I have a friend who was diagnosed with kidney cancer (not Wilms' Tumor, she's an adult) about a year ago. They caught it early and she is doing fine right now.
In a recent email meme about herself she mentioned that she still really hates it when someone tells her how lucky she was that they caught it early. Lucky, she thinks, would be not to get it at all.
Now, first of all, let me reiterate that when someone is going through Something Bad, the one thing worse than saying the wrong thing is to say nothing. Nature abhors a vacuum and so do friends ... if you say nothing, don't call, don't write, you create a vacuum. Chances are good that your friend will fill in the vacuum with their own thoughts, and they often (the DRE-BFF tells me) have no basis in reality. Thoughts like, "Oh, I guess I thought we were closer than we are," or "I guess I'm really self-involved and they don't want to have to listen to me," or "They think I need to just deal with it and get over it, don't they?"
But enough about me.
But here are two handy rules of thumb ... even though one might have the best of intentions, two things to avoid:
a) "You're lucky." There's always a reason someone is lucky. I'm lucky because even though she's fought cancer twice, Little Warrior is still alive. Someone who loses two children out of four is lucky because he still has the other two. Patrick Swayze is lucky because he can afford healthcare and still has a job.
But this is something that can only be decided by the person themselves. Having someone with perfectly healthy children tell me that I'm lucky? Having someone who has never had cancer tell my friend she is lucky?
b) "Helping" the person to find meaning in the catastrophe*. Or, what I've been guilty of, proclaiming that there is no meaning.
Now, if your friend asks you, well, that's something different. They have opened the door, and you are welcome to go in.
I learned the first go 'round that there is no meaning in my daughter getting cancer. There could not be a good enough reason for this. But you see, she is my daughter. Perhaps Mary thought it was worth it for Jesus to die ... I would not be so generous with humanity. I am too selfish in my love for her.
This go 'round, my father and I had a conversation. He had cancer when I was a child. "Luckily" it was an easy out. They went in, did surgery, and that was that. No need for chemo or radiation.
But if affected him profoundly. He feels that his life has been better ever since. He found meaning in the cancer; it made him realize that "there are no bad days."
In our conversation, he told me that he hopes I feel like that some day, that LW's cancer makes life better.
Well, I thought about that for a while, and then talked to him about it again. "Our own lives are cheap," I said. "The meaning that we find, it was worth what we went through ... assuming we survive. But could you feel that any meaning you found would be worth your child facing death?"
My father has lost a child. He understood and agreed.
"But ..." said I, comprehension dawning, "It's not up to me to decide the meaning of this. Because even though this affected me profoundly, ripped my heart to shreds, it did not happen to me. It happened to Little Warrior. And when she gets older, she is the only one who has the right to decide whether this had meaning."
And I realized that I cannot take it away from her by proclaiming my view, that there was no meaning in this. It is not my decision to make. All told, if she grows up to say, "You know, this happened to me, and it made me who I am and I really like who I am," who am I to argue?
The Cliff's Notes of "a" and "b" are the same thing: Don't assume you're wiser than the other person.
Even if she's only 3 years old.
*I don't need to tell you that defining what is and is not a catastrophe ain't yo thing, neither, right?