Gavin Kerr / June 17, 2018
Father’s Day used to be one of my favorite holidays. Now, not so much.
Please don’t misunderstand, I treasure Father’s Day with my daughter’s and their families. Each day with them is truly a gift. But Father’s Day also reminds me of just how deeply I miss my son Ryan every day.
Kids have accidents, they get sick and occasionally they wind up in the hospital. We expect that. But, when those events are life changing illnesses or injuries the focus is on your sick child and on supporting his or her mom – as it should be. We tend to ignore the fact that as Dad’s we get overwhelmed and traumatized too. Unfortunately, we tend not to be attentive to our own health as we support our family through the crisis. And, this can take a toll on our health and well-being.
When our son Ryan was diagnosed with osteosarcoma at age 12, we began a 5 ½ year emotional rollercoaster that challenged every belief I had about myself as a dad. Ryan and I could no longer rough house like a couple of bear cubs. Taking risks pretty much went out the window and discipline? Really? He had cancer and lost his leg, how was I supposed to do that? Most of all, I felt like I had failed to protect him and there was nothing I could do to “fix” him. The worry and the stress were relentless. I was struggling to give my teenage daughters Ashley and Katie the time and care that they needed, struggling to support my wife Cindy, struggling to keep my head above water at work and struggling to pay the bills. Our family was in crisis and growing more traumatized with each up and down of the emotional rollercoaster of Ryan’s illness.
Like many dad’s, I thought I could handle it without getting help or support. Overall, I coped quite well with the experience but, over 15 years after Ryan’s diagnosis, I still have some symptoms of post-traumatic stress. Mostly I don’t sleep well, worry when a family member has not checked in, and, when there is a family health issue, fall into full blown anxiety attacks. Looking back, here are some of the things I learned that could have made it easier:
- I was hurting more than I realized. I was so conditioned that it was my job to be strong and support everyone else, that I was totally out of tune with my own stress. Somehow, I thought I was fine despite the constant stiff neck, the burning in my stomach, the four broken teeth and the long sleepless nights. I wish I had given myself more permission to acknowledge the stress and made more time for physical and mental breaks to increase my resilience.
- I needed support more than I understood. When the hospital offered me access to a psychologist, social worker or the chaplain, I turned them down. I thought I was fine and someone else needed their help more than I did. I wish I had recognized that counseling would have enhanced my coping skills and enabled me to care for myself and my family even better.
- I was the only one who did not see my pain. Looking back, I was the only one who did not see how much I was struggling. My family and friends were wonderful and offered lots of support. I wish I had taken them up on their offers of help and shared the load. It would have made the journey so much better for all of us.
When it comes to a parenting child with cancer or other life changing illness, most of the focus is on the role of moms. And that is fine. But it also means that as dad’s, we are left to fend for ourselves. Even the research focuses on moms and there has been almost no research on helping Dad’s cope and build resilience for themselves and their families.
The good news is there is emerging research that we can minimize the long-term impact of a childhood health crisis on our children and ourselves. Here are 5 tips to help you cope:
- Take time to take care of yourself. This may sound impossible during pressing treatment demands or your child’s needs, but it can be an investment that helps you help your child over the long haul. If you are not sleeping or eating, it will be harder to help your child. Be especially careful not to increase smoking, alcohol or other unhealthy ways of coping when you feel worried, upset or stressed.
- Breath when you feel anxious. Practicing deep breathing can help calm your mind and body. When you feel your anxiety level rising, try taking a deep, belly breathe in (aim for 5-7 seconds), hold your breath (5 seconds), and then slowly breathe out (aim for 8-10 seconds).
- Be mindful. Notice your own signs and symptoms of traumatic stress reactions and ask your close family and friends to help you notice if you are struggling to cope with these reactions. Mindfulness helps bring your thoughts and emotions back to the present moment, rather than future or past. Like deep breathing, there are many ways to practice mindfulness. As you feel your anxiety increasing, bring yourself back to the present moment by noticing and describing (either in your thoughts or out loud) in as much detail as you can everything you can see, hear, smell, and feel.
- Find distractions. When anxious feelings overwhelm you, sometimes distraction can be helpful to calm you down. Watching your favorite TV show or movie, engaging in a favorite activity (exercise, coloring, playing a sport), or playing a game on your phone or tablet can provide relief from your anxious thoughts.
- Ask for – and accept – help from those around you. Let other people help you and try to be comfortable telling them what kind of help you need (and what you don’t). Try making a list of things you might need- bringing a meal or taking care of your other children-you can refer to this when people call to ask how they can help you.
Research has shown that by adopting some of these basic good coping skills, we can increase resilience and reduce the risk of long term post-traumatic stress symptoms. That’s why Ryan’s Case for Smiles created our Coping Space website. Coping Space is a family friendly, easy to understand resource to provide you with the information you need when you need it. It was created with one goal in mind – to help fathers, mothers and families get through one of life’s most frightening and traumatic experiences, the illness or injury of one’s child. So, check it out and know we are here for you should your child suffer a life changing illness or injury.
Last but not least, I pray you will find strength and peace this Father’s Day and each and every day of your child’s illness and beyond.
Parent and Case for Smiles Board Member