Kids just shouldn’t get cancer. That’s my opinion, but it really doesn’t seem to matter much. When my then three-year-old son Joshua was diagnosed with Acute Lymphomic Leukemia (cancer of the blood) I thought my life was over. He is my only son, and I love him more than words can describe. After his diagnosis, my wife Kathi and I were completely devastated and scared, struggling from day to day as we dealt with this horrible, life-changing diagnosis.
Two months into Josh’s rigorous chemo treatment program the initial shock began to wear off, and a dreary reality set in. Life had changed, and we were forced to battle our precious son’s disease from the sidelines. 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. Instead I made a conscious decision to trust God with every battle every day. Some days I won, some days I lost. 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. Finally, after three years of chemo, Josh was given a clean bill of health. Now, twelve years later he is seventeen, 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 the nuances not talked about in textbooks or covered in college courses. How you respond to hurting people matter whether it’s from a physical illness or emotional crisis. You can bring encouragement and hope or isolation and doubt. This is what I learned through my journey:
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. This can be devastating to those who are hurting. One of my good friends, who I anticipated would call me, never did. He never stopped by the hospital, sent a Facebook message, an e-mail, or even a text asking how I was. I ran into him about six months after Josh’s diagnosis went public, and he said he just wanted to “give me some space.” If “giving space” is the same as “abandoning,” he succeeded. Sure, I could have called, but I was so broken I honestly just needed others to reach out to me. The hurt was so great, and the situation was so overwhelming, that it was about all I could do to function and support Josh, let alone reach out to others. If you know someone who has been diagnosed with a serious illness or is experiencing a serious crisis, the worst thing you can do is to do nothing. Call, e-mail, Facebook, send a card; 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, Caring Bridge post, and letter over and over, finding strength in the faith, words, and actions of others.
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. Never underestimate the blessing you can be to someone, even if you don’t know them that well. And if you have a hurting friend, step up and be a helping friend.
3. Some people will avoid you because they think whatever is wrong with you 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 contagious. Some people will avoid you in your time of need because your problem is more than they can handle. Trust me, you will then run into these people someplace. When you do, cough on them just for fun. And then try to understand they are not trying to hurt you; they just don’t know how to handle you and your problem.
4. When it’s over, you will need to forgive some people. You will need to communicate with the people who didn’t react to you how you thought they should. To this day I can remember everyone who came to see us at the hospital. I can also remember those who never came. I had to work through my own emotions because I was angry with my friends whom I thought would be there for me. I was hurt that they didn’t seem to care. I gently talked with them one by one over time, and shared what I went through so they knew how I felt. I also told a couple other people who avoided me how much this hurt me; one cried, both apologized. When I spoke with others, I simply explained our journey, hoping that by sharing our experience, they would react differently to someone else in similar circumstances. I didn’t condemn them with guilt or shame. I just spoke the truth in love and prayed our relationship would be re-established. Most of all, I had to let go and try to understand that our friends didn’t intentionally mean to hurt us; they just didn’t know how to react.
Jesus says: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” John 15:34-36. If you know someone who is hurting physically or emotionally, I hope I have helped you to see things from their perspective. If you don’t do anything, it is going to hurt them and damage the relationship. Even if you have nothing to say, say something. Write them a note telling them you care. Send them an encouraging email. Bring them dinner. Just let them know you care by doing or saying something. And if you are the one 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. You need to coach them by sharing how to help you right now.