When my son Vincent was diagnosed with liver cancer back in June 2010, my primary goal was to keep life as 'normal' as possible. I wanted only to get through his treatment and forget it ever happened. After all, terrible things like childhood cancer don't happen to our family.
Yes, I was experiencing massive amounts of denial.
As we spent week after week in the hospital, I frequently noticed posters advertising the start of a new support group for parents of children with cancer. Though I initially resisted the thought of hanging out with "the cancer people," our family was thrust into a group of precious individuals well-acquainted with grief, disappointment, and tragedy. Since attending our first group meeting last year, we have participated whenever possible. This year alone, two families from the group have watched their children die. One passed away just a few days ago.
Belonging to a grief-filled community means abandoning the luxury of ignoring life's inherent risks and dangers. It means admitting fragility and powerlessness over tragic events that shape our brief lives on this planet. Before Vincent's diagnosis, I belonged to a privileged slice of society whose main worry for their little children concerned where to send them to school and whether or not to vaccinate. Our family was well on its way to achieving comfortable American middle-classdom. I held a stable position in church leadership, my husband was completing graduate school, and we were enjoying the development of our two young sons.
One year later, here I am with no job, one less child, and discouraging prospects for the immediate future. I'm currently a stay-at-home mom to my fragile four-year-old, bartering music lessons for discounted preschool and holding garage sales to pay utility bills. Much has been lost.
And yet, there remains unlikely connectedness and community in the midst of pain. We are not the only grieving family. We recently stayed six weeks in the Philippines where loss and death are all around, homelessness and starvation just a typhoon away. In a world rife with suffering, our afflictions bring us closer to the life of deep awareness and trust. Who has time to chase after a bigger house or nicer car when your child is intubated at death's door? When someone you love passes away, it doesn't matter which name brand you're wearing or what kind of status bag hangs on your shoulder.
For me, participation in a pain-scarred community means living authentically, surviving on faith. It means caring more about time spent with others than money earned for myself. Vincent's illness changed my life, not just because he died, but because we are now part of a global community of people who live tremulously. I can no longer presume security and entitlement. I'm starting to surrender my demands for control, opening my heart to a more simple way of life. This last year has seen our family begin the path of downward mobility. Each loss brings a greater appreciation for life's fragile beauty.
I'm reminded of Jesus, our servant king, who willingly chose a humble path marked by sorrow. Scripture says he emptied himself of the glories of heaven in exchange for the poverty and vulnerability of human flesh. "Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head..." He left behind a joyous relationship with his Father to be part of a flawed human family. He gave up the wealth of heaven to eek out a living as a carpenter, losing celestial perfection for the brokenness of human society—quite an exchange! He died a criminal's death in order to become the world's greatest hope for peace and reconciliation. In choosing the downward path at an inestimable cost to himself, he fully identified as one of us, a wounded brother.
Our hospital's Childhood Cancer Connection support group has been a tremendous gift this past year. I never thought I'd want to be part of a community formed in the shadow of sickness and death. Ironically, the group continues to enrich me with a greater reverence for life, anchoring me in a context of shared experience, reminding me of what matters most.
There is still a long way to go on this downward path. I struggle with entitlement, bitterness and anger. I want more and more things, believing I deserve them for having lost my child. I often forget how the call to follow Christ is a call to pick up my cross. The smaller and emptier we are, the more space remains to be filled with God's Spirit. Even though the abundant life is marked with sorrow, it's also punctuated by divine joy. As John the Baptist once said, "He must increase, and I must decrease."