Two acquaintances I have from high school years just buried their 22 year-old son. Stephen had Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a form of cancer that attacks the immune system. It wasn’t the first time someone I knew lost a child to the ravages of cancer. A friend I knew from my time in the Twin Cities cared for his son Cameron through his battle with anaplastic astrocytoma, a cancer affecting the brain. As a parent, I cannot fathom the depth of grief in losing a child. A child is nothing short of your very heart on two legs. They are part of you. Because I’ve never experienced this profound loss, I can only assume that it is as if part of you dies. Having just returned to Utah after living out of state for a number of years, I felt the need to support these classmates of mine as best I could, so I attended the viewing. Stephen had touched quite a lot of lives, so the receiving line was rather long. When I finally got to my friends, I felt empty. I just had no words.
The best I could do was to simply be there. Sometimes, that’s enough. Because I haven’t been a neighbor and a friend for quite some time, I didn’t know what exactly they needed at that moment, but I hope that their family, their neighbors, and their church have been and continue to meet their emotional needs as well as those very practical ordinary ones.
I tend to be rather stoic, self-sufficient to a fault, and usually nonplussed by the hurdles that life puts in front of me. I’ve generally cleared these obstacles through attrition or endurance and by sheer willpower more often than not, but when it comes to a loved one enduring suffering, a feeling of helplessness will attempt to overpower me. It’s usually at a time like that where one’s faith steps in, but for me, I want something more tangible. I want some way to control the situation. I want to fix the problem. The obvious flaw in my logic is that there are simply things that cannot be fixed in the quick, convenient way we Americans are accustomed.
Not every problem has a solution, not every disagreement has an anodyne, and clearly, not every illness has a drug.
The thing I’ve seen in people who have survived tragedy is that one of two things generally happens: the first is that that the glue that held their lives together just isn’t strong enough or they come through with an amazing sense of empathy, wisdom, and a new softness to their smiles that somehow belie the pain of their great loss. I have seen the latter in my Minneapolis friend and I’m rooting for that same result in my classmates!
I’ve stewed over this for the past couple of weeks and I still have no words, but I what I have is simply what each of us has - ourselves. I have strong shoulders capable of carrying the burden of tears and my arms are capable of enveloping the unseen feelings that want to spill out in every direction. I have the time to listen to the thoughts that were just yesterday, mundane and pretty boring. The only way I could really have any feel for why it makes any sense is not because I’ve lost a child, but because this week, I found myself wandering through the hematology/oncology ward at the Salt Lake City VA Hospital heading toward an appointment for a bone marrow biopsy. If the word biopsy on the other end of the phone doesn’t take your breath away, not much can. But this wasn’t for a friend’s child or a friend. It was for me. As I write this, I don’t know what lies in front of me medically and while I’m a bit spooked, I’m not mentally working through the limits of my mortality.
And while I was mentally processing this experience, I knew what I needed and what I didn’t. And just as it was with my friends just a couple of weeks prior, I just had no words…because words weren’t what I needed. I daresay there are people around us all that really don’t need our words as much as they simply need us. Don’t wait for a life-altering event to put that proposition to the test.
May I suggest you visit these pages, dedicated to my friends' children and if you are able, please make a donation of any size in their memory to the cancer charity of your choice. Thank you.