Braylynn Lawhon, 5, was diagnosed in December with a rare, aggressive form of brain cancer

By Erin Hill
January 16, 2018 12:17 PM

Braylynn Lawhon, the 5-year-old girl with terminal cancer who was pictured in a now-viral photo next to her grieving grandfather, died on Monday, her grandmother, Beth Peterson-Hickman, tells PEOPLE.

“It’s a true hell on earth. I feel helpless,” she says. “I’m trying to stay strong for my family.”

In December, Braylynn was diagnosed with a Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma (DIPG) tumor, a deadly form of brain cancer. Soon after her diagnosis, she was placed in hospice care at a hospital in Pensacola, Florida, where her grandfather, 49-year-old Sean Peterson, who suffers from bone marrow cancer and ALS, visited.

A photo of the emotional moment showed Braylynn in a hospital bed unresponsive as Peterson sat crying in a chair next to her bed. Peterson-Hickman says “he just started falling apart.”

The photo, which showed the devastating impact of child cancer, quickly went viral.

Credit: Courtesy Beth Peterson-Hickman

“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, Braylynn’s grandmother and Peterson’s ex-wife, told PEOPLE. “When he saw her, he was crying and it was heart-wrenching. I broke down and I had to turn around.”

Credit: Courtesy Beth Peterson-Hickman

“He does not deserve this. He, like me, we’re supposed to watch our grandkids grow up and make us great-grandparents,” Peterson-Hickman said.

Credit: Courtesy Beth Peterson-Hickman

The family is now finalizing arrangements for a princess-themed funeral for Braylynn, Peterson-Hickman says.

“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. “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!”

  • With reporting by CHAR ADAMS