By Dr. John Braland
Kids just shouldn’t get cancer. That’s my opinion, but it really doesn’t seem to matter much. When my then 3-year-old son Joshua was diagnosed with Acute Lymphomic Leukemia I thought my life was over. He is my only son, and I love him more than life itself. My wife Kathi and I were completely devastated, struggling day to day with his diagnosis.
Two months into Josh’s rigorous chemo treatment program the initial shock wore off and a dreary reality set in. Life had changed and surprisingly my relationships had changed. I can’t count the number of times I felt like quitting, self-medicating, eating my frustrations away, or blaming the doctors for not doing enough.
I longed to retreat from the misery of reality to the comforts of an imaginary, safe place. But I couldn’t because this nightmare was real and my family, especially Josh, needed me. What I needed was for others to be there for me.
For the next three years, Kathi and I panicked every time Josh spiked a fever, cried every time the doctors injected the horrible lifesaving chemicals into his body, and prayed for him as if it were a matter of life and death, because it was. After three years of chemo, Josh was given a clean bill of health. Ten years later he is still doing great, and so are we.
During those dark days, I learned more about how healthy people respond to hurting people than at any other time in my life. I learned:
1. Some people you expect to support and encourage you will not. It’s not that they don’t want to, they don’t know how. They don’t know what to say or do, so they say nothing and do nothing.
One friend, who I anticipated would contact me in some way, never did and it hurt. I ran into him six months after Josh’s diagnosis went public, and his response was he just wanted to “give me some space.” If “giving space” is the same as “abandoning,” he succeeded.
2. Sometimes people you don’t know will encourage you in ways you didn’t expect.
People we hardly knew gave us food, offered to take care of our daughters during doctors’ visits, and even cleaned our house. This blew Kathi and me away! The outpouring of support we received from those I didn’t consider to be part of my inner circle surprised me more than anything else.
3. Some people will avoid you because they think whatever is wrong is contagious. I thought it was strange that some people avoided us. In a weird way, they thought our problems were contagious, so rather than talking to us, they avoided us. Cancer, accidents, and emotional trauma are not contagious, so don’t treat people who are experiencing these things like they are.
4. When it’s over, you will need to forgive some people. To this day I can remember everyone who came to see us and those who never came. I had to work through my own emotions because I was angry and hurt. I had to re-engage with others choosing to share what I went through so they knew how I felt. Most of all, I had to let go and continue to heal.
If you are dealing with someone who is hurting, I hope I have helped you to see things from their perspective. The worst thing you can do is to do nothing. Call, e-mail, Facebook, send a card, bring dinner, just reach out in some way. All you have to say is “I’m praying for you,” or “Let me know if you need anything.” They probably won’t take you up on your offer, but they will know you care.
Those who are hurting read every e-mail and letter over and over, finding strength in the words and actions of others. If you are hurting, help people to understand how you feel by being open and honest when you can. Most people who don’t say or do anything just don’t know how to respond.
Don’t let their lack of response ruin the friendship. Coach them how to help others in the future.
Dr. John Braland serves as the Lead Pastor at Freshwater Community Church in St. Bonifacius. He is married to Kathi and they have three school age children. John volunteers as a police chaplain and enjoys coaching other pastors, developing business leaders, riding his Harley and repairing classic cars. His weekly blog can be accessed through Freshwater’s website www.freshwaterchurch.org.