Children should know that everything is not always OK

Between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, as the Book of Life and Death lies open, I am honored to have Erin Hyman as a guest columnist. She has been battling breast cancer as a young mother. I could not begin to imagine, let alone dare to write about, the valley of shadows she is traversing. To her, the blessing “May you be inscribed in the Book of Life” is no cliché. Yet, out of that narrow place of fear and uncertainty, she can look her children in the eye and be reassuring without disguising the truth, supportive with neither false promises nor a make-believe invulnerability. — Rachel Biale

“I came prepared to cry,” a mother in our support group (BAYS: Bay Area Young Survivors) said as we began our meeting. “Because I haven’t let myself do that at home, not wanting my kids to see it.” Another friend told me she didn’t let her children see her even once without a wig.

As mothers of young children, in various phases of treatment, we must, of course, put our children’s welfare first. It’s not only the first consideration when debating treatment options and the primary worry in regard to being incapacitated, even temporarily. It also dictates how we let ourselves process the raw emotions we experience.

Afraid and overwhelmed, mothers want more than anything to shield their children from anxiety and the brute force of their emotions. But I disagree. Trying to shield our children entirely from what we’re going through comes at a great cost — to both us and them. I don’t think it does any of us a service to maintain a veneer of invulnerability.

From the beginning, my husband and I spoke to our children frankly and directly about my cancer and about what they could expect to happen. My eldest, 8 and relentlessly inquisitive, asked questions constantly: “How did you get this? How long will you be in the hospital? Are there any other side effects of chemo that you haven’t told me about?” The understanding of my younger son, a kindergartener, is more limited to the practical: “Who will pick me up from school?”

Their initial anxieties focused on “the hair thing.” They didn’t want me to lose mine and really didn’t want anyone to see me bald. I cut it short and dyed it blond (then other shades) in preparation for chemo. It helped destigmatize it for them. “What color should we dye it this week?” I’d ask. By now, they are completely unfazed. Wig, hat, bare head: They don’t bat an eye.

But I do much more than give information and marvel at their ability to adapt. I tell them when I’m just feeling too tired or down, and I do let myself cry in front of them.

An early-childhood educator advised us to reinforce the saccharine notion that “Everything will be OK.” I won’t do that. I want them to feel safe and loved and to know that they will be OK, but not everything will be. I’ll assure them that they will be taken care of no matter what, but some things will never be the same. I want to acknowledge this, while still affirming that our family will adapt and recover. How else will they learn what it means to face challenges and deal with them?

If we put on a facade of normalcy — and they would sense all the cracks anyway — we’re conveying that it’s better to stifle our emotions than communicate them.

All of us parents struggle with the myriad challenges and losses of our complicated lives. We shouldn’t underestimate our children’s capacity to discuss and process the hard stuff. If we don’t let them take risks, we inhibit the development of their capacity for independence. So, too, if we don’t show them what we feel deeply — pain and grief included — we’re not showing them that there’s a way to move through these emotions and find your way forward.

Erin Hyman was a writer, editor and rebbetzin in San Francisco. She reflected on many dimensions of health and healing through a Jewish lens. She died Sept. 18, 2014.