A kids club where parents die

When I got cancer, I put my kids in a support group. Then the death toll started rising

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published October 2, 2012 8:18PM (EDT)


The first death came quickly. We got the news on a chilly November evening, soon after we’d started going to our weekly cancer club. I remember how a fellow member had tried to save a seat for Nelson, and how our facilitator told us that Nelson wasn’t returning. (His name, like that and the identifying details of all the group members and their children, has been changed.) His son Frankie, we learned, would be transitioning into the children’s bereavement group. I had wanted to give my daughters a place to feel safe while I was going through cancer. Now, as I clutched a sheet of paper with the details of a father’s memorial service, I wondered if I’d instead thrown them directly into the path of loss.

If you’re wondering why, in the darkest, scariest period in my family’s life, I got the bright idea to sign us up for a club where moms and dads die all time, the answer is: because I didn’t really think it through. I had joined the club, a support organization for people with cancer and their loved ones, at the recommendation of my friend Annie after I was diagnosed with stage-4 melanoma last year. Annie had been the one who’d seen right through my flippant assertion that we were all doing “great,” and had suggested tenderly, “Maybe you need a place to sometimes be not great.” I made the call that day.

Our family had immediately been taken with the warm, inviting clubhouse and the friendly, open vibe within. It didn’t take long for our weekly evenings in our respective groups to become a refuge — a time for the adults to make friends and share our stories, and one in which the girls could be around other children who were going through the experience of having a parent with cancer. Yet even as I was facing the very real threat of my own death, I didn’t make the connection that so many others in the club were doing the same thing — until someone actually died. They had just been abstractions when we joined, an unknown collection of fellow denizens of Planet Cancer. How could I have truly understood what would happen next? That we would fall in love with those people. That we would lose them.

Nelson’s death, surprising though it was, had come before my daughters had been given much time to know his son. It was my friend Lisa’s death a few months later that really knocked us out. Lisa, who’d squeezed my hand when I tearfully announced to the group that my doctor had, just moments before, called to say my tumors were gone; Lisa, the sarcastic spitfire, with two rambunctious little boys downstairs in the children’s group. A few days after she died, we called on her family, and the boys ran around laughing and causing mayhem and so the girls did too, and then we left and walked in numb silence to the train. Several months after that, the tornado hit.

First came the death of Albert’s wife, from my mate’s caregiver group. The following week, it was the mother of Cara, our adored young friend from the children’s group. And the week after, in the appalling span of just a few days, it was Ted from my group, and then Mamie and Julia, two of the parents from the children’s group. Four children were without a mother, just like that.

The day after we got the news of Ted and Mamie and Julia, my 8-year-old daughter, Bea, and I were standing with another family at the playground when Bea matter-of-factly mentioned the recent deluge of deaths — she does this sort of thing a lot. She recently told a friend over juice boxes, “I have eight friends whose parents died,” the way other children might say, “I have two turtles.” On this day, as she deployed her bombshell at the swing sets, one of the other mothers looked at Bea, and then me, and then back to Bea, in astonishment. “But you still … like … this club?” she asked her.

I understood the question, and the concern behind it. I had been struggling with it myself, especially because my own health has improved so much since we first began coming to the club. (I’m now on maintenance treatment, with another year to go.) Why are my kids still there? Why make them witness so much death, so much grief? Why put them, week after week, in a room with a bunch of kids whose parents are sick and, in some cases, dying?

But when that mother had asked Bea about it, my daughter just smiled brightly and said, “Oh, yeah. They have beanbag chairs and they give us popcorn.”

Children don’t experience difficult events or grieve like we adults do. Fortunately, their club understands that. My daughters, who originally stipulated they would only join on the condition that, “We don’t have to sit around and talk about our feelings,” have check-in time each week if they do want to sit around and talk about their feelings, but the real healing takes a very different form. A few times a month, a local animal group brings in dogs for the kids to play with. On other weeks they do art and they throw parties and they hang out in their beanbag chairs and talk with each other about their favorite TV shows and somewhere in all of that, the most amazing thing of all happens. The sickness and death and uncertainty don’t go away. They’re there in the room all the time with these kids. But they’re there in a room with a group of loyal, loving friends.

