Jeffrey Fishbein, Psy.D.
There may be no worse news for a parent than to learn that their child has been diagnosed with a serious illness. The gamut of emotions range from shock and disbelief to anger and depression. Coping with a child’s illness tests the strength and resolve of any parent. I have heard on countless occasions of a parent’s wish to change places with their child in such circumstances, as no parent can stand the thought of their child experiencing pain or illness.
Of course, any parent would switch roles, yet unfortunately this is an impossible feat. Recently, Nancy and Scott Wessel from Northbrook, Illinois were given the aforementioned horrible news. After many days of physical complaints, their 10-year old-child was given a diagnosis of leukemia, or cancer of the blood cells. Scott informed me that when he and his wife were given this news, they were “stunned.”
Emotional reactions in the weeks that followed included momentary self-pity, “for all but 10 seconds”, sadness when considering “why him,” referring to his child, and overall uncertainty. All of these emotions quickly turned to how they were going to help their child. Interestingly, what they felt initially turned to joy knowing they had all the support of family and friends.
This is a great coping mechanism; imparting the help of others and accepting that no one can deal with this on their own. Their focus shifted from hearing the news the doctors shared to how they were going to use the news. Successful outcomes with illness increase from having this type of approach. They became proactive. Similar to what I encourage my patients to think like, Scott and Nancy shifted their focus from “what if” or variations of that, to “what now.” Facing their problem head on is another way to cope with news of this nature.
I also encourage parents, whether young or older, as both have kids of course, to manage their own stress levels. Stress increases significantly during this time and modeling behavior around your child reflecting your stress tends not to be great. However, modeling resiliency and a positive approach despite the circumstances is an important step in being proactive and exhibiting a sense of calm and composure. When stress becomes overwhelming, it may be necessary for parents to seek out professional help. A child’s illness tends not to be something any of us are trained to deal with, even us psychologists or those in the helping profession.
When Scott and his wife visited the hospital on a daily basis, they saw kids in similar, though often times, worse conditions. This enabled them to find the bright side in their own child’s health, which though still an extremely serious condition, there was hope with the treatment plan provided to them and with childhood cancer, just having hope is better than what they observed as an alternative.
This is what I call perspective. We must all find it. Not all illness is a death sentence, and it is our job as parents to find that silver lining in the dark cloud. When you find it, it is easier to project that onto your child. Every parent fears a childhood illness, be it an autoimmune condition or cancer. However, Scott’s own father taught him that “it’s easy to go through life when life is good, but when it’s not you don’t give up, you show up.” Scott and his family now take that message and when thrown a curve ball as he states being an avid baseball fan, they are not afraid to swing.
Dr. Jeffrey Fishbein is a licensed clinical psychologist and a partner in the clinical practice of Drs. Gault, Fishbein, and Associates and also as a sport psychologist for the Chicago White Sox professional baseball organization. He has been diagnosed with non-systemic microvasculitis with multiple neuropathies. You can read his full story here. He writes a regular column addressing different aspects of mental health and psychological well-being for members of the vasculitis community.