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July 7, 2011

A friend's child is fighting against death

BriArt of iStock Photo
I knew when I got the call last night that the news would not be something I wanted to hear. My friend's adult son has valiantly fought melanoma for nearly two years. In the last few weeks, though, the experimental chemo ceased to quell the cancer and, as so often happens, compromised his immune system. He is in the hospital now, and my friends, his mother and father, are with him.  To get there, they had to drive through a rainstorm in the Rocky mountains. It's both odd and amazing how natural events can intensify our grief and worry. I am sure that the storm outside matched the storms that each of them felt inside as they drove through the dying light, hurrying to the airport.

This experience, unfortunately, is not new to me. Six of my close friends have lost children. The circumstances and ages have all been different, but the loss of a child remains colossal, no matter the age or circumstances. Colossal, bigger than all things human, destroys all scale, all sense of logic, reason, and natural order. 

Were it in my power, I would "take this cup from" each of them. This, however, is not in my power. What is in my power is to drink from the cup with them and to choose to be present for my friends in this darkest hour. People who lose children often have the least support of anyone during grief. The knowledge that any parent can lose a child scares us all witless. If we just don't think about it, if we just don't let ourselves come in contact with this catastrophe in someone else's life, maybe we can be safe from this. We may not think these thoughts consciously, but thinking them is a natural, instinctive reaction.  

And a wrong one. The right thing to do is to show up.  Just stand there. Understand that you cannot make a dent in a bereaved parent's grief, but you can be there for them. You can show up and say, "This is horrible. I hate that you have to endure this loss. I will walk through the loss with you, though." Early in the loss, it's hard to know what to do. Bring food?  Help write thank you notes?  These help. As does offering to mow the lawn, run errands, or do laundry.  But I still think the biggest thing is just to show up, not run away, and be prepared to show up over a long period of time.

Research indicates that it takes four years to feel something of a return to normal after the loss of a child. (I think this is true for other losses, as well, depending on the relationship.) So, make it a point to check in with your friend over the next few years.  This does not have to be a big-deal commitment. Just promise that you will call them every four to eight weeks, and say, "How are you?" and then listen, really listen to how they are.  Remember you are not responsible for fixing their grief, but for walking through it with them. Right now, whether male or female, that parent is the elderly woman that you, the boy or girl scout, has agreed to help walk across a dangerous, high-traffic thoroughfare. Just hold their hand and walk with them.

I called my friend this morning. We talked for just five minutes. I assured her that my brother and I are praying for all of them, that we will call and check in with her to see how her son's condition either advances or deteriorates.  We are and will be HERE for them.

Do I wish it were different?  Yes, I would like to cure their son of his cancer, wind the clock back to the year before the diagnosis, recreate the happy family portrait of him, his wife and two daughters. Out of my power--oh, so far out of my power.  So, I must content myself with saying the prayer, "Lord, do not let what I can't do keep me from doing what I can do."  I can be with them.  Be with them, no matter what.

hronos 7 of iStock Photo
Do you know someone in grief to whom you can offer the gift of your presence?  For your presence is indeed a great gift. Never let the spectre of death convince you that your presence is not needed, not valuable. Send that email, make that phone call, knock on that door, and just say, "I'm here. I am thinking of you. I have not forgotten you, or your child, or your loss."

Speaking from experience, I can tell you that you will always be glad that you did, that you chose the sacred thing to do, that you helped a friend cross the uncrossable, bear the unbearable. May we all, in whatever loss comes our way, be helped by just such a friend.

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