A Letter to Cancer Caregivers During Mental Health Month

This article was originally published on Fight Colorectal Cancer on May 17, 2019.

What your loved one with cancer wish you knew about helping.

Dear Caregiver,

I recently returned from training helpers in Alaska on how to provide emotional support to others in their community affected by the magnitude 7.0 earthquake that occurred there on November 30, 2018. I want to share something that helped the caregivers I met in Alaska that will also help you in caring for your loved one’s psychosocial needs in the aftershock of cancer.

Though it has been several months since the earthquake struck, its impact continues to linger because of the almost daily aftershocks that have followed. The survivors I met described how the littlest thing could trigger psychological distress, reminding them of the emotional hurts that were caused by the disaster. Many of the helpers I met also shared how the earthquake had left them feeling helpless and unprepared to provide care. 

Through my research, I’ve discovered that most people are actually more equipped to help than they realize in the aftermath of disaster. Time and time again our team has found that social support is key to helping others navigate life’s disasters—including cancer. 

When helping your loved one who has been diagnosed with cancer you don’t have to be a psychologist to make a difference, but you do have to be willing to be present, which starts by listening more and talking less. 

Don’t get me wrong. 

Your words can help ease distress and even spark hope when they need it the most. However, the truth of the matter is, there are no ‘golden’ words or phrases you can share that will make the pain go away. There’s nothing you can say that will make everything better. That’s why you often feel helpless when you see your loved one with cancer in pain. Because words can’t solve the problem, you may sometimes be prone to freeze up, to say things you normally wouldn’t, and sometimes even sidestep difficult conversations. 

Please know it’s okay to make a mistake. There will be times you will put your foot in your mouth. Other times you may fall radio silent, then feel bad because you had withdrawn out fear of what you might say. You are never going to feel fully prepared to help. And there is no magical future “right” date or time when you will see yourself as fully ready. 

Your loved one doesn’t need you to be perfect.

You weren’t perfect before your loved one’s diagnosis. The only person expecting you to suddenly be perfect is likely you. Remember what they actually want are people who will show up when needed and truly listen. 

Although listening may sound easy, I can tell you it is not. 

It can be particularly challenging, especially when you open up to entering into the suffering of what your loved one is experiencing. Here are a few tips that can help make you a better listener:

  • Be willing to listen to the hard stuff. Sometimes it may get uncomfortable when your loved one needs to be able to share or process what it is like to have cancer, but do your best to hang in there.

  • Don’t force your loved one to talk or open up if they aren’t ready to do so. If your loved one isn’t ready to share, be patient, give them time.

  • Acknowledge the difficulty of the situation. Your loved one needs to be reminded that his or her pain and struggle are legitimate.

  • Be mindful to try and avoid falling into the trap of relying on platitudes that aren’t helpful. Using clichés that lack substance does more to help relieve your anxiety than it does to help your loved one.

  • Lean into moments of silence when the room seemingly fills with the unbearable weight of quietness. When you find yourself in these sorts of challenging experiences, fight the urge to interject.

  • At other times you may feel uncomfortable by the outpouring of your loved one’s emotions. Offer a calm presence to help your loved one manage difficult emotions.

  • Relate to your loved one through how they are trying to make meaning of what they are going through. If he or she has a different way of looking at things that are different from your observations, try to understand where they are coming from.

  • Know that your loved one may want to talk about anything other than cancer. Sometimes your loved one will need a shoulder to cry on. But there may also be times when you loved might just want to small talk, this could be anything from the weather to the game last night, to the plot of a sitcom.

  • Listen if there are indicators that additional support may be warranted (e.g., signs of depression). Consider if it might be helpful to make a referral to a trusted mental health provider or healthcare provider for professional services. 

Instead of racking your brain for the perfect thing to say, focus instead on listening well. This is one of the best ways you can provide emotional support. Helping your loved one feel heard and understood will speak more deeply than any words you might say.

