This Is Us

The Grief We Share When We Lose a Child to Cancer

What happens when the pediatric oncologist runs out of ideas

Jacqueline Dooley
Published in
5 min readAug 25, 2020

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A photo of the author’s daughter performing onstage.
The author’s daughter, age 15, performing in a production of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”

We remember everything vividly — the appointments and phone calls, the bedside chats and furtive hallway conversations. We remember the look on the pediatric oncologists’ faces right before they told us what we never believed we’d hear.

We remember, as if it happened yesterday.

“I’m sorry. There’s nothing more we can do.”

We remember the handoff to palliative care, the last wishes, the goodbyes.

We remember picking out gravestones and urns, writing eulogies, and seeing their still faces for the last time.

No matter how many years pass and milestones our other children reach (or not), or how many gray hairs we’ve accumulated as we age and age and age — we remember.

We hold the burden of knowing that no one — not even us — could save our babies.

We try to cope, though coping is a hollow notion when you’ve buried your child.

We form foundations to help fund research and support the newly diagnosed. We connect in support groups and read books about parental grief. We turn our profile pictures gold each September even though it never helps.

It never helps.

There are too many kids dying from too many lethal questions with not enough funding to find the answers.

We’re still failing them.

We want to be understood, even though we know you can’t possibly understand. Understanding is the worst fate imaginable.

What will tomorrow look like? When will we recover?

We elevate the memories of our children because that’s all we have left. We share photos and videos and stories faded at the edges because we want you to know about them. We need you to know about them.

We keep tiny ornate boxes filled with precious baby teeth. We preserve the beloved stuffed toys they once slept with and baseball gloves and Barbie dolls.

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Jacqueline Dooley
Human Parts

Essayist, content writer, bereaved parent. Bylines: Human Parts, GEN, Marker, OneZero, Washington Post, Al Jazeera, Pulse, HuffPost, Longreads, Modern Loss