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Parenting Through Crisis

By: Cameron Bendgen

There are some aspects of the past year that I would like to forever block from my memory.

One of those is the sweet innocence that was robbed from my son, Sebastian.  Each time we drive past the Penn State Cancer Institute, we talk about our experience in some way. He says during one particular conversation “Do you only get cancer once in your life?” There was an instant lump in my throat as I thought how to handle this. How do I respond truthfully and with wisdom in a way that he can understand and yet, not introduce worry into his life?

His young mind wants to learn but clearly, he is concerned that the experience could happen all over again. He is not wrong in his question, and he deserves an honest answer back, even if he is only 5 years old. Without hesitation, my wife, Rachel explained that I am better. She explained to him that the new stem cells took care of the cell mutation that I had in my bone marrow.

We have learned all kinds of things during the past year, and one of the things that I’d like to spend more energy on is speaking with other parents who encounter a cancer diagnosis. When you are diagnosed, the world as you know it forever changed. There are unknowns around every corner. It would be foolish and a waste of time to ignore this experience that I have gained. To not go out and share some of the things learned is more harmful than the cancer itself.

I get it. Not every person is going to encounter a cancer diagnosis when their children are young. However, there are moments in all of our lives that will be chaotic. Moments where we lose sleep for weeks on weeks. Moments where it takes everything to get out of the bed in the morning and press forward. Moments where the cancer patient in me wanted to push the parental role to  the back burner. In these moments,  I wish I would have had a framework to fall back on so that frustration did not set in. When it did, it showed up as anger and shortness of temper in my relationships. Especially with my son.

Thankfully we can all grow and not be bound to what has always been done. Reflecting on the last year, there are three themes that come to the forefront of my mind that I have learned to practice. I must admit, these don’t come naturally to  my parenting style – I have to be reminded to practice these. Intentionally thinking about them has allowed me to become a better parent and husband.

Each Day Is New

There are some evenings when the call to start bedtime rings out as my white flag for the day. Enough is enough, and we start to put Sebastian to bed because he is on, all – day – long. From the moment he wakes up, he is moving and needs to be doing something. Normally this is in the form of a project or activity. The amount of energy he has is never ending and will serve him well later in life. I pray that he finds a spouse like his mother because she gets to deal with the adult version of Sebastian.

Once he is in bed, I plop down on the sofa and shut my eyes for a few moments. Reflecting on a typical day, we had shouted at one another over the placement of a plant in the backyard. We filled time between screens with activities. One night, we built a blue birdhouse for our backyard. Then, he decided he needed to paint the inside of his playhouse because our shed was just painted. It is exhausting. But we have a wonderful gift each night.

That is the gift of sleep. Sleep erases the previous day and allows us to recharge. We, like our phones, get to recharge each night. When you get out of bed, there is a burden, a weight, that is lifted off so that you can start the new day off well. Early into my diagnosis, I would reprocess the previous day over and over, but then  anxiety would creep into the picture. It would suffocate me to the point where I was not able to delight in this blessing of new days. Going through a crisis is hard; there are thousands of “what-ifs” playing through your head. More times than not, you cannot control any of them, and it is a waste of mental strength to worry about them. We must acknowledge that a new day brings peace and erases the slate. Having this mindset allows for the anxiety to be kept at bay and, for me, to delight in the now, to not think about the future.

Listen to the little voice

That conversation in the car about having cancer once is just one of many that we have had with Sebastian about “adult things.” He is an intelligent young boy with a passion to understand the why of everything. If you are a parent, chances are this is not the first time the concept of understanding the ‘why’ behind the motivation has been introduced to you. When your children say something to you or when they ask you a question, you are responsible to look into the ‘why’ behind it. When he asked if you only get cancer once, he was clearly worried that it might return.

Children are blessed to not have been beaten down by the world; nor  to edit their thoughts as they vocalize them. Their statements are true and need to be taken seriously. These truths will help the entire family through the crisis when you know what they are thinking. To ignore these statements and not answer them truthfully creates a wall in the relationship between you and your child. If the statement is said or a question is asked and there is no response, it shows the child that their time is not important to you, and that what they are thinking is not worthy of your response. Over time, the child will learn that since it is not important to the parent, they will not say anything.

Listening to the little voices in your home is not only important during crisis but crucial in the relationships you will have together later in adolescent years. Questions about relationships, drug use, alcohol consumption, faith questions and more will come up, and right now, you are laying the groundwork that will enable future,  open and honest conversations  to take place. If this is not cultured from an early age, the child will cease bringing their questions and concerns to you. As parents, we are ultimately responsible to prepare our child to be a functioning member of society, and I want to be able to impact that. I do not want them to have to figure that out on their own.

Nourish their strengths and interests

Rachel and I have a child who is independent, energetic, extroverted, loving and compassionate. These are just a few of his strengths. He loves animals, arts and crafts, nature – especially plants – and going on trips.

Strengths and interests need to be nourished during times of crisis to promote security. Penn State Health has a wonderful group of Child Life specialists who partner with families through a cancer diagnosis. Sebastian was able to connect with a Child Life Specialist to learn more about my cancer and stem cell transplant.

During the first session, something amazing happened. Sebastian was finally able to understand what was going on inside my bone marrow. We had tried to explain it to him to no avail. During his session with the Child Life specialist, they he created two types of “blood” samples for him to take home with him . Inside these samples, there were red blood cells, white blood cells, platelets and even blasts. One cup was cancer free, and the other cup had the blasts in it. Sebastian loves activities and people. These cups allowed him the opportunity to use his natural curiosity to learn what was going on with Dad. The cups went most places with him for a few weeks and he would explain to people what was going on inside my bones.

No one asks for a crisis to take place in their lives. We all, at some point, experience these events, and working through them alone is hard enough. Yet, when we have children, it is our responsibility to help them navigate through it as well.

Reflecting over the last year, I did not realize that these themes were what helped Sebastian to process in the moment. However, now I can see that they are what allowed him the opportunity to express his thoughts and keep our relationship honest and whole.

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