To Sit in Suffering with Others

This article was originally published on Christian Courier on May 13, 2019.

“I want to help, but I don’t have anything to offer. . .”

“I want to help, but I don’t know how. . .”

“I want to help, but I’m afraid I’ll do something wrong. . .”

“I want to help, but I’m not sure what to say. . .”

At the end of May 2014, no further evidence of disease was found after a year of grueling treatments. My battle with stage IV colon cancer had finally ended, leaving me feeling beaten down physically, emotionally and spiritually. Throughout the fight, there were numerous people wanting to offer words of blessing and encouragement. I remember well the nervous words, the downcast eyes, the awkward silences. Well-meaning, all of it, of course. But sometimes doing more harm than good. 

When helping others through personal disasters like cancer or other life-threatening illnesses, it is important to remember the power of simply being present with others amidst their suffering – which starts by listening more and talking less. Don’t get me wrong. Words can help ease distress and even spark hope in those in need. However, the truth of the matter is, there are no “golden” words or phrases we can share that will make the pain go away. There’s nothing we can say that will make everything better. That’s why we often feel helpless when trying to help family and friends who may be hurting. Because our words can’t solve the problem, we are prone to freeze up, say things we normally wouldn’t and sidestep difficult conversations. 

As a result, we often fall into the trap of relying on platitudes that aren’t helpful and can even be harmful to someone going through a crisis. Sometimes, we rely on empty, familiar phrases because it helps us, the helper, feel less anxious. We toss out a cliché to break the unbearable weight of silence. At other times, we share familiar statements that lack substance as a way to stop the outpouring of emotion that makes us uncomfortable. This is why we need to focus less on speaking, and instead listen more.

Although listening may sound easy, I can tell you it is not. It can be particularly challenging when we open ourselves up to entering into the suffering of others. Here are a few tips that can help make you a better listener:

• Focus on being in the here and now. “Do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others” (Phil. 2:4).

• Acknowledge the difficulty of the situation. Survivors (and those still battling a serious illness or dealing with grief) need to be reminded that their pain and struggle are legitimate. This will let the person you are helping know that you hear and grasp the gravity of what they’ve been through. 

• Be authentic and genuine. Show warmth and concern. Know it’s okay if you cry with the other person. Allow yourself to express your emotions. Just be cautious to not make it all about you. 

• Be there through the difficulties. People walking through difficult times need to know that you will be there with them not just today, but in the future; that they will not have to walk this road alone. “Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing” (1 Thess. 5:11). 

• Be willing to listen to the hard stuff. Sometimes it may get uncomfortable but survivors need to be able to process what they have seen and experienced. 

• Talk about how they are trying to make meaning of what they are going through. If he or she has a way of looking at things that is different from your observation, try to understand where they are coming from. 

• Listen without judging what the other person may be feeling or thinking. Don’t try arguing or debating the person’s experience. 

• Show patience and let the person share their story in their own time. Forcing people to share before they are ready can actually cause more harm than help.  

• Be humble and set your opinions on the shelf. Often times people think they know the “best” way to help and may cause harm if they don’t truly recognize the needs being expressed by the survivor. 

• Help the person manage anxiety and other emotions. Listening helps remind survivors that they are not alone in the recovery process.

• Notice and point out the strengths and changes you see in them. Survivors may not be able to see the real progress they are making when they are focused on how far they have to go. 

• “Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray…”(James 5:13). Don’t force prayer on the person you are helping. Rather, start by praying silently. Pray silently for God’s guidance over the situation, that you’d be guided in your thoughts and actions. You can also pray that God would bring relief, hope and healing for the other person and for all affected by the tragic event. Without pressuring the other person, you might also ask them if they would like you to pray for them. If they say yes, pray what comes naturally and from your heart. It’s okay if you muddle your way through your prayer. God will still listen. If the person declines, don’t force or push it; respect their wishes.

