Alumni Profile • Dawn Vander Kolk '97
Privileged by the dying

Dawn Vander KolkAsk Dawn Vander Kolk '97 about her job and she lights up: "I love my job. God has given me the perfect job."

Ask what that job is, and Vander Kolk knows you'll wonder how she can possibly love it.

A pediatric social worker for Hospice of Michigan, Vander Kolk accompanies and supports children who are dying and their families. In an average week, she visits the homes of six dying children. In an average year, she attends 20 funerals.

"I get to see people when they are most vulnerable, facing possibly the worst situation of their lives," she said, "and I get to see people at their absolute best. It's amazing to witness the physical and emotional reserves they pull up."

A privilege, she calls it. A gift.

The specifics are these: A family whose child is being treated for a terminal illness asks for assistance from Hospice of Michigan. Primarily they need help at home with the child's medical care from a pediatric nurse. In the hospice package they also get Vander Kolk, who addresses the family's emotional care.

"One of my most important responsibilities is gently encouraging people to think and talk about things they don't want to or haven't been given permission to consider," she said.

Like what feelings to anticipate at each stage of a child's illness and how to talk to children about death. And end-of-life care decisions and funeral arrangements.

While she encourages a family to face the realities of illness and death, Vander Kolk stresses she never forces parents to do what they feel unable to do. Respect for a family's wishes and cultural beliefs come first. She adds, though, that as she builds trust with a family through repeated visits, they are often willing to revisit questions and choices they earlier resisted.

It's the repeated visits Vander Kolk loves. "Getting to know these families is what I value most about what I do," she said. "Our team is not there to help a child die. We're there to help a child live fully until he or she dies."

That means playing games and throwing parties and, through the Make-A-Wish Foundation, sending a family to Disney World or the Grand Canyon or a distant family member's home.

Helping a child live fully also means helping him or her continue as long as possible routine activities at school and a place of worship. With a family's permission, Vander Kolk visits the child's or siblings' schools. There, she gives everyone involved with the child practical and emotional ways to aid the family both during the illness and once a child dies.

And Vander Kolk says losing a child she's come to know never gets easier. She has learned over four years in her job to take space and time to grieve each death. She relies on God and family and friends for strength. Still, she said, "I don't know if I could do this job if I had children of my own."

It helps that part of the hospice program involves providing bereavement care to a family for at least 13 months after their child's death. "I see how the groundwork a family laid before their child dies helps them cope and integrate their loss," Vander Kolk said. "I've learned so much from working with grieving families that has helped make meaning out of my experience with each child."