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July 1987

Sudden and Unexpected Death: The Pediatrician's Response

Author Affiliations

From the Massachusetts Center for Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), Children's Hospital Medical Center (Dr Mandell), Boston, and Boston City Hospital (Ms McClain and Dr Reece); the Departments of Pediatrics, Harvard Medical School (Dr Mandell), Boston, and Boston University School of Medicine (Dr Reece); and the National SIDS Foundation (Dr Mandell).

Am J Dis Child. 1987;141(7):748-750. doi:10.1001/archpedi.1987.04460070050021

• When an infant dies suddenly and unexpectedly, the sense of loss and terrible grief may overwhelm not only the parents but also the physician. When that sudden death is due to a known cause, the concrete character of the event can be incorporated into the normal rationalization of mourning. However, when death is due to an unknown mechanism, as in the sudden infant death syndrome, feelings of inadequacy in caring for the child are reinforced. The essential need for support of these families is clear. For physicians, this kind of loss is disquieting and anxiety-provoking. Forty-seven physicians responded to a survey exploring the relationship between the physician and the family after the death of an infant, the feelings of the physician about the death and his or her own sense of loss, and the physician's need for personal support and educational preparation for such an event. While 41 of the physicians indicated they had discussed the death with the family, six had made no contact with the survivors. Thirty-six of the respondents indicated that their relationship with the family continued, and ten physicians stated that their relationship terminated after the death. Physicians characterized their initial responses to the death as frustration, sadness, shock, anger, guilt, regret, hurt, and inadequacy. Most of the physicians believed that they had "missed" something and feared they might be blamed for the death. The competence, sincerity, and sensitivity shown to families during this tragic experience can positively influence the family's mourning and recovery. The pediatrician can provide a rational voice and a medical understanding of tragedy without blame.

(AJDC 1987;141:748-750)