• Consider lovingly referring the person you are supporting for additional support if warranted (e.g., are struggling with a mental health issue) to a trusted pastor, mental health professional, or healthcare provider for professional services.  

To truly listen to someone else’s story is a lot harder than it sounds. Being open and receiving another person’s story can be challenging, especially when they’re describing a tragedy. Thankfully, supporting a loved one as a friend amidst adversity doesn’t require perfection. All that it required of you is you. Instead of racking your brain for the perfect thing to say, focus instead on listening well. This is one of the best ways you can provide emotional and spiritual support to those who are hurting. Helping them feel heard and understood will speak more deeply to survivors than any words you might say. 

How to Talk to Your Children About School Shootings

This article was originally published on CBN News on May 9, 2019.

Yet another tragic and senseless school shooting has occurred, leaving many grief-stricken and in shock. If you are a parent, you likely started thinking about how your children may have been impacted by the news.

As a disaster psychologist, I've conducted several studies on the impact of mass shootings across the United States. I've done research on this topic around the globe, including a study on civil conflicts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Liberia that resulted in thousands upon thousands of deaths. When a gunman opened fire, killing several people at a factory in Aurora, Illinois—about 30 minutes from my home—I was asked to provide trauma care at a church in that community while they held a prayer vigil for those impacted.

Still, despite my vocational calling to help others amidst mass traumas and disasters, as a father of three I often feel lost for words or "know-how" when faced with the need to talk to my own children about mass shootings. I want to protect my children from the harsh realities I see in my work. Yet because of what I do professionally, I know how important it is to address this issue personally.

You may feel tempted to avoid talking to your children about school shootings. But between the news, social media, other kids, and active shooter drills, your children are probably more aware of what's going on than you realize. You do more to love them by being thoughtful about how you approach such conversations than by avoiding them.

Prepare Yourself

Take steps to make sure your needs are being met by other adults—don't put that burden on your children. Keep in mind that children often follow their parents' lead when it comes to responding to a crisis. Children are like sponges and absorb their parents' reactions, words, and energy. Delivering difficult news is never easy. If you're feeling anxious, that's natural. Part of the reason is that you're having your own feelings about what you or your family may be facing. And you may be worried about saying or doing the wrong thing—remind yourself that it's okay to struggle and even to make mistakes. But also remember that you are there for your children, not the other way around. Before you share with your kids, give yourself the time you need to notice and process those feelings, so that you can be fully present to your children's needs and feelings.

Resist Minimization

Strike the right tone with your children. You may be tempted to paint an unrealistically positive picture of a difficult situation for the sake of your children—and maybe for yourself. Children will be best-served, though, if you are as honest as possible. You need not offer all the worst-case scenarios, but do be realistic. Distorting the reality of what you don't want to face will not serve anyone.

Provide Reassurance

Sometimes children may feel responsible for events that are entirely beyond their control. When it's not clear that there is a plan in place to face the crisis, children may, in some way, feel they must bear the weight of that responsibility. Relieve them of that potential burden by letting them know it is not their fault. When you reassure children that the adults are managing the situation, you give them permission to be children.

Use Age-Appropriate Language

Recognize your child's developmental ability to understand the situation. When your children ask questions, answer them to the best of your ability, using words and concepts that are appropriate for their developmental stages. Likewise, be sure to create space for questions your children might have. It's normal to be scared of inviting questions, as you likely have more questions than answers yourself. That's okay, but be honest if you don't know what to say by letting them know that you don't know. And when possible, assure them that that you'll look into it and get back to them. (But if you make this promise, make sure you follow through.) Be authentic with your children, but remember to talk to your children as children, not as adults.

