The Nurse Stump
As the pediatric bereavement specialist at Providence Hospice and Home Care of Snohomish County, I went out to the homes of families after a loved one had died. On a visit to a family's home one afternoon, I met with a young boy who had just recently lost his father to cancer. Often, grief counseling for children includes creative expression, like art, because it isn't always easy to say "My dad is dead" or "My heart is crushed". But it can feel good to draw a picture of their loved one or a picture of a broken heart. This particular little boy wasn't quite ready to express himself with his words.
That afternoon, he was imagining himself as a tree, and the task was to color the tree to reflect what his loss meant to him. The little boy stared blankly at his tree for a long time, and then took a black marker and cut the tree off at the stump, scribbling over all of it's branches and leaves. He pushed the paper back to me and angrily said, "I'm a stump." He hung his head while I looked at his stump. All I could say was, "that makes sense." He said, "I hate that he's dead."
I continued to have sessions with this boy and at another session I asked him to draw how he hoped to feel a year from now. As he drew yet another tree stump, he asked me if I knew what a nurse stump is. I didn’t. So he told me a story. He told me about how one day, when he and his dad were talking through the woods, they’d come across a dead stump. His Dad had told him sometimes when trees die, and they leave stumps in the ground, that the dead stump would provide nutrients for other plants and seeds and trees to grow. It's called a nurse stump, because it helps other plants be healthy.
I looked down and sure enough, on top of the stump, the boy had drawn grass and flowers growing out of the dead tree. "So you drew a nurse a stump?" I asked, "to represent your dad?" "The nurse stump is me, it's how I feel" he shared, "I'm only just growing a tiny bit of grass from me, but I will grow more soon. Just not now."
Kids are the most courageous of grievers, uninhibitedly using their imagination to process their losses. For this young boy, his imagination helped him to acknowledge his capacity to grow, new, even in the midst of his worst pain. All I could think is that this boy get’s it. That’s grief.