There’s no such thing as a small soul.
Children may be small in stature, but we adults make a critical error if we assume that their smaller stature mirrors a lesser capacity to experience emotion, spiritual depth, and heartbreak. The minds, souls, and spirits of children are just as real, viable, and dynamic as those of adults. So when cancer comes to their home, they may feel its presence just as profoundly and powerfully as adults—they simply lack the wisdom gained from life experiences to help them understand and cope with this mysterious, unwelcome, and threatening intruder. They need the wise guidance of adults to help them navigate cancer’s troubled waters.
What children rarely lack, however, is the ability to be honest and the willingness to share how they see things. Notice the honesty and depth of feeling in eleven-year-old Mark Haskin’s letter to Dave about his brother’s cancer:
When I heard the bad news, I didn’t know what to think. I didn’t know if I was sad or mad or if I was afraid. The reason I didn’t know how to feel was because I didn’t know what cancer was. But when my parents told me it is an illness that some people could die from, I was kind of sad and afraid at the same time.
Soon my brother Brian started getting chemotherapy treatments. That is when I started feeling sorry for him. I felt sorry for him because he got his treatments through needles. At home, he had to get a shot once a day. I usually got his stuffed animal for him because he wanted something to squeeze when he was getting his shot. When he was at the hospital getting his treatments, I visited him there. I would look at him all sick and miserable, lying in his bed. I just felt like taking his place so he could feel better and be able to run around and play with his friends. But on the other hand, I was thinking, I’m glad I’m not in his shoes.
Sometimes I was mad because there were things I wanted to do, like have a friend sleep over, but I couldn’t because Brian was in the hospital and my parents had to be with him. It seemed like it was spoiling my life.
At night when I was lying in bed, I would ask God, “Why does this have to happen to Brian? If we lost him it would destroy our whole family.” Then I realized that God has a reason for everything He does and I know that it is a good reason, even though it does not seem like it at the time.
Brian has been cancer free for almost one year now. When I lie in bed now I thank God for healing Brian and answering my prayers.
Parents who realize how deeply their well children feel cancer’s impact and make efforts to bring them along the journey are a great help to their children. In Mark’s case, his parents told him the truth. He knew the illness was serious. He connected with what his brother was going through. He had the opportunity to express compassion for his brother by supporting him through prayer and practical assistance.
But it isn’t easy for parents to know where to draw the line on truth—how much they should tell or when. One guideline is to remember that your goal is trust. Trust is the glue that holds a family together, and trust is built on truth. How much truth should be shared varies with each child’s age, temperament, and emotional maturity because no two children will react to the same information in the same way.
One obstacle to telling the truth is fear of how the child will react. A child’s crying or display of intense emotion may be uncomfortable or even unpleasant, but it is normal and appropriate to feel deep and disturbing feelings when a family member is seriously ill. On the other extreme, some children are slow to express their feelings openly and may need encouragement, even “permission,” to do so. When children aren’t given a safe, loving environment in which to express their deep emotions, they may, like a shaken soda can, explode under the pressure.
Although it may seem easier to ignore the truth, the potential consequences of shielding children from it are devastating. Children will sense that something is wrong. They will feel anxiety. And when they aren’t told the truth, they will draw their own conclusions—wrong conclusions. They may, for example, conclude that they are to blame for what is happen-ing, assume that things are far worse than they really are, or fear that the cancer will spread to them. These are terrible burdens for children to bear.
Just by knowing what is going on, children can begin to cope. By actively teaching their children to cope with the reality of cancer, parents are teaching them how to live successfully, and that’s what a parent’s job is. As Dr. Wendy Harpham says, “The greatest gift you can give your children is not protection from change, loss, pain or stress, but the confidence and tools to cope and grow with all that life has to offer.”*
Of course, we need wisdom to know when, what, and how to tell our children the truth—and wisdom is available to us. The Bible promises, “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him” (James 1:5). So ask God to give you the wisdom to know what to say and the discernment to discover and touch the needs of your child’s heart.
Wisdom is needed because your task isn’t easy. When the whirlwind of life with cancer strikes a family, spiritual and emotional needs increase just as the time and energy to meet them decreases. No matter how attentive or committed a parent you are, some needs will go unmet.
One night, Debra Johnson discovered an unmet need. Her son Andrew had recently undergone a below-the-knee amputation to arrest the spread of bone cancer. As Debra tucked her six-year-old daughter Natalie into bed, Natalie slowly and deliberately looked over her entire body. Finally, she announced that she wanted to have her little finger amputated! Debra convinced her otherwise, but the request revealed how much Natalie, the youngest of five children, missed the attention her brother was now receiving.
Even in the midst of the whirlwind, parents can take steps to minimize cancer’s impact:
- As much as possible, allow children to maintain their own interests and activities. Doing so will help them feel normal. It will help them realize that life will go on and that they can pursue their dreams. If needed, enlist the help of others to drive them to lessons, sports events, and birthday parties.
- Stick to the same family routine whenever possible. Bedtime, mealtime, chores, and behavioral rules shouldn’t change. Structure nurtures stability and security—key components of emotional well-being.
- Watch for warning signs that a child is struggling—behavioral and sleep changes, trouble at school, and difficulties with friends. If you suspect trouble, set aside special time with that child—perhaps a meal at the child’s favorite restaurant, seeing a movie, or taking a walk. Provide the environment and attention they need to share what’s troubling them. If needed, seek the help of a pastor or counselor.
And remember, no matter how hard you try, you can’t do it all. Early in her husband Chad’s battle with Lou Gehrig’s dis-ease, Beth Risley recognized her limitations in meeting her children’s individual needs. She knew outside help was essential, so for the past fifteen years, she has prayed this prayer: You are my Father and the true Father of our children. Please help my children to trust You. Please answer their questions, be there when I can’t, and watch over them. Make me aware of the needs in their life that I can meet. I trust You to meet the rest. You are my Father and the true Father of our children. Please help my children to trust You. Please answer their questions, be there when I can’t, and watch over them. Make me aware of the needs in their life that I can meet. I trust You to meet the rest.
Her prayer points to the one reality in the unpredictable life of cancer that is pre-dictable—the loving care of our heavenly Father. He is the only one who knows for sure what will happen, will never leave them, can heal their deepest hurts and wounds. He is the sure and steadfast anchor they need the most.
By teaching our children to trust God and seek Him daily, we strengthen their ability to cope and even grow through the hardship of cancer. As with any other truth we seek to teach our children, they learn best displayed daily, it reinforces their own. And this most important training comes with a written guarantee: “Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it” (Proverbs 22:6).