Try to Maintain Routines

Crises disrupt daily life. Taking small steps to help our students regain some sort of normalcy will help them cope more effectively. This does not mean ignoring what has occurred, but rather trying to maintain some structure in our interactions. Familiar faces, schedules, and places can go a long way in helping our students. There is something soothing and healing in routine.
Encourage Faith

Helping our children hold onto faith will help cultivate peace, meaning, and purpose during this difficult time. Let them know it's common to struggle with questions of faith during trying times. Remind them that God is with us even in times of trouble. Some ways to help them draw upon their faith might include encouraging your children to read scripture, stay involved in church life, and discuss spiritual topics with others.

Pray Together—Then Take Action

By praying together, you are modeling for your children what it looks like to put your faith in God and to trust Him above all else. Praying together helps you and your children access a wellspring of hope. Offering up our prayers helps remind children of God's love and of the truth that we are not alone in our suffering. Then model what it means to love your neighbor by taking action, doing what you can to help prevent such horrific acts from occurring in the first place. One way to do this is to join me and with like-minded people through causes such as Prayers & Action—and by signing the Prayers & Action petition—which unites people from all walks of life to end senseless acts of gun violence in America.

What Harry Potter Can Teach Us About Resilience

This article was originally published on Psychology Today on May 7, 2019.

by Jamie Aten and Colleen Aten

In my work as a disaster psychologist, I’m always looking for examples of people who embody resilience in the wake of adversity. Sometimes they turn up in unexpected places I never thought to look.

Our family is a Harry Potter family. We all love the books, but no one in my family is a bigger Harry Potter fan than my oldest daughter Colleen, who I’ve asked to co-author this blog post with me. In fact, this post was her idea—including which insights and examples we should highlight.

While we were driving to school together recently, Colleen pointed out the resilience of J. K. Rowling’s fictional protagonist, Harry Potter. The more we talked about the way Harry demonstrated resilience throughout his adventures, the more we realized that the boy wizard had a lot to teach us on the subject.

In the following, we share a specific lesson on resilience from each of Rowling’s magical Harry Potter books. (Spoilers ahead if you haven’t read the books or seen the movies!)

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone: Coping with Things Outside of our Control

One mark of a disaster is that there is some element that is beyond our control. Whether it’s a train wreck or Superstorm Sandy, having no control over a situation that impacts us in such seismic ways can feel terrifying.

When Harry’s aunt and uncle are first exposed to the world of magic, they despise how different it is from the life they lead. Instead of embracing the new, they attempt to ignore it. But ignoring it didn’t make it go away any more than ignoring a train wreck would! In comparison, when Harry discovers this alternate world of magic, he accepts that there is more to life than he ever knew before. His acceptance helps him thrive in the wizarding world and accomplish much more than if he had followed in the footsteps of his family.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets: Community Support

Because we are never meant to weather disaster alone, those whose lives have been impacted by adversity need community support. This can include things like providing a listening ear, bringing meals, and offering rides. The support we experience from others makes it possible for us to heal, thrive, and flourish.

During the lonely summer after Harry’s first year at Hogwarts, he receives a visit from a house-elf named Dobby who intercepted a letter from Harry’s friends. Among these friends is Ron Weasley, who becomes increasingly worried when Harry fails to respond. With the aid of two of his brothers, Ron liberates Harry from the Dursley’s home and brings Harry to the Burrow, home of the Weasleys. There, Harry is accepted with open arms as a member of the family. The Weasleys surround Harry in a supportive and loving community in order to help him thrive and flourish.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban: Holding on to Joy in Difficult Time

Although many catastrophes never make the news, and others fade from the evening news after just a few days or weeks, survivors learn that recovery takes time. Although it can be tempting to throw in the towel, those who weather adversity well are those who demonstrate perseverance. And during the sometimes-lengthy season of recovery, it’s critical to be able to find hope and joy despite difficult circumstances.

