Cancer and talking about the hard stuff

 Part 2 of an Interview with Becky Baudouin,
Author of Cancer, Faith and Unexpected Joy
In Cancer, Faith, and Unexpected Joy: What My Mother Taught Me About How to Live and How to Die (Kregel Publications/September 26, 2017), Becky Baudouin shares the invaluable wisdom imparted by her mother during her final days. However, Cancer, Faith, and Unexpected Joy, is much more than a memoir. Baudouin equips readers to face death from a Christian perspective by sharing her insights on fear, loss and grief. These honest insights are applicable to everyone's story, not just her own, and can extend real comfort to every reader. Questions for personal reflection or group discussion help both those who are losing a loved one and those who are facing death. Baudouin’s story reveals God is the only source for a spirit's true healing.

Baudouin digs into the sensitive areas people are often hesitant to talk about:
  • What to do and say when someone has received bad news
  • Inviting others into your journey and asking for help
  • Grieving as you go
  • Fear of the unknown
  • Facing life after loss

Q: Sometimes we don’t know what to do or say when a friend is diagnosed with cancer. We wonder if we should reach out or give him or her space. In your experience, what is the best approach?

I think it is best to reach out in some way, at least initially. In the book, I talk about my friend Gerry and finding out she had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Her husband told me about it, and I waited several days before reaching out to her. I was in shock and just sick about it, and I kept thinking I don’t know what to say to her. I was afraid I’d say something stupid so I procrastinated. However, one night I thought, I have to call her. If she doesn’t want to talk she won’t pick up. Well, she answered, and what I realized during our conversation is it was OK I didn’t have any words to make it better. It was OK I didn’t know what to say. She just needed to know I cared. She needed to know I was there and was going to walk this road with her.

Our fear of saying or doing the “wrong” thing shouldn’t keep us from reaching out because they are most likely in the same boat, scared and not sure of what to do or say. The important thing is to be there. To show up and let that person know you are in this with him or her, that you want to walk this journey together, and offer support any way you can. We also need to keep in mind some people are very private, and they may not invite us into their journey the way we would like. It can be painful and feel like they are pushing us away. It’s important to listen to their wishes as well and to be sensitive to where they are at.

Q: Many people say God will never give us more than we can bear, yet you’ll never find that stated in the Bible. What did you learn about facing circumstances you never thought you would be able to bear and the power of bearing one another’s burdens?

Yes, that is a quote is used often, and many people think it is in the Bible. However, it’s not. The idea God burdens the strong with more difficult, weightier problems is just not true. What we do see over and over in Scripture is God equipping people who feel inadequate. Moses, Esther, Mary (the mother of Jesus), Paul (with his thorn in the flesh) . . . even Jesus, the night before He was crucified, was overcome with sorrow to the point of death. Jesus asked his disciples to stay and pray with him. He prayed, “Father, if it is possible, take this cup from me.” Jesus felt our human weakness in those moments. We see in each of these stories how God gave everyone what they needed in the moments when they felt weak. Rather than being strong enough to carry their burdens, they learned to depend on God. They drew their strength from Him. God’s power is made perfect in our weakness, and we find strength when we come to Him in our moment of need. He also strengthens us through one another as we come alongside each other and help carry one another’s burdens.

Q: What does it mean to grieve as you go?

Most of our losses are not singular, meaning one loss in one moment in time. There are layers and levels to our losses. Grieving as you go means as you experience each layer of loss, you grieve. For an aging parent, it may mean giving up certain freedoms and becoming more dependent. If a loved one has a progressive illness, we may feel we are losing pieces of him or her at a time. In these situations, we grieve each layer, each stage of loss. Then after a loved one dies, whether suddenly or after an illness, we will experience more layers of loss in the weeks, months and even years that follow. Holidays and milestones, moments when we wish our loved one could be there — we grieve those losses as they happen. We acknowledge our sadness. We grieve what we’ve lost and what we missed out on and never got to have. We grieve what now can never be.

Q: As Christians, we should be secure in what will happen to us after we die, but we still experience fear in relationship to death. What is it we are afraid of?

I think we are afraid of the unknown. We believe in the promise of heaven, but even with all we think we know about it, we don’t have proof of it or know what it will be like once we get there or about our transition from this life to the next. In 1 Corinthians we read that no eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no human mind has conceived the things God has prepared for those who love Him.

We can only think about Heaven with our human minds, with our human limitations, and from our human experience. It truly is by faith we believe it.

We also don’t want to leave our loved ones. Most of us want more time, and we don’t want to miss out on seeing our kids or grandkids grow up. We want to enjoy life and aren’t ready for our journeys on earth to be over. We don’t want to suffer; we don’t want to see our loved ones suffer. We may also still have some doubts about our faith. Most of us do. I think it is understandable, even as Christians, we still have fears around death. We are human.

Q: On the topic of fear, what were your biggest fears as a child, and how were you forced to face those fears, even into adulthood?

As a child I was afraid my parents would get divorced. It was always a big fear of mine. I lived with this sense our family was on the verge of falling apart.

I also feared I would never outgrow my stuttering problem. I had a ton of anxiety related to this, and school was extremely difficult for me because of it. (Interesting fact: When I was in high school, my speech therapist had me create a list — sort of an “anti-bucket” list — of all the things that were difficult for me to do, such as ordering in a restaurant and answering the phone. She had me include things I could never see myself doing, such as speaking in front of a group. Doing a radio interview was on that list as the scariest thing I could think of.)  

Because my mom smoked cigarettes, another pervasive fear I had growing up was my mom would get lung cancer and die.

My parents got divorced when I was in college, and my stuttering continued well into my mid-20s. Then, just when I thought the risk for lung cancer was behind her because she had finally quit smoking, Mom was diagnosed with cancer, and she died. I had carried these fears with me for many years, and what I found was even when I had to face them — when they became realities in my life — God was with me. He helped and gave me what I needed in the midst of these dark times in my life. He became my true refuge and my ever-present help in times of trouble.

Q: The holidays will be coming up soon. What words of encouragement would you like to offer those who are facing their first Thanksgiving and Christmas without their loved one?

Expect the holidays to be hard and for feelings of sadness and loss to be magnified. Also expect God to comfort and help you through these difficult seasons. It’s important to think about things ahead of time and come up with a plan. It can be tempting just to play it by ear, but with the holidays being such a busy, stressful season with lots of social events and scheduled family gatherings, we really need to be intentional about what we would like these days to look like. Some questions to consider are:
  • What traditions do we want to hold on to, and which ones are too painful this year? Do we want to try something new, such as traveling to a new location or going out for dinner or a movie?
  • Do I need to be with people, or do I need to spend time alone? Usually it is a combination of both, but it’s very important to consider.
  • In terms of the “have-to’s” (decorating, shopping, baking, sending out Christmas cards, parties, etc.), what is most important for me to do, and what can I let go of? Maybe you don’t send out cards or decorate to the extent you normally would. Maybe you cater the dinner and shop online.

Talk to your loved ones about these things, and be honest about how you are feeling. Then try to come up with a plan that will allow everyone space and time to be together and to grieve. Lean into the true meaning of the holidays. For Thanksgiving, we still have much to be thankful for. Spend some time focusing on those things. At Christmas, embrace the hope of Christ’s birth, allowing Emmanuel — God with us — to bring you comfort.