I got an unexpected phone call yesterday.
A friend who I hadn’t heard from in a couple years called me. We talked about nothing for a few minutes, and I asked to what I owed the pleasure of the call. My friend said something like this:
“I wanted to apologize. When you were going through everything with Ezra, it was just too much for us to deal with. Emotionally it was too hard. We simply stopped calling or being around.
When Ezra died, I didn’t know how to reach back out to you. I felt so bad. So I just let us drift apart. I’m sorry. I don’t know if now is too little too late, but I just wanted to say how sorry I am.”
Wow. I was humbled and amazed to get this call. To my friend – thank you for having the personal conviction to say this to me. It means more than you know. I hold no frustration at all toward you, and am thrilled to have got your call.
This isn’t the first person to say this to us (although it is the second). When you lose a child to cancer, you become a member of this unofficial club of all parents who’ve felt the loss of a son; a daughter. Across the country and the world, through the internet, conferences, and our work with Because of Ezra we’ve met scores of families who’ve lost children. We’ve had many, many talks with people who have become great friends, discussing the strange things which occur when your child has cancer – and even stranger things when your child dies.
Over and again we hear the same story my friend told me yesterday – friends stop calling, people stop reaching out. There’s a depth of sadness inherent in the death of a child which shakes a person to the core. Beliefs are challenged, thoughts turn inward; people get reflective. For many people, like my friend, it’s just too heavy a burden to be constantly reminded of.
And yet, here Robyn and I are, living it.
We now carry an understanding of personal tragedy which is part of our cores. And it’s odd to me to think how heavy our hearts often feel, then think about our great friends Mike and Deb Gilbert in Uganda, who work to help a culture where a 50% mortality rate in children is simply the norm. We are blessed even in these losses.
People tend to do one of two things after losing a child – they become passionate about working to make sure this doesn’t happen for someone else, or they become passionate about getting very far from it. Teju Cole said “if you’re too loyal to your own suffering, you forget that others suffer, too.” That sentiment drives us to fight back against neuroblastoma, which we do through Because of Ezra, our non-profit.
And guess what? People don’t get on board from the sad stories. There are many studies showing (and our own experiences have echoed these findings) sad truths simply drive people away. You may get a donation from guilt, but then people are out. We don’t want to be reminded of suffering. I have to craft everything we say through Because of Ezra to be hopeful, always hopeful. Skip the tears, because everything is fine.
To be fair – there is hope, which is the thing; it’s the reason we even do it. The work we’re doing is helping, and we can see it in the families and children who are on the trials we’re helping to fund. But I’m saying I don’t want us to forget something:
Things aren’t always fine.
When your heart and head are overwhelmed by the suffering of another, tell them. Say just that. “My heart is overwhelmed by all of this. I don’t have anything to offer, this is just so much.” We feel it too, in those moments. I mean, still, we feel it now. All the time. And our life today is great, though it’s built on a foundation of love and passion mixed with pain and hurt. The hard parts don’t go away just because they happened a while ago. Like I’ve mentioned – don’t be afraid to talk to us about our sons who are no longer here. We certainly haven’t stopped thinking of them as our family.
There’s this tendency people have not to acknowledge emotional pain, or to only do so indirectly by pointing out the good that came from the hurt. Maybe we were told somewhere along the lines that’s the correct way to do it. It’s not. On the flip side, it also doesn’t help if every conversation is wailing and depression personified. A simple acknowledgment of “wow, that must have been so hard” is enough to tell me you get it and are with me. If I want to chat from there I’ll lead it that way.
It doesn’t help if I say my kid had cancer and your first response is to list the good that came from it. As if these are reasons he had to die. When in truth (and this is slightly just semantics, but important ones), those good things happened because we decided to push through the pain and do something to help those who will be facing this tomorrow, or the next day. A flower blooming in a lot after a home burns down doesn’t negate or bless the fire; it just proves beauty can come from ashes.
Ignoring each other’s hurt has a devastating side effect – it makes us think we shouldn’t be feeling it. Suddenly the person hurting feels they’re the outcast – this most painful thing happening to them is awkward for others, and so they bottle it up. Brush the dirt under the coffee table; flip the couch cushion over to show you the good side when stuffing is falling out underneath. Rather, I’d ask you this – when your friends are hurting, don’t be afraid to approach something which is hard to hear or talk about. These are the moments you are truly caring for someone. It matters. It may hurt, but you may be surprised the compassion it begins to open in your life.
To my friend who called me yesterday – thank you. I realize I spoke a lot about the subject here, and I want to clarify it’s not just about you. Many people feel that same thing, and most never acknowledge it. I’m glad you did.