A heartbreaking photo of a grandfather grieving for his 5-year-old granddaughter has gone viral and highlights the tragic impact of childhood cancer.
In December, Braylynn Lawhon was diagnosed with a deadly form of brain cancer, Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma (DIPG). The news rocked her family to the core, as prior to her diagnosis she had been a perfectly healthy little girl.
Braylynn was moved to hospice care at a hospital in Pensacola, Florida, where her grandfather, Sean Peterson, came to visit her bedside. The 49-year-old Gulf War veteran suffers from ALS. As soon as he saw her, he was immediately overcome with grief.
A photographer took this photo when Peterson, Parker and Braylynn’s grandmother, Beth Peterson-Hickman were in the room.
“They wheeled him in to see Braylynn. He can no longer speak, he can’t move his hands and he has a feeding tube,” Peterson-Hickman told PEOPLE. “When he saw her, he was crying and it was heart-wrenching. I broke down and I had to turn around.”
Braylynn’s mother, Allyson Parker, shared the photo on Facebook and wrote: “Her pulse is barely there and we can not feel it, but we can hear it with a stethoscope. Nurses say she may not make it through the next hour, but miracles can still happen. Today has been extremely difficult and I have no idea how I’m going to handle the next couple of hours. No one is handling this well…”
The family bravely faced the unthinkable as Braylynn’s health deteriorated. Parker says they shared Braylynn’s story not for attention, but to raise awareness of DIPG. “Before any MORE people make assumptions, I need to make it known that we did NOT do this for ‘attention’. Awareness, yes, but there haven’t been many kids with DIPG whose stories have gotten the recognition that they needed,” she wrote on Facebook.
“People need to be aware of DIPG and how it affects children and their families. It’s still considered rare, but it’s considered the most deadly form of childhood cancer in the world. Braylynn was diagnosed last month…and we’ve already almost lost her,” she said.
“Someone needs to find a successful treatment for this so our kids stop dying. This can happen to anyone, anywhere, at any time. Until Braylynn’s diagnoses, she had a cold maybe once or twice a year, and was over it in a day or two. That was the extent of her sickness,” Parker explained. “She was perfectly healthy, until last month. You can try to pretend that it can’t happen to your child, but that’s what I did and look at where it got me.”
Parker added that she is grateful to the kind support she and her family has received. “Thank you to everyone who has been sharing our story, showing support, and spreading awareness. It may be too late to help my princess, but it gives other kids a little more hope. Thank you.”
On Monday, around a month after her initial diagnosis, Braylynn passed away.
“Our sweet Braylynn, our warrior princess, earned her sparkly pink angel wings this evening,” a statement read on the family’s tribute page on Facebook shortly after she passed away. “Her nickname was Princess Bel and she could light up any room.”
“She loved Hello Kitty and her birthday was December 10. She was a princess with the strength of a warrior and she will NEVER be forgotten. We need this cruel disease called DIPG to stop taking our children away from us!”
Peterson-Hickman said the family is now finalizing arrangements for a princess-themed funeral for Braylynn.