Last Summer, I was touched by the beautiful story of a killer whale named Tahlequah. She was a mom mourning the loss of a child who left her too soon. As any grieving parent feels, Tahlequah did not want to let her child go. For 17 days and over 1,000 miles, this heartbroken mother carried her 400-pound calf, who died just after birth, around the waters of the Pacific Northwest.
But Tahlequah did not go through her mourning alone. When she was too tired to carry the weight, needed to rest, or eat or maintain her strength, other orcas in her pod stepped in to carry the baby for her. It is a beautiful picture of how the journey through illness or grief should be, but sadly it often is not. Tahlequah never needed to apologize for her grief, she and her baby were simply lifted up without question.
When my family was in the midst of Jack’s cancer battle, I had people who stood beside me and helped bear the weight; but there were many who didn’t know what to do and simply faded out of our lives, especially in the wake of Jack’s death. This phenomenon is a common among families who face serious illnesses such as childhood cancer.
It can be difficult to know the right thing to say if you haven’t been through the war that cancer wages on a child. Even harder still when the outcome does not match the hope. Please know those suffering don’t expect people to always say or do the right thing; they simply long to be supported, heard, cared for, and lifted up for thousands of days, miles, and reasons without question and without apology.
In whatever stage of the childhood cancer battle, families just want to have their feelings honored and heard. They shouldn’t have to apologize for having bad days, talking too long about their fears and worries, being angry and tired, or shedding tears. Like Tahlequah, they are in pain, they just want to hold their babies and make the pain go away. What they need most of all, is people to give them an opportunity to rest, cry, talk, and express any other human emotion necessary to process what childhood cancer has taken from their family.
The responsibility for bearing the weight of childhood cancer cannot exclusively fall on the families who are impacted by the disease; we all have a responsibility to play our part and ease the burden. As uncomfortable as it may sometimes be to face a reality everyone hopes to never experience, there are resources every single person can provide. Our pod of humanity can provide the human and financial resources necessary to support a healthier outcome for everyone.
The mother orca grieving her baby did not need to apologize for carrying her baby and she was never alone in her time of greatest need. I do not want to open social media to one more post from a parent feeling the need to apologize for agonizing over a sick child or missing a child lost to cancer. The weight of love for a child is a weight carried and honored forever. My hope is that we, as humans, could be a little bit more like the orcas gathering in support to carry our children together, without question . . . no apologies needed.
NOTE: If you are looking for ways to support a family facing childhood cancer, this article offers some great ideas.