Elephant in the Room
This particular one took a while for me to think about, well, not the topic but realistically how to answer it. There is the elephant in the room any time someone’s child has cancer, passed, or is medically complex in any way. That said, I wanted to think long and hard about what someone says and, on the opposite end, what can we expect to hear. I am sure everyone has heard different things than me, but maybe it will prepare you. Most of this applies to someone who lost their child but is highly applicable to someone who is in treatment.
Let’s start with what do you say to someone who says, “my child has cancer” or, “my child died.” Well, chances are they brought it up, or you asked a question prompting it. But more often than not, this leads to other problems, and frankly, it shouldn’t. It’s like a bombshell; who knew? This is where the suggestion, more like do this, comes in. Just say, “Do you want to talk about it?” or “I am sorry for your loss.” Take the lead; you just heard the worst news that is someone’s reality. Nothing more can help than listening, but unfortunately, that rarely happens because it is undeniably the most awkward moment you might experience. If the bereaved are far along enough in their journey or their child has been battling cancer for a while, it is more uncomfortable for you than us. Just know those two statements are really all you should say; never ask specifics. We will tell you if we want.
What I have learned in Social Work school is silence is awkward but okay. So, my second suggestion, count to 10 when they tell you, then ask, “Do you want to talk about it” count another 10 for them to answer.” If they say yes, just listen, that’s all. Please don’t offer advice, don’t bring up others that had cancer, don’t provide therapists or doctors, and you don’t need to put us on a prayer list. Maybe we told you, so you don’t ask questions like, “is he or she an only child” or alike. If anything, we just need to be heard or not; it’s our choice. Even telling someone, “I am speechless, ” is okay, but please don’t fill the awkward silence because the wrong thing typically comes out. By typically, I mean most of the time.
I tried to think of every measure here. If the person says ‘yes,’ but it’s not the time or place, then kindly take their hand, shoulder, or arm, look them in the eyes and say with empathy, “I really want to talk with you, but I can’t right now, and I sincerely mean that, let’s chat later I want to hear all you have to say.” If they gush tears, walk them somewhere away from wherever you are, a bathroom is perfect. Unfortunately, I can’t help you any further. At this point, you’ll have to make some careful decisions about calming your friend down. But please note I did not put a bunch of don’t say this etc.… That’s because there is no perfect thing to say, no way to heal the person or right this wrong. The only thing is to listen. I can’t stress that enough, listen. Never ever ask out of curiosity. Go ahead and google questions you have about childhood cancer if you’re curious but do not tell us what you find.
Now for what can you expect to hear? Well, if you have an infant or another child that is alive, the most common and normal question people ask is, “Is he your only one.” I still don’t know how to answer. Sometimes I say, “Yes,” others, I say, “No, the other is at home.” And it’s not to be funny or sarcastic. It’s merely to acknowledge I do have another child. I follow this by changing the subject. I hope this doesn’t offend anyone, but he is literally at home from one vantage point, home in heaven. I am at the point in grieving that I don’t mind getting deep into the prying minds. And I also have the confidence to just say, “I don’t want to talk about it.” It’s like a muscle because early on, those words never came quickly. Also, remember you likely have PTSD, and tears might just gush, and that’s okay.
If your child has passed and had friends, I will say this off the bat be ready; a friend will say, “He’s in heaven, I liked him.” The older the child, the more diverse it will show itself, but it’s all the same punch to the gut. I was at a playground, and at no fault of the child’s, he came out with that. It was Earth-shattering; I could have collapsed. I just was not prepared one bit. So, I suggest you come prepared when your friends’ children talk to you.
Others just ask the most awful things, “Do you think your child will be okay, growing up as an only child?” “A ‘real’ family is a family of four.” Yes, that is not a lie, someone actually said that to me, knowing very well I cannot have any more children. This is the point where you get up and leave or just acknowledge this person is not your friend and stay. So, yes, there are really mean people out there. But there are very nice ones too. They know when you freeze at the sight of a feeding tube to get you to turn and focus on something else. They know not to assign My Sister’s Keeper to the book club. They know you are in the middle of a panic attack because you have a flashback and offer water. For every mean person I have met, I meet twice as many nice ones. Keep your eyes out for the nice ones; they are keepers.
But also expect other things, like people never wanting to discuss your child ever again. This reminds me of a TV show, the Vampire Diaries. When Damian tells Caroline after her mom passes, “You might think today [the funeral] is the worst day of your life, but it’s not.” He explains that she will be the only one that hurts in the days following; people will stop hurting for her. His character is right, do expect that it will happen. Some may continue to ask questions about your experience because they are a little socially out of touch with things. But all in all, you are the keeper of your child’s memory, you keep them alive in your heart, and that is what matters. I don’t hold anything against others for moving on, because honestly, it’s not their loss.