People do indeed say the darndest things when you have cancer. Here’s a sampling of what I heard when I was sick:
Phlebotomist: “Non-Hodgkin’s. That’s the bad cancer, right?”
Neighbor: “Non-Hodgkin’s? My brother’s been battling that for eight years. It’s not good, man. Not good.”
Me: (incredulous) “Some people say that I attracted my cancer with my thoughts.”
Friend: “You probably did.”
Now, nearly seven years since my diagnosis, I’d like to add another darndest saying to my list:
“Your kids will be okay. Children are resilient.”
“Our society has accepted as conventional wisdom that children have superior powers to work through emotional trauma on their own.”
Really. How do you know how my kids will be after their mother nearly dies from cancer? I know that it’s meant to be comforting, perhaps a euphemism for, “Don’t worry. You’re not ruining your kids’ childhoods. They’ll get over it.” But it’s a platitude that hasn’t rung true here. Resilience takes work, and we are still working on it.
Somehow, our society has accepted as conventional wisdom that children have superior powers to work through emotional trauma on their own, and come out the other end unscathed and emotionally secure.
We have to teach them that they must share their toys with the other kids instead of smacking their play-dates in the head.
We have to coerce them to use their “inside voices,” and we tell them to “use your words” in lieu of collapsing in a ball of tears on the kitchen floor.
We have to help them deal with losing heartbreakingly close soccer games, and show them how to stand up to bullies.
We have to demonstrate the appropriate times and places to show and share feelings, and we have to guide them through the grief of losing a pet or a grandparent.
But cancer (divorce/chronic illness/injuries/job loss/bankruptcy)? Oh, they’ll bounce back. Kids are resilient, right?
So, thanks for your meant-to-be kind words, but I’ve got a better idea for helping kids through their parents’ cancer:
- Tell them the truth with age appropriate information.
- Use the word “cancer” with them before somebody else does. (“I heard your mommy has cancer.”)
- Don’t tell them how they should feel. You are not them.
- Don’t try to “fix” it.
- Acknowledge how they feel. For validation, use the words, “No wonder,” as in “No wonder you’re feeling sad and scared.” Because those are normal feelings when your parent has cancer.
- Ask them, “What one thing would help you feel a little better?” Be prepared for the answer “Disney” or for teens, “a car,” and then lead them to something smaller and more immediate.
- Surround them with adults who can handle their very normal bad feelings without trying to talk them out of them. This includes a good person-centered pediatric or teen therapist.
- Don’t insist that they are naturally resilient. Resilience is learned and earned. Here’s your start.
Oh, and for the phlebotomist who insisted that I had the “bad cancer,” which, she said, didn’t “kill” her father, but the cancer treatments did: I’m still here, honey. You can put a Band Aid on that.