You’re ten years old and walking in the basement of an unfamiliar building. You walk down a dark hallway in flickering, unsteady light. Using the damp cement wall to guide you, you inch closer and closer to what you hope will eventually be a way out. There are no sounds but your heavy breathing, and a constant dripping from who knows where.
You think about your family and the way things were before you ended up here. You were happy, carefree, and bore the worries only a child would have. How long have you been here? Months? Years?
You’re still hopeful you’ll find a way out…because you just have to. For your life not to fall apart, you have to find a way out. But with your optimism comes unexpected – and unwanted – tears. The tears drain your optimism. Audibly, you make demands of yourself. “Don’t get upset. Everything will be fine. Everything will be fine.” You’re crying more and it takes all of your strength not to drop to your knees.
You hear a steady beeping coming from somewhere ahead. You call out, “Hello?” You hear a familiar voice: A woman telling you it will be alright and you’ll get through this together. You’ve already begun walking again when the lights become less reliable. The beeping is still steady, but faster now. It’s keeping pace with your heart.
You hear cracking from behind you. The walls are buckling. You quicken your stride, occasionally glancing into the darkness behind you. “How did I get here?” you ask yourself. The cracking and popping of the cement turns to crashing. The building is failing.
You’re jogging now, away from the weighty walls and ceiling surrendering to gravity. You turn the corner and come to a stop. There, in a dimly lit room, is the thing every child fears most. You’ve never been more scared in your life and you can’t move. Your mom is lying in a hospital bed. Plastic tubes, dripping liquid, a beeping box. Your mom – your safe place, your comfort zone, an edifice bursting with advice and wisdom only a mother possesses, your family’s keystone – is crumbling.
“Mortality.” You don’t even remember learning the meaning of the word, and it’s staring you in the face. Your fear is manifest. Things could be fine or could come crashing down on you at any moment. Your future is uncertain. The future of your family is uncertain. Even as a child, that, you understand.
When you think about what kids are afraid of, what comes to mind? Monsters under the bed, spiders, snakes, bees and other creepy crawlies. What do kids fear most? A parent leaving them. For a young child, this may mean being left with a babysitter for the first time, turning around in a supermarket only to see that your parent has vanished or being dropped off at your first day of school. From a very young age, our greatest fear was that our parent would leave us and they would never come back.
After having Fluffy, or Sparky, or the pet goldfish, Molly and Dolly (or in my case, Tom and Arielle) die, we learn about mortality and the extent of “forever.” We learn that our fear of a parent leaving us forever is valid and will happen. Life lessons are like a right hook to the heart, and so many of them are learned as a child.
I asked my siblings and friends who have lost a parent to cancer what their greatest fear was after their nightmare of losing a parent had come true. Several of them told me that with the absence of their parent came an intense fear that their family would fall apart. I agree with them. To anyone, when the health of a parent is compromised, so is the stability of their family. To a child, this can be a very difficult thing to process.
My dad was diagnosed with cancer when I was eleven and passed away when I was fifteen. Growing up, I was certain that if my dad wanted to, he could punch holes in mountains, hit a bajillion homeruns, run around the world at the speed of light, throw a football into the next county…
Instead, he turned gray, cracked and then crumbled as he succumbed to his illness. Right before my eyes, my father, a pillar of strength in my family, deteriorated. Who would hold up the part of my world he had always supported? How would his role be filled? It couldn’t be filled. It never would be. How could our family unit remain standing when it wasn’t whole?
For children who have had a parent diagnosed with cancer, this fear is magnified. They’re told to be optimistic and that everything will be fine, but the fear remains. It is a fear that sometimes goes overlooked or is overshadowed by the upheaval such a diagnosis can create in a family. A kid can lose understanding of their role in the family. Where do they stand? An already vulnerable child put in this situation can easily lose their confidence both within and outside of the home. The pressures these kids face make them feel different from their peers. They might feel a lack of understanding, and because of that, ostracize themselves from the group. How could they possibly become a “normal” kid again?
This is a big problem. There are many ways for a kid who has a parent with cancer to feel too grown up and only a few ways for them to feel like a kid. For an adult, the job we have can often dictate how we feel about ourselves. For a kid, it is almost entirely the friends they have. It is imperative for a kid to have a solid peer support system, especially since they are vulnerable and have yet to figure out their special place in the world.
What do I wish I had learned sooner? That I was not alone. I never knew as a child just how much I was not alone! It would’ve been such a relief and a huge confidence boost to have known this earlier on. While there are support groups for adults with illnesses and for their spouses, there are few places for a kid to go and feel free to speak with other kids who are in a similar situation
I wanted to do something to help kids who could use this type of support to realize that they are not alone. I wanted to do something that would help facilitate and moderate this shift in their lives and help them process their situation more smoothly.
Keystone Kids is a website I’ve been developing to bring together kids who have had their worst fears come to fruition. It is a safe place for kids who have a parent with cancer or who have had a parent with cancer to be themselves.
With this website, I am striving to create a judgment-free zone where members can feel free to ask questions, seek advice, tell their stories and of course, just be kids! Belonging to a community helps people feel understood, gives them confidence and can even help them manage their emotions. An online community makes the distance between these kids negligible. It allows home access to a support group, meaning kids without a physical location to meet or limited transportation can still have access to a strong community of their peers. The hope is that Keystone Kids will provide at the very least a temporary support until they begin to feel a greater sense of equilibrium in their lives.
If you have been or know of a child in this situation, visit keystonekids.org. See what’s being talked about, gain an understanding, and learn how you might be able to help!