Lamenting the cancer discussion with our children. (Psalm 77)
It’s dark at 5:30 a.m. and I’m sneaking out of the house before the boys wake up. I elude the creaks and cracks of the floor, tiptoeing past their bedroom. Assuming the coast is clear, I start to head downstairs when a soft, concerned voice whispers, “Dad, where are you going?”
Surprised Caleb is awake, I quickly consider how to respond. Do I tell a little fib? “I’m going for a jog” (unlikely). Or, “I’m getting an early start on breakfast and your lunches” (unusual). The truth that daily breaks my heart is to painful to speak, “I’m going to stare cancer in the face and receive life or death treatment. I’m going to find out how long I have to live.”
How does a parent handle their child’s fragile heart that believes his Dad is healthy, not sick. Strong, not weak. The family's provider, not the one in need. I’m weary holding his childlike concern and decide to punt for another day. I reply, “Buddy, Dad has a doctor's appointment this morning. Go back to bed and don’t wake up mom or your brothers.”
Needless to say, I don't have a great answer. Over the last two years, I’ve learned a lot through the help of social workers, therapists and others who have walked this path. Rarely, though, has anyone touched my deepest heart wounds.
The Psalms, however, have taught me how to grieve and lament life's unanswerable questions. I often make Psalm 77’s sincere words my own in the dark of night.
1. I cry aloud to God,aloud to God, and he will hear me.2. In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord;In the night my hand is stretched out without wearying;my soul refuses to be comforted.3. When I remember God, I moan;when I meditate, my spirit faints.
- Psalm 77:1-3
My son’s innocent question strikes at the core of my fears. He hardly knows what cancer is, let alone that his dad has it. I've avoided the conversation to this point, but spend a significant portion of each day replaying what seems inevitable in the theater of my mind: life cut short and my boys growing up without their father.
God can handle the disappointment
Like Psalm 77:3-4, I often cry out and at times, physically reach out, wondering if God is there and listening. I appreciate the honesty of these verses and adopt the prayerful heartache, “my soul refuses to be comforted … I moan and my spirit faints.”
As my boys understand more, anxiety disrupts turning my “day to trouble.” This valley has been dark and lonely, but I've found a peculiar comfort in God’s word, how it sits with me in the dispair. God speaks through a lament rather than simplistic advice that someone suffering would rather not hear. The Psalms are a wise counselor.
Remembering past faithfulness
The night before a recent MRI, my oldest son Caleb caught me reading my bible on my knees. It just happened to be Psalm 77 and he asked me why I seemed sad. Candidly, I told him I was talking to God about my doctor’s appointment in the morning. With great fear he asked, “are you going to get a shot?” He knows from experience how miserable that can be. I told him that I would have to get a shot, but that wasn’t what I was most scared about.
I asked if I could show him a portion of what I was reading. We read the encouraging appeal to remember God's faithfulness especially when we're afraid and hope is hard to find.10. Then I said, “I will appeal to this,to the years of the right hand of the Most High.”11. I will remember the deeds of the LORD;yes, I will remember your wonders of old.12. I will ponder all your work,and meditate on your mighty deeds.13. Your way, O God, is holy.What god is great like our God?…19. Your way was through the sea,your path through the great waters;yet your footprints were unseen.20. You led your people like a flockby the hand of Moses and Aaron.
- Psalm 77:10-20
As the boys comprehend my cancer and experience this broken world, my hope is to instill a growing trust in God’s faithfulness, even when his way leads through the sea of suffering and his “footprints are unseen” (v. 19). God continually used mediators (v.20) to rescue his people and definitively so by sending his own son. I pray they know Jesus hears their cry and they take his hand that's reaching out to lead them through life.For this God is our God for ever and ever; he will be our guide even to the end.
- Psalm 48:14
Looking to future glory
When the sky's darkened at the cross, Jesus took our sin upon himself and cried out with a Psalm ( Ps. 22:1). God used his suffering and apparent defeat to turn the darkest evil into the greatest imaginable good for all who will look to him with repentance and faith (John 3:14-16).
So, take heart in what Jesus Christ has done - Caleb, Nathan, and Matthew - Dad will be with him forevermore.
Resources I've found helpful
If you have a resource or insight that's been helpful to you, please reach out!
- Legacy Retreats® (Inheritance of Hope)
- Talking with Children About Cancer (Dana-Farber Cancer Institute)
- Telling a Child Someone They Love Has Cancer (American Cancer Society)
- Grief and Your Child: Sharing God's Comfort in Loss (Bob Kellemen)
- Growing My Faith in the Face of Death (Tim Keller)