Dealing with my son’s sudden illness while grieving my daughter’s sudden death

Experiencing one of my children falling suddenly ill has revealed much about how grief has impacted me, as a mother who is grieving the sudden death of another of my children.

Last weekend, my son scared us. The anxiety and fear flooded back in and we fought with everything we had to hold it together.

Losing Abi was the worst thing imaginable

When we lost Abi, we were reassured by the doctors, as best they could, that her brain haemorrhage was a one-off, a rare and unpredictable bursting of blood vessels in her brain stem. There was nothing they or we could have done to detect it or prevent it.

It started on 6th February 2013. Abi blacked out at school momentarily and fell down against a handrail. She laughed it off initially, as she wasn’t a clumsy child, but she had hurt her back when she fell. I picked her up from school when she text me to tell me her back really hurt (she brushed off the faint as it was so short). It was unusual for her to complain about anything so I was happy to go and get her.

After an uneventful day at home, I just assumed she needed a day off school to get over any bruising. She seemed OK until about 8.30pm when she suddenly said she felt terrible, it was like she was coming down with ‘flu. By 9.30pm she was in a coma on our bed and we were performing CPR on her. Terrified. Four long days later we turned off her life support.

There’s always the fear of it happening again…

Ever since, we have been fairly lucky I’d say with the health of our children. Other than a bad dose of scarlet fever in February 2014, my 8-year-old son has not been ill, barely even a snuffle, even when the rest of us have had colds and bugs.

However, last Friday, my son went to school as usual. He was complaining a bit about a sore throat but he sometimes does and it’s usually gone after he’s up and about. Our toddler had a cold so I assumed he had a touch of the same.

By 9.30am, the teacher was on the phone asking me to collect him as he wasn’t feeling well. As with Abi, he’s not a complainer so I knew it would be genuine. I got myself and my toddler ready and drove round to the school.

I wasn’t prepared to see him, white as a sheet, sitting in the foyer with his teacher and the teaching assistant with him. It’s awful to say, but I had a flashback to Abi. He looked like death. I quickly had to push out any shock I felt. He was scared.

They told me he’d fainted, only for a moment, but that he just went down on the floor, he then went very woozy, clammy and felt ill; It must have absolutely terrified them as they knew all too well what had happened to his sister. But they were calm and careful to reassure me and not be panicked.

My instinct told me it was a virus. His glands were up and he had the symptoms, but the fainting episode bothered me. I have never fainted in my life and to experience another of my children doing so was scary. Abi had done the same and then later that night was gone! It was hard not to feel alarmed. History couldn’t be repeating itself… could it?! I kept telling myself to keep perspective, that it couldn’t happen again, that whatever this was it was different. But why would he pass out?

I got him home and settled and called the doctor. Despite telling the receptionist he’d fainted, I had to be put on the triage list to wait for a call. I then called my hubby who was at work, thankfully locally. Worried, he came home. He couldn’t concentrate being at work out of touch. His mind, too, filled with those awful days and memories.

The doctor called an hour later and I had to explain why I was worried. It was upsetting having to recap the sudden event of Abi’s collapse. He wasn’t alarmed but he was happy to see him within the hour. That’s the thing with brain haemorrhages, there’s not much can be done unless it actually happens. What’s the doctor going to say?!

At the doctor’s, he checked him over but felt no concern. He said his temperature was likely spiking with the virus and his glands were up. He said Calpol would be fine and to come back if we were still worried. But walking out of the doctor’s room, my son has another wobble and we had to sit him down to recover. He went pale and clammy again. His breathing rapid. His eyes distant. He was scared and panicked.

As I cradled his head, I recalled the time he visited Abi in intensive care. He was five and wanted to see her. It was boiling hot in the room and he saw her with the tubes and wires all over her. Unresponsive. Not his happy, laughing sister. He went pale and faint and needed air so we left. I don’t regret taking him in to see her, he wasn’t upset but he does remember that feeling of being woozy.

Being at the doctor’s must have triggered the same memories for him (as grieving parents, we constantly have to judge if something is caused by anxiety or a bug). He calmed down, his breathing slowed and my hubby carried him to the car.

