow. Elisa started pre-school and then entered grammar school on time, took dance classes, and had many friends. We wanted her to have as normal a life as possible.

Elisa went to Boston Children’s Hospital for regular visits with a specialist, who was a pioneer in the field of Cystic Fibrosis. She was relatively healthy until she was about twelve years old when she was hospitalized in Boston for the first time. Luckily she was on a floor in the hospital with other CF patients who formed a little hospital community. The staff at Children’s was unbelievable.

The Hospitalizations Increase

Unfortunately, the hospitalizations became more frequent for her and others with CF, so that several of the same young patients would be together often. After a few of her hospital friends died, Elisa became aware of her own destiny. She had to be home schooled then, because of the danger of getting sick from germs from other students at school. Even a common cold could be dangerous for her.

I remember that one night when she was coughing very badly. Elisa came into my bedroom where we were watching TV, threw herself across my chest, crying and asking, “Am I really that sick, or am I copping out?” I had to reassure her that yes, she was really sick and that she was not copping out.

In early September of that year, Elisa was admitted to the hospital in Boston, which would be for the last time. She died on September 10th from pneumonia and her suffering was over.

Numb with Grief

Our first reaction was relief that she was no longer suffering to breathe. And then the realization that she was gone from us forever set in. Luckily, we had an amazing support system from relatives and friends. Rabbi Stanley Davids and his wife Resa were family friends who had been to see Elisa at the hospital on the evening that she died. They were at our home around 5:30 am, shortly after we returned from Boston. Their presence was a comfort to us at that time, when we were still numb with grief.

Elisa’s grandfather Joseph Klein, my father-in-law, who had been the senior Rabbi at our Temple but was now a rabbi living in New Mexico, flew home with Elisa’s devastated grandmother, but was too grief stricken by the loss of his granddaughter to do the entire funeral service himself. He invited Rabbi Davids to give the eulogy, which was beautiful.

Returning to Living

About ten days after Elisa’s death, one of the most difficult experiences I had was to return to our dance studio on a rainy Monday afternoon to teach what had been Elisa’s dance class. I dreaded walking into that classroom until I realized that the students were just as uneasy to be facing me, as I was to see them, without Elisa in their class. I remembered something that I learned from a quote in a book that I had read about Death and Dying by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, in which she stated something to the effect that although we have lost someone we loved, we should not lose the ability to love. I realized then then that I still had much love to give. I had to share some of the love that I had for Elisa with my students, especially those who had been her friends.

How do loving parents resume their lives after the devastating loss of their child? In our situation it was the loss of two children, one unfortunately who didn’t live long enough for us to get to know, and Elisa who lived for 15 ½ years. Not easily, of course, but it is possible. I was fortunate be married to Ben, a very caring husband and father, to have another healthy, talented and beautiful daughter at home, an extended family, and some very close friends. Also, I was the owner of a thriving dance studio at that time in my life, with many adorable children that I had the pleasure to teach and many loving families that I got to know. Some became our friends who are still in touch with us.

Advice for a Parent who Loses a Child

Although, it seems like a lifetime ago for me, the best advice I would have to share with a parent who has lost a child, would be to take time to grieve and then to keep busy. It doesn’t do anyone any good to wallow in self-pity.  Especially important is to be involved in the lives of others.

Writing down my reflections has been a bit painful, but I hope that my experience will help others recover from the death of a child. To be involved in the lives of others is the best medicine to ease grief.

We cannot change the past, but we can make the most of what life has to offer us. And our children, who have passed away, will live in our hearts forever. 

How to Be Caring when a Child Dies

Is This Your Story?

Have you or your loved one experienced this devastating tragedy, the death of a child? What wisdom have you learned since?


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