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.
I just had this conversation with my dear friend Jeanine whose daughter Emily died unexpectantly about a year ago. I have shared your stories about your sweet boys and will send this one on to her today. hugs to you all.
Thanks Gene! And so sorry to hear about Emily.
This post was beautiful, real, and practical all at the same time. Grief is part of the human experience, but it seems like most of us have no idea how to do it well with people who are going through it. It seems obvious that distancing ourselves from those who are in it isn’t the right response, but sometimes the discomfort gets the best of us. Thank you for putting words to that which many who are grieving would like to express. Those of us who haven’t experienced such great loss are blessed to learn how we can” get it” and be there for our friends in similar circumstances.
Thank you for sharing this. There is no “easy” way to deal with the realities of what some of our friends have experienced, but I never want to forget to acknowledge them or that reality, either.
I pray God’s Highest and Best Blessings on you and your family, Kyle. Yours must be the transparent heart that God loves and wants us all to strive for. You and Robin are special and inspirational to all who read your blog.
Thank you for your insight to those of us who have not experienced grief in the same way that you have. It has inspired me to reach out to a friend who has recently lost a son. I guess it is not so much what you say but that you care enough about the person to ask how they are doing and be willing to listen.
Thanks for sharing Sally – that made my day.
Kyle and Robyn,
This was so well written it touched me to the core.
This really hits home! It helps us to know we aren’t the only grieving parents who feel this way! Thank you so much for sharing.
love you guys…love your heart…love your transparency and in this post, your practical counsel to others who just don’t know that it’s important to not pretend the children we’ve lost never existed. We love having the opportunity to share Ezra with people…and all that his precious legacy is doing to help other children and their families. xxoo
my parents, too, lost a son when i was 18. i have a large amount of respect for them as to how they handled it. i can still hear my father say through his tears that you dont expect to bury your children, you expect them to bury you. i miss brian very much, and wonder what life would be like with him alive. please remain hopeful…i too, am waiting to see brian again in the heavens…
This is written so well. We’ve learned a lot through our family’s battle with neuroblastoma this year and one of those lessons is being open and running to the anxiety of comforting someone you love as they battle with grief and pain. Thank you for sharing this.