Recovering, or so we thought…

My son asked if people died from viruses. He needed to know if this was it for him. He worried he’d give it to me and the baby in my tummy. He worried if his toddler brother came too close. My heart swelled and broke for him as he worried about us all. He shouldn’t have to worry about death at this age.

He spent the day in his favourite chair watching TV, sipping water and having small snacks. That night he went to bed early but woke up to be sick. Then, in our bed, his temperature rocketed and I stayed awake most of the night keeping an eye on him. My hubby slept on the floor beside our bed to be there for both of us (being pregnant, I’m not as fast on my feet as usual).

By Saturday morning, my son woke and his fever had broken. He was cooler and a bit chattier (always a good sign). He was still not over it and was pale and felt weak. He had an on/off temperature but we could feel more confident that he was over the worst part and that nothing sinister was going on underneath.

We breathed out a little more. It was just a common virus. He will bounce back and we are again thankful.

An unexpected turn

Later that night he suddenly took a turn for the worst. He’d been fairly okay. Recovering certainly, but the day was mostly spent in his favourite chair again watching TV. He’d eaten a little but wasn’t hungry. It got to bedtime and he stood up and was quite brightly telling us about birthstones (he’d memorised them from a book in school), when he suddenly sucked in his breath and clutched his tummy. He was having bad cramps and he clung to me. We thought he’d been inactive all day so likely his body was just achy, so we took him up to lie on our bed and stretch out. But the cramps kept coming. Seeing him with tears in his eyes, clinging to me, rigid in pain on our bed was unbearable. He lay in the same space that Abi did, the night she collapsed. It was even the same time of night so the fears were flooding back to me, but I had to be present for him and to keep him reassured.

I suspected a ruptured appendix, although it was the left side and middle that hurt the most, and the appendix is on the right. I called NHS 111, but with some trepidation – I knew they would take me through all those robotic horrible questions again to try to determine how serious this was. I gave the operator the details while my hubby held my son’s hand. The operator said he needed to be seen and that a doctor would call us within two hours to make an appointment.

Two hours! I appreciate we are blessed to have the NHS, but looking at my young son, with the cramps getting worse and our fears getting even worse, I knew I couldn’t leave him waiting for that long. So we called my sister, who lives locally, and asked her to come over and sit with the other two, who were reading stories together.

She was there in minutes. Again, memories for all of us hung in the air. (She came too, on that night to help us when Abi collapsed.) My daughter was stressed, unsure how to react, but she managed to remain very calm and helped look after our toddler.

We had to slowly manoeuvre him off our bed, which was painful for him, and I was on the verge of calling for an ambulance. But we managed to get him up and my hubby carried him to the car. The cramps kept coming and he was now worried as he didn’t know what was going to happen and didn’t like the idea of going to hospital. The doctor called me on the way, and I told him we were almost there. Thankfully, when we arrived the surgery was empty so we were seen immediately.

He gave our son a thorough examination, and quickly saw that his tonsils were huge and covered in white spots… tonsillitis for sure. But it was the tummy he also needed to check. He deduced it wasn’t appendicitis but more likely a full bowel. My hubby and I relaxed once more.

As an extra check, we had to get him to do a urine sample, which wasn’t easy on a stressed, dehydrated child, but he managed a little. But we were again alarmed when the doctor found traces of blood and protein in it. This could be a sign of diabetes (alarm bells began to ring again as I know just how serious this can be). So they needed to do a fingerprick test to check his blood sugar.

The atmosphere was then filled with our need to get this test done, and my son’s need to get out of there and not have anything stuck in his finger! We had to wrestle with him a little, but the doctor was great. Very fast and helped to distract him.

Our stress was again alleviated when the result was fine. It was likely this trace was part of his illness as the kidneys had become inflamed. A course of antibiotics was prescribed.

The doctor sent the urine sample off to be tested further just to be safe, and asked us to visit our doctor after 5 days to do another urine sample and check his tonsils. With recent news of sepsis in the press, I was glad we took him in. I was relieved by his thoroughness and felt reassured (normally my own hypochondria kicks in and I’m suggesting things to check!).

