When Your Child Is Seriously Ill: A Constructive Postmodern Approach
Dr. Bruce G. Epperly
Just over three years ago, my daughter-in-law called me one evening with the words, “Matt’s in the emergency room. He had trouble breathing, and they found a large mass in his chest. They think it may be cancer.” Needless to say, I was devastated. In that moment, my first response was “he may die from this.” The two hour drive from Lancaster to Washington D.C. where they lived seemed to last forever, and my call to my wife who was on a spiritual pilgrimage in Scotland was one of the most difficult moments of my life. Several years before he was diagnosed with cancer, our son was also diagnosed with a rare non-malignant tumor. I felt the same feelings of helplessness and anxiety return at the thought of cancer just as he was beginning his marriage and returning to graduate school for his M.B.A.
Needless to say, realistic parents sooner or later realize that there are no guarantees in life and that they can never fully safeguard their children from unexpected pain and illness– whether due to an earthquake, car accident, mental health issue, or cancer. Still, the fact that we can’t control reality or protect our children from all ill doesn’t mean that we should be passive when our children are at risk. In the next few paragraphs, I will reflect on my own experience of parenting and sickness. I will share my feelings at that time and I will also describe the ways I was able to deal with my son’s illness in a creative and life-supportive way. The good news is that through medication and meditation, the best of Western medicine as well as Reiki and acupuncture, my son survived and now is the father of a five month old boy!
When our child is diagnosed with a serious illness, we initially feel a combination of denial and fear. “This can’t be happening,” we say to ourselves, “not to my baby, not to my child. How can this be?” Our world is turned upside down and we are disoriented. Everything is surreal and unbelievable. As I drove to Washington D.C., I couldn’t believe what I heard. I imagined that I could turn back the clock and go back to the happy world proud parents and newlywed children.
“This couldn’t be true,” I said to myself,” this must be a dream.”
None of our feelings should be denied; nor should we deny our pain and tears, although sometimes we need to conceal them in their rawness in the presence of our children. They need our strength and words of encouragement. We are their anchor when they are afraid. They depend on us for their well-being and security, and we should provide this reassurance. But, it is good to find a group of friends with whom we can share our deepest feelings. It has been said that “courage is fear that has said its prayers.” I see prayer in this context not as the invocation of a supernatural reality but openness to forces of health and healing in our own lives, in the care of others, and in a power within the universe that is greater than us.
As you know from reading JJB, many of us who are influenced by Whitehead’s philosophy believe that there is spirit of goodness at work in our world. We speak of the Spirit as the Love Supreme; a Harmony of Harmonies; God. We feel that this Harmony is a listening presence who is companion to the joys and sufferings of all people, and also a continuous presence in the world itself, a lure toward healing and wholeness. But there are many influences in the world in addition to this lure. Our trust in the Harmony – in the spirit of goodness at work in the world – does not guarantee that our children and loved ones will be healed, but it gives us courage and strength whatever happens, as it happens.
This courage is a relational courage, a vulnerable strength, a willingness to be touched by the suffering of others and to be in touch with our own suffering. When we break down, it is not a sign of weakness but a willingness to face our lives in their entirety as well as reach out to others. So, in the midst of pain, seek the comfort of good friends and family to sustain us for the difficult days ahead.
As my wife and I realized, when your child is diagnosed with a serious illness, you soon learn that you are in it for the long haul. Caring for a seriously ill child is not a sprint, but a marathon requiring all the energy, patience, love, and courage you can muster. For three months, I shuttled between my home in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and my son’s home in Washington D.C., accompanying him during chemotherapy, taking him to appointments, and just spending time with him, a father and his son. I needed to care for him, but I also needed to take care of myself.
For me, this meant time for prayer, meditation, and exercise, along with reaching out to friends. Self-care deepens our compassion and enables us to care for others, especially in difficult times. At such times, you need to draw on your unique resources of self-care, the ways that you replenish your energy and spiritual life.
If you are in a situation like this, I hope that my own experience can help you. When your beloved child is facing illness and pain, you must find ways to be both honest and reassuring with him or her. You need to share, in ways appropriate to the child’s age and maturity, accurate information about her or his health condition. Deception eventually leads to alienation, and robs us of the energy of love we most need at the time. Still, as you share appropriate information, we need to reassure your child that you deeply love her or him and that you are doing everything – along with the medical professionals – to insure their well-being. Your child is stronger than we often think. Your own honesty helps them draw on their own resources for healing.
Great challenges call for great love and compassion. While there are many ways to respond creatively to a sick child, our care and love for them can be an important part of the healing process. Our love can be a force of healing that complements and enhances the medical treatments our child is receiving. This is the Whiteheadian way, and it is, more than that, a deeply human way. When we study the Confucian tradition in the West, we sometimes learn that the aim of this cultural tradition is to become fully human. When our children grow ill, we have no choice but to become more fully human. Our full humanity does not lie in having everything happen as we wish it lies in being able to respond to whatever happens in a kind and creative way, trustful that, in some mysterious way, all events are enfolded in a Peace beyond our understanding. This Peace is the harmony of harmonies.