When Fear for Your Child Is Real
When you’re picking out little baby outfits, you don’t anticipate someone telling you, years later, your teenager may have lymphoma.
A few weeks ago, I sat in fear with my son and husband in a hospital cafeteria between my son’s testing and our consultation with the pediatric oncologist. Soon, I will know whether my son has cancer, I thought. Our lives may be divided into before and after.
Ever feel there are a lot of things people failed to mention in the What to Expect books? Or on those little index cards of advice at your baby shower? Nap when the baby naps … Limit screen time … Be consistent.
No one told me how afraid I would be.
When you’re picking out smart baby outfits, you don’t anticipate someone telling you, years later, your teenager may have lymphoma.
The fear galloping through me was like nothing I have ever experienced. There was anger, bargaining, images of worst-case scenarios, and questions from my son that rendered me speechless.
From the moment we wait for two pink lines on a stick or consider that adoption, parenting flays us open to vulnerability. We love deeper and wider than we’d thought possible. And with that love, we hitch our wagons to risk and loss.
Is it wrong to fear for my children?
The emotion of fear itself is not wrong. God gave us fear so that if we are, say, being chased by a grizzly, we do not stop for a milkshake and a manicure. Our desire to protect our children from pain is an expression of God’s fierce protection of us.
We just have to choose what we’ll do with that fear.
Like any other emotion, fear can inflate to a disproportionate size. That fear can morph into anger. We become angry at anyone who threatens that promise we made to ourselves: that our kids wouldn’t see unnecessary pain. We might become overprotective. Overindulgent. Reactive. Nibbled at and consumed by subtle worry. Controlling (again: anything to battle the fear).
As counselor and neuropsychologist Ed Welch writes, “One message is obvious: ‘If I imagine the worst, I will be prepared for it.’ Worry is looking for control … Worry has become your talisman to ward off future catastrophe.”
Oddly, J. R. R. Tolkien’s Gollum (from “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy) comes to mind when I imagine fear’s reign over us: It deforms us, turbo-charges our responses to threats, isolates us as we cherish “My Precious,” even as it eats us alive.
Fear, allowed off the leash of God’s love, is a relentless taskmaster. And it is never satisfied.
Welch elaborates that in contrast to fear, “Love, an intimate relationship, is linked to trust, a personal allegiance. Trust reveals the center of our worlds.”
“I Just Know”
Fearing my son’s cancer-riddled future revealed holes in my faith like Swiss cheese: untended spiritual wounds. Unanswered spiritual questions. Untrusted parts of God’s character. I felt the need to return to the most elemental truths of faith. “Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation—if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good” (1 Peter 2:2-3, emphasis added).
Hadn’t I tasted that He was good? Why did my memories of that feel so fuzzy—or at least in question?
I thought back to my children’s infancy (blurred as it may be by lack of sleep, that era is hard to forget). Not only was their milk nutritionally the perfect food, their feeding required that one of us hold the baby in our arms. “Taste and see that the Lord is good. Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him” (Psalm 34:8).
But I shook my head more than a decade after those infant years, as my husband and I sat on a date, tears mingling with the Mexican fare. It was so hard to see God was for me, for my son. There had been so many profound noes from him: A friend’s toddler losing his three-year battle with brain tumors. The death of a friend traveling to try on her wedding dress.
I wouldn’t love my kids like this, I thought.
And even though I knew my doubt was the equivalent of me checking Einstein’s math, I was bewildered. Haggard from grief. My husband reminded me I couldn’t determine God’s love by leaving it to the circumstances I could see.
“But how do you know?” I asked him.
“I just know,” he said quietly.
What to do with fear
Our fears for our kids can ratchet us to a new level of returning to God, deep-seated cares brimming from our arms. We can commit them to Him afresh when people more precious to us than our own lives are out there on a battlefield, looking vulnerable and underequipped.
But then, I think of Elisha on a battlefield (2 Kings 6:17):
Then Elisha prayed and said, “O Lord, please open his eyes that he may see.” So the Lord opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw, and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.
What of God’s care might I be blind to in the stranglehold of my worry? “The worries of this life … choke the word, making it unfruitful” (Mark 4:19, NIV). It’s as if my anxiety stuffs my ears, preventing me from hearing the voice I just know. Worry chokes His presence. Or as 1 John 4:18 puts it, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.”
Welch writes wisely, “One of the strategies for dealing with worry is to be overtaken by something more important than the object of your worries.”
The assuaging of my fear is only as strong as its replacement object. Will I allow myself to be overtaken simply by inflated “positive thinking” and the prospect of everything lining up like I want it? Or will I be overtaken by His unshakably trustworthy presence? I’m talking the presence of the One who loves me and the people I love more wisely and more overwhelmingly than I ever could.
It’s the presence that surrounded Abraham up a mountain, his son hauling the wood his father would assemble beneath him for a sacrifice.
The same presence that turned His face away from His own Son, when no other ram would suffice. It’s so we would never be abandoned, but at last, held near.
It’s the presence powerful enough to offer death no lasting hold on our children. The presence that offered my son the knowledge that “Even if I die, I get to be with Jesus, right?!”
Tim Keller wrote:
The biblical view of things is resurrection–not a future that is just a consolation for the life we never had but a restoration of the life you always wanted. This means that every horrible thing that ever happened will not only be undone and repaired but will in some way make the eventual glory and joy even greater.
Receiving the phone call
After five grinding weeks of tests, I received a phone call God did not owe me from that pediatric oncologist. “Your son is 100% cancer free,” he said. (I admit to calling back a few days later. Was it too good to be true?)
I think back to the examination room that I suspected might become familiar. I think of the parents who sat in the same chair only to receive the worst news of their lives from the same doctor.
In fact, I can assure you that one day, my phone will jingle with bad news. And I’ll wrestle with it all over again when that time comes.
God helped me to pry open my fingers, to not withhold my son. And this time, God had handed him back to me for a while longer, this boy that always belonged to God in the first place.
Copyright © 2019 Janel Breitenstein. All rights reserved.