Back home, with a bravery certificate, my son went back to our bed and after taking his first dose of medicine fell asleep. It was now 11pm.

Alone for a minute, my hubby and I took a moment to simply hug. We didn’t need or want to talk it over, we knew what we’d been through – emotionally.

We spent another night sleeping either side of him, me in the bed, my hubby on the floor. My son woke me a few times in the night and of course I slept with half an eye open anyway, but by the morning he was asking to put the telly on and seemed much more ‘with it’! I was relieved that the first dose of penicillin seemed to have had some effect.

So the Sunday was spent with us all feeling a bit under the weather with snuffles and my son much more mobile and happier in himself. We were back to being ‘normal’ parents and getting on with life once again. How soon things can change!

Trying to remain calm when you have seen real fear

My hubby and I recognize our anxiety and we feel we do remarkably well to keep calm whenever our children are ill. The fear is there without a doubt, but day to day we are pretty much as relaxed as we used to be – we have to be! But we’re learning that the minute that emergency button is pushed, we are on high alert.

The other week, our toddler tumbled down the stairs. He was okay, remarkably, but it rattled my hubby and he was subdued for much of the day. Even a fairly minor incident can cause huge shock waves in us, when we believe are faced with a potentially serious situation.

However, we also don’t panic to the point of despair. We’re not assuming that all is lost at the first sign. I look back on my son’s illness and realise we took it stage by stage, the highs and lows. We dealt with things in as measured a way possible. We didn’t assume the worst, we were prepared for it.

Our reactions are also a sign of how far we have travelled in our grief shock. We fairly quickly go about our life, but this time, the worry for us lasted longer than our son’s illness. We were OK about the illness, but we needed time to come to terms with the surge of fear and anxiety and process our reactions. We both felt worn out for days after.

With the third anniversary of Abi’s passing just a couple of weeks away, the timing was terrible, but at times like this, dates and times didn’t matter. All that matters is that he’s OK.

I do wonder what life will be like for us when we add another much-loved child to our family. Can we cope with the inevitable illnesses and worries along the way for four surviving children? Yes, we will because we have to, but it means we’ll treasure the good days all the more!

As for my son, he was soon back to his chatty, lively self. A check up at the doctors showed the antibiotics had done their job and tests on his urine were clear. We almost felt like the weekend was an age away, and were very keen to put the fears behind us!

On reflection, I wonder if it’s times like this that are actually helping to rebuild our resilience to dealing with major stresses. Our son was ill, we needed to see doctors and have tests, we needed to be in control despite our fears. It turned out to be fairly minor on this occasion, but also it may just be helping us in some way to ‘toughen’ up against the times when things don’t go so well. I just hope those times are very few and far between.

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7 thoughts on “Dealing with my son’s sudden illness while grieving my daughter’s sudden death

  1. Oh my goodness! That sounds terrifying! I would have been frightened if it was one of my children and it must have been so much scarier having been through what you’ve been through. So glad he was OK. X

  2. Thank you for sharing all of this in so much detail. It sounds like it was quite an ordeal for the whole family. Child loss changes everything.
    Before Leah died I was fairly blasé when one of my children were unwell – I thought calpol cured everything, well most things, anyway.
    Now I’m much more likely to phone my GP surgery to say that one of my children is unwell and I’m worried. It’s a small rural practice where everyone knows our story and they will usually offer me a same day appointment for my son/daughter – they are very understanding.
    Within weeks of Leah dying, our youngest daughter slipped off the couch and broke her wrist. We found ourselves back at one of the hospitals where Leah had been treated. I was distraught, especially as Leah had been due to attend orthopaedics at this hospital because of her spontaneous spinal fracture, but she died before she got to the appointment. Now I was attending orthopaedics with my youngest daughter, only weeks later, but for a different reason.
    I like the bit of positivity that you have at the end – maybe facing our fears is indeed helping to build our resilience?
    Sending you hugs ❤️

  3. Pingback: Fight or flight – coping with illness as a bereaved family | Chasing dragonflies

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