Weeping with those who weep
This article is a slight digression from my usual blogposts, but I hope it will encourage your hearts and equip you to practically and sensitively walk a road with parents whose children have been diagnosed with cancer. We as a family have walked this dark road. Many walked it with us. It changed us and it changed them. This is part of our story. We cannot change that.
We became those parents in 2003 when our daughter Laura, aged 7, was diagnosed with a neuroblastoma, a malignant soft tissue tumour, on her adrenal gland.
When you hear the word ‘cancer’, the world shakes beneath you and all becomes blurry, just for a second. Disbelief and denial are short-lived. Very quickly your ‘mother bear’ instincts set in and you become the protector, the fighter. This is your child. That is your job.
That diagnosis propelled us into the next 14 months which were a whirlwind of blood tests, scans, hospital stays, blood transfusions, chemo protocols, surgery, radiation, a brief remission, more blood tests, more chemo, infections and ICU. The Paediatric Oncology ward became our second home, the nurses our family and the oncologist, Dr Charmaine, our friend.
Our family and our church rallied around us while I was at the hospital with Laura. They prayed for us. They cared for us. Laura’s school was sensitive and accommodating.
Yet one of the issues we faced on that journey was how individuals struggled to relate to us as a family and to Laura. This was our new reality. We had to cope. Others did not know how. And that is normal. Our default is avoidance. We are reluctant to look suffering in the face. It makes us uncomfortable.
A few years after Laura’s death, a mom asked me how she could minister to and support a friend whose son had recently been diagnosed with cancer. She wanted to know what had practically encouraged me and been helpful to me when Laura was undergoing treatment:
Here was my advice to her:
Never underestimate practical help as a unique means of grace.
When Laura had to be in hospital for her chemo (which was usually 2-3 days at a time), one of my friends would organise a roster with friends to pick up and drop off my boys from school. This was a huge burden off me as I did not have to personally organise people to help. I would just give her the schedule and she would arrange it all for me and let me know who was doing what for those days.
Obviously meals for us as a family was a huge help when Laura was in hospital as either Andrew or I would stay with her and normal routines and schedules no longer existed. (Flexibility was my new friend and I had to become a quick learner).
As I had to spend so much time in the hospital with Laura, it was really helpful when others would offer to come and keep her company (obviously people she felt comfortable with) so that I could just get out and do errands or spend some time with Reece and Devon so that they did not always feel side-lined. It was also good for Laura, as a child undergoing chemo can feel isolated and become overly dependent on Mom.
When Laura was in for chemo, it was wonderful when friends used to come and drink coffee with me at the hospital to keep me company for a short while. As a mom, your world shrinks and you can feel cut off from the outside world.
Children undergoing chemo are still normal children
They are just going through a really tough time, and most of the time they just want to carry on as children doing the normal routines as far as they are allowed regarding their treatment and blood count levels. So encouraging other children (their friends) to visit them in the hospital (if allowed) and playing games with them or watching a movie with them keeps their spirits up. It is also good for the other children to treat them as normal and to not avoid them.
When you do visit the mom, try not to make 'helpful suggestions' as to what latest medical or natural alternatives there are to help heal her child and don’t bombard her with medical articles etc.
As a mom you are so overwhelmed with so much medical information
regarding the treatment and cancer - that other people's personal
experience or 'Google' knowledge is not helpful.
Engage with the mom where she is at and show an interest in the treatment and some of the details. This is her world now. As parents, they have had to look at all the options with their Oncologist and have chosen a course which they feel is wise and best for their child.
Meet with the mom regularly to pray or go through a Bible study book. This is always an encouragement and is a consistent way to encourage her and walk the road with her as her routines become erratic and can change on a blood count result. She will often miss out on fellowship at Church.
Don't forget the Dad
Dad's generally struggle to talk about what they are going through as they cannot fix this. So make sure there are some who keep regular, continuous contact with the dad to encourage him in this trial.
A child undergoing cancer normally means a long road of many months - so there are not many friends who can walk the long haul and stay committed. That takes sacrifice. It can be exhausting, but for those who do, it is a blessing and a joy for both parties. An opportunity to witness God at work in big and little ways.
Encouraging the mom to keep a true biblical perspective is helpful, but the constant sending of random verses and over-spiritualising things is not.
This can often be perceived as superficial. Show empathy and not sympathy.
Sympathy can often come across as patronising and condescending.
Be prepared to sometimes just cry with her and let her share her heart emotions and fears without feeling you have to give her a solution or some profound spiritual answer.
'Anxiety in a man's heart weighs him down, but a good word makes him glad.' (Proverbs 12:25). 'Like apples of gold in settings of silver Is a word spoken in right circumstances.' (Proverbs 25:11)
Don't always talk ‘treatment talk’ and ‘medical talk’ with the mom and especially not in front of her child. Talk about general things and share some laughs and fun conversations. Although the Paediatric Oncology world is a huge part of her life, it is not her whole life and she still wants to feel part of the outside world.
It is also helpful to facilitate for the whole family to go away for a weekend as a good distraction. A child undergoing chemo can often get depressed and this is good quality time for the whole family.
Arrange to babysit all the children in the family so that Mom and Dad can have some time alone to regroup and connect and support each other. This trial can place huge strain on a marriage.
A gentle and personal word to the mom whose heart is so burdened for her child with cancer, who feels she will bend and break under the weight of this trial:
It is easy to become cocooned in the crisis and push others away.
It is hard to accept all the help offered.
It is humbling to be on the receiving end of grace.
It is scary to invite others into your heartache and pain.
But special friendships are formed when you open your heart to the willing and loving care of others.
Their kind words are like honey, their acts of service are a sweet balm to an aching heart and their comforting presence is sweet fellowship.
Just an aside:
Be reminded of the fatherly care of God in Isaiah 40:11:
‘He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young,’ and Jesus’ tender and compassionate words in Matthew 12:20: ‘A bruised reed he will not break.’
Hold on tightly to this promise from Hebrews 4:14-16: ‘For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.’
In Romans 12:9 Paul begins a section about love being without hypocrisy and being devoted to one another in brotherly love, contributing to the needs of the saints and weeping with those who weep.
John Calvin comments on weeping with those who weep as follows:
‘A general truth is laid down: the faithful, regarding each other with mutual affection, are to consider the condition of others as their own.
For such is the nature of true love, that one prefers to weep with his brother, rather than to look at a distance on his grief and to live in pleasure or ease.
What is meant then is that we, as much as possible, ought to sympathise with one another, and that, whatever our lot may be, each should transfer to himself the feeling of another, whether of grief in adversity or of joy in prosperity. And, doubtless, not to regard with joy the happiness of a brother is envy; and not to grieve for his misfortunes is inhumanity.
Let there be such a sympathy among us as may at the same time adapt us to all kinds of feelings.'
This is not a choice.
This is what it means to be family, God’s way.
The rewards will far outweigh the sacrifice.