Moody Thinking

“Let me ‘splain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up.” — Inigo Montoya

Grieving and Cancer’s Return

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We found out this week that after 17 months Lela’s cancer has developed in her right eye. They caught the tumor very early and the doctor thinks that the one laser treatment will be enough to kill it. We will return for a follow up visit in 2 weeks to check on that tumor and to make sure there are not any more.

Although we knew this news might come at any of Lela’s scans, Mandy and I began to be optimistic that we might not have any future developments. This was the most comfortable I have ever felt going into a scan, but that optimism will be gone for future scans. Retinoblastoma often develops multiple tumors, so the death of this one tumor does not mean that we will be clear.

This week has brought considerations of expectations, grief, and how we handle this news. I confess that I often struggle with frustration, sadness, and anger over the fact that my 17 month old who has already lost an eye has cancer again. However, this is not new grief; we experienced these same feelings in April of last year. This year, they are not as shocking but carry the added weight of expectation, of the thing you feared actually happening.

There are two pitfalls that we can fall into and one middle road that I think is the best for us. I do not presume to make any definitive statements on how to handle grief, but I do want to share what we have learned in the hopes that other people may benefit. I confess that I often fall into these pitfalls and that this journey is one of continuing to grow in faith.

I recognize that people reading these comments come from all sorts of faith and non-faith backgrounds. Mandy and I are Christians and trust God as the foundation of everything we believe. While I do not apologize for discussing God’s presence, I am aware of the possibly controversial nature of this subject and understand that others’ perspectives will not match my own. I hope that this recognition will allow people to continue reading, even if we disagree on this important point.

The first pitfall is to ignore the pain of suffering in the pursuit of some unrealistic optimism. This optimism stems from overly trusting what appears to be good news from doctors or a view of God that does not include suffering as a part of his will. I do not doubt that things like prognostics and statistics are helpful guides for what we can expect, but they are not an end in themselves. Our doctors have been very honest with us in letting us know that much of what we know about childhood cancer changes frequently based on new research. In addition, cancer, in its most reduced form, is the abnormal and uncontrolled growth of cells. It makes sense that the data about the human body’s abnormal behavior would be constantly shifting. Statistics, while helpful, lack the ability to predict the future. Statistics tell us what has happened, not necessarily what will.

So, we do not put a lot of stock in what we hear. This does not mean that we ignore our doctors or attempt to circumvent their advice. Rather, we try to put the right amount of mental energy into what happens in the now and what will happen in the future. We trust that God has put us under the care of the doctors at St. Jude and we trust them completely when it comes to Lela’s care. We do not expect them to predict more than they can.

Other iterations of this optimism occur through a misshapen view of God and his will. Many of our Christian ideas center on a God who exists to make me happy, reward my good behavior, forgive my bad behavior, and prevent bad things from happening to me (Sociologist Christian Smith terms this “moralistic therapeutic deism”). I find this notion of God that is so prevalent in our society to be weak and disingenuous.

People like to toss around the term “It is God’s will” in Christian conversations, but I often wonder if we really understand what this idea means. True, in some mysterious way, Lela’s cancer happens under the umbrella of God’s sovereign control of the world, but I will also say that I have no reason, scriptural or otherwise, to say that God caused Lela’s cancer. Adam and Eve’s fall caused all creation to fracture, and I believe this cancer comes as a part of a world broken all the way down to a brand new human body. True, God could have intervened and stopped these cells from their abnormal growth, but he did not, and we have to trust him even in the midst of this process. I have shared evidence of God’s faithfulness throughout this process, and it seems like a weak faith that would question his presence when the news is bad again.

If I truly believe in the God of the Bible, then I know that suffering of all forms is part of daily life. The crux of our faith is God coming down from heaven and taking suffering he did not deserve in order to reconcile God to man. The Bible is filled with the suffering of God’s people, so a true faith in this God shows that suffering itself is a necessary part of life and constantly used by God for his greater will.

In the end, faith in God is not faith that he will take Lela’s cancer away and that everything will be okay in our earthly lives. We could get incredibly bad news today, about any member of our family, so our trust has to rest on something greater than a hope that God will keep us from suffering. God promised his presence through the Holy Spirit. He has revealed his presence to us over and over again. We trust that we are in his control no matter what may happen in the future.

We also struggle with the potential of grieving so much that it paralyzes us. I believe this feeling extends from a shattering of expectations of God, the world, and self all wrapped in some small feelings of selfishness: “How could this happen to me?” If I truly trust in God’s sovereign control and gracious presence, then I cannot fall into this grief that interprets my suffering as something greater than what is really is.

Somewhere between these two pitfalls, Mandy and I are learning to grieve well. We have learned to cry when we need to cry and to be optimistic when we need to be optimistic. We do not avoid feelings of grief in the name of some misguided notion of Lela’s doctors being greater than what they are or by a faith that does not grapple with the reality of suffering. At the same time, we cannot allow the grief that we feel to paralyze us. We have to keep moving in faith, through the tears of grief and the moments of good news, toward whatever God has in store for us next. I think this is the nature of true faith presented in the Bible, especially in Jesus, who experienced the greatest amount of suffering of all.

The pitfalls of over-optimism and over-grieving are always present here, and both lead to a rejection of God in the name of self. We must simply trust that what God has for us today is indeed enough for us today, and trust him. We long for the day of Christ making all things new, when things like childhood cancer are no more. Until then, we must keep walking.


Written by Jeff Moody

September 17, 2013 at 2:20 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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One Response

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  1. Your words are deeply appropriate, my friend. Your suffering has brought about the praise of God in a way I cannot put into words. I hate that you, Mandy and most of all Lela are suffering, but I am learning through it (through your thoughts and from the presence I took away on your sidewalk the other day), if that is any consolation. Your suffering is deepening my own faith in a God I cannot control or grasp in entirety. By entirety, I really mean to say that I might or might not have an iota of a countless fraction of the smallest percentage imaginable on a human scale’s understanding about Him. He is greater than all the wills of human existence put together throughout the wheel of time (I confess that though I am sounding geekily literary, I have not actually read any of Robert Jordan’s work). It is so good to hear of a worship of Him that extends beyond human understanding. And I pray continually deep down in my gut for your family that you will know that love that surpasses knowledge and have that peace that transcends understanding. The call to these and the promise of their availability to us gives me great hope when I hear news that my brothers and sisters are suffering. Glad to be connected to you in community. Glad we will be living across the street from you…soon. -Stephen Otis

    Stephen Otis

    September 18, 2013 at 12:12 pm

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