Six-year-old Leland spent two weeks at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta in critical condition before he died from an infection from the Balamuthia mandrillaris amoeba in his brain on Friday. According to a post on the Prayers for Leland Facebook page, Shoemake believes her son contracted the deadly infection by doing the "one thing he loved most" — playing in the dirt. "I never imagined that would be the thing that would take him from me," she wrote.
It wasn't until Leland's parents, Tim and Amber, went home to pick up burial clothes for Leland that they found something unexpected waiting for them on the living room table: Leland had left his mom and dad a handwritten note that read, "Still with you. Thank you mom + dad. Love."
Leland's story is beautiful and painful in more ways than one. As Shoemake made clear in her emotional Facebook post, sharing the story of Leland's passing was one of the most difficult things she's ever had to do, but she did it anyway. A grieving mother was willing to share her son's story on social media to give hope and encouragement to families who have been there before.
More: Parenting through grief
As Shoemake said, no parent should ever have to bury a child, but so many parents still do. The good news is that childhood death rates have dropped drastically since the 1980s. From 1980 to 2013, the death rate for children ages 5 to 14 fell from 31 percent to 13 percent per 100,000. Yet 53,000 children still die each year in the U.S., which means 53,000 families are struggling with a devastating loss.
When you think of how many families you encounter at work, at school, at day care and on Facebook, child loss has likely happened to you or someone you know. But because the topic is too sad, too uncomfortable and too devastating for most parents to wrap their minds around, it's something we don't talk about openly or enough. Parents who've lost a child are often left alone in their grief because no one knows what to say. Child loss is known to take a toll on a marriage, and many parents feel isolated when they are expected by friends and family to eventually "get over" their grief.
It's hard to know what to do or what to say when someone close to you loses a child, but just being there — and continuing to reach out — can be enough. It also helps to understand the grieving process so that you can better support a bereaved parent once you know what they will be facing. Grieving parents can receive further support from therapists, support groups, Facebook groups and other bereavement resources.
Shoemake's story is making waves, not only because of the beautiful note Leland left for his parents, but because it bridges the gap between bereaved parents and everyone else. The reality is, child loss shouldn't be isolating, but it is. And now, thanks to one mother's openness on social media, parents are sharing her touching story, and everyone's talking about it.
There will never be a time when losing a child becomes acceptable or easy. But as parents continue to share their stories, it helps to change the way we look at death in the parenting community. Instead of being a topic we're too afraid to talk about, it can be a topic that brings us together. Talking about losing a child can help families heal and keep their children's memories alive.
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