I had asked Bea, after the day of the two dead mothers, if she still wanted to go to the club. I had been prepared for her to reconsider, but she answered resolutely that she still wanted to go. She also mentioned the popcorn again. Then she looked at her hands and said quietly, “It got me through your cancer.”

When I posed the same question to my 12-year-old daughter, Lucy, she too gave the same answer. Yes, of course she wanted to keep going. “It makes me feel normal,” she said. “It makes me a better friend.” It really does. When a classmate she hadn’t even been close to lost a parent to cancer last year, she instinctively reached out to the child. She didn’t make the kid talk about her feelings. She just sat with her at lunch, asked her about her locker. She wasn’t afraid. She wasn’t awkward. Because she’d been there before.

Bea often says, to anyone who will listen, “I was 6 when my mom got cancer.” She marks her young life in “before” and “after.” She knows the moment her childhood changed, the night she came home from camp and a part of her innocence disappeared for good. I wish, like any parent would, that I could have protected her and her sister forever, or at least kept them a little longer in a world where moms and dads are always there to fix your breakfast and help you with your homework and kiss your head as you fall asleep, a world where they’re always in the crowd when you look out there for their faces, applauding at your school play and your soccer game. But my daughters don’t live in a world where moms and dads don’t get cancer anymore. They don’t live in a world where they don’t die. Sorry, kids.

I didn’t pick them up and move them to this new place voluntarily, and there is so much about it that is so hard, sometimes harder than I think we can bear. Yet somehow, they are goddamn thriving here. They don’t have nightmares or get in fights at school or pull their eyebrows out. Their kid-group nights are sacred to them, and I don’t believe it’s just the snacks. I think it’s because they’ve found such spectacular comrades in this place. They learned that sickness and death and grief are all too common, but they’re not taboos. And my kids don’t ever have to be lonely. It’s worth noting that when their group social worker asked the girls what scares them most, they both replied that it’s adults talking in another room when they can’t hear what’s being said. It’s not the truth — even hard truth — that’s stressful to children. It’s hiding it from them. As Catherine Saint Louis wrote in a terrific New York Times piece last month, there’s a growing understanding that “children are better off when their grief is acknowledged and they are allowed to mourn in the company of relatives and peers.”

A friend of mine whose child is also in the kids group says, “I began to think, after three deaths in one week, that maybe it was time to quit. But then I realized, death is a normal part of life. It may never get easier to deal with, but each time it happens to someone we know, each exposure can be an inoculation against the fear, and we can become stronger in the presence of it.”

My girls have learned in this past year that we can talk or not talk and we can cry sometimes and rage and dance and laugh, and it’s all OK. And they’ve discovered, in the most difficult and helpless of situations, that they have a measure of power — the power to be there for somebody else.

I didn’t put this family in the path of death. I put us in the paths of Lisa and Ted and Mamie and Julia. And we made a choice to get tangled up with them, to love them and to let them love us. To sit in beanbag chairs and eat popcorn and paint pictures together and drag ourselves to Queens for funerals and miss them when they’re gone. To take the risk of being hurt, because what the hell else are we here for? What else is there in life but to show up for each other, week in and week out, whether we’re 8 or 80? I came to that club because I knew my kids needed to get support. And they have received it, beyond all expectations. But I never dreamed how much they would also wind up giving. I never imagined how much sorrow they and their friends would face, or how beautifully they would face it together.

On a recent evening, while the kids played and did art projects, one of the very young children who’s lost a parent found a moment to sit with Lucy, and tell her a story about her mother’s death. She told it in her simple little girl way, and Lucy received it in her own, bigger girl way. Then, the girl scampered off to play with her sibling. She had just had something to say, about the mom she’ll spend the rest of her life not having, and she had wanted to say it to another kid. That, for that one moment, had been enough. That, as Bea says, is what you gets you through.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Cancer Death And Dying Grief Kids Motherhood Parenting Support Groups