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Learning from the Wisdom of Children: Reflections on Life and Death Through “Oscar and the Lady in Pink”

How much can we learn from children who are aware that they are now in the final stage of their lives, as they value existing even if it is limited in time?

In recent years we have found it necessary to introduce the book “Oscar and the Lady in Pink” to students in health professions degree programs including those in master’s degrees. Why?

Why read and reread Oscar and the Lady in Pink?

Because, through the dialogues between Oscar and Granny Rose we have the opportunity to reflect on such a difficult topic as illness, grief and the death of a child.

In this book, themes are, in fact, addressed that are the subject of reflection in this issue 9 of Laborcare Journal: incurable illness and the Care of the Sick starting precisely from that “time which, having become short” must be nourished with meaning, which only through “being together” becomes the “time of desires.”

It is the first lines that underscore how, in the last stages of Life, nothing is taken for granted, everything is reevaluated starting with a “need for spirituality” that was the subject of discussion in Laborcare Journal No. 8: “They call me an egghead, I look seven years old, I live in the hospital because of cancer, and I’ve never spoken to you because I don’t even believe you exist. But if I write you something like that, it makes a bad impression and you would be less interested in me. And I need you to care.”

In essence, the book “Oscar and the Lady in Pink” what is it? It is about explaining the naturalness of life in hospitalization, in the disease that brings you to the end of life, in an extremely medicalized way that is always striving more and more for healing and that loses sight of the cure and that, only through dialogue with Granny Rosa, a volunteer, is Oscar able to carry on.

Through Oscar’s words, Eric Emmanuel Schmitt emphasizes the naturalness with which children carry the signs of the disease on themselves: he himself calls himself an “egghead” (because he was made bald by chemotherapy), he knows Peggy “ Blue” so named because she has a heart condition or his chess partner “ Einstein” whose nickname comes from the conformation of his skull, and so on. Not a stigmatization but rather a wearing of the signs of the disease and the consequent therapies very naturally … even joking about it. This way of experiencing the body, in the narrative of adults, is often, omitted in order to give more space to the “crisis of the body,” “to shame” … intimidated by the fact that the changing physical appearance may become an object of curiosity or stigmatization.

In children, naturalness is almost, part of the game, i.e., “I’m sick, I look like this with an egghead, I don’t look like a child.” This way of experiencing one’s body only a child could explain it to adults.

Another “difficult” element that emerges from reading the book concerns the difficulty, on the part of both health care personnel and family members, in accepting the intensity of affection and love that even small children can have for other people they have encountered on their journey.

Falling in love that we relegate to more or less adolescent/adult ages is, on the other hand, a feeling that one wishes to experience even “if one is a child” even more so one is aware that one’s life is getting shorter and shorter.

This theme makes one reflect on the capacity to grieve for the concerns related to the care of the other loved one as well as for the friend or friend.

Sometimes unable to understand these states of mind, “adults” feel the need to create “defenses” made up of rules, procedures, which risk reducing the possibility of fostering that affective intimacy and complicity that is established between those who experience the same illness, an emotional intensity that must be preserved.

And how much the desire for privacy and intimacy even among adolescents is denied in hospitals to those sick people who end their short lives in those rooms.

One book, “Red Bracelets,” makes feelings the central element of the story of a group of children and adolescents admitted to a hospital who, despite prohibitions, become such a complicit and supportive group that they “contaminate,” in a positive sense not only rigid doctors but nurses and parents themselves.

Mom and dad, spectators but also actors in a tragedy that is overwhelming them, often feel unable not only to accept that their child is dying but, in some cases, unable to relate to their child.

Oscar, in fact, apostrophizes his own by reminding them that he is “the same son you loved when he was well and now that I am sick and will have little time ahead you must care for me and have a relationship with me because I am like a little battered bear … the need to feel them close cannot be ‘solved’ with yet another ‘new toy.’

And Oscar also wants to help his doctor-and all the caregivers-who approach their dying patients with an increasingly sad air, almost feeling guilty for not being able to heal them, telling them,” you need to relax. It is not your fault that you are forced to announce bad news to people, diseases with Latin names and impossible cures. You are not God, you do not command nature. You are only a repairman … you must lessen the pressure and not give yourself too much importance, otherwise you will not be able to continue long with this profession.”

It will be Oscar who will help not only the doctors and nurses but especially the parents and Nonna Rosa to accept the idea that he will die to the point of protecting them at the moment of his death: “Dear God (…) The little boy is dead. He passed away this morning, during the half-hour with which his parents and I went for coffee. He did it without us. I think he waited for that moment to spare us. As if he wanted to spare us the violence of seeing him disappear. He was actually the one who was watching over us…”.


Gianluca Favero

Mariella Orsi

Sources and Images

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