They say kids are emotional empaths. They can sense the emotional undercurrents around them even if they can’t name what they’re sensing. Because they can’t express what’s causing the bad feelings they’re encountering, sometimes they act out in ways that don’t even seem related to the real problem.
When my husband was diagnosed with cancer, our kids were four and almost three years old. We chose not to use the word “cancer” in front of them because they already knew that word. They knew because Papa (their grandfather) had died of cancer before they were born. So we didn’t want to scare them by telling them that their own father now had cancer.
As the weeks of treatment and recuperation dragged on, with my husband overseas receiving his care, I was barely keeping my head above water. I was grieving the life changes that had suddenly been thrust upon us and would be a part of our story forever after. My stomach was coiled in knots with the stress of negotiating with our health insurance and contemplating medical debt.
I was exhausted trying to fill my children’s cups everyday when my own cup had gone dry weeks before. Despite having an extremely supportive community around us, at home things were getting ugly. The kids were punching, pinching, pushing and kicking each other more and more. Everyone was crying. I found myself screaming at them to stop, and then wondering why they were screaming more at each other every day.
It was like a horrible smell had taken up residence in our home. I couldn’t see what was causing the problems but it was definitely there and making life worse and worse for all of us. The more they fought, the more overwhelmed I felt and the more I wanted to hide in my closet to cry silently. And the more I tried to escape them, the more they clung to me and fought over me and pushed each other away.
One day I received an email from my daughter’s nursery school teacher asking how things were going at home and suggesting we have a meeting with the school psychologist. Oh, great. This was my nightmare. Now my parental failings were spilling outside the house and into my daughter’s school day. Apparently, my little girl was avoiding the other kids, crying a lot, and asking where her dad was, and then saying she missed him. She hadn’t said this to me once. Clearly, she reserved those feelings to express at school. Was she afraid of my reaction? Did she no longer feel like I would hear her if she told me that? I was crushed. So, I went to the meeting with her teachers and the school psychologist. I walked in, head down, ready to receive my judgment as a failed mother.
It was a testament to the sensitivity and kindness of the Montessori method, which underlies everything in this school, that we sat in a circle of kid-sized chairs and we shared very openly about how my girl was acting out at school and what I was struggling with at home. After everyone spoke, the school’s psychologist, a wise, warm, mama bear-type, said this: “You are trying to protect your kids from the fear that comes from the word ‘cancer.’ Because you think they will see it as a horrible monster that is coming into their homes and taking everything away, starting with their dad. But because you aren’t saying what is actually wrong, they are only feeling that something is very wrong. And the not knowing what is wrong is scarier for them than the story that you will tell them about the cancer, because your story will have a happy ending.”
My mind was blown, but I felt deep inside that her words were true.
They then encouraged me to create a story using animals and tell the story of the daddy bear, or dog, or owl (whatever your kids like) getting cancer and going to a wonderful doctor who does a surgery and/or treatments and fixes the cancer and takes it all away. Then daddy is all better. And maybe things will be different after the cancer is gone (daddy has a cane now, daddy is very tired, daddy has no hair) but things will still be RIGHT. And the kids will still have fun with daddy.
They also suggested that I illustrate the example of a bad thing being taken away piece by piece using the children’s book, Go Away, Big Green Monster by Ed Emberley. I could even weave the two together and pretend that the monster was the cancer and we would send it away together.
We closed our meeting with hugs and I went home and took their advice that afternoon. I had my school library copy of the Monster book and I had my narrative of the bear family ready to go. After I finished my tale, I asked my 4-year-old, “Who was that story really about?” And he replied quietly, “Us.” It felt good to have things out in the open. And I explained that I missed Daddy too, and that it was hard for me when he is gone. My daughter was quiet, but I could tell she was listening.
That night, my daughter and I were wishing on stars before going to bed and, after reiterating her nightly wish to become a princess, she asked me what Daddy’s wish would be. I was surprised to hear her bring him up, since she rarely did. I told her that it would probably be to be home with us and to never have to go away again. She looked at me and then she looked down and whispered, “I just miss him.” It hurt so much to see her sad, but it was a moment of emotional honesty and self-knowledge, and I was proud of her for expressing it.
Nothing is fixed yet but at least we can talk about what is wrong. And now that the dialogue is open I feel we have hope to address the hard feelings that arise each day. I am grateful to my daughter’s teacher for reaching out to me and opening my eyes to the complex emotional world of small children. And I’m most grateful to the wonderful lady surgeon who kicked my husband’s big, green cancer monster straight to the curb.