In his third year at Hogwarts, Harry comes across two creatures that force people to feel fear and despair. The Dementor is a creature that forces individuals to relive their worst memories. Allow one near enough and it will suck out your soul. Utterly unique, a Boggart will take the form of whatever terrifies a person most. However, both of these beasts are defeated in a similar way: through joy. A Boggart is destroyed through laughter, and Dementors can be driven away with a Patronus, a physical manifestation of happiness. Harry is incredibly gifted at recalling joy in his worst moments of despair, allowing him to triumph.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire: Cycle of Accepting Help and Paying It Forward

In the wake of adversity, we may want to help the least when we actually need it the most. Most often, we’re trying to rebuild the life we’ve lost. Research has shown that those who fare best are those who are able to openly accept help. Moreover, research has shown that acts of altruism, whether it’s shoveling the sidewalk of an elderly neighbor after a blizzard or making an anonymous donation, help us find meaning in being able to help others who’ve also been affected.

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Though all of the Triwizard Tournament events throughout his fourth year at Hogwarts, the key to Harry’s success is accepting help and, in turn, helping others. Hagrid, Hermione, and Mad-Eye Moody all help Harry prepare for the first event. Harry recognizes that their assistance is beneficial for him and accepts it. As a result, Harry, in turn, helps Cedric by warning him about the dragons so he won’t be at a disadvantage. As the cycle continues, Cedric recognizes that Harry is struggling with the second task and offers him advice. While Harry is reluctant to take Cedric’s advice, he eventually does so. This advice turns out to be crucial in order for Harry to complete the second event. In the final event, the help they previously lent each other leads them to aid one another once again while in the maze. This cycle of help is a crucial aspect of Harry’s success that can be applied to our own lives.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix: Overcoming Differences

After a community has been impacted by tornadoes, or hurricanes, or ice storms, or fire, neighbors who may have never spoken to each other find themselves united against a common enemy. They learn each other’s names. They offer aid. They help one another out. Whatever it was that once separated them—race, or class, or language, or privilege—suddenly seems insignificant.

At the Sorting ceremony during Harry’s fifth year, the Sorting Hat sings a song about how important it is for Hogwarts students from all houses to overcome their differences and unite. These words are taken to heart by a group known as Dumbledore’s Army. This community is formed by students in defiance of their dictatorial teacher, Dolores Umbridge. Through uniting the houses of Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff, and Gryffindor, students are able to overcome the adversity posed by Umbridge.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince: Learning from Memories and the Past

Consider the military veteran who coaches a recent amputee on the kinds of responses to her new disability that she can expect from friends and family. Because this leader has already traveled the road she’s now walking, he is able to help her navigate the new terrain.

Through his sixth year at Hogwarts, Harry is guided by Professor Dumbledore through the stored memories of others in a magical artifact known as a Pensieve. Dumbledore teaches Harry that by looking into the past, we can learn from not only our mistakes but also the mistakes of others. Learning from the mistakes of the past allows us to better ourselves in the present.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Faith

Research has shown that faith can help people make sense of and cope with adversity.  When faced with adversity, faith helps people place their confidence and hope in a power that is greater than themselves.

Though Harry’s faith in Dumbledore is tested many times throughout the series, never is it more prominent than in the stunning final installment. In the wake of his headmaster's death, Harry discovers evidence discrediting Dumbledore, leaving Harry to become frustrated with him and beginning to question his intentions and instructions. This is most prominent when Harry disregards Dumbledore's instructions to destroy Horcruxes, instead choosing to search for and try to understand the mysterious Deathly Hallows symbol. Harry’s search results in many catastrophes that could have been avoided if he exhibited a strong faith in Dumbledore.

Both professionally and personally, we’ve had the privilege of witnessing resilience in the lives of those who’ve faced disaster and adversity with courage and grace. We recognize that same resilience in volume after volume of Harry Potter’s adventures. Those of us who have or will weather adversity have a lot to learn from this magical character.

Colleen Aten is a sophomore at Wheaton North High School. In her free time, she enjoys reading and writing. She was a founding member of her middle school’s library advisory board, and regularly volunteers at the Wheaton Public Library as a member of the teen advisory board and teen service club.